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Xeno Sapiens

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Xeno Sapiens

by

Victor Allen

Shakespir Edition

copyright © 2012

 

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

Table of Contents

#Prologue

#The Wish

#Looking for God

#The Carriage Man

#The Hunt

#Epilogue

Excerpts from other books by Victor Allen

#Essex

#A-Sides

#The Lost Village

#Wandil Land

#We are the dead

#Katerina Cheplik

 

[]Prologue

1986

 

FOR SEVENTY-two hours blue blades of lightning split the sky over the wind-lashed canopy of jungle while the skies wept on the operative’s own little half acre of hell.

A bull whip of thunder cracked as he rocked back and forth inside his mosquito netting. He cried out in his dementia, raindrops gleaming like stars in the mud-caked spikes of his blond crew cut. Fever sweat rolled down his forehead and chest in greasy rivers that the rains couldn’t wash away. Sometime during his three day limbo, alternating between rounds of fever and bone-chilling cold, he had ripped his fatigues to shreds, using the rags to wipe down his sweat drenched body. Poisonous tree-dwelling snakes and venomous scorpions watched his racking convulsions with cold, unblinking eyes. His rifle, which he would normally have protected like an only child, had started to rust, its Starlight scope now a flat, uninspired black with its protective coating of lubricant washed away.

A five day old cactus of beard stabbed his neck with a thousand tiny spines. He was a normally fastidious man who would never have appeared unshaven or with soiled uniform had he been able to help it. He had drunk gallons of the lukewarm rainwater to prevent dehydration and now his stomach felt like an engorged balloon, swelled like a fermenting sausage. Many times during the last three days he had gagged up a mess of slick, watery vomit.

The sniper had separated from his unit after a fire fight three days before, leaving on his own. He liked the solitude. Rare as hen’s teeth was the supervisor who complained about the operative’s unorthodox methods, or about the body counts he brought back from his solo excursions, proved by a count of right ears threaded through a string on his belt. The sniper’s reputation was well known. He didn’t need to pad his kills.

Most overt, overseas US military action had ended with the bombing of the US Marine corps barracks by a suicide truck bomber in Beirut, but clandestine paramilitary ops by private security firms hadn’t. There was still work to be done. He had been part of a special operations group formed to coordinate and monitor the operations of the Contras in Nicaragua. He believed the Contras to be not as bad as the Sandinistas, but not very much better.

The sights and sounds of too many things and too many people gone wrong plagued him like unquiet, cackling demons. He remembered the cowardly greasers of his unit scampering from their first fire fight with imported Cuban regulars as if der geist der stats vernient was tagging at their heels. He recalled the lizard eyed Contra commanders of the insurgents standing in the center of any one of a dozen identical villages and licking their lips as they gave the order “Burn it all.” The brass hats of the clandestine American SOG’s, controlling this non-war from air conditioned offices in Monroe, Louisiana, had issued the “no prisoners” order far more often than sanity could stand.

He had seen his own buddies with their balls hacked off and stuffed in their mouths, his buddies cut in half by mines, his friends dying of septicemia after stepping on shit smeared pongee sticks, all tricks imported from the Vietcong. His only real friend during his two stints, Snow, had been mostly obliterated by a mortar shell last year. Snow had been his spotter and the operator had never bothered to break in a new one. Everyone thought Snow was so named because of his corn silk mop of white hair, but the sniper knew better. Snow was the only man he had met in Nicaragua who was as coldly efficient and ruthless as himself. It had seemed the most sardonic thing of all for Snow to have been killed so anonymously. Death had been very personal to Snow, his preferred weapons of killing being the knife and the garrote. After the mortar attack, the operative had carried Snow’s severed head twenty miles in his rucksack, scavenging the only recognizable remains back to his CO so that Snow’s family would know that he had bought it and wouldn’t be consigned to the purgatory of the MIA.

The operative liked his present gig better. He was no longer constricted by half-witted rules of engagement. He was involved in a shadow war where no holds were barred and he was free to do as he pleased. Though his favored weapons were still those of the sniper, he had found a sawed off shotgun and machete to be serviceable tools. Fear and terror were what the enemy understood, and fear and terror were what he used.

Now death had come for him as well, heralded not in the form of an unheard bullet or a land mine, but in some jungle sickness that descended amidst the wasted weapons and derelict machinery of war. A fever swept him away in its dark and unalterable current to a place where he had no options but to pray for either his death, or some guidance, alone.

The God that had orphaned him by healing his mother and turning her away from him in a bright eyed and unwholesome religious mania would now have to save him. It was the only way a wrathful God could extract every ounce of torment He could. He wanted a vision from that God, but all he got was the febrile trembling and blistering delirium of fever. He had expected nothing so grand as a burning bush or a pillar of fire, both of which he had already seen in Nicaragua, and both of which had been man made. He had seen through his powder blue eyes the thousand small horrors God used to reveal the wickedness and astounding perversity of the human animal. He felt privileged to be the only man able to see through it all.

The sniper had turned a cold eye to the atrocities, but at last the fever had forced him to see. The pinkos and peaceniks and the long haired freaks thought they knew the answer, but they were all stumbling around in the dark. God’s real purpose was so clear that everyone else simply looked past it.

After all these years, God had decided to share the fires of destruction. The operative’s discovery didn’t take on the form of an epiphany -no scales fell from his eyes- but upon the realization something inside him tore free in a bone jarring shudder and the fever broke. God had healed him, as he had healed his mother, and God would use him.

When he emerged from the jungle after the three day monsoon, his mind was clean and uncluttered. The sun had appeared, but its brilliance was an ember beside the fiery light of the sniper’s master plan.

Ronnie Sykes scrambled to his feet as Josh wearily trudged out of the bush. He blinked rapidly, startled out of his sun induced doze. He stood atop the half-roof of a scavenged Cadillac that had been modified for jungle use with huge, oversize tires and a rollbar craning out over a roof that had been sheared away with a cutting torch above the front seats. His M-16 dangled carelessly by his side.

“Where you been, Josh,” Ronnie asked, grinning like a dog shitting peach pits. “Man, we thought you was dead.”

“You couldn’t get that lucky.”

Josh measured Ronnie as if he were a lamb at the slaughter. Strange the lamb should have one gold tooth and black skin. Sykes wore a dirty T-shirt, cut off fatigues, and mud caked army boots. A pack of Camels and a bright, purple feather were tucked into the stained red band around his Kevlar helmet. Hot sun flashed off his sweaty skin.

“Some storm, right, man,” Ronnie grinned. “Your radio go down? You diggin’ on living in the bush for three days?”

“Not so bad,” Josh said, easing into the warm, convincing smile that one day would endear him to millions. “I prayed a lot.”

That is how, in the summer of 1986, a monster was created in the bellowing mouth of a Central American thunderstorm.

[]THE WISH

1

When Ingrid Milner opened her door on the first day of September 2001, the tall man standing there said, “Have I got an offer for you.”

“Excuse me?”

It was the line a snake oil salesman or carny pitchman might use, but this man was neither. Alex Clifton was smart and good looking; a man who moved with the silky intent of a bank president conducting a billion dollar deal. His suit was calming and well worn; his briefcase easily borne like an old friend with whom many pleasant evenings had been spent by the fireside.

He had rolled up outside Ingrid’s small apartment in Tampa, Florida, in a black, rented sedan, as quotidian as it was forgettable. After producing his credentials and being allowed inside, Clifton sat on the couch and hefted his briefcase onto the coffee table. The stiff rattle of new paper caught her attention as Ingrid brought coffee from the kitchen.

“We’re not dropping in hat in hand,” he said. “We are willing to pay well for your services.” Clifton sat back and took a careful sip of coffee.

Clifton’s manner was carefully cultivated, yet Ingrid sensed something a trifled trouble, a trifle dangerous about him. His tailored suit seemed too snug around the collar, his eyes a little too eager to dart around and pry at personal things that didn’t want seeing.

“It sounds more like a bribe,” Ingrid said. “First, your boss, Merrifield, tells me I’ll have a free hand, now you’re practically stuffing stacks of cash in my pockets. It’s hard not to look for strings.”

Clifton’s dark eyes crinkled at the corners. Some of his inner sun burned away the cold fog around him.

“Let’s not have any confusion about this,” he grinned. “Let’s call it an incentive to secure your services. I won’t mince words over what has to be done to acquire your abilities, Miss Milner.”

“Call me Ingrid, please,” she said dryly. “Merrifield already does.”

“As you wish, Ingrid. Your name invariably comes up at the top of the list of candidates. No small feat for a woman not yet twenty-four years old, especially when you consider that the field of molecular eugenics is virtually as male dominated as the field of mathematics.”

“You’ve done your homework.”

“A full twelve years of it.”

“I beg your pardon,” Ingrid said, as if she had misheard something.

“I’m a geneticist myself,” Clifton said. “MD from Bowman Gray school of medicine. Right now, though, my official title is sycophant to smooth the way. Merrifield thought it would be easier to turn a doctor into a salesman than the other way around. Jon’s been called a lot of things, but illogical isn’t one of them.”

“You’re a project member?”

“I am.”

“Tell me more about it,” Ingrid suggested.

“It’s a non disclosure project,” Clifton said easily. “That in itself is no big deal. I know little more than the bare bones, nor am I likely to, until someone accepts the commission as project director.”

Ingrid persisted. “What’s your stake?”

“My own research has gone pretty much along the same lines as yours, but in answer to your question, this is my job and one that I like very much. But I’m only an Indian. You’ll be the chief. I can tell you that the project is not -for lack of a better term- small time.”

“Should that impress me?”

“Impressive or not means little. It’s a simple fact.” Clifton’s expression was skillfully neutral.

“If you’re after some new biotoxin or plague organism,” Ingrid said, “I’ll tell you now to look elsewhere. I’ve always been willing to take the good with the bad, but I won’t be a party to something like that.”

Clifton looked pained, but continued patiently.

“What you’re talking about could be whipped up by any half bright grad student. We’re not prepared to pay top dollar for the most eminent researcher in the field if we could get the same job done for a lot less of the folding green. We’re not a bunch of stooges and I can make some deductions on my own. You’re wanted for something much bigger and better.” Clifton drained the last of his coffee, now barely warm, and awaited a reaction.

The offer had been delivered not in a bitter pill ultimatum, but in a sugar coated, silky bribe. After the thin veneer of scientific ethics was stripped away, it was not a wholly unattractive proposition. Researchers had feet of clay and they all had their particular toys they wanted to play with. She had seen it countless times, even at small, Delian University.

But she would proceed cautiously. Clifton might talk as if he could be milked for everything from a centrifuge to an entire genetics lab, but Ingrid’s own dealings with other slick, corporate types had convinced her that they might promise the moon and deliver a jug of lead laced white lightning in its stead.

“What can you tell me,” Ingrid asked.

“Like most covert projects, it’s non disclosure, and code named. Project Change.”

“That’s a pretty uninspired choice.”

“You don’t like it?”

“What I don’t like,” Ingrid said, “is the word covert.”

“Semantics. Nobody is going to hold a gun to your head. We can’t afford to invest huge sums of money into something this big only to have the first hacker that comes along steal such sensitive and expensive information. The cover is our only form of protection.”

Ingrid thought at least half of that might be true. She’d had her own experiences with computer hacking.

“Well, Mr. Clifton…”

“Call me Alex.”

“Alex, then. I have my own reasons for even considering involvement in something like this, but I won’t dive head first into an empty pool. I personally believe Robert Oppenheimer would have never had his pangs of conscience about the atomic bomb if he had failed. But I’m not Robert Oppenheimer, and I’ve never intended to fail.”

“Nobody’s asking you to kill anyone.”

“Then what exactly are you asking?”

“Alright,” Clifton said. “You’re wanted for a project to construct enhanced biological organisms. What type I’m not at liberty to say until we have your commitment. But it’s not a bug, or a virus, that much I can say. I’m not a flag waving patriot or a machine, and I don’t make policy. If Uncle Sam is footing the bill, so what? He’s been funding you here at the university for years.” Clifton smiled quite sincerely.

“You are an ingratiating bastard,” Ingrid said.

Clifton carefully ignored the comment.

“ It wouldn’t be wise of us to try and keep you in the dark about the project, but the truth is that I -nor the project committee members- don’t know you from Eve. I assumed you had probably worked under non disclosure rules before. That was my error. Now, I need to know if working under those conditions really would be against your will.”

“Do I have to enlist,” Ingrid asked, only half jokingly.

Clifton smiled. “Not at all. You will be required to sign certain documents and make certain pledges. You will be required to maintain proper identification. You will have to give up your post at the University and move to the project site. Expenses paid, naturally. You may not discuss the project with any unauthorized persons. Not mom, dad, boyfriend, husband or fly on the wall until the project is declassified. By the way, you aren’t Catholic are you?”

“No. Why?”

“At least we don’t have to worry about a priest.”

Ingrid wasn’t sure whether Clifton was kidding or not.

“The project is scheduled for three years,” Clifton said, referring to the papers he had spread before him. He had put on a pair of croupier’s glasses, looking like a wizened old accountant poring over the day’s receipts. “Your salary will be two hundred thousand dollars per year…”

Ingrid’s jaw dropped. Clifton did an expert job of not noticing, continuing by rote.

“…plus all the materials, assistants and lab apparatus you need.”

“Wait, wait,” Ingrid interrupted. “I haven’t agreed to anything yet.” She was still reeling over her salary. “I’m not a hack for hire to the highest bidder.”

Clifton seemed genuinely puzzled. His glasses slipped back on his nose when he looked up.

“Top drawer projects,” he said, “demand top drawer salaries.”

“But you can’t tell me these things. Isn’t there something I should sign? An oath of allegiance or something?”

“I haven’t told you anything,” he said. “The only specific I’ve given you is your salary. I had planned to propose further meetings to inform you gradually. Until you’re willing to commit, we can’t tell even you most things.”

She mentally ran over the points Clifton had made. He had gabbed on and on and told her nothing. She had almost gotten to like him, but he now seemed to be nothing more than a silver tongued devil of the Fed. She would keep that in mind and not be taken in by his flashes of boyish ingenuousness.

“I hope you don’t mind my speaking frankly like this,” he went on, all warmth and teddy bear cuddly. “My bosses and I haven’t always met on level ground, but I believe in being honest with people.” He gave another hopeful smile.

Ingrid returned it with a less than welcoming stare.

“I can’t give you an answer right now. I have to know what’s expected of me. Picking up and shoving off for three years is a big step.”

“We weren’t expecting an answer right away. Could we meet again next week? That will give you time to examine the issues. If you’re favorably inclined, we could get into a few more specifics then.”

“Fine.”

“Wonderful.” Clifton stood and placed his glasses in a black case. He rummaged in his briefcase and pulled out a form.

“I’d like for you to read this and, if you have no objection, sign it.”

“What is it?”

“Boiler plate stuff. All it says is that you agree not to discuss the content of this meeting with anyone else. It doesn’t obligate you in any other way.”

She scanned the form. It was just as Clifton said. She scribbled her name at the bottom. The page vanished into Clifton’s briefcase.

“It’s been a pleasure,” Clifton said. “You have my card. Please call if you need to change the appointment.”

Ingrid led him to the door. They stood there a few moments, the warm salt air blowing through the portal.

“You haven’t really told me anything, you know. About the most I got out of this meeting was your name.”

Clifton considered. His eyes took on a sage gleam that would have looked more at home behind his spectacles. He retreated to the coffee table, selected a manila folder from his briefcase, and gave it to Ingrid.

“I guess I don’t need to tell you that you can never tell anyone what is in that folder. More than just my job is on the line.”

He left quickly, without even saying good bye. She watched him through the bamboo blinds of her living room window as he drove away. She looked with some hesitation at the folder on her coffee table, foolishly imagining that it was some kind of Pandora’s box that would loose evils on the world once she opened it.

Still, with a sigh, she sat down to read it.

2

Clifton drove downtown to the Burbank Electra office building where Parker, Usher and Foster technologies had rented an entire floor of the twenty story building for a short term, three month lease. Half an hour after leaving Ingrid, Clifton made his report to Merrifield.

“I think we can sign her on.”

Merrifield was pleased. His boast he would recruit the best bioengineer money could buy now seemed to have more substance than shadow.

There had been misgivings about the project in general; no one in the sacred halls of government wanted to assume the moral authority for the results. Merrifield had little tolerance for the soul searching and wrangling that went on amongst the bioethicists and cadres of lawyers. It had been his experience that the progress of science steamed along its course with its own sort of manifest destiny and anything else was simply a holding action.

The lawyers had bitched about the constitutionality of the project (as if lawyers had ever given a furry rat’s ass about the constitution), arguing that slavery was illegal. Listening to the gutless government attorneys always put Merrifield in mind of an old joke: “What do you do when you find a lawyer buried up to his neck in sand? Get more sand.”

But the secrets of the genetic structure were being rapidly unraveled and there was a next, logical step that had to be -and would be- taken by somebody. Merrifield, always straddling a dicey edge between warmongering neocons and soylent green liberals, had had to bring all his considerable power and political leverage to the table to blunt that challenge.

As for Ingrid, no one knew if she could be brought into a project with the sole purpose of creating a “Genetically modified” human being (and that was as unexciting a term as Merrifield could come up with). A background check revealed that she was about as politically motivated as a tree sloth, a rarity among college students who believed themselves enlightened, but had simply been indoctrinated by sixties Bolsheviks who had found a home masquerading as professors at America’s universities. A glance into the real workings of the power machine -the BIS in Basel, the CFR and MIC, Bilderbergs and Rothschilds, Wall Street, and The City -London’s Banking District- was usually enough to send them scurrying back to their love-ins and protests with their red tails between their legs. Merrifield would catch Ingrid fresh and show her the real workings of power without any preconceived notions. And the time was now. Something big was in the wind, like the scent of smoke from far away.

A new term had been floating around in the pentagon, uttered a little more urgently recently. Asymmetrical warfare. There had been hints and teases in the intelligence community, the thousand threats attended to every day given greater weight.

“Did you have to twist her arm,” Merrifield asked.

Clifton sat down in a well padded chair, his omnipresent briefcase resting on its own battered hide. The two of them would have made a fine addition to a den of Threadneedle Street thieves, smoking fat cigars and swirling hard liquor around in tumblers.

“There’s enough resentment festering inside her without rubbing salt into the gouge. She’s smart enough not to turn down two hundred K for being allowed to do exactly what she wants.”

“You left the packet?”

“Did I have another option?”

Merrifield sighed. “I suppose not. I never took her for a turnip head. So now Miss Milner knows all. Will it hold her to the line?”

Clifton chewed his lip thoughtfully. “Hard to say. Just don’t let her think we’re using her as a patsy. She mentioned Robert Oppenheimer. She said that she believed he had expected to fail in his effort to build the A- bomb, and when he didn’t, he had a sudden attack of conscience. I think she’s fighting that already. Are we expecting to become Jonas Salks, or Hitlers?”

“It’s a job, no more,” Merrifield said. “An important job, but with all that high minded crap aside, the simple truth remains that we have to do it before someone else does. I think the benefits of the project will be great enough to cover us no matter how much shit Josh Hall can sling. May his soul burn in hell.”

Josh Hall was the outspoken leader of a radical religious sect known as the ‘Natural Christians’ publicly, and privately, by some, as the Neoclassic People’s Temple. Hall, even with his twelve hundred dollar suits and fleet of Cadillacs, could still make Jerry Falwell sound like Madlyn Murray O’Hare.

He advocated a return to the ‘natural order’ as God intended. The ‘natural order’ to Merrifield’s mind was pestilence and suffering. Not so secretly, Merrifield believed this to be Hall’s agenda. He didn’t want to help; he wanted to burn down the whole house of cards. Hall didn’t believe in doctors or science, just prayer. The horror stories were becoming as plentiful and tawdry as junk jewelry at a five and dime.

One story -a story with all the earmarks of an urban legend, but one which rang true to Merrifield- weighed on him. Allegedly, a ten year old girl had had contracted gangrene after being scratched by a rusty nail. The girl’s parents, acolytes of Josh Hall, had refused to allow their daughter to be saved by a quarter’s worth of penicillin. Instead, they stayed by their daughter’s bedside and prayed as the gangrene escalated to septicemia and their daughter became more feverish and pain wracked before finally perishing. Penicillin might be a poor substitute for God, but it would have been a damn sight more effective.

“So,” Merrifield said, coming back to the present. “What do you think?”

“I think that once the shock dies down, the things we’ll have learned along they way will shut up the hue and cry from John Q. Public. It will be a fait accompli.”

“We have no guarantees,” Merrifield said. He swiveled around in his chair and tapped a pencil on his desk. His unbuttoned jacket allowed a generous portion of white shirted belly to roll over his belt.

“If it can be done, she’s the one to make it happen. I think we’ve got a better chance with this than with some of the other white elephants we could lay at the government’s door.”

“How do you want to go on?”

“I’ve set up a meeting a week from today. She has to know we’re all willing to have our heads on the chopping block.”

“Easy enough,” Merrifield said. “How did she take not being told everything outright?”

“She knows how big money projects work. She knows we don’t want to tip our hand too soon. She’ll respect that.”

“You think so?”

“I’ve done pretty well following my instincts. They’re good ones.”

“Better leave the thinking to me, Cliffy,” Merrifield admonished.

Merrifield slowly turned his chair around. Out the large picture window in his office, he looked down on the city of Tampa. “You can go now, Alex,” he said absently. “Please brief me again before our meeting.”

“Fine.”

Clifton stood. He wished he could call Merrifield a hot blooded, bucket-headed imperious fool, all apt qualifiers. Still, despite their ostensible amicability, Clifton always remembered who was boss.

Outside the window, life went on its routine in the city, its streets and buildings and alleys unaware of the schemes and plots hatched within its borders everyday.

3

Ingrid walked across the brick courtyard laid out in front of the Courier bio lab. Brisk September had planted its chill kiss on the rest of the nation, but had no power to pucker in northern Florida. Stiff Palmetto trees ground away mechanically in the salty sea breeze while a rainbow of Azaleas bloomed in the controlled, glass environment of the Speith greenhouse.

Her heels clacked like tabla drums against the bricks. She had slept uneasily the previous night, less from her apprehension at what her decision might be than from the blackly exciting information in the manila folder.

Her initial reaction had been one of dismay that anyone would have the moral effrontery to even attempt such a thing. But as she had read, her reaction had morphed into morbid curiosity and finally, a dark fascination. Could such a thing be done? She now understood why the project had been entrusted to a complex that was as powerful and faceless as the government itself. Such things as were proposed could only be done under the auspices of power so great that it could crush opposition, economies, or entire nations with a phone call or a directive as simple as ordering a cheeseburger and fries.

“Mornin’, Ingrid.”

Ingrid looked up. Hubert Ashe pushed his cart of cleaning supplies before him like a burden. He was the stereotypical janitor and handyman with a feather duster in his back pocket and an engineer’s cap on his head. He could have been anywhere between forty to two hundred years old.

“Good Morning, Hubert. How are you?”

“Tolerable.” He gave her a paternal scrutiny. “You, now. Looks like somebody could walk to town on your lower lip. Don’t look like you slept much, either.”

“I hoped it didn’t show that much.”

“Sticks out like a sore thumb. You been out drinkin’ and carousin’ with them young men, I’ll wager.” He grinned benignly.

“You know better than that. You’re right. I didn’t sleep much. I’m thinking about leaving the University.”

Hubert gave her a closer scrutiny. He picked a brown stained and splintered toothpick from his mouth and pursed his lips gently. The wrinkles in his neck showed up plainly against his white jacket. He straightened up behind his cart and looked into the burning sun, his hands in his back pockets.

“Nice day,” he said, staring into the distance. “Real nice. Seems the sun shines brighter when it has to take the sting out of bad news. We’ll miss you.”

“I haven’t made up my mind, yet. I haven’t even mentioned it to my father. You’re the first to know.”

“Where you gonna go?”

“Away,” Ingrid said vaguely, Clifton’s warning and the enormity of the information in the file still fresh in her mind. “Up north, sort of.”

Hubert snapped his fingers. “I’ll bet you’re goin’ to New York. You be careful, gal. They’s a shifty lot up there. You get out to one of them bars and some slicker come struttin’ up to you like a Tom Turkey and offer you a job as one of them Radio City Rackettes.”

Ingrid thought of the unappealing scar bisecting her chest. “Doubtful.”

“Well, mind you don’t forget what I said, anyway.”

“I never do.” She lowered her voice. “Can I tell you something?”

“You could talk all day. I’d listen.”

“Ever since I was a little girl, I wanted to be perfect. Not just for me, but for my daddy. After my mother died, I was all he had left of her. You understand this is something I could never tell him?”

“Yes.”

“I devoted myself to research. Now I’ve got an opportunity that comes along once in a million lifetimes. Maybe it’s never come along before. But I don’t know if I can leave what I’ve got here to go off to some uncharted territory. Especially now, since the furor has died down and I’m back to being a halfway normal person.”

“You don’t know if there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow?”

“Something like that.”

Hubert’s answering smile was warm and wide in his sun reddened face.

“You’re a good girl, Ingrid. Like I said, we’re gonna miss you, but your mind is made up, ain’t it?”

She knew she had never really deliberated the question. She only wanted someone to tell her it was alright.

“You always know what I want to hear, don’t you?”

“I just tell you the way it is. You gonna have trouble tellin’ your daddy?”

“I don’t think so. Daddy wants what I want.”

“Your daddy don’t look at you like the son he never had?”

“I’ve never thought he was disappointed in me.”

“He shouldn’t be. You’ve made your mark here, and this little burg isn’t big enough to hold you. It’s time to move on to bigger things.”

“I wonder,” Ingrid said gloomily. “I’m almost afraid to go on to anything with even the barest whiff of controversy.”

“Would your own conscience set right with you if you deprive the world of all you can do?”

He’s saying I’m selfish. Was he right?

“I don’t talk so well, but I ain’t stupid. I read the papers and I hear what’s going on. It was a raw deal, what they tried to do to you.”

Ingrid slowly reddened, part embarrassment, but mostly anger, and she didn’t kid herself about that. During her sophomore year she had been apprenticed to Dr. David Grey, head of the life sciences department and within three months the student had raced ahead of the teacher. She began hearing the word prodigy quite often, genius a little less often.

She had been fascinated with the concept of Parthenogenesis; the spontaneous development of an unfertilized ovum into an embryo. She had learned that the ‘virgin birth’ was, in reality, pretty common. Perhaps one child in ten thousand was a product of parthenogenesis: a natural clone of the mother.

She had begun her studies with albino rats. From the females she extracted unfertilized ova and destroyed their nuclei with UV light. Into these ready made incubators she placed the stomach cells of a big, ill tempered male albino rat named Herod. The ova somehow recognized they had a full complement of chromosomes and began to divide in normal cell meiosis. When the surrogate ova reached the blastula stage, she surgically implanted them into the wombs of several non albino rats. After a three week gestation, fourteen albino rats, exact genetic duplicates of Herod, were born to normal mothers. Ingrid had succeeded in cloning a male offspring from a dissimilar ovum without benefit of fertilization.

Parthenogenesis with a twist.

In step two, Ingrid sacrificed a few more of Herod’s stomach cells to the surgeon’s knife. She removed the Y chromosome and replaced it with the X chromosome from a female, non albino rat. She repeated the cloning procedure and was rewarded with a litter of albino rats from a non albino mother. The substantial difference here was that a male albino rat had supplied the nuclear catalyst with a change in sex chromosome and produced female versions of Herod.

Next, she hurried along nature’s own processes. After cataloging the formidable sequence of DNA phosphates and sugars, she set about synthetically reconstructing the chains of genetic instructions. And here Synthetic was the operative word.

Tedious was far too tame a word for the work and Ingrid had enlisted the aid of a cybernerd named Jake MacMillan to help her list the multitudinous codons that made up the chain of a single chromosome. She had burned a lot of midnight oil to come up with the huge, six thousand page volume of the rat’s genome.

She then synthesized the proteins, a far easier task, by using commercially available hybridomas to churn out specific proteins. From viable ova she removed the X chromosomes, then scattered the mix of synthetic chromosomes into her prepared dish of ova, a process known as shotgunning. The ova absorbed the synthetic chromosomes in almost equal proportions of X to Y.

The ova with the normal X chromosomes were fertilized immediately by an X or Y sperm cell. A few of the ova with the single Y chromosome appeared to be fertilized by Y sperm cells, but spontaneously aborted after a few divisions. In the crazy, internal circuitry of DNA the cells realized that the YY combination was not what nature had intended. Ingrid had no idea what type of organism might spring from a YY zygote or, God forbid, a triple Y zygote.

The ova with logical XX and XY pairs developed normally. Out of the hundreds of growing zygotes, a few reached the trophoblast stage. Ingrid implanted these into female rats. These rats gave birth to offspring in a normal male to female ratio.

All of her efforts had produced twenty-eight baby rats. There had been no spontaneous abortions of the implanted zygotes or doctored egg cells (aside from the double Y ova), and no known birth defects in the babies. When the babies grew to maturity, they bred naturally among themselves. They proved to be quite fertile and fluorescent in situ hybridization tests of the offspring’s chromosomes showed no atavism.

Only after the last litter was delivered could she fully comprehend what she had done. She had succeeded in cloning an organism. Big deal; cloning had been done before. What was a big deal was that she had cloned an organism using synthetic, tailor made chromosomes

It was but a short leap from there to the point where the codons of every chromosome could be synthesized. They could be altered, improved, extrapolated upon. It didn’t matter if the cells were dead or alive, if only she could get the blueprints mapped, like the most intricate set of Tinker Toys or Lincoln Logs ever devised. She hoped eventually to take DNA from extinct species and synthesize cells from them. Further along, with the use of cytokines, even ova would not be required as organisms could be constructed fully formed and mature from raw elements.

She thought of scraping some of the dead cells from the last passenger pigeon, a bird named Martha, mounted and on display at the Cincinnati zoo, and plot it. Map it out and plant it into an ovum so the world could watch as an extinct species was reborn, not ironically, but fittingly, like the Phoenix from the ashes of oblivion. Any DNA not ancient or degraded could work. Superstrains of food crops and livestock for a hungry world could literally be cloned in vitro from basically raw materials. On the taboo side of the scale, the clones of dead humans, noble and ignoble, could be brought back, resurrected to give new accomplishments. Einstein, Tesla, Dickens, Mozart. All could breathe again.

By this time, on top of her research and internship at the ER trauma center, Dr. Grey had decided to take a sabbatical and had left Ingrid to teach his classes. She was exhausted and utterly strung out and that might have been what gave her the crazy notion to try and catalog the human genome.

She knew that a French group had cataloged the fifty thousand or so genes that made up the genome. Her problem was how to acquire that information. She hardly believed she could ring them up with a cheery hello and say she was Ingrid Milner, sophomore med student, howya doin’ and, by the way, could you transmit all your research on the human genome to me free of charge?

She didn’t speak French, but imagined the reply would be something she didn’t want to hear in any language.

A few days after this mad notion took root, she appeared at Jake’s dorm room, red eyed, thin, and hardly coherent. Jake was at the University on a full scholarship. At age fifteen he had been writing computer programs in his own language and hacking into the most sophisticated telecommunications systems to avail himself of free long distance calling. Three years later he had racked up an impressive total of nineteen thousand dollars worth of calls before the feds dropped the hammer on him.

The strangest thing about the whole operation was that the federal men had a representative from the victimized baby bell in tow and, instead of arresting Jake, had hired him. Ingrid knew she would have to have his particular talents to get what she wanted.

His room was modern day Victorian, decorated in splendid excess with VDT’s, printers, modems, faxes and CPU stacks everywhere. Miles of cable crawled over the floor, some connected, many others hanging loose like vines hacked off by a machete and left to dangle. He had the only private air conditioner allowed on the floor, the rest of the dorm strictly temperature controlled by central air conditioning, and the room was like an iceberg. She supposed the powers that be at the university were willing to allow Jake his excesses in order to keep him as a student.

“I need your help, Jake.”

“You look like you could use somebody’s help,” Jake had replied in a Bobby Bowden drawl.

“I need you to hack a computer for me.”

“That shit’s against the law,” Jake said, his eyes wide. “I almost got sent up to the big house for that once before.”

“Jake, don’t tell me you’re not hacking into somebody’s database every other day.”

Jake grinned. “I’ve just got better at not getting caught. Live and learn. Whose system and where is it that you want… borrowed.”

“It’s in France.”

Jake didn’t blink.

“There’s only one problem, oh Great One.”

“What’s that?”

“I don’t speak French.”

Ingrid looked puzzled. Jake explained.

“Programs are written in machine language, no problem there. The rub is that I’d hate to get into the guts of the program and then not be able to figure out a password simply because the only French I know is Merci Boo-koo. I assume you don’t want me to do this simply because I can, right?”

Ingrid gave a weary nod.

“So,” Jake went on brightly, “once I get in and get the printer to start churning out hard copy, it’s likely going to be in French, too. I won’t even know if I’ve got what I’m looking for.”

“We’ll cross that bridge when when come to it. I’m sure there’s someone around here that can speak French.”

Jake thought about telling her he knew whatever she wanted pirated, she wouldn’t trust to anyone to translate, but didn’t.

“Alright, Ingrid. Just give me the name of the place and tell me what you want. I’ll see what I can get for you.”

“The name of the place is the Academy of Natural sciences, in Paris. I don’t know the French for it. What I need is a catalog of the human genome. Can you do it?”

Again, Jake didn’t flinch. “Give me a few days. I’ll call you when I find out something. I may have to download the entire database. It’ll be like looking for a needle in a haystack. Is it important?”

“From my standpoint,” Ingrid said, “no. Mainly curiosity. On a larger scale, very important.”

“That’s a big risk I’m taking to satisfy your curiosity.”

“You don’t have to do it.”

“Are you nuts? We’re partners in crime, aren’t we? The data I’ve been feeding you from big Pharma isn’t written in BASIC, you know, and they don’t give it away. You’re creative in your way, I’m creative at appropriating information.” He cracked his knuckles and sat down at his console. “Let the artist work.”

Ingrid left him clacking away at his keyboard, knowing he would work well into the night. She had given him only the scantiest information, but he knew how to navigate the invisible data highways of computer networks like a spider seeking prey in a web. Her last glimpse of him before she left was of a huddled figure, the light from his desk lamp shining on his face and making rainbow colored glints in his shiny, curly black hair.

It took longer than she expected for Jake to get back to her and she began to wonder if the sparse information she had given him would be enough. But about a week later, Jake called her.

“Ingrid,” he said. “I’ve got what you want, I think. Maybe you should come over here tonight and see if you can make any sense of it.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s the craziest thing. I got into the database and started downloading and came up with a bunch of files with labels like X, Y, Ras, HLA, CD-10, all kinds of weird names. The X and Y I know, but these others,” he trailed off. “No clue.”

“I’ve got to teach a class at five this afternoon. Bio 101. Freshman gut course. I’ll cut it short and be there by six thirty.”

“Okay, but it’ll have to be tonight. They could change the password at any time and I’d have to find it again.”

“How did you find it in the first place?”

“Snotty computer types are insufferably arrogant. They think their files are pretty well protected so they don’t bother disguising their passwords very well. I just thought about what I was looking for and thought about passwords I might use.”

“What was it?”

“Prometheus,” Jake said. “One so arrogant he stole fire from the gods to give to man.”

Ingrid hurried through her class. She let the fidgeting mob loose at six fifteen and hastened across campus to Jake’s dorm room. She felt as if she were on some macabre commission in the dead of night, but it was summertime in Florida and the sun was still thirty degrees over the western horizon and a balmy wind blew cottony clouds across the sky.

But Jake’s room was different. With the air conditioning on to protect the touchy computer circuitry, and the only light being the high strength lamp at his terminal, she felt like the ape men discovering the black obelisk in 2001: A Space Odyssey. She was about to see the very basics of life itself. She shivered, wishing she had brought a sweater. Jake had heavy, insulated draperies over the windows to keep the room virtually frigid. The air was filled with the scent of ozone and the calm hum of electronic circuitry patiently awaiting its call to duty.

“Ready,” Jake asked.

“Let her rip.”

“I’ve opened the file marked ‘Genome’,” Jake said, staring at the electric glow of one of his many screens. “If you need to go back for anything, we can do that, too.”

Jake tapped in a few instructions on his keyboard, then clicked enter. The computer beeped and a series of lists flashed rapidly over the screen, scrolling upwards too fast to be able to read anything. Another beep and the printer head in the large printer flashed to the left margin with a mechanical clank, reminding Ingrid of the robot machines she had seen in factories. She expected to hear a rapid fire clack clack clack, but the printer was eerily quiet, churning out page after page of documentation with only a soft whir and a sibilant hiss as it spun the paper out in a long ribbon.

Ingrid took a look at some of the documentation, spooling it up in her arms. As Jake had predicted, most of it was in French, but a surprising amount of it was in English. Ingrid read what she could, trying to concentrate over the soft but implacable click and clank of the printer’s rapidly cycling head. After two minutes or so, the printer abruptly stopped and the drives in the computers whirred, their LED’s blinking back and forth rapidly and alternately.

“What’s wrong,” Ingrid asked.

“Just wait.”

After agonizing moments the printer groaned aloud with a long moan, as if the database was only grudgingly giving up its information. The terminal beeped again and the printer spun into renewed life, spewing out page after page of lists with nothing more than unending combinations of the letters A, G, C, and T.

Ingrid studied the lists, the computer screen mirrored in her glassy eyes, recognizing some of the combinations, seeing other, new ones that seemed to strike her like a sledgehammer. She thought of what she had done with these kinds of instructions, of what she could do if she weren’t probing mainly in the dark. And here was the key to unlock it all.

“Ingrid,” Jake asked. “Are you okay?” He waved his hands in front of her eyes, but she acted as if she didn’t see it. She had tensed up, crumpling the paper she held in her arms against her chest. She stood frozen, her eyes locked on the far wall.

The terminal beeped again and the printer started up on another file. Ingrid snapped out of her daze and dropped the scroll of paper on the floor.

“Stop it,” she said.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes,” she said softly. “Stop it now. I’m not ready for this.”

Jake’s finger hovered over the break key. He looked once more at Ingrid.

“Last chance.”

She nodded. Jake clicked the break key and the terminal buzzed instead of beeping.

The printer stopped in mid-whir, the screen flashed one last hurrah, and the characters hda1: What is your wish, O Great one appeared on the screen, followed by the flashing command line prompt.

“That’s it,” Jake said.

Ingrid stooped down and began scooping up the printout.

“Help me with this, will you?”

“Don’t crumple it like that,” Jake said. “You won’t be able to read it.”

“I don’t want to read it. You have a shredder?”

“Of course I have a shredder.” He sounded wounded. “Do you think I’m stupid?”

They spent the next half hour obliterating all traces of the night’s work. Jake even had to erase the program he had written to break into the database. Ingrid insisted on it. Unfortunately, she was so naïve about computers she didn’t even think to ask him to dump the backup copies that had been registered simultaneously on six different computers and twelve drives, but he didn’t bother to tell her that. What could it help?

As she was about to leave, she turned apologetically to Jake.

“I’m sorry. I’m just not ready yet.”

“No problem. No harm done.”

“No,” Ingrid replied. “No harm done.” Her voice held a peculiar note of gratefulness and Jake could clearly hear the unspoken “not yet” at the end of her thoughts.

It was dark now and she hurried into the gloom, her mind ajumble with the thought that perhaps the gods were right; that fire should not be given to man. She had thought of that night from time to time over the next three years. No harm had seemed to come of it.

But she hadn’t gotten away with it. Somebody had tracked them, Jake and her, and now they wanted her. She was certain that Merrifield knew, and probably Clifton, too. Maybe Jake hadn’t been as careful as he had thought and he had been tracked through cyberspace and through him, she had been discovered.

The question was, was she now ready to accept the mantle of responsibility to go along with her genius? Her first response should have been a horrified refusal, but those who wanted her had done their homework. Her one holy quest in life could never be accomplished within the normal channels of the scientific community and Merrifield knew it.

Her published accomplishments were acclaimed by some in the scientific community, vilified by others. The Natural Christians claimed she was attempting to usurp the power of God. Most vitriolic were the attacks on the fact that she had developed YY and YYY zygotes. Never mind these zygotes had spontaneously aborted. What type of monster, these groups mused aloud, had Ingrid been trying to create?

For the next three years, Ingrid studiously avoided contact with the press and confined her research to more prosaic and boring endeavors, never becoming as ambitious or brilliant as she had been during those few short months with rats. All this was a factor that weighed heavily in favor of her considering working in a covert project, out of the light of scrutiny, with the sanction of the world’s most powerful government.

“It shouldn’t have happened,” Ingrid told Hubert. “I was only trying to help.”

“Walking around with a chip on your shoulder ain’t gonna change what they tried to do to you,” Hubert said. “You got to do what you’re meant to do, ’cause flyin’ in the face of Fate never has a good end. It ain’t good to hold a grudge, but them that spits on you always get what’s comin’ to ’em.”

4

Jack Milner was watching a football game on TV and drinking a Pabst when Ingrid came in.

“Hi, old man.” She leaned over and kissed him on his bald spot. He reached up and patted her arm.

“Good to see you,” he said, never looking away from the TV. “I was wondering if you were going to stay married to your test tubes.” He didn’t offer her a beer, for which she was grateful.

“Did I catch you at a bad time?”

“Never a bad time for you.” He set his beer down on an end table. An interlocking set of white rings marked the favorite resting place for his beers. He turned the volume down with his remote.

“You didn’t have to do that.”

“Wasn’t much of a game. You want something to eat? I don’t have anything cooked, but there’s plenty of stuff in the reefer.”

“No. Thanks, anyway. I wanted to talk to you about something pretty important. Daddy, what would you think if I left the University?”

Jack’s only visible reaction was a slight raising of his eyebrows.

“Do you mean a vacation?”

“No, nothing like that. I’ve been offered a job.”

“Is this job worth leaving school just a few months short of finishing your internship?”

“I’ve already got enough hours in at the trauma center and the ER to complete my internship,” Ingrid reminded him. “All I need is my thesis. Right now I’m a little burnt out on busted heads and gunshot wounds.”

“This job won’t be here a few months from now?”

“No, it won’t. This is now or never. A one shot deal.”

“What kind of work would you be doing?”

Ingrid weighed the advisability of following Clifton’s warning to the letter. If only a quarter of what was proposed in the folder could be done, that twenty-five percent could rock the world. Did she want to saddle her father with that? She decided she didn’t.

“I’ve been in contact with the government for the past year…”

Jack leaned forward. “The United States government? The revenooers?”

Ingrid looked innocently skyward, giving her father his silent answer.

“You never told me about it.”

“I wasn’t sure they were serious. Until yesterday. A man named Alex Clifton came to see me. He told his tale and laid out his cards. They want me to work on a covert genetics project.”

Jack sat back. “So you won’t be able to tell me anything about it?”

“You know the drill.” Ingrid felt part ashamed, part aglow with the feeling of power it gave her to be privy to information that couldn’t be parceled out even to blood kin.

“For all that uncertainty,” Jack said weightily, “you’re willing to give up your post at the University and move away from home?”

“What post at the University,” she countered irritably. “I’m a glorified substitute teacher. I know I sound like a little girl about to get into a get rich quick scheme, but I didn’t think you would poke fun at me.”

Jack clasped his rough, red hands between his knees. A carpenter’s hands that had sawed and hammered and built for forty-five years. They had held Ingrid on the nights she had cried herself to sleep after her mother’s passing. The memories were still fresh even so many years after Cystic Fibrosis had taken Phyllis. Ingrid had been his own precious jewel, a shining gem to be treasured like water in a wasteland.

“Come over here, Ingrid. Sit by me.”

Ingrid sat cross legged on the floor by Jack’s chair.

“I wasn’t poking fun at you,” he said gently. “A father has a way of forgetting that he can’t know what it’s like to be a young lady. This all sounds like cloak and dagger stuff. I can’t see you mixed up in something like that.”

“You don’t approve.”

“I didn’t say that, and I didn’t say I didn’t believe you. It’s a lot to be hit with at one time. I knew the day would come, I just hoped it never would.”

“Then you don’t mind?”

“Of course I mind, but I won’t interfere.”

“Would you rather that I turned it down?”

“That’s not my call. I’ll back you either way. You’ll have no need to beard me in my lair with anything you might or might not do. I won’t stand in your way.”

Ingrid smiled a little. “At least you didn’t tell me you only want what’s best for me.”

“No need to belabor the obvious.” He paused and cleared his throat. “When will you be… leaving?”

“You really want me to go?”

“I really want what you want.”

Ingrid put her arms around his neck.

“I’ll let you know.”

5

“Have you said your good byes yet?”

Ingrid was glad to see that the mental impression she had formed of Merrifield -that of a reanimated Buddha- was accurate.

She led them in and served coffee, sitting down in a chair opposite the couch. It was cool enough to have the air conditioning turned off and she left the front door open to allow the breeze to circulate. Quiet sunlight smiled benignly on the numerous plants in her living room.

“I’m tempted,” she said, “to pack up right now. Except for a few things.”

Merrifield’s eyebrows contracted into storm clouds.

“You want to know more.”

Ingrid was silent for a moment, picking her response.

“You know, you act as if I’m asking you for a favor. I have every right to know what’s expected of me.” Merrifield didn’t seem all that thick on first acquaintance, but you never knew.

“You are,” Merrifield said. “I must insist that whatever we say in this room does not travel beyond it. I won’t ask you to sign anything or make any pledges. All I need is your word that this trust will not be violated.” Merrifield was grave, miles from the jovial man who had arrived mere moments ago.

“You have it.”

Merrifield deferred to Clifton and the tension in the room eased.

“Jon and I have discussed the most effective way to introduce you to the project,” he said, “and we’ve decided the best course would be to give you all the information we have. Objectives, time tables, budget allotments, the whole thing.”

Clifton snapped his briefcase open and withdrew a moderately thick sheaf of papers bound in a blue, plastic folder. He handed it to Ingrid, who gave it a cursory glance.

“That’s everything,” Clifton said. “Project Change from beginning to end. You can read it at your leisure, but we can go over the high spots now.” Clifton closed his briefcase. To Ingrid, it looked like something he had rehearsed. She hoped they weren’t setting up to play good cop bad cop. There was plenty of room for a rubber hose in that briefcase.

Merrifield scratched the end of his nose. “Are you familiar with black-light projects?”

“Vaguely.”

“Black-light projects are financed through an unnamed group with discretionary funds placed back for just such a use. Most of the time they deal with issues that are borderline ethical or legal and when the press shows up, the offending agency is insulated and we take the heat. You or I will never know just which agency is paying the bills. Scared off yet?”

Ingrid remained silent.

“The end objective, as outlined in that report, is the creation of a genetically enhanced human being.”

Ingrid knew that much from what she had already read, so it wasn’t a complete shock.

“Why not cyborgs,” she asked. “Or robots? That’s trendy now, isn’t it?”

“When it comes to AI,” Merrifield said, “the operant principle is ‘how dumb can we make this thing and still have it do the job? Dumb as a cow? Dumb as a rock?’ For most jobs a level of intelligence that would make a cockroach seem like Albert Einstein is sufficient. We need more than that. To put it simply,” Merrifield summed up, “machines break down. Machines can’t think.”

Ingrid had read that much between the lines. The next big question was how, and she asked it.

“That,” Merrifield said, “is your problem.”

“Creation,” she murmured. “You mean in the literal sense?”

“You’re a geneticist, Ingrid,” Merrifield said with real weight. “You know what has to be done and it will be up to you to figure out how to do it. That’s the deal.”

Ingrid wasn’t yet sure what to make of Merrifield. To say he was pleasant wouldn’t be right, but to say she disliked his gruff, sometimes cutting and insensitive streak wouldn’t be true, either. He was either too old to put the polish on his chameleon act like Clifton, or too busy to care.

“This prototype is to be free of all defect, physical or mental. Further objectives are to instill superior traits found in some humans, but not all.” This was a not very lightly veiled allusion to psychic traits. “We are shooting for extraordinary strength combined with superior intelligence, the native ability to learn at an accelerated pace. This prototype will be the blueprint for clonal replication.”

Merrifield studied Ingrid’s face for surprise and saw none.

“Cloning’s already been done,” Ingrid reminded him.

Merrifield paused for emphasis. “True. But in this project, cloning is not the…primary objective.”

“You want phylum exchange,” Ingrid answered. Her eyes were bright with the exhilaration of catching Merrifield with his guard down.

“Humans with gills. Humans with the night vision of a cat. The ability to change hair color, or eye color, or physical features with nothing more than a dose of gene therapy. That’s what you’re really after, isn’t it? A werewolf on demand.”

Merrifield and Clifton exchanged an uncomfortable glance. Merrifield hadn’t expected Ingrid’s acuity to be so laser accurate. He cleared his throat and spoke abruptly.

“It’s a matter of pressure,” he said.

Ingrid stared at him. This was unexpected.

“ A manned mission to Mars is planned in the next twenty years. Terraforming of the planet slated to begin five years after that. What our problem is -and now yours- is that even if the air is breathable, the mass of Mars is not sufficient to sustain an atmosphere with enough pressure to allow proper gas exchange. Not human beings as they are now. Humans on Mars will be extremely different, perhaps even unrecognizable to us. They will likely be smaller, with large eyes for better vision. They will likely lose color vision or it will be reduced. And they will have to be able to breathe in an atmosphere which, at best, might maintain a pressure of five PSI. Cosmic radiation is a big problem. Vitamin D conversion to steroid hormone, and skin thick enough to keep from frying on Mars, don’t go together. A million other details, some we know, some we haven’t even conceived of.” Merrifield gave a sick little smile. “We are not genetically designed for that, and we don’t have unlimited time for our bodies to evolve naturally.”

“ And what else,” Ingrid pressed. “Humans with flippers? Claws? Fangs? Venom glands? It’s Island of Dr. Moreau stuff. It’s hideous. And it’s also out of the realm of a reasonable time frame. You’re looking fifty -maybe a hundred- years into the future.”

“I don’t think so,” Merrifield said bluntly. Ingrid had shown distaste, but hadn’t recoiled in outright horror. “But that is beyond what we want from you. We want only the beginning. The processes, the catalogs and blueprints of the genetic architecture. Others will do the rest.”

Ingrid let this sink in for a few seconds while Merrifield went on.

“Just the fact you have the Project Change documents in your possession makes you liable for any leaks which can be traced back to you. We must operate under the assumption that you have read and understood their contents, with all their ramifications. If it comes to it, that alone would be enough to have you censured for the rest of your days. Not by us, but by our mutual friends in the media. You probably know we didn’t come on your name just through serendipity. I want there to be no misunderstanding on this point.”

“I’m not particularly charitable toward threats and strong arm tactics,” Ingrid said testily. “Nor the people who deliver them.”

Merrifield smiled thinly.

“What threatening? I apologize if my tone was offensive. Philosophers can afford to be thin skinned because their high toned preachments don’t cost them anything. Your hide has to be bulletproof. We can’t expect old heads on young shoulders and you’re not yet twenty-four, an age when most young people can’t even manage to change their underwear more than once a week, much less take on a responsibility this overbearing. Job one on this project is security. There can be no leaks. You, of all people, know why. If you accept this assignment, do it with a clear conscience and your eyes open.”

Ingrid had barely heard this last. Her mind had drifted to the project. Did he really think little old Ingrid could do it? But she knew she could do it. With enough time, materials and money, she could make it happen. The knowledge elated and frightened her.

“Who will I be…” Ingrid corrected herself. “Who will be working for me?”

Merrifield smiled at Ingrid’s quick grasp.

“Their names are listed.” He paused momentarily, looking into Ingrid’s eyes. “I was the one who originally proposed you to the planning board. Did I make a mistake?”

Ingrid was wary. She remembered too well a line she had heard some boys in high school use when they hadn’t known she was listening. A particularly popular boy, Chip Winters, was expounding on his success with the high school girls. “Just tell ’em what they want to hear.” Ingrid, though attractive, had always been so studious she had no time for frivolities like boys. In college, during her freshman year, she had confessed to her roommate that she was so devoted to her studies she’d never had time to lose her virginity.

“I don’t know, Mr. Merrifield. Maybe I would be better off staying low key.”

“If you stay here,” Merrifield said flatly, “you’ll drown under the weight of public condemnation. Once they’ve got you down, they’ll never take their knee off of your neck and you know it.”

Ingrid sighed at the truth of it.

“Have you,” she asked, “considered the probability of failure?”

Merrifield spread his hands. “Que sera, sera.”

“And if I decline?”

“We’ll be on our merry way. We’re not arm breakers. We’ll find another director. The project will limp along much less brilliantly, but workably. We may even get the results we want with a second stringer. You’ll go back to being a first rate researcher at a third rate university. Your work will suffer from lack of funding. Your abilities will be straitjacketed, your work unrecognized.”

“Is that what you think,” Ingrid asked, shaken, “or what you would cause to happen?”

Merrifield seemed moderately appalled by the insinuation.

We would never hamper you. But media and political figures don’t need our help to ruin you. We offer a sure thing, free from the inhibitions and scrutiny of openly funded research.”

“My father always told me there was no such thing as a sure thing.”

“Your father is a wise man. Still, we offer the closest thing to it. And we’re properly grateful. If you complete the project with good results, you might want to stay on with us. Even if you don’t, the powers that be know how to treat those who have done it a good turn.” Ingrid noticed Merrifield neglected to state the converse which was almost certainly as true: those same powers know how to screw over those who have left them with egg on their face.

Clifton spoke up, a placating voice in the mix.

“We live in a dangerous world,” he said. “While the pentagon is busy planning the last war, others are plotting new ones. Terror tactics, chemical and biological warfare. Wars by proxy at a scale never before imagined. We need new tools to defend ourselves. The project members aren’t evil scientists with their hair skewed out in wild curls. I mean, if I had wanted to work with a bunch of clowns, I would have joined the circus. Those high up have decided there’s a war on. Undeclared, but very real. Local law enforcement is stymied, the courts are jammed. The DEA is outgunned and outmanned. Home grown nuts are bombing federal buildings, religious fanatics are blowing up US ships and buildings. Central Banks are financing every side of a conflict with money made up out of thin air, all in the hopes of thinning out the ‘useless eaters’ and making a profit in the bargain. How do you fight that? One of the many ways law enforcement has of upholding the law is by breaking it. We’ve been driven against the wall and it’s come to this.”

Ingrid wrestled with emotions that conflicted like cross winds restlessly tugging a ship from its anchor. On the one hand was the need, the yearning to do it. On the other, the terrible, final purpose.

“You sound like you want to create an expendable hit squad.”

“ Not expendable,” Merrifield corrected. “Superior. We need interdiction at the highest level. We need people that can -and will- go beyond what would seem to be impossible odds. It sounds cold and it sounds cruel, and its illegal as hell, but the battle is being lost on every front. It’s your choice, Ingrid. The government can always train another assassin, another sniper; outfit a few more men with black bag shit and James Bond weapons. And for what? So the Jamaicans and Colombians can waste the black kids in the slums and the poor white trash from the trailer parks? So Bin Laden can train a few more fanatics and promise them paradise with the seventy-two virgins?”

“Who’s bin Laden,” Ingrid asked.

“A terrorist. He was behind Mogadishu, the bombing of the USS Cole, the bombings of the American embassies in Africa, lots of other not nice things.”

“Never heard of him.”

“You will.”

“It sounds so dictatorial. Who’ll be the crime boss? ‘Hey, Joe, kill some Arabs. When You’re done with that, murder some other scum. Who cares? If you get killed, we’ll clone some more.’”

“Don’t let the thought of murder or genocide cloud your mind,” Merrifield said in a gently warning tone. “I can assure you, others have it in mind for us. All they really want is to kill as many Americans as possible. And once they finally kill enough, the keys will turn, the missiles will go up, and somebody’s gonna get nuked. You don’t know, Ingrid, but I do. We have to stop them before that happens, because if we don’t, the innocent are going to burn with the guilty.”

“This,” Ingrid said, “is very ugly business.”

“The world is a pretty ugly place.”

Ingrid hesitated. “This is too much. You’re talking about things I don’t even want to know about. I was a lot happier being shit ignorant.”

“I know your history, Ingrid,” Merrifield’s eyes had narrowed in their puffy sockets. They looked as if steel shavings had been sprinkled in them. They made Ingrid uncomfortable.

“I think you’ll do it. I think you’ll do it just to see if you can. I think you’ll do it and want more. Here it is with all the bark on it: if you don’t do it, someone else will. Years from now, when you labor in obscurity, you can do so with a clear conscience. It’s a good thing, Ingrid. Look beyond what’s in the folder.”

“To what,” she said with slight bitterness. “Slavery? Drones? And what would that mean to us in Darwinian terms? Extinction?”

Merrifield said nothing. He had pushed as far as he dared right now. He could only hope Ingrid’s past history could push her through this crossroads to the other side.

“One thing I need to know,” she said. “I need your assurance that I won’t be impeded. I need your solemn vow that I can control the project. And I need your oath to God that I won’t be subjected to the torture I went through before. I won’t deal with that again.”

“Ingrid,” Merrifield said, “if you can pull this off, there’s not a soul in the world that will breathe a harsh word about you.”

Ingrid saw the man, the real man, behind Merrifield’s mercurial, sometimes jovial screen. Outwardly all business, inwardly a dynamo. A man who could get things done with a sharp glance, a dissatisfied grunt, or a flick of the wrist.

“How long do I have to decide?”

“We’re all anxious to get started. Look over the specs.” Merrifield looked thoughtful, as if examining a mental calendar. “Would it be possible for you to decide in a week?”

“I think so. One way or the other.”

“One way or the other,” Merrifield repeated. “Good day, Ingrid.”

Sour grapes, Ingrid thought as they left. It probably couldn’t be done anyway.

Whether that was a valid judgment or not, what would ultimately push her to her final decision had two parts: one that had been filed away long ago, another that would happen in the very near future.

********************

On the top shelf of her closet Ingrid kept a scrapbook. In it were mementos of her growing up days. There were pictures and newspaper clippings, mostly: a pressed violet Scotty Gardner had given her in the days before she had decided to give boys a miss in order to fulfill her ambitions.

She went there now. The forks and spoons and knives in her kitchen were arranged by type and size. Cups, plates and saucers were stacked in identical piles. The corners in her home were free of cobwebs and every picture on her wall would read true if a level were set on them.

Only her scrapbook showed even a fraction of her other side. Even there, the slightly off center pages, the crumbling violet petals, a lock of her hair before it had darkened, had been shunted aside to make room for newer items. Pages and pages of newspaper clippings and magazine articles had been cut out and photocopied so they wouldn’t yellow and crumble. They had been painstakingly set into place and arranged by date. The clippings formed the bulk of her book and Ingrid thought there could be no more fitting symbol for her life. A thin sliver for her childhood, a huge wedge for her research.

She lifted her scrapbook from the shelf where it had waited like an eternally patient wallflower, perhaps for just this moment. She sat down and turned on her reading lamp.

She turned to the first squib- BABY RATS CLONED- by Robin Grant. An unremarkable piece, probably used only as a filler. It basically described her first experiments with cloning organisms and incubating them in surrogate mothers. She glanced through the article, taking note of the last line “…Milner’s team has continued with their work and Milner herself could not be reached for comment.”

She winced as she read it. She now wished she had subsequently kept her big, fat mouth shut. However, after the generally favorable newspaper article, she believed it would be safe to talk about the next phase of her work. She came to regret that decision immensely.

The first article was followed by a second one, somewhat larger, detailing the changing of the cloned rats’ sex. It also gave the public the first indication that no team was involved in the experiments. It told everyone that Ingrid had blown off the dusty old electrodes of the Frankenstein legend and clamped them to her research on her own. And it was the first time Ingrid found out how some of the reading public felt about her work.

‘…There have already been detractors’, part of the article read. ‘Joshua Hall, the spiritual leader of the Natural Christians, has called Milner’s work “a degrading, immoral sideshow that presumes to override God’s natural plan. Such research is the preceding wave of a tide that threatens to overturn the spiritual sanctity of God’s design. The shamans who have turned man’s ability to differentiate between good and evil have, for years, attempted to sway the masses from the true Light of the Lord and into believing they have all the answers in a Godless universe.”’

‘Milner declined comment on Hall’s strong attack on her work. She did, though, have the last word.

‘“It isn’t too presumptuous to say we now have it within our grasp to save the classic genotypes of the planet. It will be possible very shortly to synthesize the genotypes of all organisms: those that are alive now, and even those that have died out and left no trace but a single molecule of DNA, preserved intact.’”

Ingrid had never intended to offend anyone, especially the Arkansas Jesus, Josh Hall, who had swept the masses with evangelical zeal. Her own impression of Hall was that he was a vain, arrogant hypocrite of the first water, but what Ingrid thought would never diminish his shine among his millions of disciples. They would probably follow him straight through the gates of hell with nothing more than his promise that he would kick Satan’s ass and carry his pitchfork up to the pearly gates themselves as a ticket of admission to Saint Peter.

But she had enraged him. Might even have done it consciously, wanting to get him back for his gibes. By then the press was firmly on her trail and her next successes were so astounding that she graduated from B roll to page one in the local paper.

‘…Milner’s experiments at Delian University have incited widespread interest and contention in the scientific and private communities.

‘One of her main opponents, Josh Hall, has started an intensive campaign to have federal funding for Milner’s experiments canceled, claiming that it is not the place of the government to subsidize “evil and subhuman experiments.”

‘He further stated that the technology of the geneticists was running unchecked and that the molecular eugenics programs should be halted immediately for fear of the creation of new and possibly dangerous life forms.

‘“I am not a geneticist,” Hall declared, “For which I thank Almighty God. What Miss Milner is doing is both scientifically and morally reprehensible and irresponsible. She is tampering with the very foundation of God’s work and should be reprimanded harshly if not expelled outright from the university.”

‘Mr. Hall claims to have attempted to set up a meeting with the university’s board of trustees, but without success. Barring any meeting, he says, he plans to take his case to the halls of congress with intensive demonstrations, marches, and furious lobbying.’

Robin Grant, an up and coming reporter, had done the first few articles on Ingrid’s work. She had met him once and decided he was one of the few people on her side.

Their meeting was the result of his wanting to interview her after the second article he had written. Ingrid told him firmly that she could not be interviewed. She had already stepped on too many toes, -not that she gave a shit what Josh Hall thought- but she was afraid the university would suffer. She actually had given him the interview, but insisted it not be printed until the uproar had died down. Grant had decided to let the matter rest and for that Ingrid could have swooned at his feet. He did print an editorial (without using anything Ingrid had told him), and it was thoughtful and fair.

 

What is Molecular Eugenics?

 

Suppose as in this very room in which I’m writing, someone walked in and said “I have the cure for every disease known to man.” What would you think? Assuming you knew the person not to be a verifiable crackpot, you might be tempted to listen.

This, the eradication of disease, is one of the aims of molecular eugenics. It is not the only aim by any means. Some are noble, some are silly, some are terrifying.

Molecular Eugenics (ME) is the process of enhancing favorable traits among genes at the molecular level, and reducing or eradicating harmful or unfavorable traits.

The list of congenital diseases is of a staggering length. Even predisposition to ailments, as opposed to the actual ailment itself, are programmed into each human’s genetic makeup. The prime objective of ME is to eliminate defective genes, thus avoiding birth defects ranging from a harelip to a gangrenous condition known as Noma, a genetic disease that causes an erosion of the lining of the cheeks and nasal passages.

ME can be used to provide immunity from disease. Within white blood cells known as plasma cells are bodies known as a ribosomes. Within the ribosomes are strands of genetic material called RNA. The RNA contains messages in chemical form called codons. Each codon is an order to the ribosomes to construct a specific amino acid. If an RNA strand could be encoded with the codons for the manufacture of a specific antibody, the ribosomes could construct the prescribed antibody to a specific disease, without the cell having ever been exposed to the actual disease. There is virtually no limit to the number of proteins and antigens that can be synthesized, if only their actual chemical composition were known. The process of introducing these antibody producing traits, as well as other traits, onto a chromosome is known as genetic recombination.

On the converse side of the coin is the very real threat that ME could be used to create life forms that are dangerous in and of themselves, but with superior genetic traits which would make them more apt to survive and pose a threat to natural selection. One common example of this phenomena occurs naturally. The flu virus mutates into different forms every two years or so and different vaccines must be administered to sensitize the body to the new flu bug that will not be destroyed by already existing antibodies.

So we are left with an interesting dilemma. Should ME be used to eradicate disease and create stronger and healthier humans? Or should Natural Selection be allowed to take its course? Should we no longer vaccinate our children against disease or take them to the doctor? Rip the insulin vials from the hands of diabetics? The only difference between such trivial pursuits and ME is a matter of degree. It is up to every person of good conscience to step up to the thin line that separates the noble from the ignoble, but we must toe that line.

 

Three years later it was still painful for Ingrid to read the “dissenting” letter to the editor which had been published three days after Robin’s editorial. It had been written by the director of the Natural Christian’s Tampa chapter and Ingrid had come within an ace of not even keeping it. But she had convinced herself she had to be bigger than those who wished only to tear her down.

 

To the editor,

I am disgusted that such an obviously well-learned scientist as Ingrid Milner could even begin to consider unlocking the secrets of creation. Tampering with human genetics is akin to playing God. It’s all well and good to desire to rid the world of plagues, scourges, and the common cold; to rid us of deformities, disfigurements, and defects. But to do this is to create a perfect race of beings. No sickness, no disease. People will live forever! When the world becomes too crowded, how will we decide who must die? A lottery? My own modest proposal is to allow the esteemed Ingrid Milner to make the decisions for us.

Consider also this: if all it takes is one amino acid out of sequence to create a monster or killer plague, how do we guard against human error? God, after all, did not make us perfect. (If left up to Ingrid Milner, we all would be). The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Who is to decide what is a favorable trait? Take a democratic vote? Or yet another lottery? Will the famed Ingrid Milner, scientist, humanist, and philosopher, decide? This woman does not want to make contributions. She wants to be a virgin mother and give birth to the Messiah out of a test tube in her laboratory.

The last point I intend to make is a vital one: the power to create evil. I cannot believe it has not entered Miss Milner’s mind that she is trying to own a power which at this moment only God possesses. Only an evil, evil woman, a spawn of the devil, would desire such power. Who among the fleet of “researchers” can truthfully say they would not care to have this power in their grasp? Who can say they would not want to create zombies and the like to be bent to their will, be it what it may?

 

The letter had been signed, but Ingrid had deliberately omitted the woman’s name from her scrapbook. The temptation to look her up and hack off her hands with a mattock and cut out her tongue with a claw hammer would have been too great. She could almost envisage the woman, filled with the Pentecostal fire, scribbling frantically at her pad with Josh Hall clapping her on the back and shouting “More venom! More venom!”

Understandably upset, Ingrid had phoned the paper and asked to speak to Robin.

She was told that Mr. Grant was no longer an employee of the newspaper. During her meeting with Grant, Ingrid had gotten his home phone number. She dialed it and Robin had answered on the first ring,

How could you,” Ingrid had screamed, near tears. “How could you let something like that be printed about me, you lousy bastard?”

“Now wait, Ingrid,” Robin said desperately. “It’s not a bit like you think.”

“Well what way is it,” she asked with dull, deadly sarcasm. Her voice was like a dead weight in his ear. “I thought you were on my side.”

“I am,” Grant said. “That’s why I quit.”

Ingrid fell a click in her throat. The vitality of her disgust drained away.

“You quit,” she said dimly. “Because of the letter?’’

“You’re goddammed right,” he said. “That piece of garbage came in the mail yesterday. I nearly shouted myself blue in the face trying to get it out of my editor’s paws.” Grant sounded as disgusted as any man could. “The fat bucket of guts was practically pissing in his truss to get it in this morning’s edition. I asked him if we were publishing a newspaper or some rag someone wouldn’t even use to line the bottom of their bird cages, and he just grinned like some dipshit dog. I told him the letter came into my byline and if he used it I would sue his ass after I quit.”

“Can you do that,” Ingrid asked.

“And win,” Robin sighed wearily. “Not a chance.”

“You quit because of me?”

“Ingrid, I’ve never seen anything as coarsely abusive as that letter. It shocked me.” In a soft voice he asked, “How are you taking it?”

“I feel about as low as anyone could ever feel, I think. It’s horrible. That woman, whoever she is, is saying those horrible things about me.”

There were still pages and pages of clippings and editorial sidebars. Articles had appeared in both Time and Newsweek. Scientific American had prepared an article about her. The supermarket tabloids printed broadsides “exposing” monstrous mutations she had allegedly created. Her phone rang incessantly.

Reporters waited to pounce when she left her apartment to go to school. They took pictures and shoved microphones in her face. Changing her number to an unlisted one mattered not a whit. Huge sums of money were offered her.

In desperation she had packed up her most basic necessities and fled from her apartment at two am and moved in with her father. The reporters found her the next day and lined up outside her father’s house. Ingrid refused to go out. After two days of this treatment, Jack Milner appeared on his doorstep bright and early one morning, wearing only his pajama bottoms and slippers, looking very much like Jed Clampett after downing a four way hit of acid. His trouser drawstring hung down at his crotch. He carried an M1 carbine and told the reporters assembled on his lawn that if they didn’t leave his daughter alone, he would blow every damned one of them out of their shoes where they stood. The reporters had never expected to find a war zone in their own backyard and that had been the last of the trouble with them.

Ingrid closed her scrapbook and replaced it. She started to close the closet door, then stopped. Impulsively she took her scrapbook down and left it on the small night table next to her bed.

She left the TV on when she went to bed, hoping the calming noise would soothe her whirling nerves. Oddly enough, she slept soundly, awakening very late the next morning. Yet when she awoke it was not slowly, but with a sudden jolt. Her gaze was drawn as unerringly to the TV screen as a compass needle swings toward magnetic north.

On the screen, one of the towers of the World Trade Center was in flames.

Horrified commentators squawked in shock as the first people leaped from the burning building to the murderous pavement one hundred stories below. Even as she tried to assimilate this initial horror into her waking reality, a second commercial airliner veered into the screen, banking left, she thought, with inexorable deliberateness, and exploded into the second tower of the World Trade Center in an explosion she knew must be immense but looked uncannily small on the television screen. Even years after, she would sometimes think of how it seemed it would be so easy to freeze the frame of the jetliner veering toward the building and keep it all from happening, yet no thing constructed by human hands ever deterred its inevitable detonation upon its intended target. She hadn’t even stayed to watch as the Twin Towers began to crumble to cinders before she consulted a small business card in her shaking hands and called the number on it.

“Yes?” It was Merrifield. His voice sounded thin and papery and she imagined him staring at the TV screen in sickened amazement just as she had.

“This is Ingrid, Mr. Merrifield. When do we start?”

“How soon can you be ready,” he asked calmly.

“Give me two weeks.”

She turned off the TV. In one grand, evil gesture, a middle eastern madman named Osama Bin Laden had turned the clock back a thousand years to the time of the Crusades, managing to kill the most people on American soil in one day since the battle of Antietam. And while he and others were fanatically intent on returning to past glories, Ingrid made her decision to step into the future. As Hubert had told her, it was useless to fly in the face of Fate. She picked up the project Change folder she had left on the coffee table, wanting to know just what the terrible attacks of 9/11/01 had forced her into.

[]LOOKING FOR GOD

1

January 1, 2002

The biggest winter storm of the year had blown into the North Carolina mountains, bending the trees into twisted ice sculptures and piling up drifts six feet high. The wind screamed through the valleys of the little town of Winfield like the whistling of a skyrocket. Ingrid, who was used to the mild climate of Florida and thought the southern states were supposed to be warm during the winter, found temperatures hovering around zero with wind chills to sixty below more than she had bargained for.

She had arrived at the facility a week earlier without a single winter garment to her name. Merrifield had bundled Ingrid into one of his mammoth topcoats and driven her fifteen miles from Winfield to Little Switzerland, a resort town that had everything the winter tourist could want. Merrifield supervised the procurement of an entire winter wardrobe for Ingrid. He was obviously well known in Little Switzerland because the store proprietor greeted him by name and produced an account book for Merrifield’s signature when the shopping was done.

During the drive back, Ingrid had peered through the blowing snow at the houses and shops in town. Nearly all of them were modeled after Swiss chalets, thus obviously accounting for the name. Signs of civilization ceased abruptly as soon as they left Little Switzerland and made the journey back to Winfield on the narrow, twisty road. The project facility (which everyone referred to simply as the Alamo) was right in the middle of a heavy resort area.

“Why would you want a secret camp right in the heart of a tourist area,” Ingrid asked.

“The project site itself isn’t secret,” Merrifield said. “The locals think we manufacture drugs.”

“Do you know a lot about the area?”

“I grew up here,” he said. “Not in the mountains, but in a little one hydrant town called Candor, the Peach Capital of the South. It used to be, at any rate. The most excitement we had there was sitting in the car and watching the stoplight change.”

“Is it always so cold?” Ingrid had burrowed into her new parka, even though Merrifield had the heater going full blast. The back seat and trunk of the sedan bulged with packages.

“Not that unusual for the mountains.” He slowed down to let the windshield wipers catch up with the blowing snow.

“I tell you,” he said. “When I found out you didn’t have any winter clothes my blood fairly boiled. Here I am with one of the most valuable commodities in the world running the risk of catching the cold or flu.”

“Thanks for your concern,” Ingrid said ruefully. She didn’t quite know how to take being called a commodity.

“Now I didn’t mean it like that,” Merrifield said. “My concern for you runs deeper than that, though it’s wise,” he reflected thoughtfully, “to take precautions in all things.”

Directly upon her arrival at the site, Ingrid had been issued a plastic ID card complete with thumbprint and a photo of herself wearing dark glasses; a secret electronic code for access to her quarters, and an admonition of the sign at the front gate: NO UNAUTHORIZED PHOTOGRAPHIC OR RECORDING DEVICES BEYOND THIS POINT. ALL EMPLOYEES MUST CONSENT TO SEARCH. FAILURE TO CONSENT TO SEARCH IS GROUNDS FOR IMMEDIATE TERMINATION. It really was cloak and dagger stuff.

Merrifield had escorted Ingrid to her quarters, leading her with a paternal arm.

“Your last night to sleep,” he had said. “Tomorrow we go through all the tiresome business of having all the documents signed. After that,” he pronounced grandly, “to work.”

Ingrid had expected a jail-cell sized cubicle, an army cot screwed to the wall, a lavatory and stainless steel toilet bolted to the floor. She found instead that her room was reasonably appointed, more like a small apartment. The prints on the walls were fairly bland, but the color scheme of maroon and black more than made up for them.

She was overwhelmed by the variety of food that threatened to spill out of the refrigerator when she opened it. There were steaks, pork chops, and roasts in the freezer, all kinds of fruits and vegetables in the crisper. Staple items were on a dry goods shelf in the pantry, plus a chef’s dream of spices. After spending four years of eating TV dinners and Ramen noodles, she believed she must have died and gone to heaven.

She took out the biggest steak she could find and thawed it in the microwave while she made a salad. When the steak was done, she gorged until she reminded herself of the rat in Charlotte’s Web. She showered and congratulated herself on how easily she had made the transition from college student to VIP project director. She went to bed and was asleep in no time.

She had rambled through the facility in the small amount of time she had left after her workday and had come to know the ins and outs of it quite well after only a week. She had expected armed guards at every door and OD clad soldiers around every corner. There were, in fact, only two rent a cops at the facility. Whether by design or discretion, they rarely came inside the building itself, staying mainly at the front gate.

She was pleased that she had been relieved of the burden of most of the paperwork and was known as a working director, able to actually get her hands greasy in the gears of the project instead of being a pencil pusher behind a desk.

She met her team. Alan Caudill was a bald, bespectacled cove of some fifty years, a surgeon out of UCLA. He was in charge of the RNA, mRNA, and codon sequencing laboratories, a huge amount of responsibility for a project of this magnitude.

He had joined the army at age thirty-one, induced into a covert project in which the biological equivalent of the neutron bomb had been constructed. Anthrax bacteria had been mutated into a form that took only hours to form ulcerating nodules in the lungs. Ingrid didn’t know that part. She had grown to like him. Had she known, she might have seen him as one of the monsters she wished not to become.

Merrifield had a special place in his heart for Caudill. However, even Merrifield was exasperated by one of Caudill’s idiosyncrasies.

Caudill mumbled.

Ingrid had already been witness to Merrifield’s chameleon act, but it was still a little unnerving to see him turn after he had introduced Ingrid to Caudill.

“Pleased to meet you,” Ingrid had said.

Mphm molograi,” Caudill had replied, shuffling his feet and looking at the floor.

“I beg your pardon,” Ingrid had said, leaning forward to hear better.

Merrgrm growf.”

“Dammit, Alan,” Merrifield had barked. He shaped his hands into claws and showed every intention of hooking them to the white lapels of Caudill’s lab coat and shaking him. “Spit the mush out, man! Speak English! Speak English!”

Caudill had flinched a bit, then walked away mumbling something with the tone of an apology.

Randy Bare was a youngish type who fortunately didn’t live up to his name. Though he was only twenty-five, he had already lost most of his hair. Ingrid knew male pattern baldness was hereditary, but she was discovering that the deprecation “egghead” was fitting.

Bare was the boss of the synthesizing lab, a room full of machines that looked like kitchen appliances. But the brews they cooked up here were beyond the most avid culinary artist. The Helix Depolarization Chamber resembled a washing machine, and the Protein/Peptide sequencer (sometimes called the Gene Machine) looked like a set of bar taps that dispensed their contents into a Lazy Susan. Planted in one corner of the room was a vast video screen which interfaced directly with the facility’s private mainframe. Also in the room was a laser crystallography chamber which magnified the chromosomes and showed them on a screen to facilitate working with them.

There were pieces in the facility figuratively gathering dust that Ingrid would have killed to have had at the university. There was not one, but six Cray computers, any one of which her small university could never have afforded in eight centuries. There were culture incubators from six cubic inches to two thousand cubic feet. Ingrid was taken aback by the scary reverence she felt when she looked at the huge incubator. It came from knowing its ultimate use. The facility’s infirmary was complemented with a fully equipped surgical theater with state-of-the-art optics, graphics, and computer feeds.

And there was Clifton. The first time Ingrid had seen him in any role other than pacifier was on her second day at the Alamo. She had been jotting down notes, trying to decide whether to use synthetic chromosomes to create the special traits she sought, or to recombine existing genes with superior traits onto chromosomes.

Rejection would be no problem at the molecular level, providing that the terminal end of each protein chain that formed a gene was bonded to its corresponding base: Adenine to Thymine, Cytosine to Guanine, etc. Ingrid rarely thought in terms much more complicated than the lay person. She left the tedious business of templating, tertiary structure of macromolecules, or non-superimposable mirror images to the organic chemists.

She was so busy she didn’t notice Clifton as he stood in her open doorway, lit from behind by the hallway lights. She was bent over her desk, a pencil in one hand, scribbling away. Her desk lamp made strangely yellow shadows on the scatter of papers flowing over her work station. Clifton felt a spooky sense of nostalgia, as if he recalled himself hunched over just such a desk in the days when he was still an idealist instead of just another working Joe.

“How goes it,” he asked.

Ingrid turned in her seat and did the most natural thing. She smiled. Clifton still wore the white, plastic baggies over his shoes that were required apparel. His lab coat had lost its starch and it hung listlessly on his slightly drooping frame, as if it were tired after its own long day.

“Tiring,” Ingrid said. “There’s so much to do.”

“Nothing compared to what it’s going to be. Things will move too fast for comfort now that you’re actually here.”

He arched his back with obvious relief. “Mind if I drag up a rock?”

“Please,” Ingrid said. “Come in.”

Clifton sat in one of Ingrid’s chairs The nibs had plush chairs with lots of padding and slanted backs.

“You’re still in your work clothes,” Ingrid said.

“I just finished some work with the wringer.”

“The wringer?”

“The helix depolarization chamber. We call it the wringer because it looks like a washing machine.”

“I’ve heard they were dangerous.”

“They can be, if you’re careless. The flywheel spins at fifteen thousands rpm’s. That thing comes whizzing off that tub, you’d better duck pretty quick or you’ll be looking for your head with your hands. We’ve never had any problems, though.”

“Things run pretty smoothly, do they?”

“Jon sees to that. He may look like Santa Claus but he acts like Ebeneezer Scrooge. He’s already put your nose to the grindstone.” He smiled tiredly.

Ingrid thought she was seeing the real Alex for the first time.

“I’m glad you stopped by,” Ingrid said. “Maybe you can help me.”

“Give it a rest for tonight, Ingrid. We can go over it in the morning meeting.” Clifton’s voice was liberally laced with weariness. “I’m too pooped to talk shop.”

“Maybe I should.” Ingrid sensed that dark circles were popping up under her eyes. They felt puffy. “I should have met you when you were tired. You’re a lot more civil.”

“What you met was Alex Clifton, G-Man. Now I’m just plain old Alex.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a Kent. He lit it while Ingrid rearranged her papers into neat piles. She had never cared much for smokers, but on Alex it seemed right.

“You keep up with that,” Ingrid said, “we’ll have to cut out a lung.”

Clifton grinned. “No problem. We’re an RNA lab. We’ll just grow a new one.” He spoke hesitantly. “The commissary’s closed, but we could pick up a couple of cups of coffee from the vending machines. How about that? My mother always said coffee was no good without a cigarette. Did your mother ever pass any tidbits like that on to you?”

“My mother died when I was seven.”

Clifton looked apologetic. “You’re right. I knew that. I wasn’t thinking. I’m sorry.”

“No need to be. You still want that cup of coffee?” Ingrid could have made it right in her apartment, but she wanted to get out of there.

“Sure.”

********************

 

They sat at one of the little folding card tables common to almost all refreshment areas. A Styrofoam cup of steaming coffee sat before each of them. Clifton poured a pack of powdered creamer into his coffee and stirred it.

“You,” he asked, proffering another pack to Ingrid.

She made a face. “No thanks. I’ll take it black.”

“Are you going back to work,” Clifton asked.

Ingrid thought about it. “Nah, I think I’ll call it a night, too. I’m beat.”

“How did you get into genetics.” Clifton put his forearms on the table and leaned forward.

“For the same reason a lot of people go into medicine. My mother died when I was very young, of course. You know that. My mother’s illness and death left a deep mark on me. Even worse than that three ring circus I went through a few years ago.”

“You decided to become a doctor to avenge your mother’s death?”

Ingrid pulled her eyebrows together, thinking. “Not exactly to avenge it. Maybe I felt like I might learn to forestall it. How’s that for out in the stratosphere?”

“Do you think it was a good reason, and a good choice?”

“Aside from a couple of setbacks, yes. I’ve had few regrets.”

She slurped down the last of the bitter coffee and stood to get another cup. While her back was to Clifton, she said, “what brought you into this?” She turned around and sat back down.

“Not much to my story,” he shrugged. “I always wanted to be a doctor. I hated watching people get old and useless for no good reason I could understand. The body is self maintaining and self repairing. Why should it break down, or age? I watched my own father die at age fifty-three. He just ran out of life. The night he died, I was sitting by his bed and he asked me to read a little to him from his bible. The book of Jeremiah, his favorite. It always seemed very gloomy to me, but I can see now why a dying man could see hope in it.

“In med school, I got into a special cytology class that taught me about inborn, genetic limiting factors. Predisposition to disease, all that. People are born with their death shrouds written into their genes. I’d like to see if I can change that.”

Clifton lit another cigarette. He had actually been involved in research to discover the function of introns; ostensibly genetic junk with no protein coding function. It was theorized they were either part of our genetic past or future, or simply latent instructions placed there by -for lack of a better word- God. Who knew what these genes would do if unlocked? Somehow, the body knew to skip over these instructions. Clifton had succeeded in reactivating these genes and had been astounded to discover that some of these genes were instructions for complex hormones that seemed to activate psychic abilities. The best thinking was that they were programmed to either switch on or off at some time in human evolution, a process called punctuated equilibrium. Whether these genes created very old or very new abilities was a question still very much up in the air.

“Everybody against what we do,” Clifton continued, “seems to abide by the old saw ‘do the ends justify the means’ or, worse yet, are the ends justifiable? If I subscribed to that kind of thinking, I would have been drummed out of the corps long ago with my name tag clipped off my jacket and my sleeves ripped from my lab coat.”

“Do you see anything as off limits?”

Clifton considered briefly. “Not much. Not really. Progress is when the improbable becomes commonplace. I guess what I’m really doing is looking for God.”

Do you believe in God,” Ingrid asked.

“Actually, I do. I don’t have all the answers, you don’t have all the answers. We never will. That’s why I have no reservations about discovering my own little piece of the unknown. The more I find out, the more I realize I don’t know.”

“You won’t take anything on faith?”

Alex smiled. “My faith is weak.”

“Faith is the only leg on which religion can stand,” Ingrid said. “Nobody I know has ever seen God, except for crazy Retty in the trailer park, but she also saw leprechauns in sunhats riding pink dragons. All we have is unshakable faith, scriptures of dubious origin, and this immutable ideal. ‘Daddy said God was a Baptist. That’s all I know and all I need to know’.”

“You sound like you don’t put much stock in religion.”

“I grew up with the usual Sunday School lectures, showing up in my pink dress and black shoes. But after I started my love affair with biology, I asked myself some hard questions. When I saw the disease and illnesses and birth defects all around me, and thought about my mother’s death, I knew God didn’t have all the answers, either.”

Clifton rubbed his hand across his raspy, two am beard shadow. All their previous meetings had been conducted with Clifton sharp as a razor and clean as a pin. He was silent for a few seconds, then spoke in a rush as if what he had meant to say all along was coming out.

“Look, you might want to think about getting an apartment in town. Take my word, this place will get to you after a while. I know you’ve only been here a few days, but I thought I would suggest it before you really settle in.”

“I don’t want to think about that now. If I need to get away sometime, I’ll deal with that then.”

“I have a place in town,” Clifton said. “If you do decide you want a place, I can talk to my landlord. You surely can’t plead poverty.”

“I’ll stick it out here awhile longer. I’ll be alright as long as I can stay away from that Randy Bare. Isn’t that an awful name to be stuck with?”

“You don’t have to worry about Randy. He’s scared to death of women. He might even be a member of the brown grommet club. The fella you will have to worry about is Kim Hyung. Little Korean guy about four foot six. He’s an absolute whiz with numbers, though. Just tell him we’re a hot item and he’ll leave you alone. I’m his idol. He wants to be just like me.”

“What?”

“It’s true,” Clifton swore. “I’m ‘numbah one Joe’. He doesn’t like Merrifield much, though. Jon doesn’t even rate a ‘numbah ten Joe’. He’s ‘numbah have a no’.”

“It seems a lot of people don’t like Jon.”

“He’s alright,” Clifton said comfortably. “Just jolly him along a bit and you’ll have no problem. Screw up and you’ll have to get a tourniquet for your ass because he’ll chew it bloody.”

“Even my ass?”

Clifton thought it over. “You’re his prize acquisition. You do your job well. That’s all Jon wants. Even so, I don’t think even your ass is entirely safe.”

Ingrid snorted.

“Once we really get rolling,” Clifton said, “we’ll all be putting in sixteen and twenty hours a day.”

“Long hours don’t bother me.”

“They might after a year or so of them.”

Ingrid let out a resigned sigh.

“Speaking of long hours,” Clifton said, “I’ve already put mine in. I believe I’ll drag myself home and go to bed.”

“I’ll see you in the morning, then. Can you get home alright through this snow?”

Clifton shrugged. “I will or I won’t. Beyond that, why worry?”

2

Jimmy Sunners spoke to Ingrid when she came into the codon sequencing lab.

“We’ve taken the liberty of mapping out a few sequences for you, Miss Milner.”

He wore a white, non-porous jumpsuit, a mask over his nose and mouth and goggles over his eyes. His hair was swept beneath a tight plastic cover and his feet were clad in the same material of his jumpsuit. Ingrid was dressed similarly. The room smelled of cold, filtered air. Ingrid heard the quiet hiss of the ventilation system, the screeing, low volume hum of high voltage machinery at the ready.

On the video screen in the corner of the room, a three dimensional projection of a small section of a DNA strand hung suspended. Ingrid was fascinated.

The three foot, prism shaped screen showed the familiar double helix pattern of phosphates and sugars that made up the backbone of the DNA molecule. The projection spun slowly, the holograph defying the law of gravity. Along the strands of the backbone, was the raw material of this spiral sandwich: the pyrimidines and purines that formed the triplet instructions that ordered cells to construct specific amino acids. The “bread” in this particular sandwich was the stuff that truly mattered.

“Beautiful,” Ingrid whispered. “Beautiful,” The model pulsated with blaring, psychedelic color. The silky-hiss of the furnace kicking into life blew the few loose hairs which had tumbled from beneath her cap. The lights above her buzzed like nascent insects.

“What is it?” she asked, never looking away from the screen.

“A retinal gene from none other than Alex Clifton,” Sunners said. His mask hid his grin.

“How did you manage that?”

“We let the computer track it down,” Sunners said. “Clifton has about the best eyesight of anyone we’ve run across. Those glasses he wears are just for show. He thinks they make him look wiser. We thought we’d map his genes, but we never believed we’d get a usable trait. Notice anything different about the bonding?”

Ingrid looked more closely. In a moment, after the projection completed another rotation, she saw it.

“There’s an extra hydrogen bond on the substrate.”

Sunners raised his eyebrows, impressed.

“Boy, that’s sharp. The computer ran down ten thousand different triplet combinations before it came across this thing. The extra hydrogen keeps the triplet from unraveling during replication, We constructed a chain from your average retinal gene and aged it chemically. After two days, the Arginine lost a side group and was replaced by Proline. Merrifield almost shit his pants. We might have found what causes eyesight to diminish. Alex can still read a book two inches from his nose, which most people can’t do after they turn six years old. We always thought it was because the lens lost its elasticity. This chemical change may be what produces a less elastic protein.”

“What did you use for a control?”

“We used Clifton’s Gene for a control,” Sunners answered, slightly surprised.

“What happened?”

“We built a chain,” he said dreamily, “and had the computer trace it. The Arginine in Clifton’s chain was bonded covalently at the carbon. We tried to break it loose with enzymes like we did with the other one, but it wouldn’t budge. That sucker’s on there to stay, and so is the above average vision.”

“Did it replicate?” Here was the very thing Ingrid needed to know to make her decision on whether to synthesize the chromosomes or cut them from specialized subjects.

“We removed the retinal gene from a chromosome and replaced it with Clifton’s retinal gene and waited to see if it would split to RNA.”

“What kind of cell did you use?”

“I suggested we use an epithelial cell and deactivate the rest of the chromosome. If it did divide and invade the ribosome it would already be in the proper synthesis tissue.”

“Did it work?”

Sunners slid his chair back from his console and flipped a switch. The holograph winked out.

“Let me show you something pretty incredible.” Sunners gestured to the door.

They walked down the corridor to the pathology lab. Sunners removed his mask and let it hang at his throat. With his mask down, Ingrid could see his freckles, so profuse that he looked like the kid who had swallowed a ten dollar bill and broke out in pennies. Ingrid removed her own mask. She reached into her lab coat and pulled out a pair of surgical scissors. She pulled the mask from around her throat and absently trimmed some loose threads.

“Do you always carry your scissors with you,” Sunners asked.

“Huh?” Ingrid looked up. “Oh, the scissors. Just a habit. Back where I was going to school, the biology department couldn’t afford the tape with the squiggly edges. I couldn’t tear the straight kind, so I got on the habit of carrying my snippers.”

Sunners looked at her mournfully. “Jesus.”

“What do you want to show me?”

“When I suggested we deactivate the chromosome, I had some freaky idea we would have an eyeball growing in a culture dish. We didn’t get that, exactly, but we got something we could grow on, no pun intended.”

They reached the pathology lab and Ingrid and Sunners both replaced their masks. Jimmy punched in the entrance code and the airtight doors hissed back.

The lab was staffed with a dozen or so technicians of varying degrees of brilliance goggling at video screens, drawing fluid through pipettes, or standing sentry over centrifuges.

Sunners led Ingrid to an obscure corner of the lab. He pointed at a covered Petri dish in which a grayish, rubbery-looking sheet of slightly curved tissue floated in the nutrient bath. It was very thin and looked like a slice of dead skin.

“What you got there, boss, is your basic, no frills retina.”

Ingrid peered closely at the innocent-looking tissue. It wasn’t very impressive.

“Doesn’t look like much,” she commented. “It doesn’t even have any blood vessels.”

Only Sunners’ eyes were visible, but they appeared to be hurt.

“Like I said, it’s a no frills package. We would have to trace down about ten thousand codons to get an entire eyeball. We’ve only got a little over a thousand in that thing.”

Ingrid did some quick math. If the computers had to trace down the codons for every triplet combination for every specialized gene, the project would take far too long. It might be best to take the genes themselves and let the computer determine the best recombination for tailor-made chromosomes. Just on the off chance, she asked a question.

“How long did it take the computer to find the codons?”

“This one?” Sunners sounded defensive. “We had never done it before, so it probably took longer than it will in the future.”

“Come on, Jimmy,” Ingrid demanded. “How long?”

“About ten seconds.”

Did you say ten seconds?” Sunners flinched.

“We can do better with practice,” he protested weakly.

“How many codons do you need for an eyeball?”

“About ten thousand, but…”

“Jimmy, I could kiss you!” Jimmy turned a deep red as several of the lab workers turned to look.

“How long would it take you to run down the codons for the entire eyeball?”

“We’ve already got them,” Jimmy said warily. “The data entry techs have been jamming this stuff into the computers for years. They’ve got specific genes for ten thousand subjects cataloged right down to the codons in the database right now. We didn’t know it was important.”

“They’re already mapped and logged? Where? Let me see them.”

“All of them,” Jimmy asked, horrified. A list of all the codons cataloged would fill about ten transfer trucks full to the gills.

“No, not all of them, you idiot. Just the eyeball codons.”

“They’re in the sequencing lab. On the hard copies.”

“Why are we here, then,” Ingrid asked. “Let’s go.”

********************

 

Sunners went to a door in the far wall of the sequencing laboratory. He muttered under his breath as he struggled with the access code. He finally opened the door and they stepped through, thankfully shedding their surgical masks and headgear. There was a small, functional desk in the center of the office, a computer terminal like a blank, all knowing jewel atop it, a printer, and a set of electronically locked filing cabinets.

“I can’t believe it,” Sunners said, as he looked up the combination to the files. “We had no idea you would care about these preliminary sequences. We all thought you wouldn’t even bother with the filed genes but make your own. If I had known, I wouldn’t have buried them so deep in the mainframe that I’d have to go to these files to re-key them.”

“Just get the sequences,” Ingrid said. “We can have the best of both worlds, now. The hard work’s been done. If the genes are all mapped, all we have to do is find the codons we want and string them together. Don’t you see? With the codons from specific genes, we can let the ribosomes do the work. We can literally build stem cell DNA molecules with the traits we want from scratch and control their differentiation with cytokines.”

Jimmy didn’t look as if he quite followed all of that, but he reasoned that was why Ingrid was the boss and he was a tech.

“Bingo,” he said. The red light on the files winked out and a green one came on. He rummaged through the drawers until he found what he wanted and pulled it out.

“There you are, you prick,” he muttered. “I don’t mean you, Ingrid.” He handed the file over.

The printout was six pages of type, spaced as closely as the programming for a machine language routine. It consisted of nothing more than ten thousand combinations of triplet letters such as GGC, GGG, AGA, and so on. The endless list of letters would be identical for every human on earth but for maybe one half of one percent of variation. And that tiny percentage of variation -the favorable variations and the unfavorable- is what Ingrid wanted. It controlled everything from eye color to susceptibility to cataracts. Defective protein codons could be changed, excised, or recombined to eliminate disease processes, change eye color, or even regenerate tissue.

“How was it set for linkage?”

“Funny you should ask. They were all on the same chromosome. Now that you mention it, I remember thinking how easy it was to get the entire codon sequence. You see, we got the entire sequence from a single section with only a couple of nulls. That’s how we discovered that specific structures are marked with specific haplotypes, almost like a bench mark or the key to a map. Once we found that out, we programmed the computer to look for those benchmarks. Boom, chains started linking up like magic. Our biggest problem was figuring what haplotypes made what structures.”

“How long would it take you to cut these onto a chromosome?”

All of them?”

“Yes. all of them.”

“Well, jeez,” he said, scratching his head. “I don’t know. It would depend on where you wanted to stop, I guess. We’ve got everything but the muscles and the optic nerve. We’d have to go to different chromosomes for them.”

“You said the codons were already logged, right? Just link them together and let the ribosomes do the work. I want to see reams of DNA churning out in two days.”

“And a snowball might hit hell,” Jimmy said.

“Give it a try, will you?”

“I’ll have to get professor Caudill’s okay.”

“Alan won’t say boo. Run three shifts if you have to. I’ll brief him on what you’re doing.”

Her bossly duties performed, Ingrid replaced her cap and mask, walked through the sequencing lab, and back to her office. On her way, she stopped and chatted with two workers, neither of whom she had ever spoken to before.

********************

 

Whoever it was hammered on Merrifield’s door loud enough to wake the dead. He had been going over some reports on the project’s progress and was pleased with the amount of work already done. Ingrid had thrown herself into the routine and the results were piling up at an eerie rate.

The pounding on the door continued.

“Alright, alright!” he shouted. “I’m coming, goddammit. Don’t get your panties in a wad.”

He heaved himself out of his chair, grumbling like an earthquake. He yanked the door open with a rush of air that rattled loose papers.

“What is it now? I’m a busy…” He stopped cold. A blush crept into his cheeks. Ingrid stood there, obviously excited about something. Even through his embarrassment he noted with satisfaction that she was attired in her work clothes, minus the cap and mask.

“Are you going to let me in,” she asked.

“Oh, ah, of course,” Merrifield blurted out. “By all means, please, come in.”

Merrifield’s office was a plush affair with numerous framed degrees peppering the walls. On his desk was a pile of official papers, a telephone, an intercom, and a cup of pens and pencils. The office was paneled in dark, expensive wood and there was not one but several of the comfortable, overstuffed chairs used for entertaining prominent, visiting bigwigs, being that they were large enough to allow their self-importance to wallow with them.

“Sit down, please, Ingrid. I apologize for my remark. I had no idea it was you.”

“I’ve heard worse. I came to tell you that we’re ready to go ahead.”

“Go ahead?” Merrifield seemed confused. “So soon? You mean we can start building?”

“There are still a couple of maybes.” Ingrid spoke perfunctorily. It seemed cold to Merrifield.

“You have the tissue samples,” she asked.

“They’re in storage. Ten thousand different genotypes, all cataloged as to what traits we want from them.”

“I’ve decided to go chain by chain. I think what I was most worried about was starting some kind of body farm here. Can you imagine the shit that would fly if we were cloning entire organisms for spare parts? This way, we can go tissue by tissue, cell by cell if we have to.”

Even Merrifield, a man who was used to being involved in many unpalatable things, seemed a little queasy at the prospect of organ harvesting from sentient beings.

“You’re sure you can cut all the genes we want onto chromosomes?”

“We’ve got forty-six to work with. Considering how many genes are defective and redundant and will have to be excised anyway, we’ve got room to spare.”

Merrifield walked to a squat wooden cabinet in the corner of his office. He produced a keyring and unlocked the cabinet. He withdrew two shot glasses and a bottle of bourbon.

He returned to his desk and poured each of them a shot. The bottle made a heavy thump on his desk when he set it down.

“Sorry it’s not champagne.” He sat down. “What decided you?”

“Jimmy Sunners.” She sipped her bourbon. It was like swallowing molten iron.

“Jimmy Sunners,” Merrifield echoed. He stared intently into his bourbon, swirling the brown liquid around in his glass. “Isn’t he the thin, red haired chap who slinks around the sequencing lab?”

“I wouldn’t call it slinking,” Ingrid said. She believed that most everybody probably slinked when Merrifield was around.

She told Merrifield about Jimmy’s running down the codon sequences for desirable traits. She skimmed over the part about Jimmy’s not thinking it important.

“So Jimmy Sunners, of all people, makes the first breakthrough. I always did like that boy.”

Ingrid wisely made no comment.

“So,” Merrifield said. “What’s next?”

“I’d like to start running down the codons for each gene, then assemble each gene into chromosomes.”

“Are you going to use a zygote?”

No,” Ingrid said, probably a bit more shrilly than she should have. “I’ll not have a perfect chain of DNA subjected to the whims of a substandard ovum. We have to keep complete control over the genetic chain; integrate only one Major Histocompatibility Complex out of a thousand different ones into every cell, control every surface antigen. If we build cell by cell and system by system, we can abort anything that goes wrong without destroying what’s been accomplished.”

She didn’t know it, but her face had gone red.

“Whatever you want,” Merrifield said soothingly. “I dare say you know best.”

Ingrid regained control. Getting screechy was no way to act. It showed she might already have too much of her ass in this thing.

“I wasn’t angry,” she explained. “The thought of anything fouling this up once it starts worries me silly. All systems interdepend on one another. If something goes wrong anywhere, we may spend years trying to find it. We have to go one step at a time, one codon at a time if need be. It’s one shot, all or nothing.”

“You needn’t apologize to me, Ingrid.” Merrifield drank his bourbon in one quick shot and turned the glass down on the table. Something about that gesture was peculiarly heavy and dramatic to Ingrid. He pierced her with his gaze. This was the Merrifield who had rammed the whole project through the works.

“If I had wanted a contrite, piss-poor excuse for a research director, I would have gotten one. I wanted the best. The one who wouldn’t be second guessing and vacillating over every little thing. This is the top. I am the top. And you’re right here with me.”

The top. Ingrid liked the sound of that. She felt much more an equal, a motor rather than a cog in the big wheel. She didn’t realize she had quietly succumbed to the greatest of all seducers.

Limitless power.

********************

“Best Chinese food in town,” Clifton said, lifting a forkful of sweet and sour pork from his plate. He took a long swallow of his tea and speared a boiled shrimp.

They had gotten into the habit of going out once every week or so. Clifton was amusing when he wasn’t playing government handy man and both of them needed the break from the monotony of work. Staring at genetic models, black, and blue and red balls fastened together like Tinker Toys, got tiresome even for them.

After her meeting with Merrifield, Ingrid had gone against previously established custom and invited Clifton out to dinner.

“You pick the place,” she had told him. “I’ve got to get out of here tonight.”

“Something wrong,” Clifton had asked.

“Nothing,” she had answered. “I want to start with a clean slate tomorrow.”

Clifton now asked her again what was so urgent about getting out tonight.

“With all your charm,” she said, “you have to ask me that?”

“Oh, I know my charisma and native wit are powerful inducements. Enough to turn any woman’s head. But there’s something else.” He studied her closely, his dark, brown eyes warm in the subdued light.

“I had a meeting with Jon today.”

“I heard.”

“Did you?” She looked at him blandly, her lips pursed in distaste, but it lasted only a moment. “Then you know we’re ready to go ahead.”

“You’re positive?”

“Positive. We’ll have to iron out the problems as they come up, but that’s to be expected.” Impulsively, she reached across the table and put her hand on top of his.

“This is it, Alex. Everything will work.”

He smiled. He had been surprised when she took his hand, but refused to read anything more into it than the high of the moment.

“You seem to be getting pretty chummy with Jon,” Clifton said.

“Not nearly as chummy as you. You seem to know everything I do before I do it.”

“I’ve been at this game a long time,” Clifton said, extricating his hand and lighting a cigarette, a thing good for a few frowns from neighboring diners. But the restaurant execs said nothing. They knew who Clifton was.

“I know how most things are going to come out. I’ve known Jon for many moons and I’ve established a fairly workable relationship with him, which is more than most can do. We’ve been neck deep in political intrigue and strife since we started working together. You plays de game and you gets yo’ money. That’s how it works. But Jon’s not a man to trifle with.”

“I’m not trifling with him.”

“Did I say you were?”

“You implied it.”

“You’ve got a good relationship with him. You’re his ace recruit, so you’ve got a lever to work him with. But don’t overstep. He’s a dangerous man.”

What?” Ingrid couldn’t feign her surprise. “Pudgy little moonfaced Jon. That’s ridiculous.”

“You’ve seen it yourself. You haven’t screwed up, but I know you’ve seen him crawl Alan’s ass.”

“How can you fault him for that? I have no patience with incompetence, either.”

“How can you call Alan incompetent,” Clifton argued irritably. “He has a quirk. He mumbles. That has nothing to do with his ability to carry out a complex and demanding job. Jon wields an immense amount of power. What kind of man do you think it takes to get approval for a project like this which is one hundred percent illegal? Or to keep the thugs of a congressional oversight committee from sharpening their cudgels at the gate, or to keep all the wheels in the Pentagon from trooping through the doors to put in their two cents’ worth? Jon’s a chameleon, given to fits of temper and you never know how he’s going to react.”

“You’re something of a chameleon yourself,” Ingrid pointed out.

“That’s my job. Jon acts like that because that’s the way he is. I want you to be prepared for the day he turns on you like a tornado and sucks all the life out of you.”

“Well, you seem to have him wrapped around your little finger.”

“Nothing of the kind. You can push him a ways, but no further than he wants to be pushed. I’ve never known anyone to have better than a bumpy relationship with him.”

“Why are you so worried about how I act with Jon,” Ingrid asked peevishly. “You’re always coming up with little bits of advice. ‘Get an apartment in town’, ‘get some; sleep’, ‘don’t overstep’. I’ve already got a father. I’m a big girl. Wanna see my tits?”

For a second, Alex thought she was going to stand up and rip the buttons from her blouse to prove to him that she was a big girl. Her face was rigid and her voice had tilted past the fulcrum of calm. Some of the diners at nearby tables turned to look at them, and it wasn’t because of Alex’s smoldering cigarette.

“Don’t you think Jon is in my corner,” she asked.

“Jon is in his own corner,” Clifton said flatly. “You, me, the Alamo, are all only a means to Jon’s ultimate end. He may have fooled you into thinking he’s no egoist, but the truth is he has to have a wheelbarrow to cart it around.”

“Lots of brilliant men have a…high opinion of themselves.”

“That’s understating it,” Clifton said sourly.

“I didn’t come here to fight,” Ingrid said quietly. “I came to celebrate. We’re right on the brink. Can’t we talk about something else?”

“Whatever you want,” Clifton replied. “I didn’t realize we were fighting.”

“You wouldn’t. That would suggest something beyond a mere business relationship, wouldn’t it?”

Alex relaxed. He smiled wearily as if something that was binding him internally had loosened.

“The hours are catching up with me. I shouldn’t act like I’ve got a bug up my ass.”

“It hasn’t been easy for me. I left everything I’ve ever known to move a thousand miles away and work on this project. Three years of my life. It’s not going to be for nothing.”

“I know, Ingrid. I know, I know, I know. You plays de game and you gets yo’ money. This is all part of it.”

“It’s not a game to me.” Ingrid laughed with no resonance. “I sound like Victor Frankenstein, huh? ‘Ze monster lives. I haff ze power to create life. Out of my vay you dirty Colombian cutthroats, or I’ll send out the personal nuke.’”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” Clifton said. “All we’ve got is a retina. Hardly enough to get rattled over.”

“You know it’s more that that,” Ingrid chided gently. “The jump from synthesized chromosome to synthesized tissue is bigger than the jump from synthesized tissue to synthesized man. It’s only a matter of time, now.”

Clifton ground out his cigarette. “Maybe that’s why I’m so edgy. Things are going too fast.”

“We’ve got loads of time,” Ingrid said. “Everything will work out just like we want. You’ll see.”

3

Ingrid let herself into her office. The remainder of the evening had passed agreeably enough. It made her wonder, considering their antler crossing over Merrifield, whether they had simply given into their feelings for each other, neither wanting to push the other too far.

It wasn’t an unpleasant thought, just a new one. She believed the borders of their friendship were becoming very cloudy.

Well, why not? He’s a very nice man. Nothing like the brainless goons you’ve had crushes on before. Granted his hair is a little thin, but grass doesn’t grow on a busy street. But we’ll have to let it lie, unfortunately. We’ve much too much to do and hardly any time to get it done.

She sat at her desk, intending to look over some paperwork, but sheer weariness and sleep overtook her.

Her memories of her mother’s illness were incomplete, but so vivid in the particulars she did recall. It had worsened after Ingrid’s surgery. Ingrid had been born a blue baby, a congenital defect, fittingly enough. The smiling doctors who had saved her had performed surgery to correct a tetralogy of Fallot and freed her from a short life of squatting every few steps to raise her blood pressure and force venous blood into her lungs instead of through an incomplete septum and into her body.

She had awakened after her removal from the recovery room to the sight of mommy and daddy standing worriedly over her bed. Even then, when Ingrid was nine years old, mommy’s face had been ashen and thin and Ingrid had no way of knowing that she hadn’t been able to keep anything on her stomach for weeks, and very little in the prior years. Her pregnancy had been advised against and she had suffered because of it.

Mommy had smiled and tried to hug her, but made a bad job of it because of the two large tubes stitched into Ingrid’s abdomen. The tube made a “Y” that ran down from some point above her head and terminated in the wounds on her belly. The tube had been filled with blood, she remembered. She also remembered the Indian doctor who spoke pidgin English who had removed the tubes, ripping out little gobbets of flesh as bright red blood had spurted all over the clean, white sheets.

Ingrid told her mother she was sorry for what she had put her through. Mommy only smiled. Years later Ingrid had come to her own decision about children. She was a CF carrier and she would not take the risk of transferring to a child of her own that despicable malady that had taken her mother.

Three weeks after Ingrid came home, her mother took her turn in the hospital, but it was a stay from which she would not return. While Ingrid’s cheeks bloomed with healthy color and filled out without a bluish cast, her mother’s face contracted and whitened as the Cystic Fibrosis slowly drowned her lungs in their own mucus while the interminable wait for a heart and lung donor went on. The disease wouldn’t allow her digestive system to process nourishment and it raced like a mad bastard through her body, gobbling up her life energy in its lethal gluttony. Ingrid’s hair grew long while mommy’s hair, once so thick and black, grew brittle and lusterless. The little girl’s once breakable body grew lithe and strong while mommy’s filled with pain and wasted away.

On one of their visits to the hospital, they had come into the room to find mommy sitting up in her hospital bed, rocking back and forth, and crying silently. The plastic call button clutched in one bloodless, bony hand was grasped so tightly it could hardly be pried loose. Mommy began to moan and blubber when she saw daddy, her pain so great she was unable to form words.

Daddy’s face filled with an appalling virescence, changing from sickly green to angry red. The veins in his neck bulged bull like. Ingrid smelled his rage over the thick, gagging scent of hospital disinfectant, used to cover the smell of disease and death.

Daddy’s body trembled and his grip on her hand tightened until she cried out. His face emptied of color, having changed from green, to red, to white in the space of seconds. He released Ingrid’s hand and thrust his fist into his pocket. Ingrid heard the jingling of keys and change, a sound she always associated with her father. He pulled out a couple of crumpled and soggy dollar bills and shoved them in Ingrid’s hand.

“Go downstairs and get something to eat, honey.” His voice was steady, barely damming his anger. His face was hideous, white with burning eyes. “Don’t get anything with salt, you can’t have it for a little while. Don’t argue with me, just go.” He patted her on the rear to move her along. “Go on, now.”

Ingrid passed the nurse’s station on her way to the elevator. A nurse was filing her nails. The call board behind her was lit with a single red light. She looked up and smiled at Ingrid when she passed, then went hack to filing her nails. Ingrid looked back at daddy. He was looking at the nurse with a gaze as black as the heart of Satan. He saw Ingrid looking at him and he raised a trembling, imperious finger and pointed toward the elevator.

When Ingrid came back, daddy was nowhere to be seen. The nurse who had smiled at her was ghastly white and no longer filing her nails. Her throat hitched painfully and her mascara was smeared around her red eyes. She looked up as Ingrid passed and, instead of smiling, looked away quickly. She got up and hurried down the corridor on some errand.

Daddy was sitting by mommy, holding her hand. Mommy was asleep. Daddy explained that the nurse had given mommy a shot to make the pain go away and it had made mommy sleepy.

Ingrid cried that night. The ugly reality of imminent death, something no nine year old girl should have to face, had smitten her like the cruel and ungentle hand of a merciless giant. She felt the force of the ungodly being as only a child who has not outgrown trolls and boogeymen could. It was foulness and corruption, sarcastic laughter ringing out from a moonscape of dreams and endlessly watching eyes.

In the end, mommy was no match for the disease. Death toyed with her awhile longer. It laughed sardonically at the doctors trying to alter its inevitable mission; leering with a cold eye at their scurrying antics, and medicines, and helpless searches for a suitable organ donor.

Sleeping now, she tossed fitfully. Had she really meant to beat death since that day? Refusing to fight it on its own battlefield, but wanting to cheat it? Life from lifelessness was only as fair, she thought, as lifelessness from life.

The guilt was not gone. There had been a bargain, an empathy: her mother’s life sacrificed for hers. During her teen years, she would look at the long scar that traveled from her collarbone, between her budding breasts, almost to her navel and wonder if the scar was the only penance she would have to suffer to atone for her mother’s death. She called the scar her zipper and many times she wished she could unzip it and take her healthy, functioning organs out with her bare hands and give them to her mother who was now no more than bones, as payment for her life.

How operatic, Gothic, and totally stupid. She had been cut from her neck to her ass, nothing more. The doctors had rearranged her innards and added some nylon, plastic and stainless steel. But they couldn’t fix her mother with such materials. She had needed more than medical science had the capacity to deliver. Now was Ingrid’s chance. But always in the back of her mind, the certainty she would have to pay for what her mother had given her was like a slowly beating drum that you got used to, but could never quite shut away.

Let the wanton hypocrites who worshiped Josh Hall as some second-rate, comic-opera messiah blame her. They believed it was all in God’s hands; Ingrid did not.

As she slipped deeper into sleep, the darkness outside the Alamo became somehow brighter, as if imbued with a milky glow. The two rent-a-cops at the gate, who were actually soldiers, felt it, but could not explain their mixed feelings of fright and relief to anyone the next day.

Perhaps death, the old monster himself, had drawn back from this tiny section of the world.

4

Ingrid said, “It’s stunning, isn’t it?”

Merrifield had seen what was in the incubator on the other side of the three inch thick glass before, but he was still awed by what Ingrid had accomplished in the preceding sixty days.

Inside the incubator- wired with electronic monitoring systems, plastic feed tubes, trays and bottles of chemicals, and God only knew what other kind of bizarre trappings-was a complete human skeleton and the ligaments binding the bones. Just that, nothing else.

The inside of the incubator was in eerie twilight, lit only by black light, carefully monitored and controlled to allow the most effective dosage of UV light to strike the bone. The incubator was more sterile than the chip factories of Silicon Valley. Access to its interior was strictly limited by Ingrid. Not even Merrifield had been allowed inside.

“It’s like something out of Brave New World, isn’t it?” Merrifield spoke with almost religious reverence. His eyes never left the skeleton.

“Almost,” Ingrid said. “But better. This is real.”

The skeletal frame was eight feet long from crown to heel. Heavy boned, yet perfectly proportioned for both strength and agility. The codons had come from three different tissue samples. No single cell contained the precise order Ingrid wanted. She settled on a combination of three gene packages made up of some thirty thousand codons and had them assembled on a single RNA strand.

The skeleton’s legs were long and graceful. They had come from a United States Olympic track star who had donated some of his cells, having no idea what they would be used for. The skeleton’s arms had come from a huge, black pulp logger who stood nearly seven feet tall. The rest of the skeleton had come from one of the largest and strongest men Merrifield had ever known, an Iowa wheat farmer named Charles Weaver.

The pelvic girdle was wide, a must for the huge bands of abdominal muscle Ingrid planned to attach. The ribcage was huge and spacious, plenty of room for a large heart and lungs. Where the ribs met the sternum, the cartilage glistened a ghostly, whitish blue. The skeleton’s massive skull lay serenely on the incubator’s work table, toothless because teeth were not made of bone. Fascinatingly, incrementally increasing exposure to gamma rays such as would be found outside the protective cloak of the earth’s magnetic field had altered the DNA of the osteoblasts, resulting in radical remodeling of the skeleton.

The nasal passages had increased in length, forcing the cranium upwards and backwards, elongating it. The ocular orbits had opened, ostensibly in evolutionary response to the expectation of less diffused light. They stretched, in a cat’s eye mask, from the diminutive bridge of the nose almost to the center of where the temple would be on a normal skull.

“How did you get it so large, so fast?” Merrifield asked.

“Enzymes and pituitary hormones. Once the cells started dividing, it took off. It was really amazing to watch it as it grew. It started at the pelvic girdle, then to the skull and down to the legs at the same time, as if it were following a pattern.”

“Certainly you had the mRNA programmed in the ribosomes?”

“Sure, but how does it know what shape to take? All we know about the genes is that they instruct the cells to manufacture specific amino acids. That still doesn’t explain how it shapes those building blocks.” Ingrid shook her head. She crossed her arms against her chest and looked longingly at the skeleton.

Merrifield saw her expression and thought he knew what she was thinking.

“Even with all we know,” he said quietly, “some things are still a puzzle, aren’t they?”

“They are,” she agreed. “But there’s no puzzle that can’t be solved, is there?”

“Sometime earlier, I might have said yes. Now, I don’t know.” Merrifield had always believed the project could be done, but he hadn’t expected to discover they were making it work with only the slightest idea of how cellular processes worked. It was a more than a little daunting, like mixing highly volatile chemicals in the dark.

“Did you know,” Ingrid said, “The skeleton doesn’t even have any nerves or blood vessels? It’s only now developing marrow.”

Merrifield was aghast. “Surely you jest. How are you keeping it alive?”

Ingrid tapped her temple. “ATP active transport and Osmosis. Seth gets a bath in glucose solution most of the day. When we take him out for display purposes, he gets a saline bath and his solution gets changed to keep the sodium-potassium ratio balanced. Occasionally, we have to run the solution through a dialysis machine when toxins build up.”

“You named him Seth? Isn’t that a little autocratic?”

“Naming him Adam would have been autocratic.”

“If you say so,” Merrifield responded doubtfully. The project had passed realism for him long before. “What’s next?”

Ingrid spoke in her best lecture voice. “The heart and circulatory system. We’ll use a heart lung machine temporarily, and he can be fed intravenously. We won’t have that big a problem with waste products until the musculature forms, but the liver and excretory systems will be on line by then.”

Merrifield nodded. The term Ingrid had used, on line, made him a little uneasy.

“How long?”

“When you said a three year project, you weren’t far off. We should have a working model in two years. That leaves us about eight months to fix something in case I blunder.”

“You? Blunder?”

“We might as well he realistic. Nothing like this has ever been tried before.”

Merrifield still found it hard to believe that a genetically tailored human being was being constructed, protein by painstaking protein, in his lab. He rested a comforting arm on Ingrid’s shoulder.

“I’m very pleased. This is a more than we could have hoped for.”

Ingrid looked at the skeleton. “It may not look like much to anyone else, but we know what it took to get there.”

“It’s your baby, right.” Merrifield said.

Ingrid stiffened.

“That’s a damned funny thing to say to a woman.”

Merrifield’s remark reminded her of the letter in her scrapbook where the woman had written that Ingrid wanted to give birth to the messiah out of a test tube. It was a serendipity for which she had no great love. The baroqueness of her endeavors was becoming clearer to her each day. She did feel like Victor Frankenstein, seeking the secrets of life itself, needing to dissect its minutiae and cut it into irreducible form. But she had set her goals for this very level, knocking them down one by one like a lifetime game of pitch-til-u-win, trading up at each successful toss of the pellet.

“My apologies,” Merrifield said. “It was a poor choice of words.”

He studied the skeleton, watching the thin mist rise from the bones that had been coated in dry ice for display. The mist-shrouded bones lay in the darkness of the incubator, glowing like ’70’s black light posters. Two attendants hovered anxiously over their prize. Instead of picks, shovels and ropes, they wielded plasma packs and drugs. Gone were the top hats and gravedigger capes, replaced by white, antiseptic coveralls. They lent the scene a more macabre aspect than if a certifiably mad scientist had been sifting through the ruins of a charnel pit with a lunatic sexton.

Merrifield suppressed a shudder. Stupid. His ultimate triumph should not be censured in deference to some atavistic loathing that was twenty-four carat horse shit. The pragmatism of the real world was his domain and the shiver and shake of fantasy and horror had lost their forbiddingly enticing sparkle. Still, he wished for a drink.

“You’ll keep me informed?”

“You’ll know everything,” Ingrid told him.

He turned and walked away. Halfway across the room, he turned to say something.

Ingrid was still looking at the skeleton. Merrifield watched her silently for a few seconds, then continued on his way.

5

As the winter of 2002 melted into the spring of that year, it bade good bye to the skiers and hello to the trout fishermen in their floppy, crushed cotton hats decorated with colorful flies. While the fishermen cast their lines into the fast running rivers of snow melt, Ingrid’s skeleton began to organize into a sentient creation.

Oddly enough to the layman, but an absolute necessity for protein synthesis, a massive liver was the first organ Ingrid developed. The huge, four lobed mass wasn’t sexy; it wasn’t a glamor organ, but it was a powerhouse, charged with constructing proteins and immunoglobulins, as well as detoxification of the blood of everything from free, toxic iron and porphyrin rings, to urea.

The heart and circulatory system became operational in April of that year. The entire research team took turns gazing in rapture at the large, thick muscle rhythmically beating in sympathy with electronic pulses. Synthetic blood laden with organic chemicals and pituitary extracts circulated by portal circulation to the liver hepatocytes in vessels which were elevated on voluminous plastic bags (as was the heart itself) and kept from hemorrhaging by strict atmospheric controls.

The liver hepatocytes dutifully took the tailored codes for protein production and churned out the proteins that built every structure in the body from CD markers to the organs themselves. Later that same month, genuine blood was introduced, as well as bone marrow cells of a very special nature. These marrow cells were fortified with antigen producing templates for every curable disease known to man and some that weren’t. They circulated in the bloodstream and eventually made their way to the virgin marrow of the long bones where they began to differentiate and replicate.

An experimental gene recombinant cytokine – a modification of the chemical Interleuken II- had been developed by a Chinese doctor at the Alamo. It had shown great promise in its ability to recognize and destroy not only cancer-causing viruses, but also pre-cancerous cells. The existence of natural killer T-cells had been known for some time, but now the specific information for production of the killer cytokines had been written into the cellular DNA structure, only waiting to be cloned into a viral serum for the suffering masses.

As each tissue or structure formed, its composition was recorded and amended. Useless substrates of each amino acid -adenine, guanine, thymine, cytosine, and uracil- hung forlornly like threads needing to be tied together. One injection of specifically constructed viral DNA could invade the cell nuclei and link up with the inactive DNA threads like two parts of an intricate oriental carpet of wildly differing design being woven together, initiating specific protein synthesis.

The novel arrangement would shut down some genes and activate new ones. With these injections hair or eye color could be changed with nothing more than a hypodermic needle; the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde thesis actually made flesh. Flippers or gills, fangs, paws or claws could be substituted for legs or lungs, teeth or hands.

Chromatophore DNA from squids or chameleons could be incorporated into human DNA, resulting in perfect blending with the environment. No proof it would work as yet, but it seemed within reach. Processes at the molecular level cared nothing for rejection. It was pure stoichiometric chemistry. They either bonded or they didn’t. And if each substrate could be matched with a corresponding pyrimidine or purine which began the genetic sequence of tailored genes representing other structures, there was no reason for it not to work.

While amateur spelunkers poked and prodded their way through the numerous mountain caverns, an immensely complex system of nerves wound its tortuous way through the maze of bone and blood vessels. White ganglia wormed their way into intricate and beautiful plexi while a thick cord of nerve threaded its way through the hollows of the spinal column.

Unknown to Ingrid, Jake Macmillan (who would be quite insane by the project’s end) had been spirited away from the university and safely segregated at Fort Mead, Maryland, laboring endlessly over a new computer program designed to trace codons by mathematical processes that extrapolated on haplotypes instead of its current ‘hunt and peck’ system.

In the short span of two months, July and August, Seth’s excretory and respiratory systems developed. The research team collectively held its breath as the oxygen exchanger was removed. The lungs were kept from collapsing under the pressure of one and a half atmospheres by the oxygen saturated fluid within them. Telemetry showed rapid fire neurospasms from the Vagus nerve vainly attempting to control a diaphragm not yet developed. The exchanger was quickly reinstalled and oxygen levels returned to 115% of normal.

Seth’s development now entered the realm of the lab techs, who constantly monitored glutathione levels in the harsh, supersaturated oxygen environment. Lecithin and sphingomyelin ratios were recorded, slowly inching towards the day that Seth’s lungs could provide his own oxygen.

Towards the end of August, Ingrid and Alex went out again, just to keep in touch with the real world.

“Did you ever think we would come this far,” Clifton asked.

Ingrid shook her head. “I didn’t know at first. I believed it could be done, but not like this. With every new system that forms, I get the feeling the whole project was predestined for success. Like it was something that was always meant to be.”

“You’re not taking much credit.”

“I don’t feel much like taking credit today,” she said sadly. “I had somebody removed from the project. I know you’ve heard about it.”

Clifton didn’t bother to pretend he knew nothing about the hostile face-off. Johnny Clark was a rather uninspired organic chemist who had risen through the ranks by virtue of some distant nepotism with Merrifield. Clifton had never liked him, preferring to keep his distance from the fawning, morose youth who had his head so far up Merrifield’s ass he hadn’t seen daylight in years. Clark was a backstabber, a whining, wheedling gold digger who didn’t know his ass from a taco and had the IQ of a bowl of grits. He used his relationship with Merrifield to grease the axles for him. As far as Clifton could tell, he had never contributed one iota to the project.

“He was sneaking around the incubator today,” Ingrid said. “Trying to get in. ‘Just to have a look’, he said. That much I can believe. I don’t think he has the balls to try sabotage or the brains to try and sell information.”

Clifton grunted knowingly. Ingrid was fanatical about access to the incubator. Clifton knew that just one bacterium in the environment of the incubator could reproduce and spread like herpes at a ’70’s key party, jeopardizing the entire project. And with oxygen levels at 115% of normal, the danger of a major conflagration was an ever present danger.

Ingrid didn’t know it, but Merrifield had been livid when he heard the news. Distant relative or not, Merrifield had no great affection for Johnny Clark, and he was far more concerned that sterility might have been broken than with what happened to Clark.

Clifton had witnessed Merrifield’s rage. His face had flared a bright crimson and his wild gesticulations and bulging blood vessels had been reminiscent of a man suffering an attack of apoplexy.

Who does this little shithead think he is,” Merrifield had raved, acid dripping from every word. His jaw muscles jumped and sweat popped out on his meaty forehead, glittering like chrome flecks.

“I will have his frigging head for this,” Merrifield had roared, each word as precise and cutting as the guillotine’s blade.

Clifton had sat through the tirade, offering not a soothing word or placating gesture. He well knew, when Merrifield was in such a mood, it was best to let him wear himself out. After a few minutes of vigorous screaming, Merrifield plopped down in his chair and sat there, panting. He jabbed a finger at Clifton.

“I want him out of here,” he said, speaking in harsh bursts. “I want him gone before I have to see his face again. Tell him if I ever see him again, I’ll put him against the wall and cut out his heart. I’m making it your responsibility to make sure he understands that. Got it?”

“I’ll see to it,” Clifton had said.

“You’d damn well better,” Merrifield had snapped. He was grumbling under his breath when Clifton left to attend the messy details of giving Clark the boot.

“I had to do it,” Ingrid said. “I hate the thought I’ve become so hard and unforgiving I had to make an example of somebody, but I won’t let everything I’ve – we’ve- worked for, go down the crapper because of a low level lackey who thinks he’s privileged.”

“If you’re looking for sympathy,” Clifton said, “you won’t find it here. You did the right thing.”

“You don’t have to patronize me.”

“Good Christ, Ingrid,” Clifton said, irritated. He rolled his eyes. “Do you need a picture drawn for you? You’re the brains of this project. You’re perfectly within your rights to shitcan somebody who goes against directives. Clark is fucked for life, now. The only hopes he has of ever having another decent job is to keep his mouth shut. And he will, if he knows what’s in his best interests for staying out of jail.”

“You think so?”

“I think so,” Clifton said, recalling the uncontrollable fury Clark’s action had engendered In Merrifield today. Days like today, Clifton didn’t care much for Merrifield, but he knew he would never cross him. Call it cowardice or self preservation, it all came down to keeping your head firmly attached to your shoulders.

By November of 2002, Seth’s visceral digestive organs had developed. He began to look less like a partially dissected med school cadaver and more like a human being. At this stage of development, Seth had begun to replenish his own blood supply and the constantly hovering lab techs took the opportunity to monitor the quick destruction of fetal hemoglobin and its transformation into HgbA and HgbA2. Massive amounts of bilirubin and urobilinogen were produced and neutralized by the same high doses of UV and gamma ray radiation that Seth had been constantly subjected to. Even before his birth, life had found a way and his body had adapted to external environments.

That same month, a penniless and disgruntled Johnny Clark still had had no luck finding a job as cushy as the one from which he had been so ignobly dismissed.

He recalled an old and dusty family skeleton and began making inquiring phone calls to the Natural Christian’s Salvation center. He was told politely but firmly that Josh Hall was redeeming the hell bound and could not be bothered. The caller was welcome to try again once Mr. Hall had established his quota of converts for the month. Clark hung up, saying he would be in touch.

Seth’s musculature began to take shape. Band over band of thick, striated red muscle appeared in fleshy sheets, enveloping already functioning bone, nerves and blood vessels.

Eyes (Clifton’s own clones) put in their appearance by late December of 2002. They stared blackly straight ahead, unmoving and unblinking, unable to interpret any images.

The pons, cerebellum and medulla had already formed, being, really, only extensions of the spinal cord. The cerebrum had yet to develop.

Ingrid had devoted a great deal of time to the development of a ‘community brain’, a cerebrum that combined vast comprehensive ability with some super normal brain functions.

Drawing on some little known (and mostly hushed up) work by Kensington and Hart, she had isolated and synthesized some of the rarest genes ever classified. These genes controlled the functions of certain talented pituitary glands. Under stress, these glands produced chemicals with names so long and twisty they were usually referred to by-only their acronyms: RTGH, DFGH and BUPL. These chemicals produced many definitely desirable effects: Cryokinesis, telekinesis, pyrokinesis, telepathy, telempathy. Such traits were not supernatural, but extremely rare and impure, and were now within trembling reach.

During the long nights in which she could find no sleep, she thought of something Hubert had once told her in reference to Josh Hall: “They’s so many people wants to grow up and slay the dragon in this world. But most times that dragon will just turn around, and eat you right up.”

Josh Hall had said she was a dragon, and now she was on the brink of calling his hand. The real dragon was the straitjacketing of minds closed too long. For too long people had thrust themselves into the jaws of chance. They lacked vision.

Now winter, with its snow and ice, had again settled mistily on the Appalachians. Ingrid found it hard to believe, but an entire year had passed. She wasn’t a prisoner; she came and went as she pleased. Yet the disturbing fact remained. She remembered nothing at all that didn’t concern the project. Even her occasional nights out with Clifton had become less frequent. She was a little embarrassed to realize nothing more had come of it.

But in the near future, an event would occur that would show her that their relationship was more intertwined than mere business.

6

Would you watch what you’re doing, for Christ’s sake?”

Clifton jerked around at Jimmy’s urgent shout. Jimmy and another tech had quickly retreated as far from the Helix depolarization chamber as they could. They stared at it with the frightened eyes of children.

The magnetic flywheel had somehow broken out of its race atop the machine and was spinning uncontrollably. Ever widening loops and swirls of caustic alkali solution whirled through the air in arcing streamers. The rest of the workers had already made mad dashes for safety, stepping lively and diving beneath tables. Some hid behind computer terminals, peering out from behind them with their goggled eyes,

The wheel spun like a dervish, producing a high pitched whining and scraping. It rose and flattened, rose and flattened in an eccentric wobble, spinning so rapidly it was only a blur. In a few more seconds its entire fifty pound weight would come careening off to whirl through the lab.

Clifton left his seat and shouted at Sunners over the keening of the flywheel.

Turn it off!’’ he screamed.

I already tried,” Sunners howled back. “The overload circuits must have fused.”

Clifton looked at the wheel again. Its profile was higher and a series of bright blue sparks jumped from the sides of the flywheel to the main body of the chamber like a cyclotron, giving the whole machine an alien, blue glow. Unless he shut it off, Clifton knew, a half a million dollars’ worth of machinery was going to blow sky high in a Fourth of July fireworks display.

He glanced around quickly, not yet panicked, and spied the familiar gray rectangle of a breaker panel. In order to reach it, he would have to skirt to one side or the other of the machine. He advanced toward the chamber, his right arm held before his face like a shield. The burning liquid splattered across his coveralls and burned holes in it.

Some of the alkali reached his skin and Clifton felt as if a red hot wire had been lashed around his torso. The caustic liquid left yellow-brown burn marks on the tips of his fingers where the gloves had disintegrated, He imagined it bubbling where the fluid had burned him. He was only a few steps from the box on the wall.

With a wrenching explosion of metal, the flywheel spun free. It propellered through the lab like a madly spinning lawn mower blade, making great, whooping sounds as it displaced the air around it.

Clifton lurched sideways and threw his right arm out for balance. His fingers touched a wall and he gave himself a mighty shove. Instead of pushing himself out of harm’s way, he was brutally whipped around by some force and smashed into the wall. The back of his head thudded into the cinder blocks with a teeth crunching crack.

There was a violent, momentary tug on his right arm, as if someone were trying to pull it from its socket. He dimly heard a sound like an ax being ground on a rapidly spinning whetstone. The tugging sensation abruptly ceased, replaced by an urgent tingling at the extremity of his right arm.

Clifton looked at his arm and someone screamed. That was the last thing he heard before he slid down the wall, unconscious.

Clifton’s arm hung by a single, mangled thread of flesh. His white jumpsuit was peppered with a shotgun pattern of blood droplets and a large, irregular stain of blood just below the shoulder. The lower portion of his coverall sleeve peeled back from the butchered limb like the skin of a husked vegetable. The crimson spatters were brassy and bright against the snow white material.

The wheel had spun Clifton around, pinning him against the wall, crushing the humerus to powder. Even this had not been enough to gut the wheel’s force and it had continued to spin, splitting and tearing any tissue that still resisted.

Most of the smaller blood vessels had cauterized instantly, but the large, brachial artery had been flayed open and blood jetted out in red torrents. Clifton sat with his back against the wall, his legs splayed out, looking for all the world like a drunk who has just passed his limit. Except drunks were not missing a right arm and losing blood by the pint with every beat of their hearts.

Oh, God, oh, Christ,” Sunners moaned. His chalk-white face was a twin to the white of his jumpsuit.

Sunners ran across the floor, skidding in the rapidly widening pool of blood. His foot landed in a large puddle and he pitched forward, arms held out like a circus high wire performer. His hands hit the wall and his feet slipped in the bloody mess. He tumbled clumsily, landing flat on his back.

He looked up. To his horror, he was staring straight into the stump of Clifton’s right arm. Another jet of blood gushed out as he watched.

Jimmy rolled away, getting his suit even bloodier. He gritted his teeth and plugged two of his fingers directly into Clifton’s brachial artery. The pressure from Clifton’s heart pulsed unpleasantly against his fingers and freshets of warm blood squirted past them. That was the last straw. Jimmy clawed his mask off with his free hand, and puked vile vomit all over the floor.

Oh, God, Jimmy,” he heard a voice say from behind him. “What happened?”

Ingrid stood over them. She had not taken the time to put on a mask and her glasses had fallen to the tip of her nose as she leaned over. Her face was screwed into an ugly harpy rictus and her throat had knotted into four hard, vertical lines. Everyone else had retreated as far from the ghastly scene as possible. Some left at a lively clip and that was what had alarmed Ingrid.

“We’ve got to get him to a hospital,” Jimmy said faintly. He swayed slightly and his eyelids fluttered as if he were about to fade out. The wretched odor of his vomit drifted out on his breath. “If we hurry, we might be able to save his arm.”

Ingrid looked at the shredded wreck of Clifton’s arm and made a decision.

“It’s too late, Jimmy,” she said calmly. “It’s too serious. If it were reattached, he would never have much use of it.”

Well we’ve got to do something, for Christ’s sake,” he exploded. His eyes popped open and bugged like those of a stomped on bullfrog. “I’m sitting here with my fucking hand jammed up a gaping artery and it’s not one bit of fun!” he screamed. “Do you hear me? It’s not one fucking bit of fun!”

“Cut it,” Ingrid said.

Sunners looked stunned. His eyes flew open even wider. He tried to swallow, but his mouth was as dry as parchment.

“What? What did you say?”

“Cut it.”

No!”

Will you for the love of Christ cut the fucking thing!” Ingrid shrieked. “Oh, never mind, I’ll do it myself.”

She reached into her lab coat and pulled out the pair of surgical scissors. She knelt in the blood around Clifton and snipped the tiny thread of flesh. It parted with terrible ease and Clifton’s arm thumped lengthwise to the floor like a sawed off piece of wood.

Sunners moaned again. He looked at Ingrid as if she were a lunatic.

“Keep your hand there, Jimmy,” she said, “and help me get him to surgery. You’ll see why I did that. Just trust me, okay?”

“Okay,” he rasped. “I don’t have another choice, do I?”

They hefted Clifton off the floor. Sunners’ right hand was dripping with blood. Some of it had clotted and become tacky. A thin sheen of copper-colored tones glinted in the bright lights.

Ingrid barked at a female technician cowering against the wall.

“Go find Professor Caudill,” she demanded. “Get his ass down here and don’t dick around. After you’ve done that, get surgery ready. All of this had better be done in ten minutes, or I’ll put some tits in a wringer. Understand?”

The woman nodded, pasty and shaking. She left without looking back.

Ingrid and Jimmy had gotten Clifton to the door of the sequencing lab before anyone lifted a finger to help them. Two of the larger men in the room took Ingrid’s burden while Jimmy grimly held pressure against the blood flow. Ingrid noticed that no one offered to relieve Jimmy of his job.

“Get him to surgery,” Ingrid said. “Stop the bleeding and stabilize him. Nothing else. I’ll be down in a few minutes.” She looked at Jimmy. “Trust me,” she said quietly, “You saved his life, now we’re going to give it back to him.”

Jimmy looked at her blankly. They were both bloody as butchered hogs, but it was Ingrid who had kept her head. Jimmy looked away and the rescue team limped down the hallway toward the surgical theater, virtually dragging Alex.

Ingrid, her guts boiling inside her but unable to show it, hurried to her quarters to change clothes.

********************

Clifton looked small and vulnerable on the operating table. Professor Caudill had sprayed cryoprecipitate over the jagged stump and the smaller vessels had clotted within minutes with the aid of a temporary tourniquet. Not recommended medical procedure, but necessary under the circumstances. The large arteries in the stump had been clamped and tied. The ragged end of the stump oozed and suppurated sickly blood and clear lymph.

A nurse removed an empty unit of blood from the rack above Clifton’s head and replaced it with a full one. It was his third and a little of his color had returned.

Caudill had taken control of the surgical theater. Under stress, his mumble had vanished.

“How’s his pressure?”

“One hundred over sixty,” one of the surgical assistants, Steve Foley, answered. “It’s up, but nowhere near normal.”

“This is hardly a normal procedure, is it, Steve,” Caudill said sharply.

Steve, properly chastised, buttoned his lip.

“Syringe,” Caudill said, jerking his head toward a table on which were arrayed a variety of cruel looking medical instruments and a single syringe filled with an oily, yellow liquid. Steve slapped the syringe into Caudill’s gloved hand.

“SV 40 virus,” Caudill said. His voice was that of a medicine man receiving a talismanic substance. “Gonna map you out, Cliffy.”

Caudill snipped the tattered edges of the grievous wound. He bent over the table and injected the entire contents of the syringe into the stump. Steve had witnessed the accident and had managed to remain somewhat calm, but almost blew his groceries as Caudill thrust the needle into the gray and grainy flesh.

Caudill plunged and withdrew the needle, working it around into all parts of the ravaged flesh. He doused the shattered nub of bone with the virus. Steve didn’t know how Caudill could be so cold and machine-like with a man who was supposed to be his friend.

“What will that do,” Steve asked.

“In a few days,” Caudill said gently, “you may well see what it will do.” He touched the stump wonderingly with a gloved hand. “Gonna fix you up, Cliffy. Gonna make you good as new.”

********************

Ingrid held her voice steady by brute force as she explained what had happened to Merrifield. Usually unflappable, Merrifield looked as if he had been horsewhipped.

“It cut the arm completely off?”

“Yes…No,” Ingrid said. “It was still attached by a thread. I cut it.”

“You cut it,” Merrifield asked, wide-eyed.

What is it with you people,” Ingrid shouted, suddenly furious. “Are all you people thick? I cut it, I cut it, I cut it! Yes, goddammit! I’ve got my reasons. Can’t you people give me a frigging break?”

Calm down, Ingrid,” Merrifield roared. He glared at her and his gaze never wavered as he spoke. “You’re going to give yourself a rupture.”

I’ll give myself any fucking thing I want,” she shouted back. She leaned over Merrifield’s desk. “Are you all so stupid you can’t see what we’ve been doing here for the past year? Don’t you think Alex would be better off with a functional arm rather than a piece of crippled deadwood, or nothing at all?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Merrifield said.

“We’re going lo make him a new arm, you stupid bastard,” she spat. She stood up, her face showing an expression of part triumph and part fear she had overstepped her power.

Merrifield’s eyes narrowed to cat’s eye slits and his hands were placed flat, palms down, on his desk.

“Did you call me a stupid bastard?”

“You have to understand, Jon,” Ingrid said penitently. “I was upset. I am upset…”

“Don’t temporize, Ingrid,” Merrifield said dangerously, as if that were the worst thing she could do.

“Nobody high hats me,” he fumed. “Not you, not Clifton, not God Almighty and his twelve disciples. You would do well to remember that.”

“You smug sonofabitch,” Ingrid said with dawning contempt. “Your precious project is in that incubator because of me. If I walk, there’s not a soul here who can finish it for you. Believe me, mister, I’ll be out of here like a shot.”

“You wouldn’t dare,” Merrifield said. “You’ll never have another chance like this. You wouldn’t leave everything you’ve worked for.”

“Fuck all I wouldn’t. You’ll never find anybody else who can do what I do.”

They sat silent for several moments. Each of them held big sticks and the other knew it. Heated emotions began to cool by degrees.

“We’ve arrived at an impasse,” Merrifield said.

“If that’s the way you want it,” Ingrid said stubbornly.

“Alright, Ingrid,” he said. He sighed, a man letting go of his ego for the common good. “I’m sorry. We’ll do it your way.”

“Apology accepted.” Ingrid felt some compassion for Merrifield. He was a man used to having things his own way and he was being dunned by a slip of a girl young enough to be his granddaughter.

“No one has ever spoken to me like that,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s guts or nuts, but it worked.” He shifted in his seat. “We’ve got something more immediate to consider now. How is Alex?”

“He’s in surgery,” Ingrid said steadily. Her rage at Merrifield had temporarily shunted aside her feelings for Alex, but now they threatened to return. She forced herself to continue in a tidy, bloodless allocution.

“His right arm is gone just below the shoulder. I imagine Alan has stopped the bleeding by now, but the arm was beyond reattachment.”

“Good God,” Merrifield said. He looked at his desk and rubbed his temples with the heels of his hands.

“Don’t do that, Jon. Please. I’m having a hard enough time going on as it is.”

He looked into Ingrid’s colorless face and the black pits of her eyes. And why not? She had been through a lot in the last half hour.

“I’m sorry. Go ahead. Take your time.”

“When I got there, to the sequencing lab, I mean, he’d already passed out. Jimmy had stopped most of the bleeding, but there was blood everywhere. His arm was just hanging by a tatter.” She stopped and dry swallowed. “So I cut it,” she said brutally. “I cut it off because we don’t need it. Jimmy wanted to take him to the hospital, put him in the hands of the butchers who would try to reattach it. They don’t know anything about nerve regeneration or RNA sequencing or any of the other things we know about here. The best they could have done was a botched job. Even if they had been able to reattach it, which I doubt, he would never have opened a door with that arm, much less any of the delicate work that’s his life. Is that what he would have wanted?”

“No,” Merrifield said.

“And would you like to be the one to explain to the hospital how and why it happened?”

“Again,” Merrifield said, “no.”

Ingrid laughed blackly. “I sound like Oscar Goldman. ‘We can rebuild him, make him better…’ but, God, Jon, we can. We’ve got the best minds and materials for generation of organic substances in the world here at this very minute. We’ve already got sequences of Alex’s DNA mapped out. We can regenerate his arm from his own RNA strands.”

“You’re forgetting that you’ve lost one of your most important tools. The way you describe it, The Helix Depolarization Chamber is out for the count.”

“It’s blown all to shit,” Ingrid said. “But this is strictly an RNA project. Alex will supply his own raw material. We’ll take the vestigial components for embryonic antigens from his own DNA. As far as his cells are concerned, he’ll still be in the womb.”

“You’re sure about that?”

“Positive. The thing that’s been missing all these years is that we didn’t know about the embryonic antigens that would cause a person to reject their own RNA. Now we do. Instead of trying to fight them, we’ll use them, trick them into building his arm, just as if he were developing inside his mother.”

“It’s a bad time to ask,” Merrifield inquired mildly, “but how is your objectivity about this?”

Ingrid saw nothing that hinted of mockery or sarcasm in Merrifield’s eyes, only understanding.

“I’m alright,” she said slowly. “It doesn’t matter that it’s personal. It’s still within the limits of the project.”

“Okay,” Merrifield answered, “That’s fine. I think we should both get down to surgery and see how Alex is doing.”

“I’ll have to watch from the gallery,” Ingrid said. “I’d probably be more in the way than…”

Merrifield nodded. He got up and helped her to stand. “Will you make it alright?”

“If I can get through this day, I’ll be so much better than alright.”

7

Elevated above the operating theater was a room large enough to hold a dozen warm bodies. A panel of real-time, digital readouts that reported the patient’s vital signs were set at eye level. At some time in the past, some joker had placed a small, hand-lettered sign beneath them:

Nicht fingerpoken! Keepen das hans in das pockets und vatch der blinkinlkites!

On the wall behind them, several green, construction paper cutouts of Christmas trees had been taped up. Ingrid looked at them with red eyes.

“Is it Christmas?”

Merrifield hesitated before answering.

“Yes. Christmas Day.”

“Merry Christmas,” she muttered.

A loudspeaker was set into the wall and a small bench, used primarily for those who became woozy while watching surgery, sat at the back, away from the observation window.

Ingrid and Merrifield were the only occupants. Spread below them was a panorama of green surgical tile and glittering stainless steel. Regaled in flowing green surgical scrubs were professor Caudill and a motley crew of the Lollipop Guild. Surgical masks hid their faces, only their eyes visible, but too far away for Ingrid or Merrifield to see what was in them.

Clifton lay on the operating table as the team glided back and forth between machinery and sinks and tables like wraiths on dubious errands. With their faces concealed, they could have been anyone; ghosts from a more treacherous and romantic age, the reincarnations of Daedalus or Pandora, and Professor Caudill as the most infamous misguided scientist of them all, Victor Frankenstein. They toiled over Clifton who looked as still and pallid as a corpse.

The scene of the lab workers attending the skeleton recurred to Merrifield. He recalled with visceral clarity how it had reminded him of gravediggers laboring sedulously and insanely over a dead creature which was somehow still recognizable as being able to be infused with life. The scene below him was much the same. The surgical personnel scurried like rats and hovered like vultures, taking orders from Alan Caudill as if he were some sort of aqua-robed demigod. Worse still, Merrifield realized, he and Ingrid were witnessing these bizarre procedures from above, as if they were elevated over the mere technicians.

“They should be finishing up anytime now,” Ingrid said. Her voice was pensive and worried. Dark, ugly lines had appeared beneath her eyes like halfhearted bruises. Her hair hugged her skull like limp seaweed. She had chewed her nails ragged.

“You’d better stop that before you chew them to the bone,” Merrifield admonished.

Ingrid took her fingers out of her mouth and smiled absently. “Wouldn’t be much good without fingers,” she said, then winced at her choice of words.

Merrifield saw her grimace. “Don’t worry about it. You can’t take it so personally.”

“I know. But it’s hard to look into that operating room without feeling like I’m, I don’t know, presiding over something.”

“I was just thinking the same thing.”

“I never used to think like that. I must be jittery over what’s happening.”

“What is happening,” Merrifield asked.

“I guess Alan has already injected the SV 40 virus. They’re waiting for it to pirate the RNA and replicate. Once that happens, they can trace down the chain and turn the viral machinery into a carrier. A sort of surrogate RNA.”

“How do you keep the entire arm, say, from the shoulder down, from growing back?”

“The RNA has a built in checker. The same property DNA molecules have for repairing damage. It’s not a whole lot different than if you cut your finger, your original fingerprint comes back, no different. Once the virus pirates the RNA, the chain will terminate, for lack of a better term, at the same place Alex’s arm is severed.”

“It sounds awfully simple,” Merrifield said dubiously.

“It isn’t. Where the mistakes have been made in the past is that we didn’t know that thousands of chains had to form, break, and replicate. That’s why Alan injected 200 CC’s of SV 40 virus, enough to ensure the reproduction of several hundred copies of each RNA strand. Warm blooded animal’s higher energy requirements have caused them to lose the catalyst for limb regeneration. We’re providing the catalyst in the form of the SV 40 virus.”

“What about Alex’s energy requirements?”

“They’ll be kept to a minimum.” Ingrid looked at Clifton. “He’ll have to be kept in a coma.” Her eyes had gone far away, as if she were thinking of procedures before implementing them. “We’ll put him on a heart-lung machine and dialysis. A megavitamin drip in glucose solution will be implanted in a central line. We’ll provide his energy so his body can regenerate. It will go fast when the ribosomes start churning out DNA.”

Ingrid was undoubtedly right, Merrifield thought. All they could do was lend a hand and wait as Alex’s body repaired itself. He went back to watching the insane symphony that Caudill conducted.

8

Charles Freeman exposited on his own views of Clifton’s misfortune to Ricky Henley.

“Hey you think what happened to Cliffy was rough? Shit, man, you ought to go in for a sounding sometime. Now that’s one mother that hurts like hell.”

Like most custodial workers, they were as anonymous as a visiting salesman. Freeman had heard about the accident through the project grapevine. Which is to say he had presented an attentive ear to any official looking door that happened to be ajar. Freeman had seen Sunners when he walked through Merrifield’s office. He thought Sunners looked like a man who had seen a diamond ring glittering in the dust and picked it up only to find a decomposed hand attached to it. He wasn’t far off the mark, as Freeman soon found out.

“The way I heard it,” he went on, “Cliffy passed out just as quick as it happened. Likely never felt a thing. He was probably wired out of his skull anyway and wouldn’t have felt a kick in the balls.”

“You really think he was horsed up,” Ricky asked.

“Had to be,” Freeman said sagely. “All these eggheads are fucked up out of their minds on something. They all stay here eighteen, twenty hours a day. Ain’t no normal human being can do that day in and day out without help.”

“ Yeah, but gettin’ your arm cut off- completely cut off- that’s bound to leave a mark.”

“Maybe it did, but hey! Life’s a bitch. Hazards of the job.”

“I don’t know if that’s one of the risks pointed out in the job description,” Ricky said.

Freeman considered it.

“Maybe you’re right. But Massa Merrifield didn’t waste no time on sympathy for Cliffy, no sir! It wasn’t two hours later he had some hotshot civilian in here workin’ on that machine. Merrifield gave that guy all kinds of shit. ‘You’ll do this and you’ll do that and you’ll do it my way or I’ll tear your head off.’ Stuff like that.”

Merrifield had indeed placed a hasty call to Skinner Scientific Instruments, Inc., main office in Lexington. Merrifield made it clear to the secretary who answered his phone call that he didn’t give a damn about the warranty, he wanted somebody to fix the thing.

“That’s quite a complex piece of machinery, sir,” the receptionist had said sympathetically. “We may not have anyone on staff at the moment who can repair it. After all, it is Christmas Day. And your name was?”

“Jon Merrifield,” he said impatiently. “You tell Reg Skinner he’d better bloody well get off his dead ass and send somebody. You just mention my name, huh?”

“I’ll pass your message along,” the receptionist said with chilling condescension. “Please hold.”

Merrifield rolled his eyes and drummed his fingers on his desk as tuneless Muzak sniffed its way through the morass of telephone cable. A few moments later Reg Skinner himself came on the line.

“Jon? What’s up?”

“The Helix Depolarization Chamber,” Merrifield replied, deadpan. “In smoke, that is. The infernal contraption blew apart and cut off one of my men’s arms.”

Skinner’s voice dwindled of all spirit. “I’m terribly sorry, Jon. If there’s anything I can do…”

“Save getting out of the lawsuit for later, Reg,” Merrifield said brusquely. “We’ve got him in the infirmary. He’s going to be alright. What I want from you is a man to fix the thing.”

“That’s a terribly complicated machine, Jon…”

“I’ve already heard that tune from your receptionist, Reg,” Merrifield warned. “I don’t want you to sing it again.”

“No, of course not,” Skinner said. Merrifield imagined him running his hands through his wiry, salt and pepper hair. Tortured hair, Merrifield had always called it.

Skinner asked Jon exactly what had happened and Jon told him.

“Now, are you going to get it fixed, or do I have to remind you of how much money you’ll lose with the termination of our contract?”

“You don’t have to remind me,” Skinner said softly. “I’ll send a man right up.”

“Splendid,” Merrifield said. “You’re a good man to do business with, Reg. I’m sorry this couldn’t have been a social call. How is your wife, by the way?”

“She’s fine, Jon,” Skinner said in a window glass voice. “It’s very kind of you to ask.”

“Not at all. You will have a Merry Christmas, won’t you?”

“Certainly, Jon,” Skinner said.

The man from Skinner Scientific showed up a couple of hours later. Floyd Williams was every bit of twenty-two years old. A few stray whiskers he had missed during his weekly shave poked out of his pimples.

Merrifield escorted him to the sequencing lab. Clifton’s mangled arm had been whisked away by two white faced lab workers and the large bloodstain had been hosed off minutes after the accident. All personnel had been instructed to keep quiet during the repairman’s visit.

Williams was treated to the unnerving spectacle of persons giving him curious, superstitious looks as he walked down the corridor with Merrifield. They clammed up when he was within earshot and resumed speaking after he passed.

Williams took one look at the machine and restrained himself from throwing up his arms.

“It’s going to take me at least three days to repair this thing, Mr. Merrifield.”

“Surely it won’t take that long, Mr…uh, Williams.” Merrifield said pleasantly.

Williams gestured helplessly at the wringer. It looked as if someone had wrenched the top of with clumsy hands.

“Look at it,” Williams said patronisingly. “The magneto will have to be replaced. It will take me a day at the earliest to get that, even air freighting it in from Houston. And the rotor’s bent, sure as shit. I’m not a magician.”

“Surely you can expedite the repairs,” Merrifield asked genially.

“Two days at the earliest.” Williams’ tone was that of a man who had made his best offer.

“One day,” Merrifield said. Any pretense of pleasantness was gone. His face had colored an alarming red and he seemed on the verge of shaking himself to pieces.

“If that machine is not repaired in twenty-four hours,” he said, “there are going to be many unhappy people. I’ll be one of them. You don’t want to make me unhappy, sonny.”

“Excuse me?”

Williams gaped at Merrifield. Just who did this jumped up prick think he was?

“I’m not accustomed to being spoken to in such a manner.” Williams spoke with pitiable juvenile crust.

“Well get accustomed, brother,” Merrifield said in an ugly tone. He thrust his snarling teeth so close to Williams’ face that their noses were touching. Williams backed up a step, his eyes suddenly shiny with the glaze of fear. He just couldn’t help it.

“I’ll speak to you as I like, when I like, and as much as I like. I’ll tell you but once more: this machine will be working by this time tomorrow even if you have to pull one out of your ass. If you don’t believe me you can call Reg Skinner and confirm what I’ve said.” Merrifield shifted to an agreeable tone. “There’s no need for unpleasantness, or for anyone to cry into their beer. Do your job and do it well. Our paths will never cross again. Fair enough?”

Williams was on the verge of telling this pious egomaniac to get bent when he saw the brimming, limitless rage in Merrifield’s eyes. Go ahead, those eyes seemed to say. Start something. Even on short acquaintance Williams could see that once Merrifield’s holier-than-thou attitude began to pucker and turn brown around the edges, it was time to shut up.

“I’ll get on it right away,” Williams said meekly.

Freeman had caught the whole exchange, standing just outside the door.

“That repairman shut up quick. When he went to his van, he kind of skittered away like he thought Massa Merrifield was gonna kick his ass up between his ears.” Freeman leaned against his broom. “I ain’t gonna say he might not have done it, too.”

Ricky looked around nervously, as if afraid Merrifield might magically pop up out of the floor and berate them for wasting precious time. He turned back to Freeman just in time to miss Ingrid coming around the corner.

“He is a bastard, ain’t he,” Ricky said.

“A-number one,” Freeman snorted, baring yellow, goat teeth. “Only one I’ve seen able to keep him in line is Miss Priss herself. Cliffy’s been tryin’ to tag that, but he’s wastin’ his time. She thinks it’s gold plated, or something. I’ll bet Cliffy’s spent many a night floggin’ the log. Of course,” Freeman said pitilessly, “he ain’t gonna be wrenchin’ the old skin bolt with that hand anymore.”

“Don’t bet on that,” said an angry voice behind them.

Ricky and Freeman wheeled around, hearts in their throats.

Ingrid confronted them, glaring at them with a stare as hot as burning magnesium. Her voice grated like fault lines grinding together.

“Don’t try to explain shit to me,” she spat. “I think I’ll turn you two bastards over to Jon. He hasn’t been in the pink today. Of course you two knew that, didn’t you? I heard you speaking so eloquently about it. Why don’t we take a walk?”

9

Jimmy and Ingrid sat in her office, drinking coffee and talking quietly. He had cleaned himself up, trading his blood-caked jumpsuit for jeans and a faded T-shirt depicting a cartoon rat at a computer monitor, and the motto; “Lab Techs: Thwarting Natural Selection Every Day.” He felt a thousand percent better both in body and mind. Despite her sometimes maddening urges and actions, he had a deep liking for Ingrid.

Ingrid’s hair was clean and tied with a blue ribbon into a pony tail. It was a style, Sunners reflected regretfully, she didn’t use enough. It made her seem somehow more innocent and eased the worry and grave responsibility fixed into her otherwise attractive face.

“I’m sorry for the way I acted this morning,” Sunners said. “I knew deep down you would never do anything to hurt Alex.”

Ingrid looked into her coffee. Too weary to keep her head up, or simply unsure of what to say, Jimmy didn’t know.

“I’m not faulting you for anything. If you hadn’t been there, Alex might have bled to death.”

She sipped her coffee, letting her eyes close. She opened them and looked at Jimmy. “I don’t think it’s any secret that I think a lot of Alex. I’m indebted to you for not going to pieces.”

Jimmy shrugged the compliment aside. “It had to be done. But, I have to admit, I couldn’t have cut the arm. I wouldn’t have had that confidence in my abilities.”

“You know what we’re doing?”

“I was there.”

You were in surgery?”

“After I got cleaned up, yes. I mounted the path slides.”

“Do you approve?”

“When you said you were going to give him his life back, I didn’t get it. Now I do. I only hope I’ll be in such good hands if something like that ever happens to me.”

“You don’t think I’m using him as a guinea pig,” she asked with well-worn sarcasm. “Another boost for the vaunted Milner ego?”

“I know,” Jimmy said, “how you feel about him.”

“There are those who don’t see it that way.”

“Screw them,” Jimmy said flatly. “Who needs people who are afraid of what they’re doing? If they think they’ve lost control, this is the last place they need to be. Yellow bastards,” Jimmy sneered, “who can’t face up to their responsibilities when things get a little hairy. They’re no great loss. My parting words to them would be ‘don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.’ This is no little job. This is history.”

“You sound like me,” Ingrid said.

“Better I should sound like you than those around here who let their Bulldog mouths overload their Chihuahua asses.” Jimmy blushed. “Sorry.”

“I’ve heard worse.” She sounded tired, worn out. “I wonder if my judgment is as good as it should be. Fatigue causes mistakes, and mistakes we can’t afford. There’s Seth to worry about, as well as Alex.”

“I can cheer you up some, there,” Jimmy said helpfully. “All is not lost.”

“What do you mean,” Ingrid asked without much interest.

“We’ve got the codons for a brain.”

She looked up quickly. “You’re serious?” She regarded Jimmy warily.

“That’s what we were working on when the wringer blew apart.”

“You’ve got the sequences? They weren’t damaged?”

“We took all precautions. They’ve been checked and rechecked. I think we should go ahead.”

“I guess.” Ingrid looked away, the subject abruptly losing interest for her. She wondered how Alex was doing.

“Maybe you should go to bed,” Jimmy suggested. “You look pretty rough.”

“I ought to see how Alex is doing. I’m the reason he’s in the shape he’s in.”

“Professor Caudill has been with him all day,” Jimmy said serenely. His eyes were distant and his face had taken on a tranquil, dreamy quality. “His systems have been shut down to nil with curare. The guys in the RNA lab have busted their asses all day to get the sequences. You’ll know what happens as soon as Professor Caudill does. It might be best if you forget for a little while.”

“I can’t sleep. All I can think about is whether or not he’ll get better. I wonder if he can go back to what he was.” She bared herself for the ultimate truth. “I don’t know what he’ll think of me. What will he think about what I’ve done to him?” She finally broke down and slow tears crept down her cheeks.

Tears welled up in Jimmy’s own eyes, quite surprisingly. He tried to comfort her.

“That’s the last thing you should worry about. You’ll have given him his life back.”

“But what if it doesn’t work,” she said. Hers were the eyes of a predator beguiled by her own ferocity. “What will he think when he finds out I’m the one who cut his arm off? When he finds out I refused to let him go to the hospital? What will he think when he finds out I took his life in my hands?”

“It’ll work,” Jimmy said. He took Ingrid’s hand. “He’ll never be anything but grateful.”

“And what if it does work,” she said with morbid passion. “What then? Men don’t understand. I don’t want to be the one who saved his arm. I don’t sit well on a pedestal. I go on the rag and when I wake up I look like a three day holiday for death. I’m not God. Don’t you understand that?” Part of her anger came from the fact she had only realized it herself after Clifton’s accident.

“Ingrid,” Jimmy stammered. “It…I…” He stopped, having no idea what to say.

Then, like the dim thudding of a pendulum in a distant room, footsteps slowly and steadily tramped up the hallway. There was something so plodding and implacable in those steps that Ingrid was afraid. Heavy footsteps meant bad news. They stopped at the door.

Alan Caudill’s six and a half foot frame filled the doorway. The middling light in Ingrid’s office was not enough to overpower the hallway fluorescents and Caudill’s face was in shadow. Two clear half moons hovered in space where his glasses perched. His head was tilted to the side. Ingrid and Jimmy waited for the pronouncement.

“We have the codons,” he said in that new, peculiarly clear voice. No trace of his mumble remained.

“Alex’s arm is regenerating.”

10

There had been something of a sensation as Seth’s skin began to form in early 2003. It was clear that Seth, though an amalgam of a thousand different genetic recombinations, was going to go his own way.

Rather than being pink, or brown, or red, or yellow, his skin had thickened and turned a doughy gray; dark and dense enough to protect from background cosmic rays, but still light enough for vitamin D metabolism. That skin, combined with the huge-pupilled eyes in their cat’s eye sockets, made Seth look for all the world like one of those gray-skinned aliens which had been reported, and not surprisingly. Exobiologists had long theorized a similar form for humanoids which existed in less hospitable environments than earth

Merrifield recalled his thinking it was autocratic of Ingrid to name him Seth. Now, as he looked at Seth’s face -the elongated skull, dark, wraparound eyes, tiny nose and gray skin- he idly wondered if Ingrid knew Seth was a son of Eve.

On the day of Clifton’s accident, Josh Hall was about to eat a tuna fish on rye- a sort of homage to Jesus Christ on his feeding of the masses- when his secretary buzzed him. Hall accepted the call with little good grace, his Christian charity succumbing to the demands of his empty stomach.

During the course of his conversation with a man who refused to identify himself, his lunch was forgotten. A cool heat came to life behind his brows and he saw his chance to have it out with the old dragon. He couldn’t have planned it better himself. Hall was in the midst of a three month, winter crusade and could see no way to free himself before March, at the earliest. Could we, he asked the caller, meet then? The caller said that would be fine.

During the course of the project, a staggering six and a half million pages of data had heaped up on hard copy and Jimmy Sunners had been reviewing some of the mountains of paperwork. The reports written on the day the wringer blew apart were in a shambles, but not so bad he couldn’t glean a new molecular configuration on one of the brain cell codons. An extra oxygen had attached itself to a phosphate chain, forming a peroxide. He dismissed it as an inconsequential intron. He, nor anybody else, had any idea that the new configuration would form zinc inhibiting cells in the brain. A zinc deficiency could induce mental fugues, irrational behavior, and a generally lousy feeling akin to coming down from tainted angel dust. The constant urinalyses on Seth showed no problems. The excess zinc which his brain didn’t use had been re-channeled to the development of a supernormal nervous system instead of being pissed out, where it would have shown a problem.

For two months Ingrid and Caudill had taken turns sitting by Clifton’s bedside. It was an obsession from which Ingrid could not be swayed. Most times when someone came in to adjust the life support systems or give Clifton another dollop of curare, Ingrid would be there, either staring at the regenerating constituents of Alex’s arm with a mordant and unhealthy fascination, or dozing, sitting up in a chair.

She had studied the regeneration of his arm with ghastly, clinical curiosity. She watched as the nub of bone became round and bluish with cartilage; watched it lengthen and ossify into bone which grew from the break and made its inexorable trip down to the elbow where ligaments formed, down to newly grown forearm bones, and then to the bones of his hand.

Once the skeletal components had formed, it looked as if the flesh had been neatly stripped away by careful and knowledgeable hands. The bones were elevated in a plastic overwrap, compassed by an electromagnetic field. The humming of the field generator was the sound of a sleeping spouse on a summer night, a sure sign all was well.

The flesh of Clifton’s upper arm had been kept from bleeding by a goopy, tarry-looking substance that had been smeared on it. It had been kept from healing by strange drugs unknown to anyone in the FDA, which would have banned them had they known of them.

Ingrid became morbidly sure there would soon be a trade off. It was the kind of reckless, irrational thinking that had plagued her after her mother’s death. With every new nerve and blood vessel Alex developed, she was sure Seth would lose a system, or simply die as payment for sound flesh on Clifton’s arm which had no right to be there.

Clifton’s arm bones became interleaved with a lace of blood vessels that attached themselves to the bones and flowed over the phalanges like grave worms. Nerves and muscles developed simultaneously. They pulsed with life as blood surged beneath them. Yellowy clear membranes formed around them. They were moistly shiny, looking slimy and unpleasant to touch. Ingrid watched all this with the certainty that she would pay for Clifton’s arm with Seth’s life.

There ain’t no free lunch. Everything has to be paid for. How many times can you snatch someone from death’s grasp before it catches up? How many times can you use your brain and your skills to outwit the old monster? Death has been around billions of years. You’re only twenty-six. Nobody’s ever beaten it. You’ve stood it off for a little while, but what will the payment be?

Death doesn’t bargain; it doesn’t care. It took your mother, it could have taken you. It took the people of Jonestown, Guyana, children and all. The best you can hope for is a draw, but even compromises have their price. You’ve created life where there was only molecular structure before, but death is waiting for it, too. You’ve lost sight of that, haven’t you?

It’s waiting for Seth in the form of a land mine in Lagos, or a garrote in Lebanon. There’s a bullet with his name on it in Thailand, or a crowded restaurant in Tunis. No matter what advantages you give him, death is there for him in the crushing depths of the ocean; asphyxiation or freezing in the thin atmosphere of the moon or Mars. You believe the Lord giveth, but his dark angel Lucifer taketh away. You’ve had your hand at playing God, but not even you can beat the devil, can you?

“No,” she whispered, not in answer to her stream of consciousness, but in defiance of it. There had to be a way. If there was a bargain, she sometimes wished it would be Clifton’s arm for Seth’s life. The thought horrified her to tears sometimes, but the more she looked into her own heart, the more she knew it was true.

And truth, she knew, had an ugly way of coming out in the end.

11

Ingrid had been awaiting Clifton’s return to consciousness. It would be only a short while, now. Many times in the past week he had struggled close to wakefulness, just at the threshold of dreams. He moaned and tried to thrash his arms, but the curare was too powerful.

His right arm was completely immobilized by a contraption that would have been more appropriate in the chamber of an inquisitioner. It had been necessary to keep the arm still during the regeneration process, but Ingrid had insisted the rig remain on even after the process was complete, certain of impending disaster if the strategy were changed.

She had been napping after having remained awake the previous thirty-six hours, knowing both of her projects were due to come to fruition at any time. Her hair had grown long and unkempt. Split ends that might have given her the appearance of an ancient, hee-hawing witch were kept at bay by an accumulation of oil that turned her hair from honey blond to dingy, dishwater gray.

She had been unwilling to give up the hour it would take to get a shower. Her coworkers, had not commented on her bloodshot eyes, sunken cheeks, or breath that drifted out like chemical gas composed of onions, pickles, garlic and stale bread that had comprised the microwaveable sandwiches which had been her diet for the past two days.

As she dozed by his bedside, vivid dreams sprang to life almost immediately. Her eyes darted rapidly beneath her lids, REM sleep surfacing immediately, having been squelched for the last day and a half.

The year was 1989 and she was nine years old, with her aunt Gertrude in an auditorium full of people. The venue had been reserved for a Josh Hall revival. All the men in the audience and on stage seemed to be dressed in identical, pinstriped suits with wide, ’40’s style lapels and a carnation on the breast. They wore black, plastic framed glasses and their hair was slicked back with pomade. Flakes of dandruff drifted to some of the suit shoulders and the men’s trouser hems seemed to stop an inch or so above their dull, scraped shoes.

Their hands were all too large, like those cartoons where Daffy Duck smashes his fingers with a hammer. They held those big hands out to Ingrid, all red and hard and callused in the low light of the auditorium. Blue-black veins rose from the backs of the hands like tubes beneath the thin, age-spotted skin.

There was a murmur in the auditorium, a million voices barely penned-up by some unseen power. Everyone stood as Josh Hall paraded on stage, flanked by his entourage. They kept well back, not daring to steal the limelight from the featured player.

“The Lord is in this place tonight,” he said into the microphone. His voice boomed and rolled through the PA system. Ingrid heard moans and saw several women begin to sway back and forth. Their faces were rapt with religious ecstasy, eyes closed, lips moving soundlessly.

“There are those here who need the love and guidance of the Lord,” he said to the revivalists. The congregation swayed more strongly, a sea kept in check by its own human borders. Ingrid smelled the crowd, felt the heat building, like an oven being brought to its highest range. Hall was exhorting the crowd, pumping them up, raising the heat. Candles had been lit on stage and everything seemed to move sluggishly through a red glow.

Ingrid felt the press of the multitude on her frail, thirty pound body. Aunt Gertrude was moving toward the stage, her eyes fixed on the magnetic presence of Josh Hall. She held Ingrid tightly, like an offering.

“Those of you who need to feel the love of the Lord, come on stage now.” He began to speak more rapidly, his voice rising and resonating. Hundreds began to move toward the stage, lining up single file at the stairs. Hall continued, now sounding like a hellfire and brimstone, bible-bashing minion of The Lord.

There are those of you who are sick. Sick in mind, sick in body, sick in spirit. There are those who believe the Lord is gone away, but He’s listening to your prayers. Have you turned your face from the Lord?”

More wails from the audience. Ingrid was frightened. She was scheduled for admission to the hospital the next day for her surgery. She was a nine year old girl, fearful for her life and not wise in the workings of the Lord. Faces loomed against her. Hands were extended toward her as she was carried on stage. She looked around in a wild panic. People on crutches struggled up the stairs, assisted by smiling ushers.

Skinny men and blind men. Men in overalls and work boots. Men in somber suits and hideous plaid and stripe combinations. Pretty women in pleasant dresses led young children and oldsters with canes on to the stage. Middle aged women with no escorts made their way slowly forward, their feet shuff-shuffing on the concrete floor, their ponderous rear ends rolling like a turbulent sea beneath their polyester slacks. An old, bald headed gent wearing a dark suit pulled his foot from the floor. A wad of chewing gum had stuck to the sole of his shoe. A sliver of pale, white leg showed above his black, nylon sock.

“Show the Lord your love,” Hall implored. “Make your testament, ask for healing. Ask for forgiveness and it will be given.” Sweat ran down the sides of his face in two tiny streams. He started to shout, to huckster, his eyes bulging dangerously. Distended veins stood out on his throat.

Pray for the sick,” he yelled. “Pray for the infirm. Pray for your brothers and sisters who have yet to find the light of the Lord. Make your public testimony to the Lord and you will be blessed with everlasting life.” He raised his bible over his head. “Receive the Lord and after the rapture we will all gaze down on the great day of Armageddon and watch the army of the Lord smash down the walls of hell!”

Hall brought his bible down in a smashing gesture, as if smiting Satan himself.

The congregation was in a frenzy, threatening to boil over the stage in a human storm surge. Aunt Gertrude bore Ingrid across the stage, tears of joy welling from her eyes. The huge, red hands reached for Ingrid and closed around her ears, squeezing her head with unbearable pressure.

Josh Hall took it upon himself to touch Ingrid, relieving some of his party from the responsibility of the laying on of hands.

Be blessed, little one,” he bellowed into Ingrid’s face. “The Lord will shower you with blessings! Feel His power working! Feel His touch!”

Aunt Gertrude babbled with gratitude. Ingrid felt only fear. Fear of the crowd, fear of the man with the loud voice and red cast on his face, fear at the touch of the God of Abraham this man claimed to transfer.

“She’s going in for heart surgery tomorrow,” Aunt Gertrude gushed. “Thank God we came to see you tonight!”

“Put not your faith in doctors, little one, but only in the Lord,” Hall said to Ingrid. “The Lord will pull you through. He would not call home one so young and full of promise so soon.”

Ingrid was crying, tears running down her pallid face. Hall smiled, but never asked her name. Others pushed Aunt Gertrude from behind, urging them forward. Ingrid saw a man pitch backward as he was touched and he was caught by waiting attendants before he hit the floor. People were babbling and moaning like the wail of a cruel wind, full of suffering and pain. Moaning, moaning…

Clifton thrashed in his sleep, pulling away from the effects of the Curare. His breath came in sharp, hiccuping whoops that expanded his rib cage to the breaking point. Ingrid jerked awake. She reached over quickly and put her hand on Clifton’s head to keep it still. The gesture brought the nightmare back in awful detail and Ingrid felt suddenly nauseated. Her stomach heaved, but she clenched her teeth and held it back.

Clifton’s forehead dripped oily sweat. His teeth chattered and his eyes fluttered as though he couldn’t quite manage the effort to open them. Ingrid freed one of her hands to press the call button. Without two hands to hold him, Clifton whipped his head up violently. Wire-taut tendons glared on his neck like subcutaneous guitar strings. Sweat shot through the air in a spray.

Caudill and Sunners got there almost immediately. Caudill quickly crossed the room with gangly strides and practically uprooted Ingrid from her chair. He steadied Clifton’s head with gentle pressure.

Merrifield showed up a moment later, peppered with red and huffing like a freight train. The knot in his tie bobbed up and down with each breath.

Ingrid watched Clifton’s struggles with a mingled expression of curiosity and naked fear. Sunners stood uncertainly behind Caudill, his hands held out helplessly in front of his lab smock. His outstretched arms reminded Ingrid of the dream again and her legs turned rubbery. She wavered slightly and Merrifield held her arm. His strong touch reassured her and the cobwebs and detachment of sleep began to clear.

“There now,” Caudill soothed. “He’s coming around fine.”

Clifton had stopped thrashing and his breathing had begun to normalize. The grunting sounds had ceased and his color was up as his heart began beating more rapidly.

The central line had been removed a week earlier and Clifton’s only sustenance came from a standard IV drip. His thrashing had loosened the tape that held it in place and one errant flap stood up. Caudill smoothed it down and repositioned the needle with all the loving concern of a father.

Clifton opened his eyes. For a few seconds they refused to focus and all he could see was a blur before they slowly adjusted.

Caudill sat by his bed, thick glasses dull in the low light, his shining scalp like rubber over his skull. His hand was on Clifton’s chest, heavy and comforting. Jimmy stood behind Caudill, looking too young and innocent for this type of work. Ingrid was there, too. Her hair was untidy and hung in her face. Clifton thought she looked like hell. But she was smiling pensively, giving it a good effort. He tried to smile back.

His lips were dry and flaky. When he stretched them upwards in a smile, they cracked and burned as the parched tissues split. His teeth felt like slime-coated cobblestones and his tongue was a piece of rotten wood in his mouth.

“Ingrid,” he whispered, in his feeble, friendly voice.

“Yes?”

Clifton smiled widely and a gleam of humor sparkled through the glaze over his eyes.

“You look like shit.”

“I feel as bad as I look,” she answered. She leaned over and gave him a hug. He tried to hug her back, but was too weak. He seemed to have difficulty breathing with Ingrid’s weight on his chest. She raised herself up.

“You’ve been gone for a while,” Caudill said. “Good to have you with us again.”

He patted Clifton’s chest with an avuncular hand.

“The accident,” Alex whispered. “Bad?”

“Very bad,” Caudill agreed.

“Feels like my arm’s still there. Phantom feelings?”

“Better check again.”

Alex looked at Caudill skeptically. Caudill smiled brightly and nodded his head.

Clifton painfully turned his head to the right. His drug-addled expression changed from one of a man expecting to go to the Swedish massage parlor and be pounded by Olga the troll, but instead is met by Inga, the waif. His arm was apparently whole and intact, wrapped in tape, gauze, and plastic.

“Wiggle your fingers,” Caudill suggested.

Alex did. Very easily. He looked back at Caudill.

“How,” he asked. “I saw it. It was just hanging by a tatter.”

“Maybe you’d better ask Ingrid.”

Ingrid looked timidly at Alex. The conflicting emotions she had felt while his arm was regenerating flashed through her mind. She didn’t know whether to be relieved that he was alright, or sickened at her own coldness toward a man for whom she thought she had entertained a great deal of affection. Clifton’s trauma seemed terribly distant to her.

“How are you feeling,” she asked.

“I just want to know what happened. What happened to my arm?”

And, as the rains of an unusual winter thunderstorm began to fall outside, Ingrid told him.

12

By the time Ingrid had finished, Alex had managed to sit up. He had listened with more and more interest as the gruesome tale spun out, acting as if he were listening to a particularly engaging lecture on regenerative mechanics instead of the nearly wondrous events that had given him his arm back.

“You say it was gone,” Clifton asked. “Completely gone? You cut the whole thing off?”

“That wasn’t the easiest thing to do,” she said shakily. The telling had taken a lot out of her. “I didn’t do it as an experiment, if that’s what you’re thinking.” She felt a little pique was justified. It helped to salve her heretical thinking about Alex.

“I’m sure Alex didn’t mean to suggest that,” Merrifield put in.

“No,” Clifton said. There was deep affection in his voice. He sounded on the verge of tears. The battling emotions rose in Ingrid again like the clash of a warrior’s sword on a shield.

“I guess it just hasn’t sunk in yet, having just woke up and heard the story. Everything’s still fuzzy.”

“It’s okay, Alex,” Ingrid said. “Alan did most of it. You should thank him.”

Caudill blushed modestly. He didn’t trust himself to speak for fear his mumble would return.

“I guess you all had a hand in helping me.” Alex looked around to include everyone. “When I get out of here, you all get something special.”

“I’ve already got my something special,” Ingrid said.

Clifton beamed at her, never knowing she was thinking of something else entirely.

********************

They had passed the afternoon and evening quite comfortably, talking about the accident, the progress of the project, and what lay ahead.

Around six o’clock, Clifton, now fully awake, began to complain of some pain.

“Feels like there are two spikes in my ass.”

“Bruises,” Ingrid told him. “Mild, fortunately. With your arm immobilized, we couldn’t rearrange you as much as we would have liked. We’ll get you out of bed and let you walk them out.”

“Will I really be able to get up so soon?”

“No reason why not. You’ve dropped some weight, and your joints will probably feel like they’re rolling in sandpaper. But unless you’ve got an awfully strong bladder, you’ll be walking tonight.”

“How long before I go back to work?” Clifton sipped some Sprite from a Styrofoam cup. The March thunderstorm had mostly passed them by, but occasional rain showers still lingered. Sporadic rumbles of thunder could be heard prowling the distant valleys.

“Soon, but I think Jon has something else on the slate for you.”

“Like what?”

“You’re the only patient in history who has ever undergone successful regeneration of any body structure,” Merrifield said. “We want to run the inevitable tests. I’m sure Alan would love to get it written up for publication once the project is completed.”

“Betcher ass,” Alan mumbled quietly.

“It feels fine,” Clifton said, flexing his hand. He didn’t sound thrilled about being a case study for a report. “It doesn’t feel different in any way.”

“It’s your arm,” Ingrid said. “It shouldn’t feel any different.”

“I feel like I should be gawking at it or something, but the honest to God truth is it feels perfectly natural. Especially since you took that damnable bastard rig off of it.” Clifton ruefully eyed the empty straps and ligatures that hung from the side of the bed like limp rags.

Clifton had asked for a TV. No-one paid it much attention. It was there mainly for the comforting noise it made when the conversation lapsed awkwardly. When the evening news came on, conversation stopped for a few minutes while a reporter did a piece on Josh Hall’s upcoming crusade.

And there he was, as big and criminal as the world. Ingrid felt Merrifield’s rabid dislike for him. He sneered as Hall began speaking and he seemed to be thinking: I’d like to take your piety and run it up your ass.

Hall was telling the reporter his new crusade would be something above and beyond the usual. He had something so telling to say it would shake the houses of the mighty from stem to stern. When asked if he could give a small hint as to what his message would be, he smiled slightly, giving the camera full ogling opportunities at his handsome face. He had revived the “Big Hair” look popular among ’70’s Country and Western music stars. He looked ludicrous.

He said he preferred to spread his gospel as Jesus Christ had; going from town to town and converting the heathens by the wondrous teachings of Our Lord.

When the interview was over, Merrifield snapped the TV off savagely.

“That man turns my stomach. If I had my way, he’d be breaking rocks in the Amen Corner at Devil’s Island.”

Ingrid looked at Clifton, puzzled. “Wait” Clifton mouthed.

“I think we’d best go,” Merrifield said. “I can’t stand to be in the same room where I’ve heard that man’s voice. Would you like anything before we go, Alex?”

“I’d like Ingrid to stay a while longer, if she would.”

“Certainly,” Merrifield said. “I’ve a notion she would like that very much.” He looked at Ingrid and smiled. She hadn’t believed it was that obvious.

“I’ll be back later on tonight, or in the morning,” Merrifield said. He stared at Clifton, seemingly amazed. “It is good to have you back.”

The three men trooped out and Merrifield closed the door behind them.

“What was that all about,” Ingrid asked.

“Jon and Josh go way back,” Clifton answered. He turned over in his bed and lay on his side. Jeez, but his ass hurt.

“How far back?”

“To basic training, I think.”

“Josh Hall was in the army,” Ingrid asked, amazed.

“SecureCom,” Clifton said. “A private security company. Worked mostly, I think, for American companies, but might have freelanced for shady billionaires, politicians, or big money interests. He was one of the most lethal operatives this country has ever produced.”

“Lethal?”

“Specialized, very highly skilled. Thirty confirmed kills in South America, a couple of dozen in the Middle East. Nobody knows how many unaccounted for on his solo hunts, but in the hundreds would not be too far fetched. There was some talk of having him lead an SOG, but he was too far gone by then.”

“How so?”

“This is all hearsay, you realize. No government oversight. No public files. Some I got from Jon, some from reports, and some I pieced together myself. I wouldn’t want any of this to get back to Jon. He’d as soon put Hall on a spit and roast him over an open flame as to toast his health.”

“Sounds intriguing.”

“Intriguing, yes. Nice, no. It’s best you know about this in case Hall ever tries to stir up any shit.”

“He would never know about it,” Ingrid said assuredly. “What could he do even if he knew?”

“The same thing he did to you,” Clifton said.

Ingrid thought about that a long second.

“I wish you’d tell me the story, anyway.”

13

“Jon went into the army as an officer by virtue of his ROTC training back around 1980. He didn’t give a damn about the service, but they offered him unlimited research opportunities on a limitless supply of subjects that count the most: human bodies. If you put a gun in his hands today, he’d probably shoot himself in the foot. The closest he ever got to combat was a barroom donnybrook in Atlanta.

“He was put in charge of a section of the CBW department. That’s where he met Alan. Jon’s problem was to mutate a plague organism into a highly infectious form. Army business, you know. He turned the whole thing over to Alan. Alan worked on it for a while and came up with an Anthrax strain that will kill you deader than shit in about four hours.”

“Alan did that?” Ingrid couldn’t see it, not from the man who had orchestrated almost the entire procedure that had brought Clifton’s arm back. It smacked of evil and illegitimacy.

What the hell do you think you’re doing, a small voice inside of her whispered.

I’m taking the good with the bad. The regeneration procedures and cancer treatments are the sweetener to the sour medicine that you’re practicing here. All of those kidney patients on dialysis and heart patients waiting for a ticker can now have their own, home grown, so to speak. Isn’t a little dirt, a little blood on your hands, worth that?

“If it will make you feel any better,” Clifton said, “it’s never been used.” This was a large lie, but Clifton felt justified in making it.

“The bad goes along with the good. I can accept that,” Ingrid said. “How does Josh Hall fit into all this?”

“The Powers that Be sent Josh Hall to the CBW facility as an observer, or some such silly thing. God only knows what idiot approved that fuckup. He was already wilting in the heat by that time. Maybe SecureCom thought he should be familiar with the kind of stuff he might have to work with. It would take somebody of Hall’s capabilities to put it in the water, or fertilizer, or whatever they do to spread that stuff.

“Like I said, by the time he got to Atlanta in 1986, he was already more than a little buggy. He was still in his early twenties and all he had ever known was what SecureCom had taught him: how to kill. Everybody at the CBW site was scared to death of him.”

“I was born in 1980,” Ingrid said. “That would make Hall, what, forty, forty-five or so?”

“Somewhere around there. But a fit and vigorous forty or forty-five. He keeps in shape, you can tell just by looking at him. He started with SecureCom when he was seventeen. No family that I know of. He was so good at his job that SecureCom used him on almost all of its covert missions. Call Josh Hall, send him out of town, and bang! In the next few days, you would hear of some government official or radical being shot, stabbed, or blown up in their car.”

“Jesus,” Ingrid said.

“I told you it wasn’t pretty. Nothing much about the real power behind the throne is.”

“I was thinking of something else,” Ingrid said. His hands had been on her head. How much blood had been on those hands?

“It’s not that bad, Ingrid. Most mercs are okay when they get out.”

“But he’s an evangelist,” Ingrid protested.

“So would be Charles Manson,” Clifton said sourly, “if they ever let him out of prison. What could be better cover? The killer turned pious. Some people, you can’t credit them with what they say they are.”

“And you think Josh Hall is like that?”

“I think he’s got a lot of people blinded. He’s much too dangerous to have so many people slavishly hanging on his every word.”

“But he’s been preaching for fifteen years.”

“He started that as soon as he was fired from SecureCom, shortly after Jon’s project was completed,” Clifton affirmed. “Claimed he had seen the light of the Lord and he was stepping out of the killing arena to serve a higher calling. The truth was that SecureCom wanted to get rid of him.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because he was let go after trying to murder Jon.”

Ingrid was speechless. Bad enough to find out that Hall was a killer, doubly bad to discover that he was pathological as well. She had never cared for Hall, but at times she had closely examined her motives because of what he said. Now she was angry that she had ever put any credence in any of it.

“What happened?”

“As I understand it, Hall had been making quite a pain of himself. He never wore a mask and it was practically impossible to get him to change into sterile garb in the clean areas. He always carried a bayonet in his boot in a specially made sleeve. He would stomp into the clean areas with his mask off and rough up the help, quoting passages from the bible and generally scaring the shit out of everybody.

“You know Jon. He doesn’t take shit unlimited from anybody. It eventually got so bad that Jon called the IG himself and demanded that somebody come down and haul the maniac away. Probably two or three somebodies is what Jon had in mind. Jon has his flaws, but judgment of character is not one of them.”

Ingrid thought of the day Merrifield had told her he believed she would work for them. He had known it even before Ingrid had decided. Clifton continued with his tale.

“Hall got wise to it. Probably shook down some of the help or threatened to cut their throats. Jon wasn’t the only one who had complained, so Hall knew they were keeping an eye on him.

“We all knew he was shaky even at the beginning of Jon’s project. Who knows what had gotten into his head while he watched a killer bacteria being constructed? Jon’s constant bitching didn’t help matters. He knew what was coming and he was on the phone everyday, ranting and raving with a fair amount of flair and color to have something done about Hall. And what Jon wanted was more than just removal from the facility.”

“Christ, Alex,” Ingrid said with unaffected loathing. “That’s terrible.”

“Which part?”

“All of it.”

“ It’s true, though,” Clifton sighed. “There’s so much you don’t know -that most people don’t know- about who actually wields the levers of power; who pulls the strings on the press marionettes, who manages the news and controls politicians and elections. Most people think they have a pretty good line on things before they go back to watching the boob tube, but they know, precisely, nada. Some stuff, Ingrid, once you know about it, you’ll wish you had never found out.”

“I’m on my way there, now.”

“Anyway,” Clifton went on, “the IG finally said he would send somebody to remove Hall. I don’t guess Jon expected to wake up later that night to find Josh Hall murdering him in his bed.”

“How did that happen?”

“Hall punched in the access code to Jon’s bedroom. Like I said, he was very resourceful so there’s not much mystery about how he got the code, or how he got into the lab to get the culture dish of anthrax. He poured it all over Jon’s face while he slept.

“Hall didn’t stick around to watch Jon die. He’d seen what the bug did to lab animals. And wouldn’t you know, for this particular midnight foray, Hall had worn a mask and suit. Jon kept his wits. He and Alan had developed an antitoxin to go right along with the plague. Jon had made it his personal business to be sure Hall didn’t know about the antitoxin, even though it’s standard procedure. You don’t want your guys dying right along with the enemy. After Hall left, Jon crept away to the lab and administered the antidote to himself. I only wish I could have seen the look on Hall’s face the next morning when a very live Jon Merrifield confronted him with a deputation of four MP’s to haul his ass away.”

“How is it that he’s a preacher instead of in jail somewhere?”

“It was swept under the rug,” Clifton said. “SecureCom as well as the government that hired him knew there was a very good chance that Hall had rigged some kind of dead man’s trigger that would allow him to spill his guts about all he knew should he turn up missing. He knew too much about bodies quietly buried, and I think they decided to put him out to pasture so those bones wouldn’t raise up and rattle anybody’s house. He probably also had a lot of high powered patrons willing to go to bat for him: people you seriously don’t want to piss off. There may have had hopes of salvaging his talents, but after a battery of psychiatry, everybody gave up. In the end Uncle Sam and SecureCom hollered uncle and cut him loose him with a pension and a strong warning that it was perfectly okay he had found Jesus, but it would be in his best interest to stick with preaching and let what had gone before die quietly.”

“But why evangelism,” Ingrid asked. “I don’t believe for a second he really has the calling.”

“I thought initially it was just to make a few quick bucks. Who wouldn’t pay to see a tortured soul, drenched in the blood of innocent people, saved by the Glory of God? The killer turned healer. It would be like Hitler converting. Now, I don’t know. It’s gone on for too long, and it makes me wonder what his real motive is.”

“How much of this do you actually believe?”

“Most of it,” Clifton said. “Jon and Josh have been in a silent, running feud for fifteen years. Jon doesn’t spill the beans about Hall’s past; Hall doesn’t shoot his mouth off about what Jon’s doing. Even though they would kill each other on sight, they have that tacit agreement. Jon doesn’t talk about it much, but when you’ve been around him as long as I have, you learn to pick out the shit from the candy.”

“It seems Mr. Hall has had his pilfering hand in all our lives,” Ingrid said. She told Clifton of how she was ‘saved’ at one of his crusades. She found it difficult to explain the actual dread she had felt at his touch. Though she had not been able to articulate it as such at the time, her visceral reaction was that if Josh Hall were placed before a very powerful light, it might reveal something underneath the skin better not seen.

“I didn’t like him very much,” she finished, condensing all that she felt. “I didn’t know of the things you told me. I just… didn’t like him.”

“I have that same feeling,” Clifton said moodily. “But after being here for two years, I’d almost believe in fate. If somebody told me Jesus Christ was outside walking on water, I’d have to take a look.”

Clifton shifted again. He looked like a young boy who has just been thrashed by the local bully. His hospital gown was too big and it billowed on his chest and hung loosely around his neck. His greasy hair curled all over his head. Ingrid noticed he continually flexed the fingers on his right hand. He probably wasn’t even aware of it. An easy silence grew between them. Ingrid heard the vague, distant patter of rain peppering down the mountainsides.

“Think you’ll play the Foggy Mountain Breakdown with that arm,” Ingrid ventured.

“Huh,” Clifton blinked twice. “Sorry. I was musing to myself.”

“About what?”

“I was wondering how far along the project is.”

“Almost done,” Ingrid apologized. “Sorry you missed it.”

“I’ve got no complaints. There’ll be other projects.”

“Do you really feel that way,” Ingrid asked anxiously.

Clifton looked at her strangely. “Did you think I would feel some other way?”

“I…” she began. “I really didn’t know,” she finished in a small voice. “I didn’t know how you would take it. Oh, shit, I might as well tell the truth. I was afraid you might hate me.”

“Now why,” he said, “do I think that’s the craziest goddam thing I’ve ever heard?”

“It’s hard to explain,” she said. “I thought you might wake up and see yourself as somehow different, maybe not quite what you would have liked to be… a sort of monster. And what would that make me?”

“I don’t feel any different, good or bad, just grateful.” He looked steadily at Ingrid. “But you’re not the same.”

“No,” she said, averting her eyes. “I’m not the same. I don’t know what it is. Playing Pollyanna for so long is wearing on me.”

Clifton started to speak, but something stilled him. Ingrid felt it, too. A sense of impending urgency like the air before a hurricane strikes.

Racing footfalls sounded down the hallway, corning rapidly closer. Running shadows bobbed by the doorway. They lengthened as the steps became louder. Ingrid and Alex looked at each other. The running became more ponderous, like malevolent messengers. Clifton looked puzzled. Ingrid’s face was a stark sketch of anxiety. Tension ticked in the room like a hidden bomb.

Randy Bare rushed into the infirmary. He had run all the way from the incubator, a distance of some two hundred yards through corridors and around corners. Rivers of sweat ran down his temples, the sides of his face, and into his collar. His ribcage heaved with every breath and he placed his hands on the door frame to steady himself.

“He’s up,” Bare gasped harshly.

“Who’s up,” Ingrid said, thinking he must mean Clifton, then suddenly understood.

Seth’s up? He’s awake?”

“He came right up off the table,” Bare panted. “Ripped out all his tubing and stood right up. He was a little unsteady and he fell…”

You let him fall down?” Ingrid shrieked.

“He got right back up,” Bare said quickly. “He’s going crazy trying to get out. Like an animal or something, beating against the walls and trying to break the glass…”

“What did you do,” Ingrid interrupted.

Do?” Bare asked, wide-eyed. “I came to get you.”

“Oh, you stupid little…” Ingrid looked at Clifton to tell him she was leaving, but he had already thrown his covers back.

“What are you doing,” she asked, her voice pitched a half step too high.

“I’m going to help.”

“There’s nothing you can do, Alex.”

“Like hell,” he said. “I’m going.”

Ingrid bit her lip, torn between ordering Clifton to stay in bed, or making certain Seth didn’t splash his very special brains all over the walls of the incubator.

“You know the way,” she said decisively. “Get there as quick as you can.”

Halfway down the hallway, she heard Clifton roar. “Where are my goddam clothes?”

********************

The viewing glass of the incubator was smeared with blood by the time Ingrid arrived. Seth’s howls and screams were clear long before she got there. They were the frightened sounds of a trapped beast.

She was stunned to see that Seth’s blows had put minute, spider web cracks in the three inch thick glass. As she watched, he raised his massive, four fingered fists (no pinkies) and smashed them against the glass. Ingrid felt the vibrations reverberate through the soles of her feet. The shock was accompanied by a wailing scream rising to the shriek of a mad man. Seth’s black eyes rolled from side to side, glinting like oil. His small lips were contorted in a snarl, tiny teeth glimmering purple-white in the incubator’s twilight. Sweat dotted his gray scalp. Tubing and slings snaked down from the ceiling or coiled on the floor where they had been ripped down. Dark blood bubbled from Seth’s nose where the nasogastric feeds had been ripped out. The white, adhesive tape that had held it in place hung from Seth’s thin, upper lip.

“What are we going to do,” Randy babbled, shocked into immobility by his inability to do anything. Ingrid flashed back to a memory of earliest childhood; Karl Malden on the television saying gravely: “What will you do? What will you do?”

“Shut off the oxygen,” she said quickly.

Randy’s eyes opened in abrupt understanding. He snapped his fingers. “Right!” He ran to the control panel and turned the oxygen control to two percent, its lowest setting.

A knot of people had gathered at the incubator, staring in wide-mouthed and open-eyed. Clifton shouldered his way through the pack. He had not found his clothes and had made do with a white lab coat he had belted around him. He was barefoot and his present apparel hung a modest three inches below his knees, but was not enough to conceal his naked, hairy shins.

Seth began a methodical pacing, pulling at any likely protrusion that might offer escape. His movements became more labored as carbon dioxide levels increased. His eyelids drooped, giving him a gummy eyed, calculating stare. His eyes caught Ingrid’s and reopened in alarm. His nostrils flared defiantly.

He staggered and lurched from side to side, weaving like a street wino. His hugeness made his movements appear slow and massive, like watching animated dinosaurs at the movies. His left leg buckled into a grotesque shape like cooked spaghetti as he fumbled vainly with a wall brace designed to hold a plasma bag.

Ingrid moaned when he passed out and hit the floor, his entire eight foot length rolling up like a pile of Jell-O. His eyes closed slowly but his lips remained parted, showing his peg-like teeth. His expression was more pain than anger.

Turn it back on! Turn it back on!” Ingrid railed at Randy. “Do you want to brain damage him?”

She turned and took in the crowd that had gathered.

“You,” she said, selecting a burly, white-jacketed man. “Get me six cc’s of Premagan. I want him taken to the infirmary and sedated.”

The man seemed somewhat confused and made no move to comply with her order. He stood as if dazed. Ingrid glared at him with eyes like flashing, double darts.

Move your ass, sonofabitch! What are you waiting for?”

The man hastened away.

“Here, Alex,” Ingrid said, accessing the incubator door. “You and Randy help me get him into the infirmary.”

Ingrid hurried into the incubator and squatted by Seth more gracefully than Clifton would have thought possible under the circumstances. He and Randy each grabbed one of Seth’s arms and levered him up. He was pure, dead weight and both of them grunted and strained just to get him to shoulder height. Clifton’s joints and muscles, too long idle, screamed blue murder. They were both fairly tall, but Seth’s knees still dragged on the floor. His head flopped limply from side to side, finally coming to rest on Clifton’s shoulder. His bloody nose smeared Clifton’s lab coat.

They moved out of the incubator and down the corridor. Ingrid led the way, looking over her shoulder every few seconds. She was horrified that Seth’s knees were dragging on the floor. She saw smears of blood on the chaste white tile where his knees had been scraped raw. Clifton and Bare were stooped over like aged, leather-skinned fishermen at the end of a hard day.

“God, I hope he doesn’t wake up right now,” Bare panted. “He’d rip us limb from limb.”

“Don’t even think about it,” Clifton gasped. “That’s a pretty sore spot with me.”

“Will you two can the crap and hurry up,” Ingrid called from ahead of them. “You’re almost there.”

Ingrid held open the infirmary door. Bare and Clifton dragged Seth through the door only with great effort. With the last of their combined strength they were able to hoist him into the bed Clifton had erstwhile occupied. Their task was accomplished only after a good deal of grunting and swearing and when they were done, they panted with relief.

The attendant who had been dispatched to fetch the sedative came into the infirmary. Ingrid snatched the metal hypo and ampule from him. She filled the syringe with shaking hands and jammed the needle into Seth’s buttocks.

“Would you get me some antiseptic and bandages, Alex?” She motioned absently at the cabinets over her head. “They’re up there.”

Clifton retrieved some red oil and bandages from the cabinet. He turned and saw Bare and the attendant still with them, looking at a loss for something to do.

“Why don’t you two go,” Clifton said. “Randy, let Jon know what’s happened.”

Clifton gave the supplies to Ingrid. She busied herself dressing the bleeding lacerations on Seth’s shins. Clifton took his first, really good look at what had been wrought in this laboratory. What he saw, combined with the effects of his long torpor and loss of strength, nearly made him dizzy.

Seth was seven and a half feet tall, maybe more. His legs from the knee down hung completely over the end of the six and a half foot long bed. Large bands of clearly defined muscle were etched like a relief map beneath the gray skin.

He was completely hairless, an unbelievably perfect statue like those carved by the ancient Greeks, and nearly the same marble color. It took Clifton only a moment to assimilate the contradiction of the bulbous, alien head which -truth be told- was not that different from a normal human cranium. It was only the eyes -liquid, black, and irisless- that discomfited him.

Clifton watched the strong beating of the heart beneath the thick pectoral muscles; heard the steady intake and exhale of air. Even under the effects of the sedative, Seth’s fingers were loosely curved. They twitched slightly.

Clifton swallowed hard. For a second he refused to believe this is what had become of what had looked like a half-dissected cadaver prior to his accident. Ingrid looked at him and he saw in her glittering eyes, the half-smirk on her face, that this was her ultimate moment in the sun. Clifton let the sinking feeling that had wrested hold of him pass.

“I think,” he said, in control of himself again, “we should give him some oxygen.”

He fastened an oxygen feed to Seth’s face, placing the barrels into the round, black nostrils of the almost non-existent nose. But not before he carefully wiped away the blood on Seth’s colorless lip and made sure his nasal passages were clear. He turned on the oxygen and the hissing gas began to flow in time with Seth’s respiration.

14

At three am the armed guard patrolling the outer gate of the Alamo lit another cigarette. A flame flared in his cupped hands and the smoke from his Chesterfield twirled away in tatters, stolen by the stiff, cool wind that had blown all night. The rain had ended a few hours earlier, but cold ghosts of clouds still slipped across the face of the moon from time to time. Trees bare with winter sleep stood in dark relief against the inky sky. Their seams creaked in pain as the fairy-water river of wind slipped through their branches like unseen fog.

He was smoking too much. His anxiety over the loss of his buddy was echoed in the way he looked up quickly with wary eyes at every sound he normally dismissed.

Merrifield had come down to the gate shortly after ten pm and escorted the other guard into the facility. He had instructed the man who remained to be particularly alert. Under no circumstances, Merrifield had told him, was anyone to he allowed outside this gate tonight. If it meant shooting, then shoot. The soldier disguised as a rent-a-cop had been disturbed by Merrifield’s jitters and his robust efforts to make everything seem normal. Up until this time, this had been an easy detail. The soldier could think of nothing so terrible it would make Merrifield, the human ice cube, lose even a fraction of his sang-froid.

They had walked away, Merrifield with his arm around the first soldier’s shoulder, his mouth to his ear, whispering instructions. They had mingled as one into the night.

Five hours later, the soldier at the gate felt more and more uneasy. He didn’t like wearing the rent-a-cop uniform, and he didn’t like being armed only with a forty-five, locked away from the arsenal that was kept inside for emergencies. The hours lingered endlessly without conversation and the night was chilly, laden with intimations of some great happening. He’d had all too many creepy feelings at this post. Why he couldn’t have been sent to Berlin, or Tokyo, or even Fort Hood, Texas, was a mystery to him.

Most of the lights within the facility were out. In the hallways, only every third fluorescent was lit. The workers had gone home to their apartments in town, or to bed in their quarters in the facility. Most tossed restively, few slept soundly. Some talked amongst themselves in hushed voices. The daytime machinery had powered down and a near silence had fallen. The footsteps made by restless workers heading for a cup of coffee were as loud as gunshots in an echo chamber. The whishing of slipper clad feet and the rustling of robes were like furtive breezes inside the brooding tranquility.

The other armed soldier patrolled outside the locked door of the infirmary. His instructions were to allow no-one in or out of the room unless authorized by Merrifield himself. The soldier shared his partner’s uneasiness. Merrifield had looked like a canary whose tail feathers had just been yanked out by a lunging cat. Once in a while, the guard looked at the locked door, not really wanting to see what was in there, but wondering what it was in this place that had to be locked and guarded.

Ingrid slept in her quarters. Although she had fought sleep adamantly, wanting to stay with Seth, Jon had ordered her to bed.

“Ingrid,” he had said, “I want you to rest. You’ve been up for two straight days rushing around like a chicken with its head hacked off. You go to sleep, or I’ll have you sedated.” He had been kind but firm and Ingrid had offered only token resistance. She had heavily sedated Seth and the last thing she really worried about was his waking up.

“Somebody has to stay with him,” she protested weakly. “I need to make sure he isn’t hurt.”

“Ingrid, he very nearly ripped the incubator apart with his bare hands,” Merrifield said. “I don’t think he needs to be coddled. Aside from that, there’s the very real possibility he could be dangerous. I know you don’t want to hear that, but it’s true. If the incubator wasn’t such a wreck, I’d have him sequestered there. You’ve taken his vital signs and found them perfect. Doesn’t that reassure you?”

“He’s right,” Clifton added. “He’s out with an assload of narcotics. All you can do is wring your hands.” He smiled wearily. “You still look like shit.”

“Could you have someone stay with him,” Ingrid asked.

“I’ll see to it,” Merrifield said. What he had in mind was not a sitter, but a guard.

“Alright,” Ingrid relented. Her face was pale and unhealthy looking. She had lost weight and her cheeks had hollowed out. Her mouth tasted like swamp water and she knew she was functioning on sheer instinct and jagged perseverance.

“You’ll wake me if anything happens? Deal?”

“We’re not trying to keep anything from you, Ingrid,” Merrifield said. “We’re thinking of your well being. God knows, you won’t.”

“I know,” she said, resigned. “Alex, would you walk me to my room? I don’t know if I can make it alone. I feel weak as a pup.”

Clifton helped her out of her chair. He guessed she weighed no more than ninety pounds, down thirty from when she had arrived. She seemed frail and weak at the moment, but Clifton knew she could still be a snarling cat if the need arose. She looked one last time at Seth before leaving the infirmary.

Merrifield had walked outside with them and looked at Ingrid oddly. “It’s not the best time to say it,” Merrifield said bluntly, “but I think it’s in order.” He hugged Ingrid affectionately and patted her on the back. “Congratulations on a job very well done.”

He turned and walked away, obviously embarrassed.

So it is, Ingrid thought, it’s actually done.

They walked down the hallway, Clifton’s arm around her waist. To someone unfamiliar with the circumstances they would have looked like two lovers. Ingrid closed her eyes, feeling comforted for the first time in weeks. She was actually in a walking daze when Clifton spoke to her.

“Hmmm,” she murmured, her eyes still closed.

“He’s more than I expected,” Clifton was saying. “More than I imagined. I’ve never seen such strength.”

They had come to Ingrid’s quarters. Clifton released her. They stood face to face.

“Will he be alright,” Ingrid asked.

“We’ll look in on him first thing in the morning.” Clifton bent down and kissed her on the cheek. “Get some sleep.”

Impulsively, she reached up and put her arms around his neck, hugging him tightly. He was surprised at the strength in those tiny arms.

“I’m so glad you’re back,” she whispered. “I’ve missed you so much.” She let go of him and looked at his face. Her eyes were red and moist. Clifton knew she was one of the walking dead.

“I’ll see you in the morning,” he said carefully. “Good night, Ingrid.”

She let herself into her room and closed the door. Clifton stayed at her door a bit longer, listening to her move around inside. He heard the shower start. He walked away down a corridor that had become stone empty. Somewhere in the distance, he heard a telephone ringing.

********************

Merrifield had locked himself in his inner office. He leaned back in his chair, placed his hands flat on his desk, closed his eyes, and tried to calm himself. All he had to do was relax and everything would be better in the morning.

His telephone rang.

He looked at it, irritated. Who in Christ’s name would be calling him at midnight, especially after the day he had just experienced? His office number wasn’t the kind you could pluck out of the phone book. He picked up the receiver.

“Hello?”

“Remember me, Jon?” a familiar voice asked. Anger rose in Merrifield like a column of mercury. His weariness dissolved in the solvent of hatred. His forearm seemed to have turned to a bundle of contracting steel rods.

How did you get this number,” he barked at Josh Hall.

“You’d be surprised what a man of God can find out.”

“It was Johnny Clark, wasn’t it?” Merrifield’s hands itched to reach through the phone and throttle Hall.

“It may have been a sign from God.” Hall chuckled. “Are you still as fat as you used to be? Do you still look like you died and somebody stuffed you full of chit’lin’s?”

“Are you still hiding your true colors behind the skirt of the Virgin Mother?”

“God has given me strength to withstand your insults,” Hall said placidly.

“Then maybe He can give you the strength to withstand this,” Merrifield said deliberately. “Fuck off, asshole.” He was about to slam the phone in its cradle when he heard what he had been expecting.

“Project Change, Jon. It’s out.”

Merrifield hesitated, caught in a dilemma between calling Hall’s bluff and finding out how much he actually knew. He placed the phone back to his ear. A pulse thumped wretchedly in his temple.

“You can’t blackmail me,” Merrifield said. “One wrong move and you’ll find out there’s no God in Leavenworth.”

“I don’t think so,” Hall said calmly. “Years ago, maybe, but now there’s such a thing as public opinion, although you’re probably still ignoring that too. I’ve gathered my sheep around me for the last ten years. They would offer themselves up for the slaughter to protect me. I’m in Raleigh, Jon. I can be at your mountain hideaway in five hours.”

“I’ll have you shot on sight,” Merrifield threatened. “I’d relish the chance.”

“I’m sure you’d do it yourself, but I don’t think you will. Not unless you want to murder the people I’ll be bringing with me. God has told me the world will be a better place without you and your little heathen, Ingrid Milner.”

“If God wanted to make the world a better place, He would turn you into a pillar of salt.”

“You won’t get away this time.” Hall’s voice was as cold-blooded and full of bite as a winter wind. “Once the country knows of your deliberate insurrection of God’s plan, the people will spear you on a rail and run you out on it.”

“Can the crap, Josh,” Merrifield said. “We both know what you are.”

“We played the game for fifteen years,” Hall said. “Now you’ve taken the bit in your teeth, haven’t you?”

Merrifield went cold all over. “You’re not making sense, Josh. Not that that’s anything unusual.”

“I won’t come at you directly,” Hall said. “I want to ruin you piece by piece. It’s God’s will for you to suffer. I’ll take great pleasure in knowing I brought about your downfall. I’ll laugh while you suffer.”

“You won’t be laughing alone,” Merrifield said viciously, “because you’ll bust hell wide open with me.”

He slammed the phone down, irritated it wasn’t one of the old types where the bells would clang. His breath came laboriously and he rubbed his eyes with his palms. What a goddam mess this was turning out to be. It seemed his life was turning into some Calvinistic fable.

He went to the cabinet in the corner of his office and pulled out his bourbon. He tipped a long shot straight from the neck of the bottle, draining it by a third.

The alcohol burned his gullet and Merrifield’s face screwed up into that of a war hag. Much as he would like to believe Hall was jumping at shadows, he knew it wasn’t true. Hall had not survived countless covert missions by being stupid. He was crazy, sure. Not stupid.

For fifteen years Jon Merrifield had brought his case to the brass hats in the pentagon and for fifteen years been shown the door. Now that Hall had amassed a considerable following and gained political clout, they had finally opened their eyes.

The perfect human created here would also be the perfect assassin. This was a piece of information given no-one but Merrifield himself, though he thought Clifton had the brains to figure it out on his own.

One other piece of information- one that Jon had insisted on as a precondition for his working in the project- was that Josh Hall’s name was at the top of the assassin’s list.

Had Hall never heard of the project or, more importantly, the specifics, all would have been well. It wasn’t a long stretch for a man of Hall’s intuit to figure out what his old enemy had planned.

The question was, could he wreck the project by exposure? And if he couldn’t, would he take the tiger by the balls himself? He could do it, he was crazy enough.

But would he? For that matter, Merrifield wasn’t sure if it was Hall’s play, or if he had a backer. It could be anybody. The Russians, the Israelis, Iranians, CIA, even some oil billionaire or high powered money trust. All that really mattered, he supposed, was that the ball was now in play, no matter who was paying the bills.

Jon’s brain had numbed a little with the alcohol. The warmth in his guts made him feel cleansed as if by a purifying fire. It would do no good to worry now. Josh Hall was no problem until tomorrow at the earliest. He couldn’t get in tonight if he had a stack of bibles and Deacon Lee in tow.

Merrifield tottered from his office and swaggered unsteadily to his quarters. He had some trouble producing the right sequence of numbers for his personal entry code. He had only one more stab at it before the doors locked down tight to prevent entry.

He started his final try at the lock when the hair at the back of his neck stood in a sudden surge of groundless fear. Some invisible terror had bled from the walls behind him like poison gas from a swamp. It loomed behind him, its huge shadow swallowing his own. It’s sour breath was hot and hungry on his neck. Merrifield stood paralyzed, listening to its grating respiration. Its fevered body gave off heat in baking waves.

Merrifield spun around drunkenly. The shadow vanished. There was no sound of breathing, no sense of the stifling heat. Merrifield stared into a blank wall on the opposite side of the hallway. Sweat oozed into his eyes and he blinked to clear them. His eyes darted left and right like the beads in a perpetual motion machine.

Merrifield felt small and puny, dwarfed to Lilliputian size by the lifeless building that stretched away in all directions to some never land. He felt trapped by his own insignificance, a tiny speck in the greater scheme of what was happening in this place.

He turned back to his door and carefully entered his access code. The door clicked open and he stepped inside, looking back once more to make sure he really was alone.

Seth lay quietly in the infirmary like a stone icon. Once in a while he moved an arm or leg like a man trying to scale a great precipice. After a time, one huge eyelid rolled up to reveal an onyx eye as large as a tennis ball. The eye would roll in its socket with excruciating slowness, looking at he door, then close for a few moments before opening again. The intervals between the times the eye opened and closed became progressively shorter until, at three am, he was completely awake, the narcotics fully metabolized.

The guard outside the infirmary paced up and down the corridor, sometimes stopping to put his ear to the door. He had heard nothing tonight, not even breathing. The whispers and padding footsteps had ceased completely around two thirty, a half hour before. He no longer heard any soothing sounds of human habitation. He didn’t count what was in the infirmary as human, though he had never seen Seth. Rumors of the construction of a super human being in a laboratory had come to him. A quasi-human ChromoCop with capabilities far beyond those of ordinary men. He knew enough to discount most of the talk as overblown bullshit propagated by rumormongers determined to convince the listening ear they spoke edicts from God.

But he had seen the truth among the workers.

They spoke in hushed tones among themselves and glanced suspiciously at anyone not directly involved in hands on procedures. Suppressed anxiety hovered over them like a storm cloud. The guard had seen the icy reception given the man from Skinner labs. The guard had heard what had happened to Clifton, but when Merrifield had fetched him inside, he had seen Clifton, whole and unimpaired. The only odd thing was he continually flexed the fingers of his right hand, the one that shouldn’t have been there. Clifton had seemed like a ghost, and that brought back the guard’s memory of the strange light and sense of some monstrous force that had been thwarted at the eleventh hour. Far too many things were unsettling at this place. Many times the soldier had felt some kind of energy field. Not precisely something alive, but nevertheless real: energy so powerful it could fold the facility in on itself like a paper cup. Had the guard and Merrifield been on friendly terms, they would have understood each other perfectly.

The soldier peered down the labyrinth of corridors. They were empty as sin, a checkerboard of light and dark. He fished a cigarette from his pocket and lit it. Smoking wasn’t allowed near the infirmary, but his nerves were spinning their wheels in overdrive.

He cupped the cigarette in his hand and dropped the ashes in his pocket, keeping a watchful eye out for anyone who might come snooping. He listened closely for footfalls, and that’s when he heard the sound of metal clanging softly inside the infirmary.

He sucked in his breath with a gasp and held it, the smoke burning his lungs. He heard a sound like rustling linen and what could have been a footstep. Not a sound the floor would produce, but the sound of a little used joint creaking, straining its sinews. The guard softly exhaled the smoke. It stung and clouded his eyes. It was hard to hear anything over the blood thudding in his ears.

There was nothing for a time. The guard had begun to feel like the class fool when he heard the soft rustle of a bare foot sliding across a tile floor, the faint ding of stainless steel armatures being brushed, the hollow sound of medicine bottles clinking together. The sound of respiration, regular and steady, came nearer the door.

He backed away to the opposite wall of the corridor, drawing his weapon. The slide action of the .45 snapped a tinny echo through the motionless air. He stood with his pistol pointed at the door, his fumbled cigarette smoldering on the floor. He adopted a spread-legged stance with a double handed grip that was a little shaky. He eyed the door with an unnamed fear so great it dried the moisture from his mouth and tensed the muscles of his back. From beyond the door came the hypnotic sounds of deep breathing.

The overhead fluorescents flickered, dark bands scurrying along the lengths of the lights like shadows chasing each other. Off in the distance, too far away to be of any help, the soldier heard what sounded like somebody snorting muffled laughter at a funny story.

The lights flashed off and the quiet hum of the facility’s machinery died like a dwindling generator. Within five seconds the lights blazed to life again, unnaturally bright as if from a power surge. For the instant it would take to cost him his life, the guard’s attention wavered from the infirmary.

A sudden, grinding crack smashed into the stillness of the Alamo as the infirmary door blasted off its hinges and hurtled from the door frame like an artillery shell. The soldier was able only to get his arm up before the door plastered him against the wall like an insect against a windshield. The back of his head flattened on impact, shattering his skull and driving shards of bone into his brain. He slumped lifelessly to the floor as the door rebounded and clattered away several yards down the corridor. The soldier’s face was bloody and smashed as flat as the face of a Pug dog. Two of his broken upper teeth protruded through his upper lip like grisly fangs.

Seth filled the shattered doorway, standing in what appeared to be gloating triumph, staring down at the mangled soldier with eyes that had lost the sheen of narcosis. Finely attuned nostrils flared in the sterile atmosphere of the facility. Seth stepped into the hallway and past the battered, rag doll body of the soldier.

The floor was cold on his feet in this alien place. He padded down the corridor, stooped to keep his head from brushing the seven and a half foot ceilings. The lightness of his step seemed impossible for his size. His eyes trailed back and forth, searching frantically for a way out.

He turned down unfamiliar hallways and loped by closed doors. Something was trying to pry into his head, waking up a kind of third ear in his brain, delving into the mass of still drugged gray matter like a faulty radio signal.

…what the hell was that…”

…Sounded like it came from…”

…the infirmary, yes, I think…”

…that fucking monster of Merrifield’s…”

…has got loose. Could that be…”

…true?”

He heard the sounds in his head clearly, but had no idea what they were. They were an unintelligible garble, but filled with a sense of quick purpose and organization that was frightening. He had been found out. He could stay no longer.

He saw a red symbol with an arrangement of obtuse angles that seemed to denote speed above a different door. With the instinctive reasoning abilities so carefully bred into him, he followed the pointing red arrow with the word “Exit” printed beneath it.

********************

The gate guard thought little of the sounds coming from inside the Alamo. For all he knew or cared, the staff was having a wild office party.

Outright fatigue had eventually overcome his fear and he had come close to nodding off once or twice with no conversation to keep him alert. Only the memory of how strange an experience he had lived through at this place kept him awake. The hooting of the owls had disturbed him at first, but they had fallen silent moments ago and no longer bothered him.

He snuffed out his ever-present cigarette and started a good, long stretch. He raised his arms and knotted the muscles running down either side of his spine. The vertebrae cracked, loosening joints that had been bound all night.

From atop the hill at the building proper, the soldier heard a sudden, loud buzzing. It was the alarm going off as a fire door was opened. Seconds later, the telephone inside the guard shack buzzed urgently.

What now?

He contemplated whether to finish his stretch or answer the telephone. The phone buzzed again and that decided him. As he brought his arms down, they suddenly, inexplicably stopped while still mostly over his head.

A bolt of raw terror surged through the soldier’s limbs as if someone had jammed two steel rods through his arms. Someone had slipped up behind him and wrapped their own arms under his. Two huge hands laced themselves together at the back of the soldier’s neck and he was lifted up to dangle a foot above the earth. He kicked his feet, feeling his heels dig into what felt like two stone posts. At the periphery of his vision he saw two massive, gray forearms at the angle of his jaw. Moonlight glimmered on the long muscles, stretched tight as drawn bands. The soldier felt breath on the top of his head, the sharp intake of air as of a man about to embark on a great feat of strength.

The owls started up again, hooting their mournful lament. Ragged gusts of wind sliced through the fence links, wailing like the screeching of caterwauling tomcats.

The soldier was unable to utter a sound as his head was pushed further and further forward by hands so large they seemed to cover his entire head and neck. His air supply was cut off as the trachea folded on itself like a bent straw. The soldier was able to force out only a final, faint squeak before the pressure became too much and the vertebrae in his neck separated and crushed his spinal cord to a white mush.

Seth dropped the limp carcass of the soldier. It slithered to the ground and sprawled like a wooden marionette with no tension on its strings. Moonlight shimmered off of Seth’s sweating ribcage, glinting like chrome on the raised surfaces of his ribs, puddling like ink in the intercostal pits.

The wind singing through the night cooled his body from its labors. It was too early for insects, but Seth would have welcomed them as fellow creatures in the natural web. He was as one with the night. Until he saw the fence surrounding the compound.

He launched himself wildly at it, clawing at the interlocking metal strands, shaking the fence as if he could tear it down by brute force. Blood ran through fingers shredded by sharp globs of galvanized paint adhering to the links. A hysterical jangling filled the night, the shaking fence even louder than the wind. Something else threatened to drown out his pathetic attempts at escape. The garbled transmissions he had heard earlier were coming again, flickering in and out like a Halloween candle in an open window. They were more urgent, now. The quick organization of his pursuers terrified him anew and he used precious moments to analyze his situation. If he could…

…get out? Is it possible…”

…no answer at the guard shack. Do you think…”

…we should wake Ingrid. He’s her pet. She would want…”

…to kill him…”

“NO!”

…Ingrid, I have some bad news for you…”

…find him. He couldn’t have gone far…”

…the soldier at the gate…”

…look at the soldier at the door…”

…he’s bound to have gone to the gate…”

…yes, the gate. Jon, will you go…”

…to the gate…”

…I’m coming with you…”

…we’ll all go, Ingrid…”

Seth looked around. A shining coin smiled down at him, sailing through wisps of spun sugar like a spaceship plowing a bed of stars. The moonlight shone off the barbed wire atop the fence, running and melding with the changeable cloud cover. With no further hesitation, he hooked his toes into the openings of the fence and began climbing. Smears of blood stained the metal fence where his flayed fingers gripped it.

Lights came on all over the Alamo. Seth no longer heard the voices in his head, but actual voices raised in shouts. He hastened over the fence, the hateful barbed wire nicking him. He stared back over his shoulder, wide, black eyes united with the night. He lowered himself on the other side of the fence, hitting the ground on his feet. Soft mud squelched between his toes and splattered against the bandages on his shins. The air smelled musty and humid, like life. The first doors of the Alamo opened into the night.

Seth turned away, training his wind-misted eyes on the giant forest trees. He ran toward them, toward sanctuary. Toward freedom.

********************

They gathered around the dead man’s body like children around a game of marbles.

He lay face down. Small trenches circled his knees where he had slid when he hit the muddy ground. Ingrid had attended and performed enough dissections and autopsies to believe she was immune to any sight, yet she could not look at the dead man for more than a few seconds.

Where the guard’s neck joined his shoulders was a huge, nearly razor perfect gash, four inches long. It was gelatinous black in the moonlight, maroon in the beam from Merrifield’s flashlight. Yellow globules of subcutaneous fat pushed upward from the center of the wound, appearing to move and pulsate liquidly in the shaky beam of the flashlight.

Ingrid found it all to easy to reconstruct what had happened. Seth had come upon the man unawares, immobilized his torso- probably with a Full Nelson- and wrenched the soldier’s head forward. She couldn’t imagine the strength it would take to rip skin, muscle and cartilage bare handed. The tissues had stretched as far as they could stretch, and then split like a rubber balloon. Ingrid knew the soldier had come revoltingly close to having his entire head topple to the ground. Ingrid was scraping bottom, her nerves at their limits. Now they were being tested, pushed beyond their abilities.

“Who was he,” Ingrid asked, almost afraid to hear a name put with so much lifeless clay.

“Trey Morris,” Merrifield said. Ingrid heard a slight tremor in his voice for the first time since she had known him. He turned away from the body and walked to the fence. He played the light up and down its links, looking for a clue. A break, a bend in the wire, anything. The beam fell upon a splotch of wet blood. Merrifield let the light roam up the fence, following the smears of blood.

“That’s it,” he said. “He went up and over. He’s running for the woods right now.”

“Shit,” Clifton said. He looked at the ground, distracted. He had taken the time to change out of the lab coat and into jeans, a pull over shirt, and loafers with no socks. Not all the effects of his coma had worn off and he looked up, a somewhat, irrational gleam in his eyes.

“We can’t leave him to run loose,” he said rapidly. “He could drown in the river, or get hit by a car, or, for that matter, he might kill anybody else that gets in his way.”

“No, he won’t,” Ingrid said. Her voice was weak but sure. It was the voice of a ghost, and in the mist that had condensed over the cool ground gathered around them, she did look like a ghost. She was thin and so white that the brown circles beneath her eyes seemed to be a part of them; made them seem wide and staring. The moon showed her unhealthy pallor. Shadows hid in the wasted hollows of her skin. Even her movements were slow and purposeful. Clifton was fascinated at the way she went on and on.

“He reacted instinctively,” she continued. “He’s not a killer. He’s trying to survive. That’s all.”

“There are two men dead,” Clifton said painfully. “How can you say ‘that’s all’?”

“Alex,” Merrifield said, “she’s right. It’s a risk they knew when they took this job. Every one who carries a gun faces the possibility of death. Brutal as it sounds, they were expendable. Seth is not.”

“To hear you talk,” Clifton said, “everyone here is expendable. He’s out of control.”

“He is not out of control,” Merrifield countered loudly. He glared at Clifton, daring him to dispute him.

Clifton stared back for a few seconds, then turned away and looked at the fence. He stared at it a long time, trying to come to terms with what Merrifield had said. It was logical to assume that Seth, at this stage, was no more than an animal. Clifton wasn’t ready to let it go that easily, but he decided to play it Merrifield’s way, for a while, at least.

“What do you suggest,” he said, turning back to Merrifield.

“We’ll have to call the police, at least until I can get the M.P.’s here. All the police need to be told is that a patient has suffered a delirium and escaped from the infirmary. They will be told the patient is possibly dangerous in his delirium.”

“Will they buy it,” Clifton asked.

“Coming from me,” Merrifield said, “they’ll run with it even if they don’t believe it.”

“And what’s to keep Seth from killing anyone else in his way?”

“Human nature,” Ingrid said. Clifton and Merrifield looked at her.

“Be reasonable, Alex…” she said.

“I am reasonable. But I think you two have lost your minds. He didn’t have to kill the guard at the gate. He could have gone around him.”

“Alex, think,” Ingrid said in a terse, clipped and tensely enunciated voice. “Think about Seth. Would anybody in their right mind fuck with an eight foot tall, naked man roaming the streets? Especially one who looks like a goddammed alien?”

“Not on purpose, no. But what if he sneaks up on somebody?”

“I’m almost positive he’ll hole up. Try to hide. All we have to do is find him. The town cops will help with that.”

“Before he kills someone else?”

You’re so goddam full of bright ideas, Alex,” Ingrid exploded. “Maybe you can fill me in on what I’ve been missing. What other choice do we have?”

Alex shut his mouth, stunned into silence. Much as he hated to admit it, she was right. They had no other choice. But once they found him, that was a zebra of a different stripe.

“Alright,” Alex said. “I was too caught up, I guess. We can’t do anything else.”

“Then let’s stop arguing and attend to matters at hand,” Merrifield said. “I’ll notify the local police and have them start the search. I’ll see to the bodies. Now, back to the lab.”

“I have to see this through,” Ingrid said. “It’s my responsibility. If I hadn’t let you talk me into leaving him tonight, this might not have happened.”

“If you had stayed with him,” Merrifield said, gesturing at the dead man, “this would have been you. And Seth would still be gone.”

“We have to have you later,” Clifton said. “When Seth is found. Right now you’re a wreck.”

“All that can be done will be done,” Merrifield said. He spoke directly to Ingrid. “I’ve had experience in these matters. We’ll have Seth back before morning.”

“Do you really think so,” she asked hopefully. There was still so much of a child in her, Merrifield thought. He had used it against her many times, and would do it again if he had to.

“It’s not unreasonable,” Merrifield asserted. “Seth’s a child. We’ll have him back in no time.”

15

Walt Cagle tossed another branch on the fire. The crashing of the limb dislodged burning cinders that eddied upward in a twisting spiral. The March nights were still cold and the heat from the fire baked his black face and warmed it.

His son, Wayne, walked back along the river bank. He held a stringer of four catfish, still squirming and wriggling, their fins and whiskers waving. His blue work pants were water spotted. He sat next to his father, hugging close to the fire. He dumped the catfish on a filleting board and unsnapped their gill clamps. They were in a natural clearing and the trees surrounding them blunted the cutting wind. Most of the overcast had cleared and the stars twinkled through the crystal-clear air like still comets.

Less than twenty yards away, Seth sat in the trees and watched the two men. The fire had drawn his attention with its promise of heat and warmth. He had seen it from a long way off, somehow knowing it would drive the chill of the night away. The confused noises in his head had stopped as soon as he had made a good distance from the Alamo. As he sat he vaguely noted that his skin was lighter than that of the two men he watched. He had tried the word that had so arrested his mind, repeating it over and over as he moved toward the fire. It came out roughly, slurred like a drunk trying to repeat a difficult phrase. Still, he liked the sound of it.

Ingrid,” he grunted softly. What was it? What did it mean?

“Did you hear something,” Walt asked. He stared into the winter dark woods. For a few seconds his eyes met Seth’s. After a bit, Walt looked away.

“What is it, pap,” Wayne asked.

“Nothin’,” Walt answered. “Sounded like somebody talkin’.”

“Shit, pap. There’s nobody around for miles.”

“I just tole you it was nothin’,” Walt repeated patiently. He looked at the fish Wayne had brought with him. “You check all the lines?”

“Except for the trot lines.”

“More nights like this I could use,” the old man grinned. “We’d have a fish fry everyday.”

“Pap, you sound just like an old sharecropper when you say that.”

“I am an old sharecropper,” Walt said, unperturbed. “And the Lawd brought me through that. I got the Lawd on my side. And if you got the Lawd, who can hurt you?”

“The Lord’s always brought you through, pap?”

“Always. He’s my Friend.”

Seth listened to the two men. The old man smiled as he talked, the fire reflecting orange off of his teeth. Images of the flames flickered in the old man’s eyes. His ruff of black and gray hair glinted in the glow. The younger man wore a baseball cap with an “X” on it, though Seth had no idea what it meant. He squatted next to the fire, one hand extended toward it.

One of the words the old man had spoken sounded very pleasant. Seth tried it, careful to say it quietly.

Lawd,” he whispered. The fire beckoned as Seth sat among the trees listening to its crackle, watching the heat burn away the mist in a hazy halo above it, smelling its strong, hickory scent. He sensed the incalculable mass of the river flowing heavily in its banks.

Walt began skinning the catfish with a practiced hand. He deftly peeled the skin from the flesh with his filleting knife, slicing open its belly and scooping out the guts with the knife. He flung the entrails into the woods with one quick motion. They plopped near Seth and the fishy aroma virtually leaped into his nostrils. His stomach seized in a painful hunger cramp. With the utmost stealth, Seth felt around until he found the fish guts. He brought them to his nose, then began to eat. The skin was too tough to chew, but the entrails were wonderful. He waited for the old man to sling more.

“You gonna check the rest of the lines,” Walt asked.

“Sure, pap.” He smiled at his father.

Walt grunted, but he was pleased. He never looked up from his fish cleaning.

“Go on. Get outta here.”

Wayne tramped off down the river bank. The old man stayed at his task, slinging the guts in Seth’s direction. Seth downed them greedily, never minding the cold, slimy way they slipped through his gullet.

Walt finished and sat back, looking at the stars. He thought he heard a voice in the woods to his left. He turned his head and strained to hear it again. As he listened, he heard the first birds of the day and was surprised to see the sky was not inky black anymore. Though there was no trace of pink on the horizon, the sky itself was a shade lighter than deep purple. An hour til sunrise, then. He lapsed into his boyish stargazing. He was nearly in a doze when he heard the word again. It was clear and left no room for imagination. It sounded like a very tired child had said “Lawd.”

Walt stood up and stared into the near distance, placing his left palm over his brow as if shading his eyes. He held the knife in his right hand.

“Wayne,” he called gently. “Is that you?”

His only response was the chirping birds. A bullfrog groaned on the river and somewhere he heard a splash as a fish jumped. The night which just a short time ago had seemed so calming and near end was now menacing and filled with noises he didn’t recognize. Something moved in the woods behind him and he turned quickly.

Seth watched the old man turn around and around. The man’s state of awareness had changed. Some new emotion that hadn’t been there before came from him.

The man turned again. Seth dropped with catlike quickness, not so much as cracking a twig. He stayed rock still, hidden in the shadows. The man moved towards him, his skinning knife held slightly aloft. The gutted fish lay on a board next to his feet.

There was someone in the woods other than Wayne. He had heard the voice. The way it mocked the name of God chilled him. Some crazy white sonofabitch with an ax, or a member of the Klan, or some spaced out brother jealously guarding a moonshine still. Walt stared into the woods, looking into its depths, seeking the comforting glow of a light in the darkness.

Quiet as an Indian, Walt edged towards the woods. Seth sat in a crouch, ready to spring at a second’s notice. The old man continued to close the distance until he was bare inches from discovering Seth. The quaking emotion of fear swelled like a cloud from the old man, enveloping both of them in its choking weight.

The power of the man’s fear was too much for Seth to bear and he sprang to his feet to run away. Walt cried out. Cringing terror blazed through his body like red hot steel as he looked into the face of the monster. The monster was eight feet tall and built like a bear. Walt caught a frightful glimpse of two obsidian eyes reflecting cold firelight and boring into him from an impossible height. White teeth gleamed in a lipless circle.

Without thinking, Walt slashed his knife upward at the hideous face. The blade bit solidly into flesh, slicing effortlessly until it hit bone, then screeching to a stop with the squeal of fingernails scratching a blackboard. An enraged scream like something from the horror of a late night creature feature spilled from the monster’s open mouth and rolled through the hills like a shot. The flesh of Seth’s cheek split from his cheekbone to the corner of his mouth.

Seth staggered backward in fear and pain. The old man stared at him with a terrible, white-eyed fear. With no effort that he was aware of, a piercing bolt of energy ripped itself from somewhere deep in Seth’s chest. The unseen force rocketed into the night toward the old man, seeking him out in blind defensiveness.

Walt was lifted from the ground and thrown backward fifteen feet like a tissue in a tornado. He landed in the outer ring of the fire. Burning red coals exploded upward. Disturbed sparks boiled toward the sky in the searing draft, whirling like a swarm of glowing insects. Walt’s clothes caught fire and he rolled madly from the flames, trying to extinguish his blazing garments.

Seth reeled away, faint with pain. He clutched his lacerated face. Warm blood bubbled through his fingers. He cast one hateful glance at the old man rolling on the ground with his clothes aflame. His first impulse was to finish the job. For a second his mind was filled with the clear resolve to break and crush. But his pain reared its Cobra’s head and his resolve weakened in the face of his agony.

He retreated into the woods, slipping and sliding on mud-slicked leaves as he scurried up a steep slope. The slash in his face burned like fire, as only the deep wound caused by a razor-sharp blade can. He reached the top of the slope and, unable to check his balance, tumbled forward, a rolling pinwheel of arms and legs down the opposite side. Oak roots, spread over the ground like petrified fingers, stubbed and broke his toes and abraded his naked body. He flailed his hands and caught hold of a wild rose vine. The briars broke off in his palms and fingers as his momentum carried him forward. He slammed a glancing blow into a huge boulder. The bones in his shoulder bent past the loads which they were designed to bear. The sudden G- Force whipped him around like a pole vaulter. He sailed through the air, smelling stagnant water.

He landed in the swamp with a loud splash. The fetid, filthy water filled his mouth through the hole in his cheek. The edges of the cut screamed in even greater agony, as if the nerve endings had been prodded with needles.

He jerked his head up, sputtering and spitting out the foul water. Some of it exited in a spray though the hole in his face.

Swamp creatures disturbed from their business swam, floated, or hopped away from the intruder. Leeches clamped onto Seth’s legs, sucking his blood like aquatic vampires.

Stinking mud plastered his limbs as he struggled to his feet in the shin deep water. Bright, quicksilver flashes shimmered before his eyes as his blood pressure suddenly dropped. His head felt as though it had been struck with a sledgehammer and his shins burned.

He plodded, staggering, out of the swamp, splashing water and struggling for every step. He collapsed on the verge of the swamp, his breath coming in sharp gasps that whistled across the hole in his cheek. His tongue explored the wound. It tasted like the swamp water smelled. He scraped the mud from his arms and smeared it on the raw edges of the wound. The cold mud backed the pain off until it was only a throb that intensified each time his heart beat. He lay on his back, staring through the endless maze of branches above him. Faint starlight trickled through occasionally. He closed his eyes and repeated the only words he knew in a painful, sorrowful gasp.

Ingrid….Lawd…Ingrid…Lawd…” he panted out again and again until he felt strong enough to stand. He made his way cautiously through the unfamiliar woods, barely noticing the smells that assailed him through his fog of pain. He climbed up and up, closer to the sky. The first, fine pink ribbon had wrapped across the eastern skyline before Seth found a welcoming den in the mountainside.

He discovered the cavern seven miles from the Alamo. He walked into it, threading his way deeper into its heart, away from those who wished to hurt him. He felt his way along the damp walls, noting their rugged texture, seeing details normal men could not see in the complete absence of light. Blind trout swam in the underground stream by his feet, his only companions save the infrequent dripping of water.

He found a dark, natural chamber big enough for him to stretch out in. He lay down and slept on the cold stone floor, beginning to shiver as a fever built. He stayed that way until the sun had settled almost to the western horizon and those pursuing him were very close.

[]THE CARRIAGE MAN

1

From the Winfield Tribune, special edition, March 8, 2003.

Local Man Victim of Assault.

Ronnie Walton.

Walter Cagle of 2101 Shady Grove Lane was viciously attacked early this morning by an unknown assailant. He is presently listed in satisfactory condition at Memorial Hospital.

Cagle and his son, Wayne, 24, of Winfield, were fishing on the Coosa river around five am when the attack occurred. The younger Cagle told police he had been checking trot lines when he heard a loud commotion coming from the area where his father had remained. Upon arriving at the scene, Cagle saw his father rolling on the ground, attempting to smother the flames engulfing his body.

After treatment for second degree burns, the elder Cagle told police he had heard a noise in the woods and had stood up to investigate. The attacker, described as a white male of apparently mixed race, eight feet tall (sic), extremely strong, and stark naked, sneaked up behind Cagle. Cagle stated he was able to fend off his attacker with a knife he had been using to clean fish, but the attacker still managed to shove him into the fire he had built earlier. The attacker then fled into the forest.

Police had earlier been alerted that a large, white male had escaped from the infirmary of the Winfield Alamo, a private facility that manufactures drugs for the army and various federal agencies.

Jon Merrifield, head of operations, told police that Jackson Scoggins, an employee at the plant, and cancer patient, had accidentally inhaled a poisonous gas used as a catalyst in the manufacture of a cancer curing drug. In sufficient quantities, Merrifield said, the gas can induce hallucinations and delirium. Scoggins was undergoing treatment at the Alamo infirmary when he escaped. No-one at the facility was injured.

Winfield Police Chief Jason Lewis believes the attack on Cagle may have been perpetrated by Scoggins in a state of delirium. State Troopers and National Guardsmen have been called in to canvass the area for Scoggins. Merrifield says Scoggins is unarmed, but should be considered dangerous because of his large size (Six feet, ten inches) and state of delirium.

Under no circumstances, Chief Lewis says, should any civilian attempt to apprehend Scoggins, but should report any sightings to the police at once…

 

From the same edition of the Tribune, page 9.

 

Josh Hall to speak at Sedgefield Auditorium Tonight.

The nationally known evangelist, Josh Hall, is scheduled to bring his crusade to Winfield tonight at eight pm.

There was some scrambling to get the auditorium ready for the surprise engagement, but all loose ends have recently been tied. All citizens of Winfield and surrounding areas are cordially invited to attend. Admission is free.

Hall has been comparatively silent since his last dustup with the media four years ago with his negative views and opinions on the experiments concerning genetic recombination performed by Ingrid Milner at a Tampa, Florida University. Ms. Milner herself has fallen silent and inquiries into her whereabouts have drawn a blank. The original verbal barrage between the two began when Milner succeeded in exchanging genetic patterns between two unlike species of rodents…

2

“It’s not mandatory you let us in, Jon, no. But it would sure smooth things out for the rest of us.”

Jason Lewis was a whip-thin man with a nose as ridged and uneven as an artichoke. Lush, red gin blossoms bloomed on it. His gaunt shoulders bore a light blue windbreaker. The westerly wind snapped his collar against his neck like an untethered flag.

He had arrived at the Alamo at nine am the morning after Seth’s escape, accompanied by Josh Hall, and a reporter from the local rag, the Winfield Tribune, Ronnie Walton.

Merrifield had been up all night. He went over the night’s tally in his mind. Two dead, one injured. A total of three casualties from a highly-doped, semi-comatose, unarmed being. His suit was rumpled and his large belly, which he usually kept pretty well sucked in, hung over his belt and pushed its way ahead of his unbuttoned jacket like a bucket of lard. Ingrid had been all over him since seven o’clock. The search for Seth had been a waterhaul. The only thing he had to show for his night’s efforts was one horribly injured father, and one hysterical son, both innocent victims.

“I don’t want to trample on your, uh, imprimatur, Constable,” Merrifield said. He was being as diplomatic as his weariness and agitation would allow. “But this is a restricted facility. Only visitors with special authorization are allowed inside. As far as you go, Constable, you have official business and an exception will be made. The other…gentlemen, Mr. Hall and…” Merrifield squinted at the young reporter behind Hall, “…and Mr…Who is this egg, anyway?” Merrifield asked, dropping diplomacy for the moment.

“Mr. Walton,” Lewis supplied. “He’s a reporter for the Trib.”

“Oh, yes,” Merrifield said, remembering a rough ticker from the AP machine one of his cohorts had thrust under his nose that morning. “I should have known.”

“If you’re dead set against it, Jon…” Lewis began.

“You don’t have anything to hide, do you, Jon,” Hall interrupted. He spoke softly, but he was looking at Merrifield like a leopard with a monkey in his sights. “Surely you’re not worried about a man of the cloth,” Hall went on. “I’ve had some unkind things to say about genetics in the past, but this is a drug manufacturing facility, isn’t it? That’s what the chief here told me. I like to know a little something about the towns I preach in.” Hall smiled, but it was a paper mask.

Merrifield stared at him with wrathful, unblinking eyes.

Lewis seemed surprised. “You two know each other?”

“We’ve met,” Merrifield said curtly. He never took his eyes from Hall’s smug face.

“I have no objection to your coming into the facility with me, constable,” Merrifield said. “The other gentlemen will have to wait in the reception area for the moment.”

“Wait a minute,” Walton broke in. “I came up here to find out more about the guy who escaped last night. I need some answers.”

“From you,” Merrifield said murderously, “I don’t have to take any lip. Wait in the reception area, or wait out here at the gate. If you want answers, you’ll get them from me and no-one else. Got that?”

On top of everything else, all Merrifield needed was some goddam T-hound fresh out of journalism class trying to walk all over him.

“Can it, Ron,” Lewis told him. “All of us will get our answers soon enough. Mr. Merrifield and myself haven’t had the luxury of a full night’s sleep like you have.” He spoke to Jon. “We can’t keep them from reporting the news. I just wish we could control the bullshit that falls out of their mouths sometimes.” He looked apologetically at Hall. “Sorry, Reverend.”

Hall nodded absently, still studying Merrifield. Jon hadn’t changed much from days of old. Hall imagined the wheels turning, the cogs clicking, the scrutiny of new elements being introduced into a scenario.

“If you’ll follow me,” Merrifield said, reopening the gate and ushering them into the compound. The hayseed reporter hadn’t even commented on the lack of a guard. He foresaw no problems with him.

The last of the clouds had cleared during the night and the early morning mist was all but burned away by the sun which had topped the mountain crests. The four men felt its heat like a clear, defined beam as they trudged up the gentle slope to the entrance of the Alamo proper. None of them spoke until they were all inside.

“If you gentlemen will sit here,” Merrifield said, motioning Walton and Hall to a coffee table with chairs set around it. “The constable and I will go to my office and discuss our missing person.” He spoke to a receptionist behind a glass cage. “Bring these gentlemen some coffee, Kay. Whatever they want. I’ll be back in a few minutes to make a statement to the… press.”

Kay took the men’s orders quickly. Only Ron Walton noticed she failed to make eye contact with any of them.

Merrifield and Lewis disappeared through another door. The sound of their clicking heels on the unseen hallway sounded like the hollow vibrations of footsteps in a morgue. Considering the plastic-wrapped bodies of the dead soldiers secreted in the large, walk in freezer, it wasn’t far off the mark.

********************

They seated themselves on opposite sides of the desk in Merrifield’s office. Lewis’s Smoky the Bear hat was thrown carelessly atop a pile of hastily stacked papers on Merrifield’s desk. Lewis slumped wearily in his chair and blew out a sigh of relief.

“My Christ,” he said heavily. “Am I glad to be away from that crew.”

“How did Elmer Gantry out there get to tag along up here with you,” Merrifield fumed. He was like a tea kettle seconds from the boiling point.

“You mean Bible Joe out there? Just bad luck,” Lewis said after consideration. “We knew he was coming, we found out late last night. But he came blowing into the station this morning and demanded to be brought here. Probably heard about your escapee on the radio.”

“He has no authority over you.”

“Not personally, no,” Lewis said. “But we’re in the first hole of the Bible Belt. It may seem we have nothing but a bunch of grasping capitalists in town, but the majority are good Christians. One day a week, anyhow.”

“That doesn’t give him the right to meddle in police business.”

“Jon,” Lewis said patiently. “I’ve got to look after my town. I’ve worked with you. I’ve looked the other way many times, but something goddam screwy is going on up here and it’s getting harder to hide it. I’ve got a cub reporter following up everything I do, ready to tell the electorate how cozy the two of us are. I can live with that. No-one in town knows exactly what it is you do up here, including Walton, but everybody knows for damn sure you’re not making drugs, and the town council certainly isn’t going to complain about the money that flows out of this place. But something’s been brewing up here for a year and a half, and people are starting to talk.”

“Up until last, night we haven’t hurt a thing as long as we’ve been here,” Merrifield said. “It was an unfortunate occurrence. What I need is cooperation, not that fucking bible basher fouling things up.”

“It was my call, Jon. He dropped a few juicy hints about what he knew about this place, what could happen if he didn’t see you. He said it would be a lot better on everyone involved if he were allowed to speak with you. I couldn’t see the harm. I know the kind of hell the man can raise. We don’t need that kind of blabbering. Walton is another matter. I was hoping you could give him enough to keep him out of our hair until we can get this Scoggins guy. Once he’s salted away, Walton will lose interest and start puppy dogging me again. I want this guy caught before he can do any digging.”

“Let him dig,” Merrifield said expansively. “He won’t find anything.”

Lewis rolled his eyes.

“You’re a real pill, Jon. It’s no coincidence Hall is here. You acted like you were half-expecting him. Don’t jack me around. What am I to think about a young woman who comes into town a couple of times a week, has dinner with your right hand man, and doesn’t talk to anybody? That’s a woman who doesn’t want to be known. I know Ingrid Milner is stashed away up here, and that gives me a pretty good idea of what you’re really doing. I think your mad escapee last night was coincidence, but it ties in somehow with Milner, and Hall’s visit.”

Merrifield was hardly shocked at Lewis’s conjecture that Ingrid was on his payroll. Lewis had shown himself to be shrewd and canny in the past simply by keeping the townspeople off of his back about the place. It was nearly impossible to put anything over on him.

“If she is here,” Merrifield countered, “it doesn’t mean we’re doing anything arcane. The production of drugs and chemicals, especially the newest ones, requires the best in molecular biology.”

“That may be so, but whatever the reason Milner’s here, that’s why Hall is here. I don’t know from Shinola about genetics, but you can bet your sweet white ass Hall is creaming in his Armani’s to get something on this place. If you can’t put him off, he’ll make something up just to queer you.”

“Who else knows Milner is here,” Merrifield asked, dropping all pretense of denial.

“Just me, I think. I’ve kept it under my hat. She’s hardly a criminal, so I’ve got no reason to say anything. Unless you can convince Hall nothing out of the ordinary is going on, he’s going to blow the lid off the whole stinking brew, whatever it is.”

“There’s nothing to concern him here,” Merrifield said convincingly. He looked at Lewis very openly.

Lewis tilted his head back and looked at the ceiling for a few seconds, then back at Merrifield.

“If there’s nothing of concern going on, maybe you can explain why it’s like a fucking graveyard in this place. Every warm body I passed on the way in looked like they had just sat through a screening of ‘1001 Maniacs’. Half of ’em look like they haven’t slept in a year, and the other half has clammed up so tight you couldn’t drive a pin up their ass with a sledgehammer.

“And maybe you can explain why the lights in town keep going out. The goddam power company can’t give me an answer. All they can do is wring their hands and mumble some shit about power surges and ball lightning.”

“I don’t know anything about that,” Merrifield said. “We’ve had a few brief outages, but the lights came right back on. Maybe it’s UFO’s.”

“Well, if our assault victim from last night is to be believed, there’s already a fucking alien running around.”

“Cancer patient,” Merrifield said. “He lost his hair from the chemo.”

“Yeah. Well, it’s getting to be goddam spooky in town,” Lewis said dejectedly. His tone was that of a man who had exhausted all rational explanations. “I’ve lived here all my life. I’ve heard my share of monster yarns. The Brown Mountain Lights, the ghosts of the Kron gold, all of it. Every little burg has its local color. But when the lights in town go out, everybody looks up here on the hill and see this place blazing away like a lighthouse, and they’re afraid. Something up here is different and people know it.

“Now we’ve got a real terror out of this place, not just a vapor or a rumor. This Scoggins has already attacked one citizen and I have a sneaking suspicion he got a couple up here on the way out. What happened to the guards that are usually at the gate?”

“They’re on holiday,” Merrifield said. “Maybe you’d like to see their orders?”

“I’m sure,” Lewis said flavorlessly. “Not that I really care, unless there’s been a crime, but Walton noticed. I saw his eyes clicking away like a couple of cameras. He’s not as dumb as he seems. I want to quit arguing and put our heads together. We’ve got a hell of a problem and I need your help. If you’re hiding anything, maybe you’d better spill it if it’ll help get Scoggins back.”

Merrifield pondered the invitation. He studied Lewis’s lean form slouched in his chair. His face was perfectly devoid of expression. Lewis had pieced together pieces of the puzzle even the highly trained Josh Hall could not have figured out without the ratting from Clark. If any man outside the facility could be trusted, it was Lewis. Still, Merrifield was unwilling to take the risk.

“I’d tell you if I could,” he said at last. What was more, he sounded as if he truly regretted it.

“I thought as much. How much time do I have?”

“Not long. The MP’s are on their way, as well as the national guard. The state troopers have already been ordered down. You might as well bring your men home. It will soon be out of your hands.”

“I don’t guess it matters you’ll be usurping the power of the governor as well as the local bailiwick. That’s been taken care of as well?”

“It has.” Merrifield paused. “One thing I should tell you, just on the off chance you should run into Scoggins in the next couple of hours.”

“What’s that?”

“Scoggins has to be taken alive.”

Lewis looked shrewdly at Merrifield. “He’s that important? And that dangerous?”

“It’s imperative he be returned alive. No price is too high.”

“Christ Almighty,” Lewis muttered. “I’m glad it’ll be out of my hands. You’re willing to lose men?”

“Willing isn’t the right word. If it comes to it, it may be necessary.”

Lewis blew out a tired breath. “I couldn’t use my men for bait. I’d instruct them to use deadly force.”

“Put up a front for a couple of more hours. Let us handle it.”

“I’d rather sandpaper a lion’s ass than get mixed up in this thing anymore.” Lewis picked up his hat from Merrifield’s desk. “Just one last thing, Jon. If this guy causes anymore trouble, or if I run across him, I won’t ask your permission to take him down. I won’t let any more people be hurt.”

“We have it under control,” Merrifield said. “We think he’s hurt, holed up somewhere.”

“He may not be easy to find,” Lewis said. “There are hundreds of caves and caverns around here. Big tourist traps. Eric Rudolph led the Feds on a merry chase for years. If this fellow is as nuts as you make out, he may hole up in one of them and you’ll never find him. We may all end up chasing our tails until he comes out. Or dies.”

“Perhaps.” Merrifield stood up. “This is something we have to handle on our own.”

“I’ve known you a long time, Jon. I’ve never seen you like this. I won’t say scared because I know nothing scares you. There’s a lot more to this, though. For all I know this guy could be carrying a killer plague, or be blown halfway to the moon on LSD. I hope the next I hear of him is from you, telling me he’s under wraps.”

“One more thing before you go,” Merrifield said. Lewis, who had placed his hand on the door knob, turned around.

“What did you think of Hall?”

Lewis tried to read the intent in Merrifield’s question, but his face was an enigma.

“He’s a wolf,” Lewis said carefully, “He’s as pious as a slug and just as distasteful.” He shrugged. “I don’t like him, you don’t like him. He’s a killer of some type. It’s a look I saw many times in the back of a squad car. You don’t forget it and you don’t mistake it for something else if you want to stay alive. I’ll be watching him until he’s gone. Don’t give him any reason to stick around.”

Merrifield nodded.

“How are you going to handle Walton?”

“I’ll give him a statement. I won’t give him any reason to dig.”

“And Hall?”

“I’ll have to think that one over.” Merrifield wondered how he could turn the tables on a man who actually knew the project objectives. Hall was by no means stupid. He had already put two and two together and figured out who the escapee was. That’s why he was here.

“Give him something plausible,” Lewis said. He opened the door and waited for Merrifield.

“You coming?”

“I’ve a couple of things to do here. I won’t be long.”

Lewis left. As soon as the door was shut, Merrifield dialed his phone.

“This is Jon, Ingrid. Do exactly as I say. Stay in your quarters for the next half hour. I have an unpleasant visitor to mollify.”

3

“Is that it,” Walton asked, blinking.

“Isn’t that, enough,” Merrifield asked politely. He had reached the end of his rope in connection with Ron Walton. Twice in the past five minutes Merrifield had come within a figurative inch of taking Walton’s notebook and pounding it up his ass sideways. Walton had begun asking some touchy and highly speculative questions.

“I was expecting more,” Walton said,

“I can’t tell you more than I know,” Merrifield said patiently. “When we know more, you’ll know it. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have other matters to attend.”

“What I want to know,” Walton said, “is why Mr. Hall gets the dime tour and I don’t.”

“Ron,” Lewis said perilously.

“No, I mean it,” Walton said, standing up and holding his notebook at his side. “If you’re doing something dangerous up here, the people have a right to know. I don’t like being treated as a poor cousin. I’ll do my job even if it means going over your head.”

“Ron, I’ve warned you…” Lewis said.

Merrifield held up his hand. It was steady, giving no indication how far his temper had built. Ron Walton was treading on very thin ice.

“It’s alright, constable.” Merrifield spoke directly to Walton. “I’m aware you have a job to do and if I’ve treated you as a poor cousin, I apologize. There is no higher authority at this facility. My word is Law. It appears some things must be made plain to you.

“Number one,” Merrifield said, tapping his right index finger in the palm of his left hand for emphasis. “You are not here by invitation. I could have you forcibly ejected and be well within my rights.

“ Two. You’ve been a constant pain in my ass since you arrived. You’ll soon be stepping on overly sensitive toes. Some people would not treat you as civilly as I have. They would as soon have you blackballed from the practice of what you call -and I say this in the kindest sense of the word, considering the rag you work for- journalism, as to read anything you wrote.

“Third. You have been attempting to procure statements or evidence against the national security of the United States. I understand the penalty for treason is death only during wartime. More’s the pity. Still, a lifetime at Leavenworth is not normally on the young man’s list of preferred careers, and the newly formed Department of Homeland Security has broader powers to put you there than you can possibly know. If you believe you’re protected by the first amendment, allow me to readjust that, notion. My young friend, you are now standing on federal property just as surely as if you were in the middle of a tank trail at Fort Bragg. A secretly convened Grand Jury would roast you like a hot dog at a camporee. As far as they are concerned, you have no rights.

“ Four. Any information given you at this facility is given only with my consent. We have no obligation to you at all. Now, what I would suggest is that you stop acting like an asshole- if that’s within your scope- and print your statement. You’re too young and stupid to be messing about in such things as you want to know. Your biggest worry should be whether or not a new pimple has sprouted on your ass. You’ve caught us at a bad time. Be grateful for what you’ve got.”

“Mister,” Walton said, “You’ve just dug yourself a grave. You can’t talk to me like that. You don’t know what I can do to you.”

Merrifield was unimpressed. In fact, he had to stifle the urge to laugh out loud.

You,” he said. “Do something to me? Try it,” he said placidly, “and see what happens. You make your phone calls, then I’ll make mine. We’ll see whose ass goes up in a sling. Everyone will benefit if you don’t blow this thing out of proportion.”

Walton turned angrily to Lewis. “Are you going to listen to this shit? Aren’t you going to do something?”

“Like what,” Lewis said. “Arrest him? I don’t think so. You better do like he says, Ron.”

Lewis sat in a chair with his legs comfortably crossed. He had not changed position during the entire exchange. Walton moved his gaze over to Hall who was likewise seated and obviously bored with Walton’s fresh, righteous attitude.

They’ve seen this before. Could this blown up jackass he serious?

Walton turned to Merrifield. There was no sign of a bluff in his face.

“You would do it, wouldn’t you?”

“Without hesitation, Mr. Walton. You’ve got your statement. There is nothing else of concern to you here.”

Walton’s face reddened. He turned and stormed out the door.

Lewis whistled through his teeth.

“Did you have to do that, Jon?”

“He’ll put it in his diary,” Merrifield said. “Nowhere else.”

“I’d better hunt him down.”

“He won’t get far. The gate’s locked.” Merrifield went behind the glass cage and punched in a digital code.

“It’s open now. Maybe you better get to him before he ruptures a gut.”

Lewis nodded. “I’ll wait for you outside, Mr. Hall. Call me when you know something, Jon.”

Lewis left.

Hall and Merrifield were still for long seconds. The air thickened, seeming to ring like a guitar string plucked and tightened until it was beyond the range of human hearing, leaving only the unpleasant vibrations that might drive a man mad. Both men asked themselves: Who is cat? And who is mouse?

“Kay,” Merrifield said softly, “why don’t you get a cup of coffee? Something to eat, maybe.” He never stopped looking at Hall.

Kay almost ran out of the room, the spikes of her high heels teetering a little as she hurried out. She looked back once at the two men regarding each other like wary beasts. She closed the door.

Hall stared at Merrifield as if he could bring the wrath of God down on him with just his glare. That, or something worse.

“You’re getting soft, Jon,” Hall said pleasantly. It was a voice one used with their closest friend, but with a mocking undertone. “That reporter still had some life left in him.”

“You won’t have that luxury.”

Hall smiled through a painful mouthful of teeth. “I won’t need it. You’re still willing to put your head on the counter.”

“Do you really want to find out?”

Hall sat back. “I won’t need the tour,” he said abruptly, “I don’t think for one second you haven’t covered everything with your people.”

“There was never anything to cover. I’m surprised Johnny Clark could have misled you so. He’s not nearly the convincing liar you seem to believe. How much did he get out of you? Five? Ten thousand?”

“You still have no faith, Jon. No guidance other than what science dictates.”

“What can you do, Josh,” Merrifield asked. He sounded genuinely perplexed. “You can’t get to me or my project. Why don’t you give it up?”

Hall steepled his fingers and sat comfortably, as if he were with an old friend.

“I should ask what you can do,” he said. “For twenty years I wondered when the bullet would come out of the crowd while I preached. For that long I wondered when I would turn the key in my car’s ignition and set off a bomb, or open a package and have it explode in my face.

“But as the years passed and it didn’t happen, I saw the truth. Men were afraid of me. A formidable obstacle, but you’ve finally found a way to get over that. You don’t need men anymore, do you?”

Merrifield grew cold inside. Hall knew for certain.

“You’re a sick puppy, Josh,” he said.

Hall ignored him. “The time to slay the dragon has come. I am God’s instrument.”

“How can you pawn yourself off as an evangelist,” Merrifield said in disgust. “You would be more at home in a bag of mixed nuts.”

“How can you call yourself human,” Hall countered with equal contempt. “Your only purpose is to manipulate God’s work; to bend it to your own heathenish intentions. Man was meant to suffer. Nothing you do will change that. God wants us to suffer. Would you undo His work?” Hall smiled craftily. “Or would you take it over?”

“Get out of here, you sick excuse for a human being,” Merrifield said in a nauseated whisper. “You turn my stomach.”

“Indeed?” Hall raised his eyebrows.

“You’re a filthy, walking ghoul,” Merrifield rasped. “You’re no better than a maggot or a…a slug. You’re beneath contempt.”

“Insult me all you want,” Hall said, pleasant as ever. “For many years I believed it was a twisted blessing you didn’t die in Atlanta. No, God intended me for a larger effort. He allowed the small fish to live and thrive, only to give birth to a bigger fish for me to fry. Can’t you see it’s God’s will? If he places obstacles in my path, I will strike them down. You can’t save the world, Jon. God doesn’t want it saved.”

This was more than Merrifield had expected. Hall was certainly nuts, but he was also a man with tremendous influence, now. He was a robot bent on destruction, even if it meant his own destruction.

“You’re worse than a ghoul,” Merrifield said with breathless comprehension.

Hall smiled beatifically. “Who’s to say? I think the ghoul is here. A monster, a dragon, an experiment. Call it what you will.” His smile was no longer gentle, but intimidating. “There may be one in this very room, I’ll get what I want in the end. Maybe not all of it, but I will get you. You are not safe. No way, no how. Don’t underestimate, Jon. I’m still around.”

Hall stood up.

“Don’t bother showing me out, I know the way. The chief was kind enough to lead me right to you.” He turned around before opening the door.

“I’ll be seeing you, Jon. Soon.”

4

As the old song went, Josh Hall knew it down in his heart. He had been witness to the corruption and wickedness of humanity; had built up such a reservoir of hate that he would not shirk, would in fact enjoy the responsibility for destroying humanity, if he could.

He was, in a way, a foundling. His father, the never seen John Hall, had disappeared in the Dominican Republic in 1965 during the fighting there. His mother, Lucy, had worked as a seamstress and a washer woman until the time Joshua was four years old. Though it was only a fleeting instant in a life filled with discontent, he sometimes could almost recall sitting on the braided rug of the small apartment his mother kept, dressed in his striped rugby shirt, and playing with his wooden train locomotive with the blue smoke stack and yellow wheels.

The wolf was almost always camped by the door of the Hall household, but his mother would take time from her washing and folding- a fog of smoke from her constant Lucky Strike circling them with a blue haze- to crawl around on the floor with him and pretend to be a horse, much to the squealing delight of young Joshua.

He had been a good little boy.

When he turned five years old his mother was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer, a virtual death warrant back in the days of the late sixties, though Joshua had no way of understanding this.

A few weeks after the diagnosis, a gentleman caller stopped by the apartment. Josh remembered the man as being tall and thin, nearly gaunt, with the dark, sad eyes of a mortician. He wore a somber, black suit, and he reminded the little boy of the pictures of the Carriage Men he had seen in his picture books. The Carriage Men carried whips and wore hats with feathers in them. They took laughing couples on hansom rides in the parks. But Joshua had never seen any children with the smiling couples in the picture books and he was afraid that the Carriage Man had come to take his mother.

Lucy had sent young Joshua to bed early that night, but he had lain awake, listening to his mother and the Carriage Man chant, and weep, and moan, sometimes crying out. He had slipped from his bed and peered into the living room only to see his mother and the Carriage Man on their knees in the tiny living room. The lights had been off and burning candles had given the small room a hellish glow.

His mother had been crying, almost wailing in some sort of rapture while the Carriage Man held his clasped hands up toward the ceiling, shaking them as if in anger. Joshua had fled back to his bed, his pajama footies slipping on the polished wood of the hallway.

A week later, Lucy had dragged Joshua with her down to the hospital. The Carriage Man had been to the apartment every night since then and Joshua had listened to the nightly ritual with his hands clutching his blanket below his nose, his eyes wide and frightened.

In that week, he had seen the desolate light in his mother’s eyes change from a dim, dying glow to a burning fire that was demented. She left Josh in the waiting room while she went in to see the doctors. Two hours later she was back, the doctors tagging along behind her. She had been very pretty in a flowered, print dress and her high heels, but also intimidating and indignant.

A miracle, the doctors were saying. No other explanation. The cancer is completely gone.

From that time on, Josh had been carried from revival tent to revival tent, the three of them trundling around the country like a trio of gypsies. The Carriage Man was always with them now, and he exercised a scary hold over his mother. He would get up at night in front of a crowd of a thousand people and shout and exhort his listeners about the greatness of Jehovah. Before the night was over, he would parade Lucy on stage as if she were some freak at a carnival show.

See with your own eyes,” he would shout, “this beautiful woman healed by the power of God! This woman, who was but a poor washer woman, a helpless widow woman, who the doctors told could not be healed, put her faith in the Lord and was given a new hold on life. See for yourself what God has done!”

His mother hung on the Carriage Man’s every word, falling on her knees in front of the wailing congregation and crying tears of joy and madness. The crowd would then rush on stage, wanting to touch Lucy, thrusting wrinkled and soiled dollar bills at the Carriage Man and tossing coins into dishes with pleasing, metallic clink-clinks!

Time passed in a blur of one horse towns and revival meetings conducted on deserted fairgrounds and riversides. Lucy and the Carriage Man had set up house together and Josh was left to mostly fend for himself. No more did his mother put down her laundry or her sewing to play horsie with the little boy, or tuck him in at night. There was only the lunatic light of rapture in her eyes anymore, and her need to serve the Carriage Man.

One night in 1969, when Joshua was five years old, the Carriage man had folded up his tent and took it and his mother away, leaving him sleeping outside on a cot in Clarkston, Indiana.

He had been found by a local family and, in the days before computers and pictures on milk cartons, all attempts to find his mother and the Carriage Man drew blanks. They had vanished as easily and quickly as the Carriage Man had come.

Joshua at least knew he had been born in Arkansas and he had been shipped back there to live at the Perkins State Orphanage in Bell, Arkansas while the authorities searched for any living relatives. They never found any.

He grew up there, unhappy and disillusioned. He never knew the Carriage Man’s name, but he hated the Carriage Man and the Carriage Man’s God who had taken his mother from him. He made a habit of running away from the orphanage and it was on the last of these forays that he had killed his first man at the age of eleven.

Poking around in the alleys of the tiny business district of Bell in 1975, looking for something to eat outside of the back doors of the two greasy spoons that served the town, a man had come up behind him. Even to this day he remembered the way the beard stubble on the man’s face had appalled him; how his breath was like clouds of poison in his face. And the man was tall and thin, like the Carriage Man.

He remembered the man coming toward him, unzipping his pants, reaching inside his fly while the young Joshua cringed against the stinking barrels of trash. As if in a dream, he remembered the sharpness of the man’s beard against his smooth, hairless cheek; the way his searching hand had found, as if it had been placed there by some Divine Providence, the discarded butcher knife in the heaped piles of garbage. Its handle was broken and the blade was dark brown and dull, but the point had been sharp enough to drive through the back of the man’s neck. The man’s surprised, bug-eyed expression and the gurgling sounds that bubbled from his throat had given the young Joshua a grim satisfaction.

The man had fallen forward in the trash and thrashed weakly for a few moments before dying. The young Joshua had felt nothing, but he had seen his chance. The quick thinking on his feet that would serve him in later years took hold of him and he reached into the man’s back pocket. He pulled out a battered wallet and was surprised to find two twenty dollar bills in there, a handsome sum of money for 1975, especially to a penniless orphan who had never had more than fifty cents at any one time. With this King’s Ransom, Hall left Bell, Arkansas, and never looked back.

He roamed the streets of Little Rock for a couple of years, learning the lessons that would allow him to survive the rigors of war. Far from being the skinny, starving street urchin, Hall had thrived, blossoming and blooming into a formidable young man by the time he was fifteen.

He simply walked into the offices of SecureCom that year, using a phony birth certificate, and presented himself for training to the shadowy, illicit men who worked there. He had killed before, and it paid well. The ability to acquire phony documentation was one of the first, and most useful lessons he had learned as a street kid. As far as he knew, he was born in 1964, but with no firm birth date and his own fakery of ID, the best estimates of his age put him between 40 and 45. Hall wasn’t sure, himself.

Hall was trained in firearms and hand to hand combat in 1980. From there he moved on to sniper school. In the beginning, he wished to become proficient at killing simply because it was a skill few men possessed. And even when those men learned to kill, it was still the rare man who could put the crosshairs on an enemy’s face and pull the trigger while seeing them as close as if they were beneath a magnifying glass. But he had killed a man up close; had seen the light of life fade from his eyes. As he progressed, his qualifications with the M-14, M-16, and Remington 700 bolt action became second to none.

Numerous global engagements called for his very special talents. Snipers were in high demand and short supply when he arrived in Beirut in 1980, during some of the heaviest fighting of the war. The war between Iran and Iraq was heating up and the United States was hedging its bets and positioning units in strategic areas of central command. The abortive attempt to rescue the Iranian hostages was heavy on the mind of the new administration and they were looking to head off possible pitfalls opening up all over the world.

In 1985, Hall was shipped to Nicaragua to assist the Contras in dealing with the troublesome Omar Torrejos. SecureCom operatives did the nasty, illegal work which the regular army had to avoid. Hall’s bolt action rifle was like a magic talisman, allowing him free fire without authorization within defense perimeters, special bennies, and almost unlimited mobility.

With inborn patience and cunning, never falling for the booby traps that killed many guerrillas, Hall had sniffed out the enemy on his first hunter kill operation. On his order to fire, the Contras had fled, coming together well out of the line of fire.

They grinned sheepishly and apologetically at Hall.

“Day too nice for bullets,” they had said in their bumbling English. “We fight tomorrow.”

It happened only once. Word soon spread through the ranks that the kill sheets Hall piled up were often padded with Contras who refused to fight. It was only a very short time before they were more afraid of Hall than the Sandinistas and the Cubans.

The big man with the bolt rifle, they said, never missed.

The bounty paid by the Sandinistas for American snipers was upped on him especially from one thousand dollars American, to five thousand. More than one Contra grunt had thought of claiming the reward for themselves, but all it took was one look at Hall to know that if the scheme went queer somehow, they were already dead. As the old saw went, if you intended to kill the king, you’d better make sure he’s dead. Hall’s reputation burgeoned from cold killer to bloody, jungle legend.

Hall had requested and been given a transfer away from the citizen militia and to a unit of career Contra insurgents as a forward observer.

On his first day with the new unit, they had entered a village no different than a thousand others. The commander, a slight, lizard-eyed Nicaraguan was well known and well feared in the village. The locals had retired to their homes, hoping they wouldn’t be singled out. The commander’s entourage included Hall and three soldiers.

These men were outfitted in serious combat garb and carried automatic weapons at port arms. There was no sign of innocence or enjoyment in their faces. They were hardened veterans, remorseless, jaded, some of them having been fighting since before Hall was born.

With no preamble, the commander kicked open the door of a shanty. The soldiers entered to find a terrified man of about thirty clinging to his five year old son.

The commander began in his musical language, too beautiful for the business at hand. The questions never changed. Where? Who? How many?

“Who are the guerrillas in the village?” The commander’s saurian eyes were like stone.

“I don’t know,” the terrified man quavered.

“I think you do.” The commander barked an order. Almost quicker than Hall could take it in, a soldier delivered a cracking wallop against the man’s head with the butt of his rifle. The man fell backward, a candle of blood lighting from his temple. Another soldier wrenched the man’s son away and held him, a bayonet poised above his throat.

The man leaped up painfully toward his son but was quickly put back down with a hard kick to the groin, administered from the steel toe of the commander’s boot.

When the man looked up again, he was staring into the business end of an M-16.

“Who are they,” the commander purred.

Hall’s horror and outrage were real enough, yet he was fascinated at the callous, insensate brutality being carried out without the slightest compunction. He could help being mesmerized no more than he could help his rage. The uneasy blend of emotions held him still and silent.

“Who are they,” the commander asked again.

“I don’t know,” the man pleaded, tears filling his eyes.

There was the dry, brittle crack of small bones breaking. The man’s son squealed with pain.

“Who,” the commander hissed.

“I would tell you if I knew,” the man wailed.

Another snap from the boy’s other arm. Another scream. Hall was convinced the man didn’t know anything. Surely they would leave him in peace and stop torturing his son.

But they didn’t.

The man cried and screamed and pleaded. Through the breaking of his son’s arms he said he knew nothing. When the soldiers sliced off the boy’s fingers and threw them at the man’s feet he said he knew nothing.

Through it all, Hall had watched in ambivalent detachment, wondering how far they would go, wondering when some voice inside him would say enough and allow him to intervene. But the voice never came.

“One last chance,” the commander said. The man couldn’t, speak through his tears.

The commander reached down and yanked the man’s bowed head up so he could watch one of the soldier’s slit his son’s throat.

The man closed his eyes and sobbed. The commander pushed him backward and shot him.

“Burn it.”

Hall and the three soldiers left the shanty. The fire was lit and they watched the flames licking high in the humid air, obliterating all traces of the day’s work.

A tour on a river patrol boat, or PBR, followed. PBR’s were heavily armed and it was a rare day when one was attacked. Any unit with balls enough to attack a PBR had teeth of their own.

On one memorable occasion, a second looey straight out of OCS came aboard, throwing his weight around and strutting his stuff until the craft drifted into an ambush.

Machine gun bullets whizzed overhead and a grenade or two clattered off the metal hide of the boat before exploding harmlessly in the water. The crew, conditioned to such experiences, sought cover below the gunwales until they drifted out of range.

The looey, not so wily, did just about the dingleberry thing Josh expected. The looey stood straight up, to get a better look, maybe, and an RPG vaporized the upper half of his body. The looey’s lower section slumped into the boat.

At the time he had been aghast, but not sickened. It was, after all, God’s- the God of the Carriage Man’s- will for man to suffer. Thinking of it now was funny. It made him realize that any peabrained nitwit without enough sense to keep his ass down in a firefight deserved to have what little brains they had blown to the heavens.

Hall’s training had taught him the mechanics of death, the war had taught him the coldness. The coldness that allowed him to start collecting ears from his kills. The coldness to take a dead soldier’s dog tags (Hall himself, like other SecureCom members, carried no identification), place them between their two front teeth (providing they still had a face left) and kick the jaw shut, wedging the tags for identification.

Every day that passed made him witness to more horrors. In his journal he wrote “…the war has made me revise my ideas about God and other assorted supernatural beings. I still believe in God, but I do not believe he is to be found among any of the organized religions.”

He had prayed and his prayers were answered with napalm and Bouncing Betty’s. His only recourse was to revise his God to one of death, destruction and suffering. The Carriage Man had been right, all along. Hall embraced him.

His tours of Nicaragua finished and with too many quirks on his service record- quirks which had been covered up to protect one of SecureCom’s finest weapons- Josh Hall was shipped to Atlanta for ‘reevaluation’. Pure horseshit. SecureCom was trying to salvage him.

One of the first people to capture his attention at his new post in Atlanta was Jon Merrifield. Something about Merrifield appealed to him. A man much like himself, that much Hall could see. But he had one basic flaw that would not suit Hall’s purpose. Merrifield had a streak of conscience in him. A small streak to be sure, but there.

This man is crafty. This man could embrace my plan and push it through. He hides it well, but he has a flaw. This man believes in a basic goodness to God’s plan, despite what he and his rag-tag army of geneticists are doing here. Such a man could be a great asset, were it not for that flaw.

But isn’t it strange how he looks at me from the corner of his eye, as if he could read my very thoughts? I could have cultivated this man, turned him to a more useful purpose. But he suspects. He dislikes me and is almost good enough not to show it.

An accident with his funny little potion would do the trick.

But the plan could not be rushed. There was one more small matter to attend.

They will not follow me. They have been misled too long. But I am clever. I will sweep them into my web and turn them little by little to the true way. I will be seen as a great instrument of God, the killer turned savior and they will cleave to that. A miracle, they will say, and raise their hands in hallelujah, God’s work is great!

From the time of that epiphany, Hall ‘went crazy’. He broke every rule at the CBW facility. He threatened employees. He quoted madly from the bible. Nothing seemed to be working well enough to get him fired until the abortion that came to be known as the attempt on Merrifield’s life.

He was discharged into the service of the Lord.

There had always been the slim chance he might have been prosecuted for murder, but the government knew that he knew too much for them not to keep a hook in his mouth. Even if Merrifield had died, Hall felt his chances of walking away from it would have been eight in ten.

He still wished he had succeeded in killing Merrifield. There was and always would be a personal grudge against him. Merrifield and his little fiefdoms which he ran like a feudal lord, no matter where he was.

His one glaring failure in twenty years had come back to haunt him. The one man who could wreck his plan was still alive, and still trying to do just that. And now he had the perfect weapon; his own pet Chimera he could unleash on a whim for his missions of murder.

But Hall was ready. If he couldn’t pull down the temple of the Philistines with his words, he would silence their weapon with his guns.

5

Ingrid was in a sleepwalker’s trance. She stared into the distance outside her window. Peaks covered with dark evergreens shouldered their way from the earth. They didn’t rise majestically like the Rockies, but gave the impression of being old men comfortable with their lot in life. They sat placidly on their patch of ground, rubbing elbows and smoking pipes that wreathed their summits in a foggy haze. Partial patches of snow crowned their crests like the thinning, white hair of elderly southern gentlemen.

If she thought about it long enough, she could zero in on a particular patch in the mountains and see a lone figure inching his way through the sharp holly bushes and sticky fir needles. He was hungry, naked, and cold, breath like icicles coming from his mouth.

The figure pushed aside an ice-covered branch. Soft snow whumped behind him in a fountain of sparkling lights. He squirmed into a dark hole set into a sheer rock face, back muscles shuddering in appreciation of the relative warmth of the cavern. He lay down and went to sleep almost immediately.

Ingrid’s consciousness fogged in and out as she drowsed deeper into her waking dream. She saw the world outside the Alamo through eyes rested from a good night’s sleep. An endless field of roiling green grass stretched before her; grass as green as stained glass. A warm, March sun, the warmest she had ever felt, fell across her shoulders. It was her first day of new life after a long, bitter winter. It was a day to hop into your ’33 Stutz Bearcat convertible and cruise the highways with the top down, your hair chasing you, and Robert Plant screaming out Led Zeppelin’s classic blood and iron montage, “Heartbreaker”.

The hills streamed by. A limitless fence of split rails marched by like a London picket line. The Alamo was in her rear view mirror and she sped away from it. But when she looked ahead of her, it was still there, less than a hundred yards away.

It was too early to go back. She made a leisurely right turn and cruised into the mountains, going higher and higher, hearing the engine whine on the steep upgrades.

Featureless, gray clouds overspread the sky like a shade being drawn across a sunny window. The land darkened until only the snow alongside the road showed plainly, like a huge, narrow field of cotton. There were footprints in the snow. They looked to have been made by a weary traveler. Some of them had smears of frozen blood in their hollows.

Snow began to spit from the sky and Ingrid had to switch on her headlights. The narrow beams picked out the way on the winding road. The lazily falling snowflakes built up speed and intensity, settling on her shoulders and blond hair before melting.

She crested a hill and stopped suddenly. A feeling she could not categorize settled over her. Ahead of her, about fifty feet away, the figure of a man stood in the road.

He cut an imposing sight, his right leg angled out from the left. Her headlights reflected back from a height of seven, seven and a half feet. The figure was featureless, like a shadow in a doorway. There was something so imploring in the figure’s solitude, but something else as well. Could it be arrogance? Yes. And vanity. The vanity of a creature impossibly beautiful. Corkscrews of whirling snow fell through the beams of her headlights like miniature, twin tornadoes.

They stayed that way for a few moments, advocate and antagonist locked in an endless showdown. She wanted to go closer, but that arrogance froze her. The snow fell more heavily, slowly hazing her view of the figure until it was lost in chaotic white.

Her inner eye closed. Her own eyes returned her to her first view of the Smoky Mountains. The beautiful Smokies with an as yet unseen figure prowling through their many hidden pathways.

She finally awoke to the feel of Clifton’s warm hands on her shoulders.

********************

“Are you still with us,” Clifton asked.

She reached up with her right hand and covered one of Clifton’s.

“Just dreaming,” she said. “Wondering if I’ll get through this. If I’ll ever get away from here.”

“I feel like that these days, too.”

She stood and leaned against the windowsill. Her eyes were distant in the reflection.

“He’s still out there, isn’t he?” She turned around and looked at Alex.

Clifton’s face couldn’t hide his worry. “I’m afraid so.”

“What do you hear from Jon?”

Clifton’s lip curled.

“Same old shit. They’re doing everything they can.” His contempt faded. “They really are doing what they can. All we can do is wait.”

“Do you think Seth is the one who attacked the old man?”

“How do you know about that,” Clifton asked.

“Good God, Alex,” she said. “I’m not under lock and key. Everybody’s talking about it. And they’re talking about some nosy reporter and the infamous Josh Hall. Do you think I don’t know why Jon told me to stay put this morning? Do you think I don’t know the shitheel was here?”

“I’m sorry, Ingrid,” Clifton said. “I don’t know why I thought it should be kept from you. But to answer your question, yes. I think it was Seth. It’s only logical.”

“He was just here,” she said with a tiny smile. “I saw him, sort of. It was like a dream and I saw him trudging through the snow. It’s like I said. He’s a child. He’s innocent.”

“Ingrid,” Clifton said with difficulty. “I don’t quite know how to put this, but you have to face the fact he might be killed.”

Who said that,” Ingrid hissed. Her bloodshot eyes thinned to dark, pillbox slits. “Jon? Did Jon say that?”

“As far as I know, nobody has said it until now,” Clifton answered. “But you’ve got to look at this thing rationally. He has faults. He’s not what we anticipated.”

“Do you want him killed,” Ingrid demanded, enraged. “Is it your idea? Are you willing to throw away everything we’ve worked for over the past two years?”

“That’s hardly a fair question, Ingrid.” Clifton fought to control his voice. “You know goddam well I’ve put as much into this project as anyone. I gave my fucking arm for this project, for Christ’s sake.”

“And if it hadn’t been for this project, you wouldn’t have it back now.”

“What am I supposed to do? Fall on my knees and kiss the famous Milner feet? Look, I didn’t ask you to do what you did. I’m grateful, okay? No problem with that. But I goddam well won’t let you hold it over my head.”

“That’s just it,” she said bitterly, wheeling away from him. “You’re willing to take the benefits of the project, but not the responsibility.”

“What a load of horseshit,” Clifton snarled. “I wish you could hear yourself. Seth is a dead end. Something went wrong and he’s fucked up. Nobody said this was the end. We’ll just have to start over and get it right this time.”

There’s nothing wrong with him,” Ingrid cried hysterically. “Don’t you realize he knows nothing? He’s just like a baby. Would you kill a baby just because it spilled it’s bottle?”

Clifton opened his mouth to speak, then shut it. He scrubbed a hand slowly across his face.

“Why do we have to argue, Ingrid? It seems like we argue every time we’re together.”

“We don’t see things the same way,” she said, in a tone that sounded despairingly like heartbreak. “I don’t think we ever will.”

Clifton worked things over in his mind before speaking.

“So. What’s left for us?”

“I don’t know,” Ingrid answered. “I couldn’t say.”

6

Sedgefield Auditorium was an unremarkable structure of aged red brick and mortar, standing in the center of a traffic circle, appearing to rise like some hulking beast from the very center of highway 38. The front entrance was of newer, darker brick than the rest. A drunk had once come barreling through the center of town at eighty miles per hour. In his inebriated state he didn’t realize the building wasn’t actually in the center of the road. He had skidded and squalled tires for eighty feet in his effort to avoid a collision. He had bumped over the curb, smashed and uprooted twelve Azalea bushes, and broadsided a statue of some local confederate soldier on horseback before completely smashing the front entrance.

Not since the local high school had sponsored a professional wrestling match to raise money for the prom had there been such a stir in the building. Heavy-bellied men pushed pallets of lights back and forth across the cement floor, shunting them into position for the best illumination of the hall. Other men set up an elaborate sound system for the musicians and singers Hall brought to all of his shows. Folding chairs were placed at the front and back of the auditorium, augmenting the fixed seats in anticipation of an SRO crowd.

Curious passersby, now recovered from their fearfulness of the strange intruder from the place on the hill, gravitated toward the new plate glass windows of the building’s lobby. They stared in, shielding their eyes from the window glare with cupped hands.

The main player was nowhere to be seen. Josh Hall was sequestered at a local motel, studying his prepared statements intently, committing them to memory. This was the most important night of his life. The night he exposed Merrifield and his ilk as a band of sinners who used their God-given intelligence to create a monster that was the harbinger of others that might be used to destroy them all. There was no margin for error or slip-ups. He would preach tonight as he had never preached before. He would have preferred to have TV cameras from the four major networks there, but he knew he had only bare days if not hours before Merrifield folded up shop and destroyed all evidence of his activities. There was the element of risk, true, perhaps more than ever before. Merrifield would be moving against him now and the bullet Hall had so long anticipated might be fired tonight.

But, if things went as planned, Merrifield and Milner would lose their little feudal protectorate here, then the destruction would come faster and faster as the people demanded an investigation and discovered the true doings of the science merchants. Hall knew only too well he might be forced to take the action on his own, but he was prepared to do it. What good was all he had if it meant that Merrifield and his band of Philistines remained to do as they pleased?

Hall left his room and walked through the lobby of the motel. He could go unremarked when he wished. A slight slumping of his shoulders, a softening of his stride, a downcast look. Any of these things could make him seem as ordinary as the next person.

He stepped outside the motel and made his way to a narrow alley. He slipped into it like a ghost. Had anyone seen him, they might have been struck at how the sight of a well dressed, apparently proper businessman slipping into an alley like a tramp about to take a leak bothered them little. Hall had a knack of making himself practically invisible.

Carefully placed in a section of loosened brick at the foot of a building were two black cases. Hall had placed them there himself, four hours after his phone call to Merrifield. One case contained an M-16 with extra clips, blacksuit, goggles, and a bayonet. The other held a Remington 700 bolt action rifle with floating barrel, mounted with a fifty thousand dollar Starlight scope. He rubbed his thumb delicately over the inscription etched into its wooden stock, like a blind man reading Braille.

Carriage Man.

Hall had hidden the weapons behind a large drainpipe which ran down the outer wall of the motel. The alley was blind on one end, and the protruding drainpipe hid him from view at the open end. He’d had rare occasion to use the tools of his chosen trade after leaving SecureCom. Once for a prostitute who threatened to become too chatty about their relationship; another for a pseudo-flash political type who wished to trade upon Hall’s past as a stepping stone to a higher political office; and third for a hired PR man who had covered up so much of the dirt from Hall’s past that he had to be silenced for general principles.

Hall checked his wares in the good light of day, keeping an attentive ear tuned for anyone who was too curious. The 700 was a good weapon and spotlessly maintained. When you shot somebody with it, they stayed shot. The M-16 had been smuggled out of South America. Though it was now more than twenty years old, it could have shipped from the manufacturer yesterday.

As Hall replaced the cases at the foot of the building, the sudden jabbering of Smalltown, USA came to him. He poked his head around the drainpipe and peered at the open end of the alley.

Two teenaged boys had stopped by the open end of the alley. One was tall, the other short. Hall couldn’t help an amused smile as he listened to their conversation.

“Are you going to the meeting tonight,” the short one asked.

“I don’t know,” the tall one answered. He wore his hair in a spiky, short cropped fuzz helmet that made his head look like a piece of moldy fruit. “I’m not so sure he’s an instrument of the Lord.”

“If you would show up at bible study class more often,” the short one chastised gently, “you might be able to tell a true instrument of the Lord from a divinity dealer.”

“And if you would quit your beastly harping on the Lord all the time, I might be able to make up my own mind.”

The short one’s eyes flapped open and his jaw mimicked them. Hall thought he could have tipped him over with one easy breath.

Backslide Dan!” he wailed, clasping his hands and shaking them at the sky. Hall thought he was going to fall to his knees in the middle of the sidewalk.

Backslide Dan! You dirty mouthed demon, you!”

The tall one walked on, not giving his companion another glance. After a bit, the short one began trotting along to catch up. Hall went to the end of the alley and carefully looked out. He saw the midget-sized creationist hoofing the dummy strut to catch up with his agnostic buddy.

Unable to help himself, Hall chuckled softly to himself.

7

The two National Guardsmen stood on the side of the mountain, five thousand feet in the thin air. Sounds at this elevation didn’t carry easily and Valentine Sheffield and Jay Thomas felt the soothing noises of nature had been quelled in deference to some stronger force. Some elemental field had subdued the lesser parts into submission, as if in recognition of its superior power.

They sat on their heels, squinting at a dark hole that burrowed its way into the side of the mountain like a trapdoor. Val was riveted by its dark allure. He was a big man, standing well over six feet and weighing two hundred and forty pounds. Those who worked with him understood discretion and any smarting off about his name was kept bottled up in his presence.

He removed his cap and wiped his eyes with his shirt sleeve. Though the afternoon had nearly slipped away above a cover of clouds, the rugged trek up the mountainside had exacted its toll in sweat.

Jay was as tall as Val, but skinny as a shriveled pod. His fatigues were spotted and stained with sour sweat. Merrifield had made no secret of the fact he believed his escapee was holed up in a cave somewhere. He also let it be known that Scoggins had to be taken alive. If it meant shooting, shoot to incapacitate, not to kill.

Val stood up, using the butt end of his standard issue M-16 as a lever. He and Jay had poked their heads into cave entrances all day, but had yet to venture into this one. There was some tacit agreement between the two men that none of the others had felt ‘right’. It was by that same telepathy that they knew they couldn’t let this one alone. By now the sun had washed out to blemished bronze and something had sprung to life just as darkness began to steal the light from the sky.

“Being in the guard ain’t what it used to be,” Val said. He knew they would have to crawl into that hole like a couple of amateur spelunkers, banging their heads and scraping their shins raw. He was leery about what might be in there. Rats for sure. Bats, probably, if the Scooby Doo cartoons were to be believed. Not to mention all kinds of creepy-crawly bugs and beetles skittering underfoot on the slime-coated cavern floor.

Val’s face was as mournful as a Basset Hound’s.

“I don’t see no cave, Jay,” he said directly. “It ain’t on any map, it ain’t like the ones we passed up, and it surely ain’t there.”

“I guess it is, Val,” Jay said. “You’re looking right at it.”

Val sighed. Jay wasn’t the most colorful flower in the bouquet.

“I know that, Jay,” he said wearily. He scanned the sky, wishing there were some bright sunshine to warm his upturned face. “You feel it, too, don’t you, Jay?”

Jay nodded. “I was afraid to say anything. This isn’t the kind of thing the college fund guys sign up for.”

“Maybe it’s just the late afternoon,” Val remarked. “Fucking biorhythms, or a full moon or something,” He stared intently at some point in the distance. “Think we should give this one the go by, too?”

Jay pulled out his sidearm, a service issue .45, and turned it over thoughtfully in his hands. Val watched him pull the action back, heard the snap as it shot back into place.

“I guess not,” Jay answered unhappily. “Cap’n’ll have our heads if they do a follow-up. I’ll give the patrol leader a call.” He depressed the send button on his walkie talkie.

“Able base, this is Guardsman Thomas, Delta patrol. Over.”

An unintelligible response crackled back. Jay tried again.

“Say again, base.”

More whining and crackling came over the transceiver. Jay snapped the radio off.

“Screw it.”

“That was pretty stupid,” Val said.

“Well, at least we don’t have to listen to his guff.”

Val nodded absently, the subject not seeming to interest him.

“We’d better get with it,” Jay said.

“You’ve got your weapon ready,” Val asked.

Jay reholstered his pistol and patted it.

Val held out his arm. “After you.”

Jay lowered his matchstick body into the hole. The cavern floor was a yard below his dangling heels. He dropped down and hit hard, rattling his teeth. The first thing he noticed was how much cooler it was. And clammy. Dampness seemed to weld itself to his skin. He pulled his flashlight from his utility belt and swept its dim beam around. Bare rock walls, cracked and crumbling, showed their dark faces. Fissures trickling water shone like ice.

“What’s down there,” Val called from above. His voice sounded weak and tinny in the cavern, almost drowned out by the soft hiss and roar of water from the river that originated from this place and cut through the side of the mountain some eighty yards away.

“Three treasure chests, eight cases of Crown Royal, and seventy-two naked virgins,” Jay called back.

What?”

“Rocks,” Jay answered. “Cracks in the walls, stinking water. What did you expect in a cave?”

“I can do without the smart-assery. How big is it?”

Jay took his first careful look around. He stood in a small anteroom. Solid rock crowded his back and a narrow passage lined with stalagmites and stalactites led deeper into the mountain. As he swept the flashlight beam forward, the black walls of the cave changed to the wondrous green, red, and blue formations of a cavern. Beyond fifteen feet, however, the darkness held hard as bedrock.

“I can’t really tell,” Jay called back. “But it’s a cavern, not a cave. There’s a passageway down here. Kind of narrow, but I think we can squeeze through.”

Val took off his belt, and threaded it through the loops on his rifle strap.

“You ready down there,” he shouted.

“Send it down.”

Val slowly lowered the rifle. After a moment he felt a tug and knew Jay had it. He squeezed into the hole and began lowering his bulk into the cavern.

“Be careful,” Jay said. “The ground drops straightaway about three feet.”

Val mumbled something Jay didn’t understand. His voice sounded as if he were speaking into a bag. Val’s belly scraped the lip of the opening and pulled his shirttail out. His legs flailed in empty space. His body blocked the precious little light from above and Jay’s flashlight could hardly pierce the gloom more than ten feet ahead.

The sudden reappearance of the sky marked Val’s entrance into the cavern. He thumped onto the rock floor and took a clumsy half step like a retarded Vaudeville dancer before regaining his balance.

“Long way down,” he observed. He extricated his rifle from his belt and slung it around his shoulder.

“Looks like the passage goes on back,” Jay said, gesturing with the light. “It might get bigger, it might get smaller. Who knows from caves?”

Jay aimed his flashlight down the passageway and took an unenthusiastic step forward. Neither of them could explain the transfixing quality that had taken hold of them as they entered the cavern. It was as if the narcotizing voice of a femme fatale had spoken to them, but not with song. It was a communication older than words and much more compelling.

Val followed Jay down the passageway. Pillbugs and millipedes scurried in frightened ranks from the light. Val saw no spiders, for which he was abundantly grateful, but he did see a lot of insects and buggies he had never seen before. They gathered on the cave floor like a twisting nest of worms and slithered over the particolored rock formations.

As the passage narrowed, both men stooped over to keep from scraping their heads on the low ceiling.

“Great place for a nature excursion, ain’t it, Val?”

“Never mind the nature excursion,” Val huffed. “Just keep going.”

They pressed on, squeezing between outcroppings of rock that had bulged into their path like barriers. The place smelled of cold water and the clammy atmosphere raised goose pimples on their arms. As a child, Val had read a book in which the author described the unsavory feat of wriggling through the aorta of a butchered whale. Val knew exactly how the character had felt.

“Looks like it widens out a little up ahead,” Jay said hopefully.

Val emerged from between two, craggy rock faces. To his joy, he could stand upright again. His vertebrae groaned with relief. He stabbed his flashlight beam at the blank and stolid walls. The beam played along the floor and something caught Val’s eye.

“Jay,” he said. “Look at this.”

Jay aimed his flashlight toward Val’s. As the two beams converged, he saw a filthy piece of cloth that had once been white gauze. Val stooped over and picked it up. It was splotched and matted with mud and dried blood.

“It’s a bandage, ain’t it,” Jay asked.

Val’s nerve endings kicked into wariness. He looked out ahead.

“It’s a bandage, alright. With a blood stain in the middle.”

“Maybe it’s been here a while, huh, Val?” Jay had snapped out of his torpor, but they were too far into it. They had to go on.

“Jay,” Val said kindly, “you know where it came from. Our boy is either here now, or made a recent visit. I don’t think there are that many people who get hurt, then go traipsing through a cavern. Dig?”

“Shit, man. This just gets better and better.”

The weak light illuminated the pale moon of Jay’s face. He stared at the tiny holes in the filthy bandage. They looked like sightless eyes gone blind in the cavern’s eternal night.

“Let’s go on,” Val said.

They crept forward, each man feeling the curious sensation of the walls giving way and the ceiling rising. They stopped.

“This is it,” Val said. “We can’t go any further.”

Jay nodded, a wasted gesture in the darkness.

“Let’s look around,” Val said, “see if there’s anything to see, then get the hell out of here.”

“Okay.”

“You go to the other side, and I’ll look around here.”

“What am I looking for?”

“If you run across an eight foot tall, gray Martian, you’ll know you found what you came looking for.”

“Take it easy, Val.” Jay pressed Val’s arm reassuringly before plodding to the far side of the large chamber. He began to work his way toward Val, shining his light at the junction of the cavern wall and the floor.

“See anything,” Jay called.

“Nothing,” Val said. “I think I’ll…” Val stopped suddenly. His flashlight jerked violently and clattered off the wall. It hit the floor and rolled a short distance before the light died. Jay heard a startled grunt.

Val,” he yelled. “Are you okay?”

Jay heard a frightened moan and a short, rapid series of skittering sounds, as if Val were scuttling like a crab.

“Get over here, Jay,” Val said in a gruff whisper. “I tripped over something. I think it’s a body.” He took a shuddering breath, “Oh, bleeding Christ, I think it’s a dead body.”

Jay hurried over, moving as well as he could without falling over something. He finally picked Val out with his flashlight and squatted next to him. Val’s face was watery pale and his eyes were two black bits of mica.

“Over to your right,” Val said.

Jay swung his light down and to the right. He slumped backward, joining Val in a sitting position against the cavern wall.

“Oh, God,” Jay whimpered. “Is that him?”

“Has to be,” Val said harshly. “Sonofabitch must have got a bigger dose of that poison than they thought.”

Seth lay still on the cavern floor, stretched out like a mummy in a sarcophagus. His small lips were taut and flattened into bands of cracked muscle, allowing his upper teeth to bulge bizarrely over his lower lip. His hairless, gray scalp was streaked with wet ribbons of mud that sparkled.

But it was Seth’s face that caused such revulsion. His left cheek had been slashed from the cheekbone to the corner of his mouth. Gooey clumps of mud mingled with copious pockets of pus that oozed from the wound. The infection had spread and Seth’s left eye, already disproportionately large, was grotesquely swollen. Val saw Seth’s enlarged tongue through the hole in his cheek and thought it was only by virtue of the weather being too cold for flies that had saved him from having a boiling nest of maggots squirming in the savaged flesh.

“This is too much for us,” Val said. He was calmer now that Jay was with him. “It’s time to turn this over to the Sarge. Let him break the news to Merrifield. Go ahead and call Able. Tell him we’ve got their guy.”

“No can do,” Jay said. “The signal won’t travel out of the cavern. We’ll have to wait until we get out.”

“Aw, shit,” Val said, irritated and frightened at the same time. “What, the fuck. It doesn’t matter. This guy ain’t going anywhere.”

“How long you guess he’s been dead?” Jay stared morbidly at Seth, as if expecting him to move at any second.

“Not long, I’d guess,” Val answered. “That cut on his face. That’s what killed him, I bet.” He stood up and paused thoughtfully. “Funny. I never knew of an infection killing anybody that fast. You think maybe the folks on the hill are lying about how long he’s been gone? I mean, shit, they’ve lied to us from she git-go. This guy is a hell of a lot bigger than six-ten. Hell, he barely looks human.”

“I wouldn’t put it past ’em, Val. But that ain’t our worry. Can we just get out of here?”

“Okay. Yeah,” Val said, “Let’s go.” He made a move to start, then stopped, his head tilted, listening to something,

“Jay,” he said carefully, “maybe it’s just my nerves, but do you hear something like running water? Or the wind?”

Jay tilted his head this way and that. Beneath the huge emptiness of the cave, a distinct, silky hiss was audible. It was somnolent as a dream, like white noise from thin air. It came from no specific point.

“The river’s just down the mountain,” Jay said hopefully. “Maybe that’s it.”

“Maybe.”

“We’ve done all we can here, Val. Let’s go.”

“Yeah,” Val agreed. He was beginning to think about the body on the floor. “It’s out of our hands now. Help me find my flashlight.”

“Leave it,” Jay said. “The cops will have to come back down here. They’ll get it.”

“Yeah, okay,” Val said, quickly giving in. He wanted to get out before his case of the creeps turned into an open fit of shivering. He grabbed Jay’s belt and began winding his way out, following the jumping flashlight.

“I wish I knew what that noise was,” Jay said shakily. “I guess it’s the river. Right, Val?”

“I guess. Just keep going, will you?”

They had neared the cavern entrance. Jay was appalled at how dark it had gotten. A new sound appeared amid the hissing. It sounded like tolling footsteps behind them.

“Almost there,” Jay said breathlessly. The sounds of the footsteps clanged in his mind. He thought of the most mordant and macabre possibilities. He walked another quick, ten yards. Val lost his grip on Jay’s belt and Jay lunged forward. Something fell from Jay’s belt and clattered at his heels.

He found himself directly beneath the cavern entrance. He tossed his flashlight up through the ingress. It hit the steep side of the mountain and promptly rolled merrily away. He jumped like an NBA all-star and grasped the lip of the entrance. He pulled himself out. The clean air hit him like a shock wave and he shuddered.

Jay turned to look. Val was halfway out of the hole and clawing for more. The lower half of his body was still below ground. Jay reached out to hook his hands on Val’s shoulders. Just before he reached him, Val lurched backward, almost vanishing from sight. His face showed white, unyielding panic. His mouth hung open and new sweat appeared instantly on his brow.

Pull, Jay,” he roared. He moaned out loud, “My leg’s caught on a rock or something. Pull, goddammit. Pull!’

Jay slapped his hands on Val’s shoulders and grabbed a double handful of his uniform. He hauled backward with the willowy muscles in his shoulders and back. His skinny hamstrings quivered and shook. His near hysteria gave him strength. Val started to slide out of the hole by inches.

The next moment, he was gone.

Jay felt a sudden jerk from below, so quick and hard that two swatches of green material had torn off with a ripping sound. Jay still held the swatches in his hands.

“Val,” Jay called. He sounded like a lost child. A gust of wind blew by the cavern and swirled through it, whistling in mockery. The cavern’s blackness clung thick as roofing tar. Cold drafts spiraled from it.

Jay slowly came out of is daze. He shouted into the entrance way.

Val! What the hell is going on down there?”

In answer, a rising scream boiled up from the hole, more horrible than the uncomprehending shriek of a wounded animal. It made Jay’s eardrums hurt. For a second he felt faint.

Shoot the sonofabitch,” Jay screamed, shouting over the insane squealing. “Just shoot!”

A brief burst of automatic weapons fire rattled the newborn night, accompanied by dazzling flashes that were too bright in the cavern’s blackness. The zing and whine of ricocheting bullets sang out of the hole.

The echoes died away, replaced by a guttural blubbering that intensified until it became another scream as agonized as someone being drawn and quartered. Jay looked around helplessly in the building night as the scream went on and on.

He scrambled to his feet and pulled his .45 out. He stood indecisively for a second, the gun leveled at the cavern entrance, wondering whether to take the chance of shooting Val or leaving him to suffer at the hands of the monster.

Another bloodcurdling scream decided him.

His index finger contracted on the trigger and the barrel spit out the entire clip of 240 grain bullets. The muzzle flashes lit the night like fireworks. By the time he heard the firing pin strike on an empty chamber, Jay was blind with green, afterimages of the muzzle flames. His ears rang from the roaring reports. The lazy wind tore the blue smoke into tatters and swept it away into the suddenly silent evening.

The screams had stopped. The dark hole beckoned silently, an enigma begging to be solved. After a few seconds of stunned inaction, Jay began to think more rationally.

He reached down to his utility belt for his walkie talkie. His hand instantly found the place it should have been, but it was gone. It had bounced out in the cave when Val had lost his grip on his belt.

Inside the cavern, Jay heard the sound of breathing and the gentle scraping of a bare foot on a stone floor, dislodging small pebbles. There was a pause, as if whoever was down there had stopped what they were doing to concentrate on a feat requiring total concentration.

Though he didn’t think it would do any good, Jay called out to Val.

“You can come out now, Val. I think I shot the sonofabitch.”

There was no response, only a palpable sensation of light swirling into the drain of night. Hazy starshine glowed in the east.

“Goddammit, Val,” Jay said with false bravado. “You’ve had your fun. I forgive you, okay? Come on out. This isn’t very funny.”

Silence.

“Val?”

From inside the cavern came a heavy grunt. Jay took a quick, reflexive step backward as something hurtled out of the entrance and sailed past him, landing with a heavy thump some ten feet away. He gasped and swallowed hard. The light was too chancy to make out details, but Jay knew what had come flying from the hole like a cork out of a bottle was Val. All 240 pounds of him.

He took five steps to where Val lay on the ground like a dark lump. Each footfall felt like a step towards the guillotine. He knelt down and put a hand on Val’s shoulder. His fingers trembled as they touched Val’s cooling flesh. He turned Val over to look into his face. Jay had the uncomfortable sensation of eyes boring into his back. His brain was screaming at him to run like hell, but his heart forced him to be absolutely sure.

His breath caught in his throat and his eyes bulged once Val was completely turned over.

Val had bled to death. On each side of his windpipe were three, blood-smeared, elongated holes. They were tattered and irregular. A large bruise had appeared against the whiteness at the back of Val’s neck. Val had been throttled from behind with such force that the choking fingers had torn holes in Val’s skin. But Val had not died from a ruptured trachea; it hadn’t been touched. He had bled to death, pints of blood having spurted from horribly mangled arteries.

Jay turned sharply at a sound from behind him. He spun around as he stood up. His heels hit Val’s body and he fell backward.

Seth emerged from the cavern. His slick, glistening fingers curled around the lip of the entrance. The tips of his fingers were shiny down to the second knuckle from Val’s blood. He drew himself up through the narrow opening and stood huge against the barren landscape. His infected cheek burned and his left eye bulged, as black and goggling as the eye of a fish. His good eye glowed in the white field of his face.

Jay pulled out a fresh clip for his .45, fiddling in the dark with his trembling fingers. He jerked his head up at a sudden screeching. He shoved the clip too hard and the magazine bounced off the hand grip and shot into the darkness, landing with a metallic clatter.

Seth’s good eye had narrowed and he made a sudden leap for Jay.

Jay stepped backward, easily out of reach.

Too easy. He should have gotten me.

Seth seemed to be measuring the distance. Jay felt something coming from Seth. Something like a radio signal, but it made no sense. All Jay knew was that something was trying to get into his head. It was fatally comforting and that frightened him. The feeling lulled him, nearly made him forget Val’s violent death at the hands of this monster. Jay literally snapped awake and the feeling evaporated. He noticed that the monster’s head jerked as he awoke from his stupor.

Jay rolled his eyes to the right. A stand of evergreens poked its way from the sparse soil thirty yards away, marching down the side of the mountain to the thicker woodland below. He thought if he could get a three second head start, he might be able to make it.

He bolted, spurred on by mind-bending fear. Loose dirt and pebbles avalanched down the steep grade. He scrambled, nearly sideways, slipping to one knee and bouncing back up. A roar of surprise, almost like a question, erupted from behind him just as pine branches slapped against his face. He plunged blindly into the trees, trying to blot out the snapping, crashing undergrowth and crushing footfalls behind him.

Jay pounded through the trees. His heart boomed and faltered. It seemed it would pop at anytime. He had retrieved his bayonet from its scabbard and he clutched it in his hand, never minding that he might slip at any time and stick it through his own heart.

The popping sound of snapping branches urged him forward, his lungs boiling and gasping. He whipped blindly through the forest, smacking his shins against tree stumps. Shadows gathered around him in thick pools. He saw movements from the corners of his eyes, as if things had stepped back into the shadows when he turned to look.

He glanced quickly over his shoulder and his legs wavered. Seth was gaining on him, his good eye blazing like a fog lantern in the night. Jay stumbled with the clumsiness of a city boy while Seth loped like a stalking wolf.

Jay called on his last reserves of energy to push him faster. When he next took a hurried glance backward, what he saw would stay with him for the rest of his life.

Seth had stopped, his arms upraised as if in supplication. For a crazy second, Jay thought he had made it.

A streak of white flashed across the sky. It wasn’t like a lightning bolt, but as if the entire night sky had become a reflecting surface for a celestial flash bulb. The blinding white stretched from horizon to horizon for a thousandth of a second, obliterating the perception of any object in its total white out. A sleepy, minor-key buzzing like the sound of an electrical grid being charged rattled in the night.

Jay’s limbs began to slow. It was the first thing he felt after the light fell over him and dissipated. His brain numbed, refusing to tell his legs to run anymore. He felt that every last bit of energy was being sucked from his soul. He sensed a dim, white haze all around him. His internal temperature rose to two hundred degrees near the surface of his skin, forming instant blisters that burst and ran. Then, faster than it could be said, his internal temperature plummeted to below zero.

Seventy below.

Two hundred below.

Jay opened his mouth, trying to breathe air that had implausibly taken on the consistency of sludge. It froze open like a door on a rusty hinge. His eyeballs frosted over and his limbs, going full tilt only a second before, ground to a complete standstill.

Two hundred eighty below. Four hundred below.

Jay was a frozen Pieta of agony. His clothes, his body, even his hot internal organs had been flash frozen so quickly there had not been time for ice crystals to form and rupture the delicate tissues. In the next instant, his inertia carried him like a bowling ball into a massive tree trunk. He shattered into a thousand pieces that showered into the night, catching moonbeams and scattering their rays like sparklers. The next day, searchers would find the body of Val Sheffield and a few pieces of Jay Thomas. There would be just enough large pieces left of Jay to permit positive ID. None of the searchers would ever believe he had been flash frozen and shattered like an ice cube in a nut cracker, even though his smashed remains would still be like grisly ice pops the next day.

Seth walked over and leaned heavily against the tree on which Jay had died. He sucked in his cheek as though nursing a decayed tooth and was rewarded with a flaming, cruel jab of pain. Rocket trails burst inside his head while burning cinders showered down behind his eyes in a fiery rain.

He panted harshly, catching his breath, each inhalation like a razor slash over the raw edges of his cut cheek. His left eye was blind, the infection having built up enough to put pressure directly on the eyeball. He spared a last, remorseless look at the remains of Jay Thomas, then looked to the lights of the place from which he had escaped. They glowed urgently, beacons shimmering in halos of steamy mist.

Despite the torture he had endured there, waking up with foreign objects in every orifice of his body, trapped in an alien, sterile environment, he knew he must go back. Other than his initial terror and breakout from the trap, he instinctively knew they had controlled his every move. The imprinting process had begun, though Seth was unaware of this. He had fixated on the yellow-haired creature at the trap, the one called Ingrid. She could make him well again.

He looked away from the far distant Alamo and at a line of lights. Like a strangely and painfully broken snake, the line of car headlights moved slowly down the highway toward Sedgefield auditorium where Joshua Hall was preparing to deliver the sermon of his life. Seth did not know the specifics as such, but was attuned to some great force that gathered there. Having no referent to tell him this was anomalous human perception, he accepted it as valid input.

He felt no guilt for his killings. His first lesson at the hands of the old man had been a painful one, and well learned. He would not make that mistake again.

Seth lapsed into a self-induced hypnosis. The pain, the infection, the hunger, all had taken their toll. He shook his head, wincing once again at the fresh stab of pain.

Rain began to fall as he made his way up the mountainside, back to the only home he had ever known.

8

Alex had been demanding an audience with Merrifield all day. Late in the afternoon, shortly before Val Sheffield and Jay Thomas made Seth’s acquaintance, his demand was granted.

Merrifield had kept close tabs on the search. He was more than displeased with the lack of results. There had been numerous possibles, but after the initial excitement at these sightings, Merrifield had begun to dismiss the possibles as meaningless. No small feat when one considered that this childish, injured creature had eluded a manhunt that would have netted the wiliest criminal. He briefly wondered if Ingrid had managed to give him the ability to become invisible as well. Sophisticated infrared equipment and helicopters had been used. The searchers had found a lot of deer, and even a bear, but no Seth. And when they did find him, Merrifield feared the discoverers might find that Seth could freeze them, fry them, or shake and bake them as easily as he thought about it. It was exactly what Merrifield had desired, but he had never wanted it to be used against him.

He had been expecting a renewed confrontation with Clifton. It was a sticky situation. On the one hand, Clifton was no more than an employee and Merrifield would have been completely justified in refusing him an explanation of anything. On the other, he was a valuable commodity and Merrifield harbored hopes he could be turned to the way of right-thinking people. If Clifton had a fault it was a tendency to let emotion cloud his logic.

There was a light rap on the door. Clifton, looking drained and ill even beneath his new shower and change of clothes, walked in and sat down opposite Merrifield.

“We can discuss this rationally,” Merrifield said in opening, “or we can have a reprise of last night’s dustup. We’re all tired, we’re all on edge.” He sagged back in his chair. “What say we talk this out like civilized men?”

“All I want to know,” Clifton said, “is where we stand. What’s the official line?”

“The official line comes from me. In point of fact, I have to consider other opinions.”

“Including mine?”

“I’ve always valued your input.”

“Then why do you keep shoving my opinions out of the way? You refuse to even consider the points I make.”

“That’s not true,” Merrifield said. He straightened his back, contorting his face painfully as he did so. “Just last night you were all too eager to put the cart before the horse. Your first reaction was to hunt Seth down like an animal and kill him. I don’t believe you stopped to think it would be a hell of a job just to find him.”

Alex opened his mouth, but Merrifield stopped him.

“Please, Alex. You’ve been nailed to the wall by me for far less in the past. Do you think I like telling you this? Do you think it brings me any joy to know you’ve turned against me? And Ingrid?”

Clifton had enough sheer brass neck to look Merrifield straight in the eye.

“No, Jon. I know you don’t like it. I don’t like it, either.”

“We can go on butting heads,” Merrifield said, “and end up with somebody getting hurt. Or we can work together and thresh this whole mess out.”

“My mind is the one that should be changed?”

“The rest of us, the people that matter, think we should do it just as it’s going off.”

“You think Seth is salvageable?”

“Salvageable or not, he’s as human as you or I. Killing Seth would be the destruction of two years’ work, not to mention murder just as surely as you think he murdered those two soldiers. Worse, still, cold blooded murder. At least Seth only killed to survive.”

“You make him sound like some poor, orphaned inner city kid from a broken home. I suppose you’ll give him the Miranda when he’s captured?”

“Alex, if we were to do it your way, you would have him brought before a drumhead court complete with bailiff, judge, jury, and executioner. That’s not a reasonable scenario, is it?”

“I never said that’s the way I wanted it.”

“No. Barring that, you would have had him shot down on sight like a dirty dog.”

Alex stood. “I think this is about all I want to hear.”

“Siddown,” Merrifield said.

Alex looked at Merrifield as if his lid had finally been screwed down too tight and was mashing his brains.

“It doesn’t matter what I think, anyway, does it,” Alex asked.

Merrifield sighed. “No. It doesn’t. I make the final decision. Seth comes back. Alive.”

“Then why the interview?” Despite his frustration, Alex was fascinated, wondering why Merrifield considered it so important to keep him thinking along lines of saving the project.

“If Seth dies,” Merrifield went on, “the project dies. There will be no second chance.” Merrifield spoke with distaste. “If Seth is not back by tonight, the Doomsday Plan begins.”

“Doomsday Plan?” Clifton, who knew many things about the project even Ingrid didn’t, was caught by surprise.

“If Seth is not returned by tomorrow, a special detachment of Blue Berets and FBI agents will arrive. These are soldiers and agents unlike any other. They will find Seth, and when they do, the plug will be pulled. All files, tapes, hard drives and discs will be commandeered. The facility will be dismantled and all traces of what we’ve done here will be obliterated. You, me, Ingrid, everyone will be dispersed and scattered to the four winds. Likely, by design, to never see each other again. Finis.”

Merrifield squeezed his eyes shut. They were red from rubbing and too generous tipping of the bourbon bottle. Clifton saw the truth in Merrifield’s eyes even through their red weariness. At least the truth as he believed it. Clifton began to doubt his own intractability. Seth’s destruction would only postpone the inevitable heat that was going to come down. It wouldn’t bring the dead soldiers back and it surely would not bode well for his continued employment with the company.

But the most compelling point was that there would be no second chance. Clifton wondered if he was feeling a gut reaction to blood on so many hands it was impossible to lay blame. The burden of guilt had to be borne by someone. Merrifield wouldn’t take it, and Ingrid was already carrying around a load of guilt that would break a pack mule’s back. Maybe the guilt could be transferred, spread around. When and if he were ever asked about it, he could say he had done the all American thing and passed the buck. The conscience of a shady, manipulative, and sometimes vicious complex was too great a weight for him to bear. He would have to go along with everybody else.

“Is it that important,” he asked. “Now that it’s done, do you really think you need him?”

“Those that dole out the funds don’t accept technical papers as proof. They need a breathing body.”

“A slave,” Clifton said thickly.

Merrifield sighed deeply, a sign that even he could be dismayed.

“We have no voice in that. But he’s likely to save many more lives than he takes. So when you worry about a couple of dead soldiers, ask yourself if that’s too large a price to pay for what we’ve learned.”

“They were people, too,” Alex said. “They have to be answered for.”

“Dead is dead. They’re beyond our help. All we can do now is help ourselves.”

“Josh Hall isn’t planning to make it easy for us.”

“Should Mr. Hall queer anything we have going, he will be publicly defrocked and humiliated. Four women will come forth having borne his illegitimate children. Also a man, claiming to have contracted HSV II from him. Quite a coup, especially considering his hellfire and damnation against moral decadence.

“A list of his exploits in Nicaragua will be made readily available to the media. The IRS and DEA will have a field day with him. A half kilo of nose candy is not a good thing to be found behind the light switch in your house.”

“You would do all that to discredit him?”

“We’re prepared to do just that. There’s more, but what I’ve already mentioned will be more than ample for the left wing media hacks to crucify him. They’ll have to unstick themselves from their own baby batter just at the thought of bringing down some right wing fundamentalist.”

“He’s speaking tonight,” Clifton said uneasily. He wondered if the dirt Hall was planning to dump could be acted on so quickly. “He’ll probably spill his guts about everything tonight.”

“I’m sure that’s exactly what he has in mind. It’s unfortunate, but it can’t be undone. However, there is a bright side. If we, with hundreds of people beating the bushes for Seth, can’t find him, what chance does Hall have? And without Seth, what proof has he?”

“It doesn’t seem likely,” Clifton admitted, “But what if Seth finds him?”

Merrifield seemed startled. “I don’t quite follow.”

Alex smiled strangely. “That’s what he was made for, wasn’t he?”

9

The auditorium was packed. The temperature among the milling crowd had soared to over a hundred degrees despite the night’s chill. The mixed aromas of perfume, cologne, anti-perspirant, and the pervasive, cattle-car smell unique to crowds, thickened the air.

Alex had driven down at Merrifield’s request to get the low down on Hall’s plan. A steady rain fell, but this time it was not a thunderstorm. The temperature was dropping and there would be snow by morning. His legs wanted to cramp as they were shifted into a sitting position and his eyes had blurred a couple of times on the way down. It was an effort for him to straighten his limbs once he got to the auditorium, but he felt his mobility was slowly returning. An usher greeted him as he entered the lobby. Clifton felt the heat even this far away from the main body of the congregation. The usher clasped his hand warmly, smiling widely as if his mouth had too many teeth.

“Welcome, brother,” he gushed. He squeezed Clifton’s hand tighter. “We’re so glad to have you.”

Alex told the usher he wouldn’t have missed it. This pleased the usher to no end. His eyes gleamed.

“God will bless you,” he said, “Reverend Hall has a special message tonight. You’ll be glad you came, brother. Tonight is the start of something big.”

“I’m sure,” Clifton murmured.

Alex looked around. An hour before show time and there wasn’t an empty seat in the house. Josh had the place loaded against him.

More ushers were busy handing out leaflets to the six hundred or so standees at the rear of the auditorium. The crowd milled about all the way to the lobby and jammed the fire exits. Clifton guessed there to be two thousand souls there. A handsome young man appeared before Clifton and pressed a leaflet into his palm before disappearing. It was a single sheet of paper, printed on one side.

Are you tired of loved ones dying because of man-made global warming, pollution, pestilence, and disease?

Tired of man’s loss of faith in The Lord? The turning away of God’s children from the Father? The worshiping of false idols?

Are you sickened at the degradation of God’s most perfect creation at the hands of false healers who use artificial means to prolong the agony of man on earth, when that time could have been spent in the Glory of the Kingdom of God?

Then join the millions who follow Reverend Hall. Renounce the pagan practices of false healing and place your faith completely in the Lord God Jehovah. You will be blessed with health, happiness, and prosperity. All goodness springs from The Lord and only through Him can you receive true healing and salvation. Place your faith no longer in the sacred cows of earthly magic; the institutions that have brought us the threat of nuclear and biological holocaust, the ravaging of God’s earth, and the deforming of His children. The institutions of false healing will begin their crumble tonight, and you will be witness to it.

Clifton crumpled up the page. “Holy shit,” he said quietly, dropping the balled up paper on the floor.

He looked over the rapturous faces of the people in the auditorium. Some read the flier, some sat with stern, set looks on their faces. Still others spoke animatedly to one another, nodding their heads like birds at a drinking pool.

Clifton threaded his lurching way down a narrow aisle after seeing a seat magically open up. He stepped in sticky spots of spilled sodas and nudged his cramped way past knees protruding into the passageway.

On stage, Hall’s choir tuned up for the festivities. It was a coed choir and the singers were draped in voluminous gray cassocks with white dickeys on the breasts. Even the girls wore the absurd dickeys. Probably corseted on, Alex thought. Hall was apparently hellbent that none of his girls’ tits jiggled on a high note.

A clear, beautiful soprano soared out. The note was a shining crystal in the muggy atmosphere. An ordered tremor swelled beneath the tone until it harmonized perfectly with the first note.

The stage was lit only by candles. They were placed in ornate candelabras scattered along the stage boards like robot conductors. The voices of the choir swept over the assembly, pealing like the bells of liberty at war’s end. The crowd murmured restlessly, stirred, ostensibly, by the spirit of The Lord. Some had taken up the hymn, giving back the words to ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’.

Alex blinked at the irony. He was sure that most of the audience, which was wiping tears from its eyes or swallowing large lumps in their throats, had no idea of Hall’s previous line of work.

On and on the singers spilled their passion to The Lord, growing louder as more voices lifted in chorus. Clifton was unable to credit the spellbound state to which the audience had fallen prey. It became like something alive; a gestalt entity with a singular consciousness, like the survival force that surrounded the Alamo. They had lost their will, their ability to think for themselves. All eyes stared mindlessly forward. Their lips moved. Some sang, some simply made the motions of words given them. A swaying, rhythmic motion that Clifton likened to the shuffling of an army of apes began. Except for the candles, only the exit lights remained, glowing with a dimly pulsating, red hue.

The audience gave voice to its fervor as the hymn reached a crescendo. It seemed the roof might come off the building. From somewhere far distant, Clifton heard the sound of a window rattling angrily beneath the flood of voices.

Clifton saw TV cameras from the local affiliate, ready to train their lenses on the great man. An intense-looking young man scribbled notes frantically, using a small pen-light to see. The bulge of a miniature tape recorder was visible in his jacket pocket. Clifton knew it was Ron Walton, though he had never met him.

The choir sang ever louder in its quest to finish the hymn. It began to sound like the Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s ‘Messiah’ before the lights suddenly flashed up and the choir ceased as one. The final voices rushed like water from a cave of echoes.

Alex blinked rapidly in the sudden light and squinted to see the stage. Emerging from the wings, Josh Hall was resplendent, the very image of a fire-breathing, pure pious minister out to save the masses.

He strode calmly to center stage like a giant, possessing that elusive quality known as presence, moving with the purposeful, steely grace of a jungle cat, a skill learned in the backwoods of Arkansas and perfected in the jungles of Nicaragua. He had never lost it.

He slammed his bible down on the podium and clutched the edges of the rostrum as if he meant to rip it from the stage. He glared silently around the mesmerized audience like a rabid Solomon. Clifton was surprised at the silliness of it all. Surely they could see what a perfect ass Hall was making of himself.

Nobody was laughing. Hall surveyed his audience, locking eyes with the few stern enough to meet his gaze. His sweeping scan rested on Clifton. For a second, their eyes locked. Hall’s gaze did not falter, nor even remain still, but flickered for a split second, as if to confirm ‘I know to watch you’. Clifton felt no fear at his stare, only an irrepressible uneasiness. He had seen through the sham. Hall might have millions around the nation fooled, but Clifton saw the true man.

Hall had the eyes of the man who had tried to kill Jon Merrifield.

Hall settled into the role of guiding sheep. His voice poured over the heads of the anointed who had gathered to hear his words.

“Let us pray,” he said.

10

Placed in the role of supplicant, Seth struggled closer to the lights on the hill. The loss of zinc electrolytes in his brain had taken their disastrous toll and he found himself more and more susceptible to the crazing voices that thumped inside his skull like a jackhammer.

His desperate eyes roamed between the lamps of the Alamo and the moving chain of dazzling headlights winding their way down the mountain. The night was an awful black curtain behind which men could be lurking, ready to spring at any moment, and wield their terrible weapons against him.

He looked cautiously into the void, allowing his hyperdeveloped senses to lapse into a semblance of normal acuity. He felt a strangely draining, restful sensation when his information gathering apparatus wound down to a lower power.

Cold rain pelted him and his head ached with the onset of some disease. The throbbing and burning of his many wounds and abrasions sapped his strength. The lights on the hill were too far to reach. His salvation could never be obtained. It would be easier to give in and die. The grim, whining voices in his head were to much to bear.

He had been conscious for just under twenty-four hours and in that time he had killed four men and injured one, been shot at, chased, hunted, horribly maimed, and endured the tortures of the damned, all because he was different. He was special above all other creatures, but did he have a soul? Could such an abstract concept be constructed from bits and pieces of elemental energy like atoms?

His senses flared involuntarily as the voices began again. The inky night tinged with red as he saw the telltale, infrared shapes of small animals scurrying through the tree branches and shuffling across the compost-covered floor of the forest, seeking shelter from the storm. The beating of an owl’s wing from seven miles away came to his ears. Closer by, in the river, he heard the sudden, savage glup of an underwater predator breaking the surface and devouring some unfortunate top dwelling creature.

The sounds lowered and merged, becoming part of a primordial, low frequency hum. By fractional increments the humming increased in pitch like a struggling radio transmission. The whining broke up and became words, fading in and out, but becoming clearer.

…don’t know what it’s going…”

…to be about. I heard it’s something…”

…special. Something very special…”

…he won’t, give ’em an inch…”

..he’ll take them right down to hell…”

…where they belong.”

Seth tried to force the voices out with a vicious shake of his head. Electric bolts of agony rattled his teeth as pockets of pus burst from the swollen skin stretched too tightly. The voices spit and snapped in his head like shorted electrical wires.

From the valley below, a terrible man, a thousandfold worse than any of the others, fomented an awful, single-minded insistence on his destruction. The man was like the wild flowers with the thick smell that had torn Seth’s hands. They were beautiful to see and touch, but had sharp teeth that pierced his skin and spilled his blood. This man would do the same.

Seth had no words and not even pictures in his mind’s eye would come. Just the knowledge.

Just the man hating him for what he was, marshaling his forces against him. Not out of fear like other men, but out of simple hatred. The fear Seth should have felt was only a tiny whisper, like the yowl of the catamount shut away outside of locked doors.

The fire in his jaw screamed at him to find Ingrid; to be healed. But a newly formed part of his humanity shouldered his physical traumas aside.

Seth needed to know his enemy. The way he moved; the way he thought. The man knew Seth was injured. He sensed it just as Seth sensed that the man would attack him indirectly, but wouldn’t shirk a direct challenge if push came to shove. His healing would have to wait until his study was completed. No detail could be deemed too small or insignificant.

Seth began his descent into the valley. A minister might have called it the valley of the shadow, but Seth thought of it as the valley of his being. Of seven billion human souls on the planet who had asked themselves the meaning of life, Seth knew his purpose. He was no less human for the knowledge.

His function was to neutralize those like Josh Hall.

11

Alex shifted his crowded position and tried to settle more comfortably into a difficult situation. Hall had taken the bit between his teeth a half hour before and every passing minute saw the death knell knocking louder at the door of the Alamo.

The congregation had at first listened in stunned silence as Hall poured out the story of the science mongers in their midst. Those operating against the very principles of the Lord.

Alex watched disbelief slowly change to anger in the sparsely lit auditorium. Hall had not come to deliver his message with mealy-mouthed polemics. His intention was to stuff a large chunk of Godly wrath directly down the throats of the parishioners.

The men had clamped their jaws shut and tight sinews stood out like white ribs against the red flush of their necks. The women sat in silent, dignified sobriety, some of them working handkerchiefs or lace doilies through their spidery fingers. Their eyes glowed with a strange, judgmental light.

The ushers had moved up to the rear of the auditorium, leaving the lobby empty. Their faces were rapt. Obviously, this was the first they had heard of Hall’s message. Clifton expected a noose to materialize at any moment.

They’re ready to lynch Seth from the nearest tree. In fact, I think they would rather shoot him down because he’s different. Shoot him down, as Merrifield would say, like a dirty dog.

Hall’s sermon came from the text of second Peter, chapters one and two. Clifton foggily recollected it was mostly about false prophets. Given that Hall’s beliefs about genetics were roughly analogous to Arthur Dimmesdale’s views on adultery, it wasn’t a stretch to figure what form his false prophet would take.

He had started off quietly enough, no inkling of a great unburdening to come. It had only gotten worse after the first minute and a half of prayer.

Within two minutes his calm voice had begun to boom. The years had etched his features only slightly and he still presented a ferocious, overbearing vitality as his ocean of words rolled onto listening shore of ears.

“Does it not say in the second verse of the second chapter that false prophets will come among us,” Hall questioned.

There was an approving murmur from the audience.

“Simon Peter has told us they will bring us false doctrines and false teachings. Destructive ways that are not God’s Will. They will abet in their own destruction by denying the very God Who has saved them.”

Hall let his righteous gaze rest on all the faithful. He held his bible over his head, almost like a waiter carrying a tray.

“Brethren, I am not talking about he bestial, panting lust that one man feels for another’s wife. I speak of the new lust that is so evil, so heathenish it makes heresy seem like a woman lying about her age.”

There was a small, rebellious titter from some of the women in the audience.

Clifton was surprised anyone had laughed, considering the slobbering, obsequious way most of them hung on his every word.

“The new lust is the belief many today harbor. Many near to you.”

Hall stopped as a slight gasp went up from the audience. He pointed his bible at a window through which the lights of the Alamo were plainly visible, shining atop the mountain like a lighthouse in a storm.

“At this place,” he asserted, “are the leading proponents of the lust not just for knowledge, but for forbidden knowledge. The lust for the power of creation that belongs only to God.” Hall thumped his fist on the podium. “To God!”

A disbelieving roar lifted from the crowd.

“They have profited from their lies, from sending souls to hell. They are smug in their belief God is dead. They believe they can mock and banter at Him with impunity.

“But let me tell you, friends. God is not dead, and He has not gone away. The judge of the science merchants is watching and their destruction is mandated by God Himself.”

Hall pounded his bible on the podium. He paced back and forth like a caged lion.

“The Lord deals out stern punishments to the faithless. He did not mercifully spare the ancient world which was awash with wickedness. He spared only Noah and his family from the flood. He saved Lot, who was a Godly man in a den of thieves.

“The science merchants who feel they are above God are stiff-necked, vulgar and arrogant. They insult the angels and spit at the name of God.”

While Hall raged on and on, Clifton heard the sound of rattling glass. A sound like you hear outside your window at night and you tell yourself it’s just a dog, or a bug flitting against the screen. He didn’t know if anyone else heard it or not. He slowly turned toward the auditorium’s entrance as the murmurs of indignation rose around him.

“…by God, should have known they was into…”

“…some sort of deviltry..,”

“…up there on the hill. Shut away like…”

“…like princes in their ivory towers…”

Or,” Hall boomed in an amplified voice that bludgeoned the soft murmur. A piercing wail of feedback screamed from the loudspeakers. The sound of pattering raindrops intensified, becoming heavier and denser. The glass doors were awash with rain water that ran like sluggish rivers through beds of condensation.

Or,” Hall continued more moderately, “like princesses in their ivory towers.”

Alex barely heard him. He concentrated on what looked like a bleak, bedraggled shape huddled in the shadows outside the main entrance.

He wouldn’t come here. It would be madness. You’ve been out like a light for two months, small wonder you’re seeing gremlins around every corner. Concentrate on Josh, baby, and don’t be swayed by weird feelings. Feelings like there’s something right outside; something that’s looking in here at all the people like they were ants at a picnic or funny little bugs under a microscope. Feelings like he’s looking right through you to Josh Hall. And you know he’s thinking, now. He’s learned to hate.

And then it came.

A searing bolt of lightning flared. Bare instants before the crash of thunder came, the overhead lights went out. The monitors on the TV cameras cracked and fizzled, crapping out in loud, blinding flashes of snow. Clifton saw Seth’s wretched, ashen and quasi-human face plastered against the glass door. A livid gash ran along the left side of his face and closed one eye down to a slit. His palms were flattened against the glass and he looked like a child staring hungrily in the window of a candy shop.

A fraction of a second later, Seth was lost from sight as the lightning subsided.

The subsequent blast of thunder roared through the building like a tornado unleashed, shaking the structure in every footing, brick, and board. There were gasps and nervous screams. Candlelight flickered and danced, as if touched by a giant’s breath.

Another, less intense bolt of lightning flickered. Clifton watched the black pane of glass and the deserted street beyond. It seemed everyone in town had attended the sermon.

A sign from the Lord,” Hall expounded in a religious ecstasy. He clasped his bible to his breast with both hands. His closed eyes were raised heavenward.

What price must we pay for the good life,” he shouted, his sonorous voice carrying over the listeners even though the PA system had gone down. He stared down on his sheep with the eyes of a man transported by his vision. The bare candlelight turned his face a ruddy, bloody red and shadowed his eyes like lampblack.

“Are we willing to turn away from the one, true God Who has promised us everlasting life for the sake of a few merchants of evil who say they have the cure to your earthly ills?”

Hall raised his bible overhead. It hovered there, trembling slightly, a hawk about to dive for the kill.

Something settled into the ambiance of the auditorium and thickened the air to lead in Clifton’s lungs. The room began to stink of overloaded electrical circuits. Movements appeared slow and sluggish. The hair on his arms and the back of his neck stirred like grass in the wind.

Turn away from them, brethren,” Hall screamed, “Put your faith only in God for He is the true resurrection!” On “resurrection” Hall thumped his bible on the rostrum.

A gigantic lightning bolt blazed across the skyline like a nuclear explosion. The glass doors of Sedgefield auditorium exploded from the outside. Rapidly whirling shards of razor-edged glass blew into the crowd on the dragon’s breath of thunder that followed.

The candles blew out as one. Frightened screams erupted. Somewhere behind the stage curtains, Clifton heard a hoarse whisper instruct, “…go get the goddammed lights turned on…” and the sound of hurrying footsteps. Hall’s audience became an exercise in terror. They stared warily into the rainswept night beyond the shattered glass, nothing visible of their faces but the scleras of their eyes.

Outlined by the frequent lightning flashes, the monster stared in at them. It was not human by any means. It was eight feet tall and hugely muscled. It’s bulbous head and insect eyes were terrifying. It-he-was naked. His face was horribly mangled and one roving black eyeball reflected red as scarce light rays bounced off the tapetum.

Alex found it difficult to breathe. His chest tightened like an oaken keg bound with iron bands.

Seth’s brutish hulk towered outside the shattered window, rain soaked and dripping, glaring balefully with his good eye. Howling gales blasted sheets of freezing rain into the auditorium. Hall’s eyes showed briefly in the constant lightning flashes and Alex saw the senseless glitter in them.

Sparked by an electric undercurrent, the congregation milled and huddled like a flock of sheep fearing the attack of half-starved wolves. Thunder rumbled distantly and trampled off the black edge of the earth on leaden shoes. A ponderous humming sprang to life in the auditorium, gaining urgency. The overhead lights flashed briefly to life, flickered listlessly, then perished, plunging the auditorium into final darkness.

Moans drifted up but where quickly drowned out when the humming began to oscillate. The vibrations shook the building’s foundations. The audience drew itself up and up, threatening to spill from its restraints and become a stampede. The oscillations stretched to a dizzying height, wavering like a warbling top. A sudden, screeching voice came up over the top of the grainy sound. It was womanish, contemptuous, appearing to come from the center of the room.

Resurrection!” Seth screamed. He licked the cut edges of his cheek as he spoke, enjoying the power of the word, relishing the thought of having stolen the word from the straw man before him. He held up his hands in brazen mockery of Hall’s impotence. He had forgotten the fire in his face in his joy at confronting this veiled demon.

Flickering lightning glowed in jagged bursts against the walls and guttered out. The frightened faces of the congregation were lit. Faces stretched into circles of disbelief; faces with nails clutching at them.

Hall’s voice soared over the hysterical crowd.

See with your own eyes,” he rebuked, pointing an accusing finger, “See how the monster mocks the very Power of God! Are we frightened of the serpent?”

I bloody well am,” came one dissenting voice from the crowd. Aside from this lone maverick, there was no other answer, only a cauldron of whimpering parishioners. Ron Walton scribbled at a frenzied pace, squinting at his pages, trying to hold his pen light still in his teeth against the jostling of elbows.

“Stand with me, brethren,” Hall implored. “Stand with me and watch the power of Almighty God cast the demon back into the pit of hell!”

Hall raised his arms over his head as if appealing for Divine Intervention. For a moment it seemed his prophecy would be fulfilled. The overhead lights rattled, then burst with a hollow bang, raining their devil’s teeth on the crowd below. The very air being drawn for respiration shimmered darkly before drawing some kind of energy and beginning to glow. It was not a glow in the sense that a light bulb glows, but a milky luminescence, like lights cutting through fog. Some power built over the congregation like a vast, invisible hand towering over their heads.

Seth drew warily away from the shattered window. He had underestimated his foe. Hall had no power from what he called the “Lord”, but the power he did possess was much like Seth’s; a power drawn from nature. A brooding, paternal force favoring the hunter best equipped to thwart his enemies. Seth’s suddenly sensitized jaw bloomed with agony as though someone had lit a fire against it. Hall held sway over him, facing him down stare for stare with his lunatic eyes.

Come to me. I’ll show you how much power you have. I’ll destroy you, then I’ll destroy Ingrid and anybody else I can bring down in the fray. You’re a devil spawn and God will not be denied of His sport. Come and meet your master. Look on the man who will destroy you.

Seth’s bones turned to jelly. His mind bellowed to destroy this man. Smash him, burn him, grind him to dust, but he had lost his abilities. He was no longer able to influence his surroundings; he was just a pawn outplayed in a cruel chess match by a demented and despotic queen.

The crowd surged back and forth, unwilling to dart past the intruder, yet equally unwilling to cluster around Hall who was obviously brainsick. The camera operators tried fruitlessly to train their lenses on the monster, but the electricity was gone.

Inexplicably, the videotape machines went wonky and ejected their tapes, spewing out streamers of magnetic media like string tugged by a runaway kite.

The two principals faced each other only seconds more; the irresistible force facing the immovable object. Sensing in a way that was inborn, the crowd felt the balance of power shift. The load of righteousness that came from Hall began to overwhelm the primitive, raw surges of emotion that poured from Seth. They sensed Seth’s unwillingness to carry the confrontation further and readied themselves to act on it.

A final, anemic stroke of lightning showed the fading glow in Seth’s eye. He now knew, as did the crowd, that Hall was far, far more dangerous than any of them had suspected. They had felt the improbable power Seth possessed; had seen his imposing physique. And they had seen him overwhelmed by a man of God. But not their God, they had belatedly realized. Not the New Testament God, but an Old Testament God whose appetites were anathema to them. A god with an appetite for disaster and hatred.

Seth turned and loped into the darkness. The crowd broke its moorings in true panic.

In what appeared to be an orderly fashion, a man broke free and sprinted for the door, showing nothing but asshole and elbows. The rest of the crowd quickly followed, picking them up and putting them down in a mad scramble that would carry them far away from Hall’s lunacy.

Clifton was swept away in the general confusion and had no choice but to be carried along by the tide into the wet and miserable night. Ron Walton was scooped up by the tumult. Clifton saw him helplessly trying to keep his notebook out of the fray by holding it over his head. A woman sideswiped him in her rush to get to the door. Another man put an elbow into his ribs. Walton’s notebook went flying as if it had sprouted wings. The wings died and the pages fluttered to the ground where they were shredded by feet eager to destroy every account of the night’s events. Walton’s mini tape recorder tumbled from his jacket pocket and was stomped into an unrecognizable mass of plastic and metal.

Josh Hall’s mad laughter rang out above the melee.

Where are you going, brethren,” he called out. “Do you not feel safe in the fold of God’s Love? Have you seen the true face of the Lord and been frightened?” Hall boomed his evil laugh again.

“Have no fear, friends,” he implored. “A dragon prowls through the night and wears the body of a man.”

Hall’s wicked words rang louder as the screaming exodus from the auditorium continued.

[]THE HUNT

1

The storm had melted the mountain slopes into an almost impenetrable bog. Seth had fled to them, running from the auditorium like a man before the fury of a rising tsunami. Still with no ability to think in abstracts, he could not articulate the perfect terror he had felt at Hall’s blazing stare.

He had descended to the auditorium in the rain, moving silent and unseen through the shadowed byways of the town. Clouds that had only thinly masked the moon had now gathered in profusion. The wind whistled down the alleyways and tugged at his heels. Even from a distance Seth sensed the energy flowing from the auditorium, A building passion that was overpowering. It struck out blindly, like groping tendrils.

Hall’s thoughts were clear and powerful, confined by definite parameters, never straying or whirling off on tangents. They telegraphed through the air in precise bolts of empathy. This close to the man, Seth felt two opposing sets of energy fields coming into contact. Seth had accepted the powerful, unseen webs of energy that accompanied him as a natural part of his being. Now, a counterbalancing field of power set itself against him. It was a new and frightening experience, his first encounter with the physical power of madness.

Seth had approached the rear of the building. Though his aches and pains had mostly ceased, he had no desire for another eyeball to eyeball confrontation, especially with this man who was not like other men. He searched fruitlessly for an obscure vantage point. There appeared to be no way to observe Hall without going directly to the front of the Auditorium.

Hall had begun his sermon and Seth found the colors and textures of his emotions interesting in their own right. As Hall had raved and spread himself more vigorously, heating the crowd, Seth’s senses went up and out, leaving his body.

The darkness was no hindrance to him, but it blazed like a bonfire in comparison to the darkness in Hall’s heart. Phrases, outlined in nightmare black and dripping with hate, cascaded into his mind, merging with the red glow of his fury.

…False prophets will come among you…”

…They will bring false teachings…”

…The lust for power…”

…The effrontery to insult God…”

…They have created a being…”

…He is a monster, friends…”

The sky had opened for fair and cold rain fell heavily. Some of the drops took on erratically spinning, oblong shapes as they fell through the boundaries of the opposing energy fields. Unnoticed by most, Alex Clifton had felt the static zone where the fields collided, though he could not have told it as such. It was that inexplicable sensation of power held in precarious balance that had forced his gaze from Hall and toward the lobby.

Seth had looked on the face of Josh Hall for the first time. It was a face more handsome than most, surely worlds away from the inflamed mass of shredded tissue and semi-gangrenous flesh of his own. Hall’s eyes blazed like polished diamonds and his body trembled as he had delivered the final words that should have been the death knell for Ingrid, the Alamo, and Seth.

Hall had shouted “A sign from the Lord!” and all of Seth’s rage had surfaced, trembling at the edge of control. When Hall had shouted “resurrection” the connotations of the word were so personal to Seth that he felt it the grossest obscenity of all for this man to utter it from his mouth. The energy fields trembled, two Goliaths locked in mortal combat.

A familiar surge of energy had literally torn itself from Seth’s body, as if some part of his being had forcibly detached itself from his innards. The windows before him had disintegrated in a glassy detonation.

The next sounds he had heard were screams and the booming of thunder.

A swooning, rapturous euphoria overcame Seth as he faced the monster. Hall was within Seth’s ability to destroy, and he awaited Hall’s cowering submission.

Resurrection!” Seth had screeched, wild-voiced. He looked like a rain soaked phantom of the opera. There were anguished cries of despair as Seth’s power grew and he waited for the power to crush Hall.

Hall had not crumbled. He glared lividly at Seth, his eyes those of a reanimated corpse. Seth felt a whisper-like tremor as one of the energy fields drained. He sensed the joy in Hall’s heart, the nightmarish glee that Seth’s appearance had brought him. The colors were bright and gilt-edged, as unreal as a portrait done by an artist on the fringe of lunacy.

Hall had pointed a condemning finger, his voice filled with the bright, mercurial bite of a maniac. Hall’s power overwhelmed Seth. He had turned the tables, using the frenzied might of his insanity as a weapon.

The renewed aches in Seth’s jaw compounded the chaotic rush of new sensations that deluged his brain. There was a mental overload; such a mass of information and emotion that his mind could not handle it. He had underestimated Hall and would be lucky to escape with his life.

He had turned and fled.

He had scrambled through the desolate streets, catching an occasional glimpse of a curious eye peeping from the corner of a drawn curtain. Eyes were raised in surprise at the sight of a naked giant barreling through town on this rainy night. Seth had returned to the woods, pushing through the undergrowth, welcoming the wooden scrapes and scratches of dried limbs that were the reminders of winter’s ravages. He made steady progress uphill. Mud squelched coldly between his toes while the driving rain beat a stinging drum roll against his inflamed face.

He knew that Hall would pursue him. The others had, and they were not nearly so dangerous as Hall. Hall was a hungry wolf. Starved not for food, but for a curiously human trait Seth would soon come to know: vengeance.

2

Merrifield had convened the meeting quickly. Seated around the conference table were Alan Caudill, still blinking from his recently disrupted sleep; Jimmy Sunners; Ingrid, a new strain showing on her face even before she heard the news, and Alex Clifton, still in his dripping clothes. He had called Merrifield from town and related the entire, sordid tale.

Merrifield brought the distrait assembly to order.

“If you haven’t heard the rumors already, here it is. Seth is gone. No surprise there. What is surprising is that he turned up at Mr. Hall’s tent revival tonight.”

There were a few raised eyebrows, but nothing really spectacular in the way of reaction. Those assembled had perhaps done their jobs too well.

“Is he alright,” Ingrid asked. “I was afraid he was never going to be found.”

Merrifield motioned to Clifton.

“He’s hurt,” Clifton said carefully. “The newspaper said the old man that was attacked had cut his assailant’s face. It looked bad. Infected. We have to get him back. Quick.” Merrifield’s warning about the doomsday plan was heavy on Clifton’s mind.

“Oh,” Ingrid said, as if something had just registered. “Do you approve, now?”

“Yes,” Alex said tiredly. “Jon and I had a little talk.”

“That’s not important, now,” Merrifield interrupted, stamping on any coming recriminations. “I’ve gathered you all together to see if we can devise a plan of action to track him down. The people in this room know him better than anybody in the world.”

“What about the guard,” Caudill asked. His bald head shone like a full moon in the harshly lit conference room. “I thought they were conducting the search.”

Were is the key word. Two of the searchers have failed to report back.”

“They never checked in,” Alan asked.

“Never. They haven’t been seen or heard from since late in the day.”

“The guard is still conducting the search though, isn’t it?”

Merrifield looked questioningly at Clifton. He shook his head silently.

“I’m afraid not,” Alex said. “We believe the two guardsmen are dead.”

“Dead,” Jimmy said. Sudden understanding blanched his face beneath his red hair. “Do you mean…”

“We think Seth killed them.”

From the corner of his eye, Alex saw Ingrid draw her breath in sharply.

“But why,” Jimmy asked.

“We don’t know,” Merrifield answered. “Any one of a million things could have gone wrong. He may have felt threatened. As you know, Seth is not…usual.”

“He seems to have met his match in Hall,” Clifton murmured.

“Mr. Hall’s involvement in this affair is being attended to at this very moment,” Merrifield said. “As far as the search for the missing guardsmen, as Alex has said, it will have to wait.”

“On whose authority was the search canceled,” Ingrid asked, astonished that such a thing could happen.

“Someone very high up. Not that it matters.” Merrifield briefly described the doomsday plan. “The blue berets and FBI men will be here in the morning to take over. If they get their hands on Seth first it will be the end for all of us. God knows, we could all be lying under a pile of rubble by then.”

He summed up the entire situation with a chagrined shake of his head.

“You’re saying we’re on our own?” Jimmy tried to sound unruffled.

“Until the morning, at least. Under normal circumstances, we could live with that, and with the doomsday plan.” He looked at the table for a few moments before looking up. He looked at no-one in particular, preferring to address his remarks to all.

“The sad fact is we may not have until morning. Mr. Clifton was witness to the debacle at the auditorium tonight. It has been described to me in painful detail.” He ran his finger around the inside of his collar.

“We’re all aware of Mr. Hall’s past endeavors. If there was ever any doubt he’s crazy as a goddam loon, they should have been dispelled. He’ll be working against us.”

“He’s been working against us,” Ingrid said. “Why the hurry now? He can’t work anything on his own. He needs help.”

“Seth changed all that. We’re up and on guard now and time is not his friend. He may be crazy, but his credibility would suffer a disastrous blow if he’s unable to prove his wild allegations. It would be just another Bigfoot story. He knows he could never get the proof he needs out of us. No, what he wants is Seth’s head. That will be his proof. Aside from that, he likes to kill. He doesn’t care anymore. If he can’t get Seth, he’ll come for me. And you, Ingrid.”

Ingrid looked ill.

“You don’t know that,” she said.

“I anticipate,” Merrifield said in answer, “a phone call at anytime. This phone call will be from one of my accredited cronies who has been dispatched to scoop up the local bobbies and have Mr. Hall arrested. It seems he has been into much mischief.”

Despite everything, Merrifield almost winked at Clifton.

“This phone call will inform me that Mr. Hall is nowhere to be found. I hope I’m mistaken, but I don’t believe I will be.”

At that moment, true to prediction, the phone buzzed. Merrifield didn’t waste the effort to look smug. He picked up the receiver, listened briefly, then hung up.

“Mr. Hall is loose. I have no idea how many people will be coming up here beating on the front gate like the mob in the Frankenstein movies, but Alex tells me they’ve had a frightful time at Hall’s merriment. I think they’re the least of our worries. Hall, however, cannot be taken lightly. Left to his own devices, he might blow the building up around our ears.”

“Would he go that far,” Ingrid asked.

“The man has no love for me or my work, or for you and your work. It’s what has driven his madness for fifteen years. He knows Seth is alive. He can count on no help from the authorities or the media. No-one is going to believe a fifth rate reporter from some local rag, and the eyewitnesses will be discounted. It was dark, they were in rapture, they were misled by some otherwise mundane experience. If I know Jason Lewis, he’s trying to figure out a way to foist the responsibility off on someone else. This is Hall’s chance to destroy us all. He won’t let it go by.”

Alan stroked his long chin thoughtfully. “Should we be in fear for our lives?” He asked the question without melodrama, fully expecting an honest answer.

“You know him,” Merrifield said. “Better than most what he can and will do. We can sit here and be safe while he hunts Seth down, then comes for us; let the doomsday plan unfold and lose everything. Or we can be men and try to protect him, and ourselves. What do you think?”

“I’ve had it,” Alex said darkly. “I’m angry, wet, tired, and ready to put an end to this thing. We can’t sit around and wait for shit to happen. Is that about it?”

“If Hall gets to Seth before we do, he’ll kill him. I can’t be any more blunt than that.” Merrifield rubbed the back of his neck harshly. If Ingrid thought she had been awake long hours, she could have asked Merrifield about the red eye special.

“Hall is a trained killer. He tried for me once before and a man like him won’t miss a twice.” Merrifield looked around the table. “I’m not speaking out of fear for my life. What kind of life will any of us have if Hall goes parading up and down the halls of congress with Seth’s head on a spiked pole?” Merrifield shook his head. “We have to get him back.”

Sunners was the next to speak.

“I’ll go,” he said softly, “it’s my fault, anyway.” He looked at the gathering, his eyes red. “It was the codon sequences. It had to be. On the day the wringer blew up, something must have happened to them; something that made Seth go nuts. It’s my responsibility; my bad.”

“What we need right now,” Merrifield said, “is hands, not someone in sackcloth and ashes. That you’re willing to help is enough.” Merrifield looked at Jimmy skeptically. “How old are you, anyway?”

“Twenty-four.”

“That is brash,” Merrifield said broodingly.

“You know,” Caudill said, “we’re going to make the most motley collection of monster hunters in history, don’t you? I haven’t fired a weapon in five years, or spent much time schlepping around in the mud. You’re certainly in no condition to go on this expedition. This could turn into a bloodbath.”

“What else can we do,” Merrifield said, finally reduced to a man with no options. And for a man like Merrifield, that had to stick in his craw. “I don’t think any of us can sit here and wait for the end. If Seth went into town, maybe he’ll come back here. He’s hurt. What else does he know?”

“What about me,” Ingrid asked. “What do I do?”

“I know how you feel about Seth, but it’s more important that you remain safe. You’ll be the only one able to control him when we get him back.”

“You mean ‘if’, don’t you?”

“I mean when. There’s more than enough for everybody to do. I want you to prepare the infirmary and get everybody ready to go for the time we get back with Seth.”

Ingrid hated Merrifield for weighting the scheme like this. Emotions of pique were useless. Merrifield had played the game longer. He had taken the choice out of her hands.

“I don’t like it, Jon,” she said, “but you’ve got me again. What should I do?”

“Get on the phone and call every employee that works here. Get them up here tonight. I’ll send a couple of people to the front gate with specific instructions not to allow anyone they don’t personally recognize in. Not the cops, not the townspeople. I want everybody on standby with the medical facilities re-outfitted. The only people that know about the doomsday plan are in this room, and I want to keep it that way. When all that’s done, I want you to lock yourself in my office until you hear from me again.”

“Lock myself in?”

“There is a .45 in the top drawer of my cabinet. You’ll find it behind my booze.”

Merrifield looked around for reaction and found none. His boozing was apparently common knowledge.

“ I want you to get it -the gun, not the booze- cock it, and sit there, even if you have a hundred people up here. I pray you have no reason to pull the trigger, but if Hall gets past us, he’ll come for you.”

“You’re giving him an awful lot of credit. He’s not Superman.”

“He can do it,” Merrifield said. “Anyone else I wouldn’t worry about. I want you as safe as can be under the circumstances. You understand?”

“Yes.”

Merrifield seemed satisfied.

“Gentlemen?”

They got up. The chair legs made a shuddering scraping sound as they were pushed back.

“It looks like we’re on our own,” Alex said to Ingrid. “Christ, I’m beginning to wonder if this night will ever end.”

“Let’s go,” Merrifield said. He was at, the door with his right arm extended, “The night will end. We’ll be back before you know it.”

Ingrid wondered if she should say good bye. Merrifield had done his best to lighten the situation and she could almost believe they would return unscathed with Seth intact. But her heart knew the possibility that some of all of them might die was very real. Either by Seth’s hand or those of Josh Hall. The time to brass up for her Godlike accomplishments had come and there was nothing she could do about it. In the end she said neither good bye nor good luck, feeling it would be an admission of defeat.

Instead, she got up and kissed Alex on the cheek before he left. The door closed behind them and Ingrid sat alone for a brief time, waiting for them to get out of sight before she left for Merrifield’s office.

3

“I never expected you to have a frigging arsenal in this place,” Jimmy said.

They had come to a door with a quiet sign marked “Supplies”. After they had left Ingrid, they had not spoken, each man alone with his thoughts.

Alex felt sorry for Caudill and Sunners. Their only stake in this was the work they had contributed. Jimmy was brash, as Merrifield had pointed out, but Caudill was a man on the back nine of his youth. His accomplishments were unrecognized by the public at large, and he was being asked to put his life on the line for a project that would probably be met with a zip gun hail of criticism even as it saved lives. Fuck it, he thought. This wasn’t the time to philosophize.

Merrifield arrived at a set of lockers from which he pulled out several pairs of white coveralls. He may have been a man in a hurry, but was prudent enough to spend ten minutes changing out of a thousand dollar suit and into clothing which allowed more agility in the slick mud and brittle, dormant bushes.

“We use these in the clean sections. Not the recommended garb for slogging through the mud, but preferable to Hugo Boss suits and Gucci loafers. You’ll find some rubber boots in that cabinet over there.”

Merrifield spoke to Alex as the men dressed.

“I’m going to send Joel and Leon down to the gate. I’ll pick up some raincoats on the way back. In the meantime,” he said, picking up his dress trousers and fishing a key ring out of them, “I want you to outfit everybody with whatever weapons we have.” He gave the keys to Alex.

“We have a couple of extra .45’s, courtesy of our recently departed guards. Some others are in that chest in the corner.”

Merrifield departed, looking very different and somehow darkly humorous in his white suit and squeaky black boots. It was slowly dawning on them that they had shifted suddenly from a mundane, workday existence into a horror movie, seemingly without effort and without warning.

Clifton unlocked the chest and swung the lid back. A layer of white, cotton cloth stained with gun oil lay inside. The cloying smell of the Cosmoline protectant drifted out. Clifton peeled back the lining to reveal six handguns lying blackly against the cloth. Smears of gun oil had crept around the edges of the pistols, giving them a sinister, black aura.

“Jon expected this,” Clifton said darkly.

“No,” Caudill said quietly. “Not this. I think he only planned for it.”

Alex pulled one of the pistols out and handed it to Jimmy.

“You know how to use this?”

Jimmy took the pistol, his eyes wide. Clifton dug a clip out of the chest and gave it to him. Jimmy shoved the clip into the butt of the gun and snapped the well-oiled slide action back. He flipped the safety to the on position.

“I feel like fucking Roy Rogers,” Jimmy said. “You got a holster for this thing? I’m sure as hell not sticking it in my waistband.”

Clifton rummaged around a bit more and came up with three, black leather holsters.

He gave one each to Jimmy and Caudill before taking one for himself. Caudill, still looking more like a college professor than anything else, belted his holster on with a studied precision that belied his scholarly appearance. It was not an action with which he was unfamiliar.

“How do I look,” he asked.

“Straight out of Sergio Leone,” Clifton said.

Merrifield returned, toting three, mustard yellow raincoats. He sported a black slicker for himself. Clifton retrieved a fourth holster for Merrifield.

“The rain has picked up,” he said. “Visibility is practically zero and will get worse once the fog sets in. Fickle Lady Fortune is not smiling. Does anyone want to back out now?”

Merrifield looked at his group. He saw no real fear, just a slight uneasiness on Sunners’ face.

“You can use that firearm,” Merrifield asked.

Jimmy smiled like a broken moon.

“In a pinch, I guess.”

“That pinch may come tonight.” He spoke to Alex. “There are two walkie talkies lurking in that chest somewhere. Do you think you could get them, please?”

Alex had already run across the transceivers. Merrifield had stocked his own private arsenal with high grade weapons and they were an incongruous fit with the cheap walkie talkies with the K-Mart emblem on them. It was almost funny.

Merrifield produced another pistol from beneath the voluminous folds of his raincoat. He held a clip with a set of blank cartridges. Tucked feathers were visible at the ribbed edges of the casings. If Ingrid had known about the tranquilizer gun, Merrifield knew, she would have had an incendiary stroke.

“Alan and I will form one team,” he said. “We will remain in constant radio contact. I trust you and Jimmy can handle yourselves if push comes to shove.”

Alex handed out the radios. They turned on their sets and were rewarded with crackles of static.

“Alan and I will scour the area north and east of the camp,” Merrifield said. “I’d like you and Jimmy to search south and west, I can make no definite area of limit, but I think Seth is making his way back here. Use your best judgment.”

“Why do you think he’s on his way here,” Alex asked.

“Just a feeling,” Merrifield said, recalling the beast that lurked in the hallways of the Alamo. “I can’t give you a why. I think you’ll know when Seth is around.”

“But will we know when Hall is around,” Alex said. “That’s the real worry.”

“Hope you run into Seth first. Hall won’t be far behind. You can get the drop on him.”

“And if we run into Hall first,” Jimmy asked. “What then?”

Merrifield looked at Alex,

“I’ll handle that if it comes up, Jimmy,” Alex said firmly.

“We’ll take the tranquilizer gun,” Merrifield said. “I never thought I’d say this, but don’t take any chances, especially not with Hall. I don’t see the makings of a goddam hero anywhere in this room, and I want it to stay that way. We’re doing nothing but looking for a lost child. The guns are only in case there are…wild things in the forest. We’ll be best served if we look at it that way. Is everybody sure of my instructions?”

There were no comments.

“Fine,” Merrifield said. “There are flashlights on the way out. For God’s sake, make sure they’re working before you get outside where you need them. It’s eleven o’clock now. Let’s say we report back here by five am. But I have a feeling we’ll be done long before then.”

4

Just a shadow, the man moved his two hundred pounds through the forest like a silent, ebony leopard. His black suit was woven of a tight, nylon-cotton blend that would not snag on branches or other obstacles. His face was darkened with an oil based pigment that would not run in the rain and his silicone treated goggles were fog-proof. Rubber-soled shoes with deep, firm treads assured good purchase on the muddy hillsides.

Suspended by a sling around his neck was an M-16, on his back the Remington 700 bolt action. A special pocket sewn into the right ankle of the skinsuit was home to a bayonet. One side of the blade was deeply serrated, the other honed to a killing edge.

Hall squatted and scanned the terrain. The lights of the Alamo had been visible for some time, but this close they were blazing torches. They would be waiting for him and it was only by virtue of his foresight he had eluded the young policeman who had come knocking at his door.

He had slipped out of his second story hotel window, closed it, and made his way along the balcony to the stout terra cotta drainpipe and worked his way down to where his weapons were secreted. Merrifield would have learned of the confrontation in town and would begin his campaign against him. Hall’s life as a minister had ended tonight, but he had slipped back into his old life as effortlessly as walking in the door of his own home. Not since his days in the jungles of Nicaragua had he felt so exuberant. He was back in his element, a part of the human race that lived only for the thrill of the hunt.

Hall brushed back the bare limbs of a bush to get an unobstructed view of the Alamo.

On first sight, the monster was more than he could have imagined. Hall had felt Seth’s power and it had thrilled him to the marrow. Though it hurt to admit it, he had felt a tantalizing trill of fear that was quickly snuffed out like a toppled candle. By the time he had regained his senses enough to grasp his best opportunity, Seth had fled in fear.

Hall picked his careful way through the snarled woodland. He had tried and failed to pick up Seth’s trail. The rain would have obliterated any footprints and the only reliable signs would be broken limbs and trampled undergrowth. Hall knew he and Seth were linked together. He would know when their paths crossed.

He had made it this far undetected in less than an hour, scrambling through dense forest and scaling steep, treacherous slopes in a driving rain. His night vision goggles shielded his eyes from the rain, but it still collected on his nose and dripped on his upper lip. He had elected not to wear a hood. It made too convenient a handle for an enemy to latch onto.

He shone a small, hooded penlight at his wristwatch. Eleven o’clock. Only ninety minutes earlier he had been preaching his sermon. The thought of Seth’s effect on his audience made him chuckle. One minute they had been hanging on his every word, the next they had been plunged into cold darkness with a hideous monster springing to life at their backs and shrieking hysterically about resurrection. He had known when he watched the audience pour out of the auditorium that they were more terrified of him than the monster. Even his own ushers had found convenient corners to cower in. He had strode from the door after the last patron had departed, past the colorless, frightened faces of the ushers who shivered behind curtains.

Things had gone too far and the assassin’s bullet he had so long anticipated would soon find its mark. Before allowing their greatest creation to become undone, those unknown masters of the universe that had financed the birth of the beast would silence him forever. Perhaps with the monster, perhaps with another like himself. But before his life ended, he would take Merrifield, Milner, and the monster with him.

His path had been lit not by moonlight, but by instinct. He heard the hooting of the owls, a sound he remembered from his youth as a reason to tie a knot in the corner of his sheet. In dreams, the owl was a symbol of death, just as the dragon was the embellishment of the serpent, the reaped product of murder, the evil the scientists had brought out of Eden.

And the dragons who walked the earth tonight walked on two legs.

5

The man had taken a position less that twenty yards away. Seth had seen his red, infrared form stealing through the woods minutes before. Hall’s breathing was easy despite his exertions. Hall had followed him and would hunt him to the death. The power of Hall’s hatred seared Seth’s brain like a hot coal.

Hall waited. Somehow he knew that Seth would have to return to this place. Seth remained perfectly still, daring not to traverse the fifty yards of open area that would take him to the Alamo and Ingrid, his salvation.

He was willing to stay that way until the grass refused to grow if that’s what it took to convince Hall that he wasn’t there. Seth had developed a damaging fever, high enough at 105 degrees to cause brain injury. The frigid rain drenched him and put a further strain on a body thermostat already severely out of kilter. His infections would have weakened normal men to the point of unconsciousness or death.

Seth shivered and pulled himself into a fetal position. The mud was slick and his feet left grooves that were quickly and efficiently pounded flat by the hammering rain. His teeth chattered and he tried to hold his jaw still. As soon as his jaw muscles clinched, one severed end that had clotted to his face popped loose and contracted spasmodically. Fluid hot with infection burst across his face and ran down his jaw. He squeezed his open eye shut in pain. His bad eye rolled in a socket that felt as if it had been lined with rock salt.

Hall moved toward Seth. His outline was huge against the halos of brightly shining lights from the Alamo. He was a dark shape tinged with red due to the peculiar nature of Seth’s vision. He held his weapon at the ready, creeping slowly. Seth felt Hall’s senses kick into a higher gear, heard the soft, sucking sounds other men couldn’t hear of rubber soled shoes squeaking in mud. Seth looked at Hall’s face, seeing it clearly as if in a super zoom from a movie camera. His goggles were the eyes of some monstrous insect, hiding the canny orbs behind them. Rain bounced off of his skinsuit and exploded into fuzzy sprays against the glare of the lights.

Hall had halved the distance when he abruptly turned toward the Alamo, listening. Seth saw the strong line of his jaw jutting ahead of his thick neck muscle. A drop of rain coursed slowly down its length, leaving an oily track

From the far side of the fifty yard clearing came animated conversation. Murky stars of light stabbed into the downpour. The crackle of radio static skipped through the air like sparks.

Why did it have to rain? You’d think we’d get at least one break.

Count yourself lucky. Now we’re even.

Lucky?

What he means is it’s just as hard for Hall to be quiet in the mud as it is for us.

To hell with quiet. What use is quiet when you can’t see a goddam thing?

The one of a kind, holier than thou tones of Jon Merrifield fouled the airways.

Remember, Alex. Leave no stone unturned. Stay in constant contact. We’ll be heading out now. Good luck, gentlemen.

There was a loud blare of static as Merrifield released the send button.

Hall watched the two sets of flashlight beams diverge. One set came toward him while the other bobbed away in the opposite direction, soon vanishing in the rain.

Hall thought he heard a large object shift behind him, but wasn’t sure. Rainy nights could trick you, especially in the mountains.

He looked for the maker of the noise, suddenly sure the monster was more savvy than he had given him credit for. He spun too quickly, cursing himself, knowing that had anyone been looking they could have targeted him.

The flashlights remained on steady courses, not faltering or hesitating.

Hall raked his eyes from side to side, looking for any movement or telltale shape. Nothing.

He turned back around and moved ahead, arms at the ready, feeling the comfortable, fluid rhythm of the hunt come back to him. It was a pleasure he had denied himself for too many years and he was gratified to know the old competence, the old sureness, remained.

He felt a tingling thrill of anticipation. He wished he could devise a way of getting rid of Merrifield short of killing him, but God had seen fit to deliver him.

With an almost bored motion, Hall placed the 700 to his shoulder. He studied the figures moving toward him. One of them was Merrifield. They would enter the woods fifty yards to his left. A pity, Hall thought. The-death of his old enemy should have been more difficult. And more personal.

He centered the cross hairs on the chest of each man in turn. The first was too tall.

The cross hairs settled on the second man. Hall moved them up, seeing Merrifield’s slightly shielded face in the green tinted light amplification. Spatters of rain bounced upward from the rifle’s barrel. Hall’s firm grip never wavered as Merrifield took another step closer to his death.

Hall slipped his finger over the trigger.

Come on you bugger. You’ll not meet your maker, Jon. Hell won’t have you.

Merrifield’s hooded figure loomed larger in the scope.

Hall stuck the tip of his tongue in the corner of his mouth.

Suddenly, with a piercing wail, Seth bolted like a frightened rabbit less than six feet behind Hall. Howling with fear, he sprinted deeper into the forest as if rabid jackals were sniping at his heels.

6

It took only a split second for Merrifield’s instincts to take hold.

Get down, you stupid asshole,” he hissed at Alan.

He grabbed Caudill’s coat by the lapels and hauled him unceremoniously to the ground with him. Red gobbets of mud squished into Alan’s eyes as he changed from a stunned and stupid vertical to a flat and frightened horizontal in a fraction of a second.

Only an instant before, from the woods ahead of them, had come the sharp crack of a rifle shot. The firing had ended as quickly and eerily as it had begun. Now, the only sounds were the falling rain and a strange, forlorn wailing that accompanied the sound of a large animal crashing into the forest.

“Did you see the muzzle flash,” Merrifield asked.

“No,” Alan said shakily. “But my eyes aren’t what they used to be.”

Merrifield fumbled the radio from his belt. It was streaked with mud.

“Alex, come in, dammit. This is an emergency.”

Static.

“This is Jon, Alex. If you can hear me you’d better fucking well answer.”

A reply crackled back instantly.

“What’s the trouble, Jon? Did I just hear a shot fired?”

“You damned well did. I think we have a solid make on Hall.”

“Shit,” Alex said. “No sign of Seth? Do you think Hall was shooting at you or looking to take Seth out?”

“I don’t think he shot himself in the foot,” Merrifield said acidly. “Of course he was shooting at Seth. If he had been shooting at us, I wouldn’t be drawing breath right now.”

“Did he see you?”

“I have no idea.”

“If he is after Seth,” Alex radioed back, “he’s either got him or is still after him. You’re in a hell of a spot. He could be sitting there waiting for you to show yourselves again.”

“I don’t think so. If he was close enough to take the shot, he was close enough to hit me. And he would have if he’d seen me.”

“You’re sure?”

“If I’m not right, you’ll soon be able to use me for a fountain.”

“What?”

Merrifield ignored Clifton’s question. The time had come to face down Josh Hall or his fear. He had no idea he’d been but a chance encounter from death and that Seth, in saving himself, had saved Merrifield.

Merrifield drew his pistol.

“What are you doing,” Alan whispered, appalled.

Merrifield peered into the misty woods, straining to see what might be lurking amid the sickly trees. Deeper in were evergreens and hollies that might afford some cover, but for this moment there was no Josh Hall. Merrifield let his drawn pistol drop to his side. He closed his eyes and swallowed while Alan couldn’t see him. His heart thumped in his ears and he thought his voice might be unsteady if he tried to use it.

He let his breath out in a silent shudder.

“Nothing,” he said.

Alan scrambled to his feet. His white jumpsuit was soiled beyond help. His pistol lay in the mud. He picked it up and looked at it despairingly.

“Wipe it down before you pull the slide back,” Merrifield said. “You don’t want to get grit in the chamber.”

Clifton’s voice, muffled through the caked mud over the speaker, broke the miserable night.

“What are you doing over there, Jon?”

Merrifield reholstered his weapon. He cleared the mouthpiece and spoke into the radio.

“Hall’s gone. I don’t think he ever saw us.”

“Should we come to you?”

Merrifield chewed his lip thoughtfully.

“No,” he said at last. “He’s chasing Seth. I don’t think there’s another murdering lunatic foolish enough to be out on a night like this.”

Merrifield had expected that his surmise that Hall would act directly would be correct, but he was shaky and surprised that he had had verification of his suspicions so quickly. He had hoped he was only making up trouble, but that fiction had turned to fact.

“Okay, Jon,” Clifton said. “Do you want…” He broke off. “Jimmy wants to know if you want us to have you two drive them toward us, like dogs hunting deer.”

“Hall is hardly as stupid as a deer.”

“No, but Seth doesn’t know the fine art of eluding pursuit. Wherever Seth is driven, Hall will follow.”

“He could wise up and wait in ambush.”

“I don’t know, Jon,” Clifton said slowly. “He’s far gone. I don’t think he cares about anything else. When I saw him, he looked crazy enough to eat razor blades.”

“We’ll be the ones taking the risk.”

“That’s a matter of circumstance. It wasn’t my doing that he turned up in your area.”

“No,” Merrifield sighed. “I’m beginning to wonder whose doing it is.”

He released the send button and looked at Alan. Rain dripped from their hoods and dropped before faces hidden in shadow.

“You heard?”

“I thought I’d left my infantry days behind me,” Alan said. “Jimmy’s right, you know. It’s our best shot. Otherwise, we’ll just be stumbling around blindly, playing hide and seek in the wilderness.”

Merrifield led the way as the two men moved into the forest. Muddy water splashed up from each footfall as they slogged through the woods. Pine boughs showered them with their rich perfume, thick as the color of emeralds. Every step into the sodden woodland brought them closer to an end which could be changed no more than the tides could be turned or the hands of time stopped.

7

Rifle at the ready, Hall moved between a double line of pine trees grown up like warring battalions facing each other. Merrifield had been in his sights when the monster had burst from behind him. He had whirled around, heart thudding, rifle ready to discharge. He feared he was about to fail due to an underestimation of the monster. This made him angrier than he would ever admit.

He had spied a momentary glimpse of white sole disappear amid the suddenly moving limbs of low bushes. As though in a reduced speed motion picture, Hall watched a strip of mud come loose from Seth’s heel and spin end over end away into the night. Seth’s eerie wail was like nothing Hall had ever heard. Even now it resounded in his head, like the ringing in the ears one can hear hours after a loud concert.

Hall had fired at the retreating figure. Without sighting through the scope, the bullet went astray. The fire from the barrel was dim and brief in the thick darkness, the explosive report but another sound punctuated over the rain.

Hall had heard a confused noise from behind him and knew that Merrifield and his partner had flattened themselves in the mud. He had expected that Merrifield would divine his purpose, but was surprised he would come after him instead of cowering in the Alamo and allowing Hall to claim his prize. A disquieting frown disturbed Hall’s features.

What in God’s name could the monster possess that makes him so important? Important enough for a potbellied old man to match wits with the best of the hunters. Could Merrifield actually be frightened of his destruction? Could the monster be the ne plus ultra? The crowning achievement that cannot be duplicated? Could Merrifield harbor hope that this cowardly, childlike creature is of value to him? And if so, why?

Hall’s sense of loss faded. Both of his quarries had been within easy reach and only blind chance had allowed one to save the other. His pause for reflection allowed him to see things more clearly.

One: Seth was more important in the scheme of things than Hall had originally thought. Merrifield was willing to risk his life to protect him.

Two: the monster was far more clever than Hall had anticipated. He had blended with his surroundings. Many men, now dead by Hall’s hands, had not.

Hall slipped between two rows of trees. Their trunks bulged toward him, forcing him to squeeze between them. On either side of the trees was an un-navigable marsh of slick mud and leaves. It was a natural ambush site and the only place Seth could have gone.

The ground was nearly dry inside the double row of trees. An awning of interlocking limbs formed a natural roof. Dry pine needles splintered and cracked under Hall’s shoes. The curious sensation of power held in this place, too. It was as if natural laws as he knew them would not behave here. This was a place where things that went up might not come down and a fire lit in pitch darkness might suck out the light and chill your bones instead of warming them. Hall had felt this particular ambiance only once before, when he had confronted Seth for the first time. He realized that Seth was close. The mere fact of his presence didn’t disturb Hall, but what undid him slightly was he could feel Seth’s power rebuilding.

Hidden by a thicket of bushes at the far end of the arena, Seth watched as Hall stole between the trees. He would have continued to run, but the physical necessity of resting had thrust itself upon him. He had fled to this natural room in the heart of the forest, knowing in his heart that the terrible man would follow.

Hall’s form was a red-hued devil from hell. Hall advanced cautiously, more purpose and wariness in his steps. Seth’s first reaction was puzzlement, but he had neither the courage nor the strength to act on it. He sat and cringed. And while he waited, he felt the texture of Hall’s thoughts, their force and intent.

Where are you, bugger? Come out and fight like a man. We’ll get it all out. We’ll take care of the Alamo, and Merrifield, and precious Ingrid Milner. I’ll give you a fair chance my way. Their way, you’ll never know when it’s coming for you. I’ll show you God’s mercy, they’ll show you man’s evil. Which way do you want it, friend?

The air turned electric. The fine hairs on Hall’s forearms tried to raise up, but were held down by the blacksuit. He looked warily through his goggles, searching for Seth, knowing he was near. It was as if he were in an electrical grid, walking through unbelievably powerful energy surges that danced up close, then skittered back before touching him. He felt like a man in a minefield, with a special, Divine protection. Neon blue lightning flared vividly, bathing Hall in a ghastly blush. His goggles reflected the light and made his eyes glow like ill-intentioned foxfire.

Hall stopped and turned his head. His concentration slipped a notch; his power level shifting into a different mode. Just outside, two men neared the arena. Hall turned and stalked to the edge of the arena, sparing one red-hued, defiant glance over his shoulder.

Seth’s senses wound down to near semi-consciousness as Hall became occupied elsewhere. The approaching men were his protectors, his saviors, whether it was their intention or not.

With no warning, something came alive in Seth’s head; something vile and squirming like a snake.

You can wait, monster. You had your chance to make it easy on yourself and you chose to defy me. Now you see that God wants you dead. He has protected me and I intend to make you suffer. I want you to feel His wrath as he allows me to cut your saviors down. They never had a chance, monster. I’ll crush them beneath my heel, just as I’ll do with you. I’ve tracked and cornered you more than once. And when you see that your saviors are no match for me or my God, we’ll be alone. Just you, just me.

Seth, cringing in abject terror- knowing he could stop the killing- simply pulled further into himself and hoped Hall would go away.

Hall stepped into the rain outside the arena.

8

The stalker waited in ambush. Hall watched the misty beams of light play up the slope where he lay hidden amidst a snare of vines and holly bushes. He quietly removed his goggles and slipped them into a flat, slitlike pocket of his blacksuit. He wanted no random flash of lightning illuminating the goggles into fiery luminescence. A survivor did not overlook the smallest detail.

Merrifield was walking point. He called to his companion behind him.

“I want you to hang back of me a few yards, Alan,” he said as they approached the base of the slope. Caudill nodded as lightning flickered. The lower edge of Merrifield’s black slicker lit up in a velvet electric glow as he trudged ahead. Streaks of water showed up as long, white blotches in the reflected light. The lulling sound of rain beat soothingly against Alan’s hood. The relentless chill had made his fingers stiff and unresponsive. He flexed his fingers painfully, but gritted his teeth and plunged resolutely forward.

Hall watched the party divide. He unslung his M-16 and bolt rifle and propped them against a handy tree trunk. From the special pocket sewn into the ankle of his black-suit, he withdrew his bayonet.

Merrifield was halfway up the slope, slipping and sliding, floundering like a land-locked whale. He panted and Hall grinned at the thought that Merrifield actually believed he could have challenged him.

Merrifield’s flashlight beam investigated the darkness at the top of the slope. It swept over Hall and Hall ducked his head so his eyes wouldn’t reflect the light. He was practically invisible to anything less than a touch search.

He waited for what seemed a reasonable length of time, then raised his eyes. When he looked up, Merrifield’s ankles were directly in his line of sight. He was so close he could have reached out and tickled his leg. Lightning rippled overhead and Hall felt a jolt of fear. If Merrifield happened to be looking at him, he must surely see the blacksuit was not part of the wasted bushes. If that were the case, he was a dead man.

But there was no sign of recognition from Merrifield.

Merrifield stood at the entrance to the arena, gauging the distance between the trees and wondering if he could squeeze between them. The slopes on both sides of the stand of trees had been washed bare by the rains and the roiling mud seemed to be sliding on itself. To skirt to either side of the trees would bring certain mishap. With a good deal of fervent grunting and swearing, Merrifield forced his way into the arena.

Hall waited.

Caudill approached the entrance, dripping rain onto the branches that hid Hall from view. Merrifield’s voice drifted out to him.

“It’s all clear, Alan. Come on in.”

Alan trudged up the hill. A shadow broke away from the undergrowth. The rain hissed down, masking the two soft steps taken directly behind Alan. Water dripped off his downward pointing hood, then suddenly flew in a spray as a hand reached around with lightning speed and covered his mouth. The hand yanked his head up and the curve of his throat bulged outward. With one deft movement, Hall brought his bayonet across Alan’s throat and cut a deep slash. Carotid arteries and vocal cords disappeared in a welling wave of blood.

Alan’s body hit the ground like a sack of bowling balls and slid down the muddy slope. It reached the halfway point before starting to roll and tumble like a rag doll. His body finally came to rest against a rock, his head pointing downhill. The callous force of gravity pulled the blood from the mangled vessels and spilled it on the uncaring ground.

Hall held his bayonet out and let the rain wash the blade clean. He heard Merrifield’s voice inside the arena.

“What’s the holdup, Alan? Come on in.”

Hall looked unfeelingly at the body of his victim lying at the foot of the slope. Alan’s bloodless face was a pale slate in the night, his mouth open in a never voiced scream.

Without gathering his guns, armed only with his bayonet, Hall threaded his way into the arena.

*******************

Seth felt Merrifield’s fear. Not for himself, but for Alan.

By God, if he’s hurt Alan, I’ll murder him with my bare hands. If you’ve touched anymore of my people, you bloody cocksucker, I’ll have you skinned alive.

Seth jolted from his stupor. Merrifield’s thoughts came out in hard, choppy waves with little to link them, but his intent was clear. Something was coming. Seth recognized the sowing of the air with intense layers of dark power. It was the omen of the man called Hall.

Merrifield turned off his flashlight. His eyes narrowed as he warily watched the arena entrance. His radio blared to life and he jumped.

“Christ,” he muttered.

“Jon,” Clifton’s voice said. “What the hell’s happening?”

Merrifield paused before depressing the send button. How could he tell Alex he believed Alan was dead? Murdered by a professional so quickly he hadn’t had time to cry out. He had no conclusive proof, but he knew it in his heart. And he was the one who had led them to the lair.

“Alex,” Merrifield replied, a strange note in his voice that Clifton had never heard before, “I’ve got a visitor. I can’t talk long, but I want you and Jimmy to haul your asses over here fast. I’m on a knoll about three hundred yards from the back of the building. Nothing next to me but two sheer slopes. I’m in a natural sort of clearing. I think Hall is about to spring again.”

There was a thoughtful pause before Alex answered.

“He got Alan? Are you saying he got Alan and you’re trapped?”

“I think Alan is gone, yes,” he answered heavily. “I don’t know that he didn’t do a buck and wing all the way back to the building, but I don’t think so.”

“He just disappeared?”

“Just get over here. I’ll explain everything when Hall is safely laid out on a slab and Seth is resting comfortably. Out.”

He shoved the antenna on his walkie talkie down. He snapped it into his waistband and withdrew his pistol.

Come on, motherfucker. Let’s see if I can make you a second asshole right between the eyes.

Seth watched the pathetic drama unfold. A noiseless, invisible shape stole through the trees and hugged the trunks of the pines. He watched in sickened mesmerism as the hunter worked.

Hall’s infrared shape slipped behind the glow of Merrifield. Pine needles crackled beneath his feet, but the steady patter of rain covered the sounds. Hall worked his way toward Merrifield. He moved stealthily, with no more motivation than the rapture he felt from the kill.

Fear quaked in Jon Merrifield’s chest. Hall had slipped in unseen, some way, somehow. Merrifield had set a trap for Hall and, instead of being caught, Hall had turned it to his advantage. Mixed with fear, Merrifield filled with a blind, ungovernable rage. He was tempted to fire blindly in the dark, hoping by some miracle to hit Hall. He resisted the temptation to switch on the flashlight, reasoning that Hall would have as much difficulty finding him in the darkness as Merrifield would have finding Hall.

Driven beyond his limits, Merrifield shouted in frustration.

Come out where I can fight you, you cold bastard,” he bellowed. “Stop hiding behind your God and fight me!”

Something built in the arena. Merrifield felt it in the wind that began blowing through the enclosed area. It was a gentle wind, but cold, heavy, bringing with it awful portents that sliced through him like ice pellets. Lightning wiggled its electric fingers across the sky. Its flash was so intense that it blinded both Hall and Merrifield. A huge peal of thunder split the rainy hiss into a thousand fragments.

Merrifield tried to shake the shapeless green blobs that marched across his field of vision like the ghosts of spent flash bulbs.

Seth moaned deep in his throat, sudden outrage boiling up from some inner well.

Hall’s ears rang from the roar of thunder and he didn’t hear Seth start to moan. The arena cloaked itself in pitch darkness again and Hall, as blind as Merrifield, stumbled toward the place he had heard Merrifield’s voice.

Hall’s vision returned faster than Merrifield’s. The sudden density of the energy surrounding him alerted him that Seth was somewhere close. But the fat blob of Merrifield was somewhere on the floor of the arena and Hall finally spotted him.

With a lunatic yell of jubilation, Hall threw himself on Merrifield. His knife flashed. By sheer luck Merrifield managed to twist away from the plunging knife.

The well-aimed bayonet thrust, instead of piercing Merrifield’s throat, penetrated the side of his neck. The cut was deep, nearly severing the mastoid muscle on the left side of Merrifield’s neck. His head flopped limply to the right as the muscles on the left had lost their ability to support it.

The bayonet had buried itself in the ground up to its hilt. Hall wrenched it free, losing precious seconds as he wrestled with the serrated edge that had stuck like fishhooks into the stingy roots of the trees.

His head bouncing and jostling crazily, Merrifield continued to roll away from Hall. His pistol was lost in the brief struggle. He supported his head with one hand, feeling blood seep through his fingers. His carotid artery had been missed by an eighth of an inch.

Hall freed his bayonet and stood, looking from side to side, listening for Merrifield’s agonized panting. He had to be mortally wounded and Hall wanted to finish the job.

A mighty whistling screamed through the arena like a gargantuan bird of prey. A pulsating, sickly light sprang forth from the air itself and coated the surroundings with a shadowy glow. The light was almost gelatinous, clinging like silk to everything it touched. The whistling modulated into a screaming, high decibel whine.

Hall looked around, distracted from his work. His fevered eyes rested on Seth standing at the far end of the arena. The mawkish light varnished his frame in stark grays and whites. Hall felt the energy radiating from Seth. It streamed by him in an almost tangible stream, flowing by like fast running water.

Hall glared murderously at Seth, trying to back him down, making no further move toward Merrifield.

Seth stood his ground, trembling in fright and pain, swaying from weakness like a starving man, but finally shocked into defense. Hall grinned madly, then turned and advanced on the still figure of Jon Merrifield.

Something blew by Hall like a high-caliber slug. Two facing trees shimmered with heat on both sides of him. Instead of exploding or burning, their trunks bubbled and ran as if they had turned to wax and were melting. The tree tops had remained solid and their mass brought them toppling to the ground with an earthshaking crash. Bubbling, brown waves of mud splashed upward. The melting trunks solidified and the newly solid wood screamed and wailed as yard long splinters were wrenched from the stump. Pine boughs glittering with water droplets covered Merrifield, shielding him and Seth from Hall with a deadfall.

Hall stopped cold, all thoughts of Merrifield gone. He looked speculatively at Seth, measuring him with a lunatic’s cunning. He saw that Seth meant to make it a contest.

So be it.

With a literal tip of his hand, Hall turned and walked out of the arena, unafraid to show his back to Seth. The second party would be coming for him and the monster would have to wait. Hall believed he might have at last met his first real challenge.

If so, his victory would be all the sweeter.

9

Ingrid had locked herself in Merrifield’s office. That she was not out doing more was uncomfortable to her, but Merrifield’s inherent logic about why he wanted her to stay seemed valid enough. She was ragged, and she knew she would be the only one able to control Seth. She also knew she wouldn’t be much good to anyone with a bullet in her ear.

The most important thing, getting everybody to rally around, had already struck a sour note. While Merrifield and Caudill made their muddy ascent up a hill toward a homicidal monster, Ingrid had been on the telephone. She had a list of people that worked at the facility who lived in town. She edited the names of those she felt would be unsuitable for hazardous duty. Hilda Taylor with her two inch fingernails and lacquered hairdo would scarcely do, just as Jean McNee with her three hundred dollar skirt/blouse combos and incurable horror at seeing someone wearing the same dress would be unsatisfactory.

She dialed Edwin Monroe, a beefy fellow who had spent a lot of time shuffling polypeptide sequences to insure Seth’s continued growth. As she punched the last number, she heard the standard, three step tone of a recorded announcement.

“Your call did not go through. Please hang up and dial again.”

Ingrid did so. She did so four more times with different numbers and still got the recorded announcement. Her cell phone was no better. In frustration, she dialed the operator.

“Operator. May I help you?”

“I hope so,” Ingrid said. “I’ve been trying to put calls through from the Winfield Alamo to numbers in town. I keep getting a recording telling me to hang up and dial again. I was wondering if you knew anything about it.”

“Yes, ma’am,” the operator said dutifully. “The circuits in that area are out, but it has been reported and there are crews working on it.”

“Do you have any idea how long it will take to get them repaired?”

“I could not say, ma’am. If you need emergency services, I could get a message to the chief.”

“No,” Ingrid said. She didn’t want to involve Jason Lewis in this if she could help it. “Thank you. I’ll try again later.”

Shit on a stick. This was all she needed. Killers on the loose, a night not fit for man nor beast, and her man-friend out beating the bushes for her escaped prize. Now the goddam phones wouldn’t work. If Merrifield thought he was an actor in a Calvinistic fable, Ingrid felt like a pawn in a Lovecraft Tale.

She thought of driving into town, but didn’t want to get into a wrangle with Merrifield’s stooges at the front gate. She also didn’t want to leave on the off chance Seth might be brought in while she was gone.

She busied herself with other things. She took her keys and walked to the pharmacy, noting with some distress she saw no-one at all. Her footsteps were lonely escorts as she made her way to the storeroom for drugs to re-supply the infirmary.

She took the drugs to the infirmary, then to the surgical theater. She searched in vain for something to do. She straightened things aimlessly, busy work. She did things that had already been done. She looked up at the observation theater where she and Merrifield had stood three months before and watched as Clifton’s shredded arm was restructured. She felt a superstitious chill when she thought about Alex, out in the cold, searching for Seth.

The overhead lights flickered for a few seconds and their steady hum changed to a crackling buzz. They glared back into brilliant life and the buzz reverted to its usual placid hum.

She nervously left the surgery and retreated to Merrifield’s office. She poured a cup of coffee from the coffee maker on his bar and sat down.

But she first locked the door and took the gun from Merrifield’s cabinet. She set it on the desk within easy reach. Occasionally she took a sip of coffee.

Less than a quarter of a mile away, Alan Caudill lay dead, and Jon Merrifield lay dying on the straw-lined floor of the forest, blood oozing from a near fatal wound.

10

Alex’s mind flashed back twenty-four hours; as if it were the previous night and he, Ingrid, and Merrifield had come down to the Alamo’s gate and discovered the dead soldier. But instead of a soldier he barely knew, Alex looked at the body of Alan Caudill. He had bled to death. Jimmy had turned Alan over. Alex couldn’t bring himself to touch him. They saw the dark slash in the whiteness of his throat.

Clifton turned away, caustic bile rising in his throat. To see Alan murdered on a muddy hillside in North Carolina, for no reason other than one man’s twisted vision of right and wrong, filled him with an anger so great he was, for a moment, literally blind with rage. He shut his eyes so tightly the pressure in the vitreous humor compressed his retinas. When he opened his eyes he could see nothing but a reddish blur shot through with spots of phosphorescent blue.

He turned to Jimmy.

“The sonofabitch,” Alex said through his teeth. “The dirty, slimy shiteater.” Fury welled in his eyes. “What now,” he said, almost to himself. “What do we do now?”

“We go up there,” Jimmy said. “Jon may still be alive.”

“Do you really think that? After what you’ve seen here?”

Jimmy remained silent. He waited for Clifton’s emotions to subside.

“Okay,” Alex said at last. It came out in a sudden exhalation. “Okay. What the fuck. We all buy it sooner or later.”

“Don’t do this to me, Alex,” Jimmy quavered.

Alex put his head back and let the rain wash his face. The cold water didn’t make him feel any better, but it did drive out some of the recklessness he felt. Going off half-cocked could be the worst mistake of his life. Easily the last. He turned to Jimmy.

“I’m okay,” he said. Then, as if trying to explain, he said, “he was my friend.”

Jimmy nodded sympathetically.

“We’ll come back and get him. Jon needs our help right now.”

“Right,” Alex said. He looked up the incline, knowing Hall might be watching and waiting. Somewhere, maybe as close as the bony cluster of vines and bushes at the top of the rise, was a murderer.

“Do you want me to go first,” Jimmy asked.

“It doesn’t matter,” Clifton said dispiritedly. “If he means to get us, it won’t matter which one of us goes first.”

Jimmy put a hand on Alex’s shoulder and started to say something when a strong crackle of static erupted from the radio. They heard a voice. Very weak, but clear.

Alex,” the voice said threadily. “This is Jon. Can you hear me?”

Alex grabbed the radio from his belt.

Jon,” he said harshly. “You’re alive? Where are you?”

“The same place.” His voice seemed hardly loud enough to use any breath. “I think he got Alan, but he didn’t have the balls to take on Seth. He’s alive,” Merrifield said weakly. “Hall didn’t get him.”

“How badly are you hurt?”

“Hard to say. Pretty bad. I can’t stop the bleeding.”

“I’m coming to get you.”

“Be careful,” Merrifield warned. “I don’t know where Hall is.”

Alex started his slippery trek up the hill, ignoring the cold rain stinging his face, and Jimmy’s grasping hands trying to restrain him from rushing headlong into a trap.

Alex,” Jimmy shouted from below. The roar of the torrential rains nearly swallowed his shout. There was a brief break in the clouds and the bright, full moon peered out, its light flooding the land for a few eerie seconds. At the top of the slope, Jimmy saw the gleam and flash of some metallic object. Clifton was almost to the top of the hill when Jimmy understood what the flash was.

Alex,” he cried. “Watch out! It’s Hall! He’s here, at the top of the hill!”

Alex stopped. He began an instinctive dive toward the ground. He lost his balance and executed a half-turn before falling completely. In the brief instant of moonlight, Alex saw Jimmy’s face, his mouth open in a shout, his rain hood half dislodged.

There was a short sound like the ripping of cloth. Alex saw bright flashes at the corners of his vision. Jimmy’s face suddenly bloomed three black flowers that exploded outward where Hall’s bullets had stitched his face. Jimmy did not simply fall like a stone, but was shoved backward by the force of the slugs. The moon dove behind the scudding clouds again and Clifton could see nothing.

Alex tumbled end over end down the slope, unable to stop himself. He had been barely able to comprehend and assimilate Alan’s death, now he was confronted with the death of Jimmy. The spectacle of a disintegrating head was one which he wished not to investigate too closely. Even less did he wish to have first hand knowledge of it.

His downhill skid was abruptly halted by something he realized with eloquent queasiness was a body. Whether Alan’s or Jimmy’s, he didn’t know. The flesh of his back crawled and Alex shuddered with breathless fear that Hall’s next burst might shatter his spine in five places. It was enough of a jolt to rid him of the fuzziness in his brain.

Hall scrambled in the bushes above Alex. Alex knew the only thing between him and certain death was the fact Hall couldn’t see him. He said a silent prayer to whatever God had allowed him to lose his flashlight in his wild tumble. He thought of shooting, but it would be insanity to give away his position by firing at an apparition he couldn’t see.

Alex found his footing and stooped in a half crouch, his eyes turned toward the top of the hill. He prayed the moon would stay hidden and the infrequent lightning would abate. He was completely exposed and Hall would make short work of him if he could only see him.

He groped at the body that had stopped him. Nausea and compassion battled each other in his throat as he searched for the wrist. He found an arm and traced it with his fingers. Instead of reaching the wrist, he had followed the arm to the shoulder and he felt what seemed to be bone fragments and teeth in a sticky wetness. So this was Jimmy. Clifton removed his hand quickly.

Hall began to shout. Alex thought it too much to hope that Hall was standing and a blind shot might fell him. Hall’s words were at first slurred by the chatter of rain and Alex couldn’t understand them. When they at last became clear, Alex felt despair so great that he was drained into total inactivity. If Hall had wished to walk down the slope and pluck Clifton’s weapon from his hand, he could have. Alex’s blood alternately ran cold and boiled with fury as he listened.

Your monster is dead,” Hall exulted. “I cut his throat with my own hands and watched him die! Merrifield is dead and so is the other one. The Lord is strong and has beaten you. Show yourself so I can strike you down!”

All for nothing, Clifton thought, dazed. They’re all dead. How can I tell Ingrid? How can I be sure I’ll be able to?

Clifton backed slowly down the slope, being careful not to fall. Three times his feet hit submerged rocks that threatened to topple him, but he held on.

Hall continued to rave, but Alex focused only on survival. He continued his descent until he was at the edge of the forest at the foot of the slope. Once in the woods he could make his way back to the Alamo and safeguard Ingrid, at least. She was the only thing of value that remained.

A tree limb stabbed his back and he jumped. He didn’t feel safe in the least, having seen what Hall had done to trained professionals. They had been old and out of touch, to be sure, but not brainless. It made him wonder if God really was on Hall’s side.

He turned to slip quietly into the woods when, as if in derisive answer to his question, a flash of lightning seared the night. A deafening clap of thunder rocked the ground underfoot like an earthquake.

The eerie purple glow lit Clifton up with horrifying clarity. He burned like a light house. He jerked his head around and saw Josh Hall. In the clinging purple glow, Hall’s face was split in a grin and the combination of light and shadow on his face created dark gashes from eyes to chin like some barbarous warpaint. His rifle was at the ready, as if he had been awaiting just such a chance. It took him but an instant to correct his aim and swing the rifle toward Clifton.

Alex plunged into the woods. The first branch he encountered rebounded and smacked him smartly across the shoulder. A violent rain of water droplets peppered his eyes. He heard the guttural rip of an automatic weapon firing like the brutal purr of some giant cat. Small branches snapped behind him as the bullets sheared them off. He heard the thwack of other projectiles as they buried themselves in tree trunks and mushroomed into strange shapes.

Three of the slugs slammed into his back like the kick of a Clydesdale. Two of the shells tore through the muscle on the right side of his upper back. The other skirted the bone at the bottom of his shoulder blade before carving his right lung into lace.

Clifton was flattened to the ground. He lay there, breathing in the wet mud, drifting in and out of the world of dreams and the real world of nightmares.

11

Twice in the past ten minutes, Leon Hursey and Joel Knish had heard gunfire crackle through the hills. Nearly hidden beneath the flooding rains was the sound of the night gaining strength like a savage brute springing to life beneath the full moon.

“Hey, Joe,” Leon called out. “Did you hire on to stand guard in a goddam hurricane?”

Joel hurried over. Great spikes of water splashed up at his running steps. He held his head in such a way that he was looking almost straight down, allowing his hood to afford him the maximum of protection. His hands were stuffed in his pockets.

“Did you hear the shooting,” Leon asked uneasily.

Joel shifted before answering. The bleary eyes of the flood lights stared hazily into the swirling rain.

“I heard it. Our guys only had pistols, right?”

“I think so,” Leon said ominously. He stared into the darkness beyond the reach of the lights and wondered what was lurking there, just out of sight.

“I heard two volleys of gunfire and that’s all. No return fire.”

“You think Josh got them,” Joel asked.

“I don’t know what to think. Things are bad. I feel beaten. I feel like I’m waiting for Josh Hall to come up that road.”

“He’d never do it,” Joel said. “He’d never come down the road in plain sight.”

“That’s what makes me nervous. He might be sneaking around back. Hell, I’m no soldier. My conscript was up fifteen years ago.”

“Do you really think he’ll come here?”

“I do,” Leon said. “I don’t know if I’d do a bit of good if I saw him, but I don’t like him. I haven’t forgotten what it’s like to shoot a man. I think I could still do it.”

“Should we have a look around back?”

Leon thought about it.

“No,” he said. “Somebody has to stay here. And for one to stay here, it means both of us would be alone. I don’t like those odds. Not against a trained killer.”

Joel brightened. It seemed sound advice to him.

They looked up at a sky that vibrated with multi-hued lightning sporting just beyond the cloud tops. It was a brilliant display, but a coming dawn would have been more welcome.

“Do you get the feeling that something’s about to happen,” Leon asked. He shifted his gaze nervously.

“Something’s already happened,” Joel said. “I don’t want anything else to happen. I just want to see daylight. Tomorrow. That’s all I ask.”

Leon had struck a listening pose. “No, no shit, Joe. I thought I heard something like footsteps out there on the road.”

Joel heard nothing.

“Don’t joke about shit like that, especially tonight…”

He halted. A chill ran up his back and he groped for the pistol beneath his raincoat.

Somewhere, just beyond the false safety of the lights, someone was moving. He heard the obvious ’whap’ of a foot meeting wet pavement. It came again, irregular and without pattern, as if the maker were staggering.

Leon,” Joel blurted, grabbing his arm in a grip so tight it left bruises. “There’s somebody out there.”

Leon hunched down and peered at the road. He, too, heard the slap-thump of plodding footsteps somewhere in the driving downpour beyond the lights. Tonight, that territory was traversed only by martyrs or murderers.

“You got your pistol out,” Joel quavered. Beads of water jiggled at the end of his nose as he gaped helplessly into the gloom.

Leon had his gun in hand. He held it beneath the folds of his raincoat, ready to draw it at a moment’s notice. Whoever was out there was making steady, if erratic, progress. It was probably just his imagination, but he could almost see the slow, side to side sway of a man walking. He felt the gun’s safety with his free hand and made certain it was off.

“Is it Hall,” Joel whispered. He had his pistol half-heartedly drawn. Rain slid over its polished barrel and ran off in oily beads.

“Maybe worse,” Leon said tensely, “It might be Seth. Just make sure you don’t shoot anybody important.”

The footsteps advanced. Whack-slap-bang! Whack-slap-bang! The wind rose, whirling down the mountainside and lashing the night with a sodden cat-o’-nine-tails. The fence rattled like the jingling of coins and the lights swung back and forth. Shadows rocked and swayed. The temperature plunged and snow mixed with the rain began to swirl down from the sky.

Joel drew slightly to one side. He blinked his eyes to rid them of the rain and when he opened them the corpse white face and shriveled, grasping hands were almost on him.

The figure emerged from the ghostly downpour like a mindless, macabre ghoul and stumbled toward Joel. The ghoul’s eyes were pale and lusterless pennies. His colorless mouth moved but made no sound. His left arm was held out for balance and it nearly touched Joel as the right arm hung limp and useless at the man’s side.

Joel flinched and brought his pistol around. His backward momentum carried him past the point of safe equilibrium and he fell, knowing the ghoul would be on top of him. He heard, as in a dream, Leon shouting at him.

Don’t shoot, dingus! Don’t shoot!”

Joel paid him no attention. By God, he would finish off his own ghoul. He brought his pistol up so he could stick it against the ghoul’s forehead.

He felt a sharp blow against his right hand. Someone was trying to pry his weapon away. He rolled away from the clutching ghoul and stood. The ghoul wore a bloodstained, white suit.

And Leon was bellowing.

What the hell do you think you’re doing, you twit? Are you trying to shoot Alex again?”

12

It wasn’t for the reason she expected, but the infirmary was thankfully ready when Joel and Leon brought Alex in. Both of them were soaked to the bone and Alex looked heartbreakingly close to the corpse-like state he had been in on the day his arm had been severed. Ingrid had been told it looked like gunshot wounds and the two men had not been mistaken. Two small holes, puckered around the edges, showed in the flesh of Alex’s upper back. The skin around the punctures and beneath his armpit was a painful, purplish-black. The bullets had not gone completely through. She was both disgusted and grateful they had hit bone. Disgusted because the bones had been shattered, and grateful because the bones had spent the best part of the bullets’ force and kept them from plowing an interstate highway through Clifton’s innards.

The bullet lower on his back was another matter. Ingrid put her ear to Clifton’s right side. She could hear no trace of a heartbeat. No doubt about it even without a stethoscope. The lung on that side was collapsed.

Leon studied Ingrid with bloodshot eyes. They were tired and hopeless. Both men dripped water onto the clean, white tile.

“Is there anything we can do,” Leon asked. “I know we need to get back to the gate, but we thought maybe…since we brought him up here….”

“Did he say anything? About anybody?”

“Nothing,” Leon answered. “Just came staggering up the road in the rain. Damn near got his head shot off. Then I saw the blood and all those bullet holes. I knew he was dead. I still don’t know how he made it. God knows how far he walked like that.”

What is it you want to tell me, Alex? What made you come back through this when by all rights you should be dead?

“I’ll take care of it,” Ingrid said. Her hurt showed in her pinched face. She didn’t need confirmation. Somehow, she knew Alex was all she had left.

“Are you sure,” Leon said, eying Ingrid closely. “You’re taking this awfully well.”

“What good would it do to break down? We’ve all been through too much. We’ve learned to take things well.”

“Yeah,” Leon said dubiously, looking at the jagged hinges on which the infirmary door had been straight and true only thirty hours before. “I guess we have.” He clapped Joel on the shoulder.

“Come on, Joe. Josh probably has the whole store in his back pocket by now.” He gave Ingrid one last chance. “You’re sure you don’t want any help?”

She shook her head, not looking at him.

Leon and Joel left to stand guard in the rain. By the time they knew any different, the night’s work was done.

********************

Ingrid tended Alex’s wounds. She had already run two units of blood. She was no pulmonary specialist, but she felt Alex would make it. He had taken three bullets, two of them flesh wounds. The third slug was the worry. It had collapsed a lung and it was only by God’s grace that Alex had made it back before enough fluid had collected to drown him. With deceptive ease she placed a tube in the bullet wound and snaked it around until she found the ragged entry hole in his lung. She worked emotionlessly, knowing an untimely breakdown might well cost Alex his life.

She attached the free end of the tube to a suction pump. The smooth, efficient hum of the high speed electric motor buzzed lightly. An oily, brownish exudate began to filter through the suction line and out of Alex’s lung.

She reached for some bandages in the wall cabinet. She had begun to shake so badly that when she touched them, the entire box tumbled out and scattered on the floor. She flinched back and her retreating hand brushed a jar of cotton swabs that tumbled out as well.

She braced herself for the crash. Instead of breaking, the jar bounced once on its thick bottom with a heavy “clunk” and rolled along the floor. Swabs spewed out in a fan shape.

She put her face in her hands and breathed heavily. In her mind’s eye she saw the face of insanity and it hid behind the striking, flesh and blood features of Josh Hall.

Ingrid got a grip on herself. She looked at the wall, concentrating through a furry buzzing that vibrated behind the bone of her forehead like a huge hornet.

She still had Alex, but at what price? What had happened to Seth? Everyone and everything she had come to hold valuable was gone.

But, oh my God, you sonofabitch. If I get through this night, you’ll pay more than you ever believed. God had better be on your side because I’m the devil you’ll have to pay. If I could, I would make you die slowly. And there will be another Seth. You won’t stop him.

She didn’t consider how easily the resolve to wish a man dead had come. She felt she could calmly take the pistol in Merrifield’s office and shoot Hall in the eye, watching without emotion as most of the back of his head blew away.

The tube in Alex’s back had become mostly clear, just a few drops of the brownish liquid clinging in the valleys. She attached a new tube similar to a Foley catheter to the suction pump and placed it in the wound. She reversed the flow on the suction pump and the tube swelled until it formed an airtight seal. Ingrid listened to Clifton’s back with a stethoscope. His breathing took on more resonance as the lung re-inflated.

The pump began to hitch and whine, automatically ceasing pumping action when the pressure in the tube equaled atmospheric pressure. Ingrid clamped the tube close to Clifton’s back and shut the machine down. Using the same pair of surgical scissors she had used on the day Alex lost his arm, she cut the tube.

Ingrid?”

Her name drifted through the air like a snowflake, so delicate that the slightest amount of heat or mishandling would destroy it.

Alex’s eyes were open, but vague. He lay on his stomach, his cheek mashed against the bed. The weight loss from his coma had revealed his ribs. He tried to turn over and grimaced in pain.

“Here,” Ingrid said, placing her hands on his shoulders. “Let me help you.”

She turned him over and strained to help him to a sitting position. He needed to sit up anyway to keep more fluid from collecting in his lungs. It was a plus that he was awake.

Clifton’s thin hair was matted to his scalp. Ingrid had tried to immobilize the shattered bones in his shoulder as best she could, but whenever he moved she could still hear them grind. He gritted his teeth to keep from crying out.

“Do you think you could handle a sedative,” Ingrid asked.

Clifton waved the suggestion away weakly with his good arm. He felt nauseatingly woozy and briefly wondered why he was even trying to stay awake. There was something sticking in his back that felt as big as a garden hose. The aches in his shoulder and back were helped past painful to almost unbearable because of it.

“Ingrid,” he said again, his voice slightly stronger. She leaned toward him until her ear was at his mouth.

“Seth,” she said anxiously, hoping irrationally for good news. “Jon? Alan? Jimmy?”

“Gone,” Clifton whispered painfully. “I’m sorry. Hall got all of them.”

All,” Ingrid said unbelievingly. Alex’s eyes had closed and his head listed to one side. She patted his face, trying to wake him up.

“Don’t pass out on me, Alex. Wake up!”

Ahrrr-hummm,” he mumbled groggily. But his eyes opened. Barely.

“Listen to me,” Ingrid said. “You’re in bad shape. The phones are out, so I can’t get an ambulance. You’re going to have to trust me to take care of you.”

“Dead,” Alex muttered. “All of them.” His head rolled from side to side. “Shot me. Shot Jimmy. Cut Alan’s throat. I’m sorry, so sorry…”

“Alex, I’ve got to get someone to help us. I want you to sit right there and don’t try to move.”

His eyes darted open and he stared at Ingrid in terror. He reached with surprising speed across the bed with his left hand and grabbed Ingrid’s wrist. His hand was cold and clammy.

Don’t leave me.”

Ingrid barely started at his touch, but her guts were in turmoil.

“I’ll be right back,” she said gently. “I have to get help.”

She extricated herself from his grip, queasy at the tenacity with which he held on.

He returned to his state of liquid consciousness. Ingrid spared him a final, dreadful look before leaving the infirmary to find help.

********************

She had pounded on doors for the past five minutes and she knew knew there were people behind some of those doors. She could not find a single soul pottering around the building. Not in the commissary, not in the labs, not in the sleeping quarters. Some of the rooms were unlocked and their doors swung in on empty cubicles. Those doors that were locked, she pounded on them hard enough to bruise her knuckles.

Goddammit, I know you’re in there,” she raved. “Open up! I’ve got a wounded man that needs help!”

There was no answer. The rappings and poundings echoed and re-echoed through the empty corridors. They flew around corners and out of doors only to disappear with no ears to interpret their signals.

Growing more frantic by the second, she picked up an extension phone and tried to call out again. The phones were still out, but sudden inspiration struck.

“Oh, you stupid bitch,” she said aloud. Seeing a way out at last, she dialed the operator. She had no choice but to let Jason Lewis in on it now.

A cool, disconnected hiss came to her ears, then a dial tone, then a series of clicks and burrs that repeated over and over until Ingrid jiggled the cutoff buttons. The dial tone came back, then the clicks and burrs started again. In wild frustration, she hauled off and flung the receiver as hard as she could down the hallway. The coiled cord caught it and flung it back toward her.

Goddam fucking sonofabitch bastard!” she shrieked to the lifeless hallways. When the echoes dissolved they were replaced by a sussurant lulling sound that might have been the respiration of a sleeping animal.

Her last hope was to get Joel and Leon. To hell with the gate, they were needed up here. She went to the second of two supply closets and grabbed a raincoat. She walked into the main corridor, fiddling with the buttons on the coat. Her head was down and, when she looked up, her heart froze. It felt as if it would burst if it beat again. She stared, terrified, at the end of the corridor.

Through the thick, wire-mesh laced glass, she saw the outline of a man’s head and shoulders. The outline turned and she saw the thin, brutal silhouette of a rifle barrel.

She thought it might be Joel or Leon, but then she heard the secretive, gentle jiggling of a door latch. The heavy chain on the inside of the door rattled imploringly.

Did he kill them, too? Could I even make it out the back door without being cut down? And could I leave Alex? He’s certainly in no condition to travel.

She retreated, hoping the bright glare in the building and the semi-opaque glass of the door would conspire to keep her hidden. She retraced her path to the infirmary. The sound of the facility’s machinery had receded to night levels and she heard the hiss of rain. That was what she thought sounded like breathing.

Alex was as she had left him. She shook him gently, careful not to let her over agitated state cause her to rouse him too forcibly. He stirred stupidly and made a thick, groggy sound.

“Come on, Alex. I need your help.”

Huh-wha?” he mumbled. His eyelids fluttered.

Ingrid took a wall-mounted gurney down and set it next to Alex’s bed. It would be easier to retrieve the gun and bring it in here, but the missing door would leave them too exposed. She had to find some semblance of a barricade.

“Do you think you could roll yourself over into this thing?”

Alex gave a reasonably concerted effort to comply.

Oy gevalt,” he said thickly. “I’ve performed surgery in worse shape than this.” He settled into the gurney.

“That’s my brave little man.”

Ingrid secured the IV drip in Clifton’s arm with surgical tape, then set the stand diagonally across the gurney. She wheeled Clifton from the infirmary and down the corridor. The well-oiled wheels barely squeaked.

She rolled Clifton into Merrifield’s office and situated his bed in a corner as far from both the window and the door as she could manage. She didn’t turn on a light.

She wanted Hall to show up outside the window and try to see into a darkened room. The sporadic lightning would outline him very nicely as a target. If he showed up at the door? Ingrid would wager her life she could plug Hall before he spotted her and started banging away. The odds were finally stacked in her favor and she settled down to wait for the morning, when the FBI guys could take over.

13

The hunter had tracked him all the way to the beacons of light at the Alamo. Seth felt Hall’s presence, but Hall was more cautious now. That small glimmer of uncertainty was there and Seth intended to use it.

The blue skylights had shone him his way for a while, but now they would be enemies as he had to break cover and move across open ground. His saviors were gone, devoured by the dragon who now stalked him. The man had procured one of his weapons. The other had apparently been lost in the ambush on the two other men. One was enough.

Seth had made his way to the rear of the building, as had Hall, avoiding the lights at the front. Seth could no longer catch the train of Hall’s thoughts, but he was there. He was always there, a shadow god that held the reins over his life or death. Eventually you would find yourself in a place from which there was no shelter from his omnipotent weapons, no cover from his all seeing eye, and there you would fight or die.

Seth had slipped from the arena when he heard the chattering of the weapon. One of the men who had arrived was visible in the weird light of Seth’s vision. He showed up as a vivid glow against the darker background of the cold earth. At the sound of the weapon, Seth saw three spots of brighter color spout from the glowing head of the figure. He knew instinctively he was seeing blood and he felt the man’s life whither away.

Cold-blooded and ruthless, Seth had used the diversion to aid his escape. He had forced himself onward, but was slow and patient for more than one reason. His hunter was skilled as well as mad. Seth was losing more ground to his ills with every passing moment. He had to find the one called Ingrid. And if he couldn’t find her he would rather die in the mother wilderness than as Josh Hall’s trophy in this most dangerous game.

The wind gusted and a chill traveled down the long length of Seth’s spine. He was about to risk bolting into the dark and mournful night, taking a chance on losing it all, when there was another perceptible change. He gazed left in a semi consciousness and saw Hall stealing out of the woods fifty yards behind him. Hall moved like a cold spirit in the night, tracking between the white patches of snow that had begun to collect on the darker mud. The train of Hall’s thoughts began, starting up slowly at first then suddenly gaining strength into a cyclonic whirl that winged through the night like the bloody conscience of a crazed raptor.

Your turn, Ingrid, you bitch. I want to see your eyes in my hands. I want your blood to run through my fingers.

With a desperate effort, Seth dragged himself to his feet, beginning the arduous trek down the mud slicked slope that led to the Alamo. His head pounded like metal under the hammer of Thor and the flesh of his cheek felt like it had been run through a shredder. But Hall had finally found the one thing that would cause Seth to act directly against him. Fear for his own life had kept Seth from confronting Hall, but Ingrid’s death would be tantamount to his own destruction. He would use his last ounce of strength to prevent it.

He lurched into the open space, staggering faintly between the safety of the forest and the battleground of the Alamo, where he would make his final stand.

14

Where did you go, monster? Have you disappeared into thin air? Did the bitch give you the powers of the devil? And if so, who is more dangerous? You? Or her?

Hall slipped nimbly out of the forest. The monster was close, but was the monster really his prey? He had escaped too many times, as if it were not God’s will for him to be vanquished. The others had been easy. They had been destined.

It was short work for him to scale the fence that surrounded the facility. He moved across the open space, behind the guards at the gate, straight to the front door. If everyone else was as slack as the guards, he might be able to waltz in and do his work with ease.

He tried the front door and found it locked. The hair on the back of his neck stood up. Snow blew against the gooseflesh on his body. There was someone he was meant to meet on the other side of the door. It was a feeling like those he experienced around the monster. He felt no fright, only excitement. The feeling faded, became dim, and the gooseflesh on his arms now came only from the cold.

Hall made his way to the rear of the building, searching for silent entry to perform his duty.

And the excitement he felt at the knowledge of Ingrid’s presence may have been what kept him unaware of another shadowy figure that followed him and kept him close in his sights.

15

Ingrid kept silent vigil inside Merrifield’s office. She held the pistol cocked, ready to use instantly. She was unfamiliar with firearms and had been amazed and a little scared at its heft, its oily smell and cold, metallic reality. It drove home the fact that she wasn’t playing Cowboys and Indians. This was the real thing, and a deadly thing at that.

Clifton had stayed mercifully zonked out and that gave her one less thing to worry about. She had checked him several times and found his condition stable, but weak. He wasn’t gaining any ground and it was imperative he receive some special medical attention. But he would have to hold on for a few more hours. By then, everything would be decided.

Her chair faced the window. Lightning glowed intermittently, then suddenly flared like a gas lantern. Ingrid blinked from the flash. A huge roll of thunder shook the night. The glass in the window vibrated so harshly Ingrid feared it would break.

The rattle subsided and she began to feel uneasy. Somewhere in the night, a murderer was stalking her. She was alone, dragged to the end of her tether, awaiting a trained assassin. He had bested a superhuman, constructed in a laboratory for the purpose of legalized assassination. What chance did she have?

She walked fearfully to the window and looked out, not even thinking that Hall might have his sights set on the window, awaiting his chance to pull the trigger. She looked onto the flat, roiled landscape, now beginning to incandesce with its patchy patina of snow. A small shudder seized her torso as she stared into the kinetic night.

16

Hall sidled around an outcropping at the corner of the building. He awaited some feeling, some confirmation that Ingrid was close. He peered into darkened windows and jiggled door latches, searching for an open avenue of ingress.

The rain buffeted his face relentlessly, now mixed with snow and ice pellets that stung like the bites of tiny insects. It leeched the oil from his hands and turned them to shriveled claws. He was surprised to realize how much energy he had spent, but it had been a good night’s work. He only wished he had not lost the 700 bolt action in the slippery attack on Alan Caudill. It had slid easily away down the muddy slope during the brief struggle. He still had the M-16 and that would be ample.

He peered down the bleak side of the building and spied a darker pool of shadow halfway down. It was a small alcove with a door set into it. He moved toward it, his shoes squeaking lightly. The doorway was set about three feet back and Hall stepped into the alcove. It offered him but little shelter as the precipitation, now mostly snow, continued to pour in from above. He propped the M-16 against the rough brick wall of the cul-de-sac.

He rubbed his hands briskly together and produced a linen handkerchief from one of the many pockets in his suit. He dried his hands and returned the handkerchief to his pocket.

He touched the doorknob and found it rattled easily. It turned just as easily. He turned around to retrieve his weapon and the smile on his face widened to a gasping maw of fright.

A wet, white arm curled around the lip of the alcove like the tentacle of a horror-show octopus. It wrapped its three, long, sinewy fingers around the barrel of the M-16. Moisture glistened against the ropey muscles in the forearm.

Hall gasped as the arm withdrew with the rifle clutched in its hand. It was not a gasp of true fright, but one of shock and surprise. He squinted his eyes to evil slits and withdrew his bayonet from its boot pocket.

Something whirled away into the darkness and hit the ground with a thudding squelch. Seth had hurled the M-16 sixty yards through the air.

Hall backed up carefully and placed his left hand behind him on the door knob. It turned easily and Hall pushed backward.

It would not give.

He pushed harder, but the door was deadbolted from the inside. Hall thought quickly. Being the stalker was what had allowed him to control his quarry’s power. He knew that Seth picked up thoughts and emotions just as he did.

A thin sweat of fear gathered on Hall’s forehead as he analyzed his dilemma.

Be strong. The Lord is on your side. He will continue to protect you. He will give you strength.

Hall stepped from the cul-de-sac, his bayonet ready, no trace of fear remaining. His eyes blazed with holy wrath and thin fire danced stealthily over the edge of the knife.

Seth stood just outside the cul-de-sac. He had thought Hall would be powerless without his weapon. But as he faced Hall, standing two feet taller and looming over him like a giant, he realized with inexorable, overbearing surety that he was still no match for him. Seth’s heart groaned with fear at the sight of the devilish lunacy in Hall’s eyes; at the sure way he brandished the bayonet.

Now it’s your turn, monster. You’ll see what your existence really means. You are a sacrifice to the Lord; an atonement for the false prophets and devils who created you. Your life is mine to do with as I please. And I want to snuff it out.

Hall advanced through the blowing snow. Seth took a faltering step backward. His legs were boneless and hot. Burning tears welled up in his ravaged eyes as he realized he was now the victim before the monster. The overpowering stink of Hall’s madness engulfed him. Brilliant lightning burst into a carnival fireworks display above them, flashing purple off of the millions of snowflakes.

Hall launched himself at Seth, his knife held chest high, poised to rip upward through Seth’s belly.

Seth got his hand around Hall’s wrist as they toppled to the ground in an Arctic eruption of mud and wet snow. A foghorn of thunder blew through the night. Hall’s feverish face worked and twisted just inches above Seth’s as they grappled. Seth screamed a loud, long lament into the shadow of the night as he held Hall’s wrist, feeling the powerful, lightning thrusts as Hall tried to rip his guts out with the bayonet.

Then, the first of the energy surges surrounded Hall. They came as always; unbidden and impossibly strong. Hall’s eyes opened wide and his mouth stretched from a mad crescent of fury to an “O” of pain.

Seth continued to scream as Hall faltered. Some force like a grisly vampire clamped its teeth on Seth’s soul and sucked every last erg of energy from him. He was not going to die with a knife in the guts, but by having the life drained from him.

Hall’s eyes began to vibrate before losing sharp focus and starting to shimmer. The pupils became indistinct and blended with the irises until the entire eyeball appeared to be nothing but whites.

Hall was being shaken to pieces, every atom in his body being super energized. Electrons jumped to higher orbits and, instead of releasing their energy as light, simply gained more energy until they reached their highest limit.

The bayonet dropped from a hand that was suddenly soft as putty. The tissues of Hall’s body oozed and ran like liquid, but only for a few seconds. Before all the tissues could liquefy, the atoms energized even more and formed into gas, then into plasma.

The plasmid particles ionized and rushed away in a whirlwind toward opposite magnetic poles. The forest shook with the unknown force of a total annihilation chamber as a few of the particles formed antimatter and reacted with unbonded atmospheric molecules. A momentary, brutal wind swept down from the north and the last of Hall’s being swirled away on the tide of an electromagnetically induced air current.

If Josh Hall had a soul, it was rendered into nothingness as his atoms dissociated into particles more elemental than superstrings. No trace of Josh Hall remained but the bayonet and the empty suit he had been wearing, whipping impotently in the wind.

Even his dying scream had vanished into the void and the only reminder left of the night’s encounter was a horribly mangled man lying near death.

17

Ingrid watched the serpentine rivers of rainwash freezing in spider web traceries that flowed like rivers cutting deltas. They sparkled like Christmas tree ornaments in the strobe-like lightning that flashed on and off.

She still awaited Hall. Everything that could go wrong had. She didn’t think a little thing like a gathering blizzard would detain him. She was the last loose end; the only one who could or would put the finger on him. It was with exceeding black humor that she thought of her own predicament: the last stand at the Alamo.

Whatever was coming would soon arrive. The first harbinger had been the preternaturally bright flash of lightning and the accompanying boom of thunder. Shortly after that, there had been a monstrous rumbling that made the ground tremble as if the four horsemen of the Apocalypse were galloping through the frenzied night. The bottles of booze Merrifield had secreted away clinked ominously and the half empty unit of blood above Clifton’s head swung back and forth, marking the time until the end.

She looked out the window. The wind shrilled from the north side of the building and she saw a swirl of curiously luminescent sparks flash by. They flared brilliantly, then winked out like coals fanned by the puff of a bellows. They were so bright and transient that Ingrid blinked.

She had the creeps for certain now and her shaking hands drew the curtains across the window. She was no longer certain that whoever might be outside couldn’t see in. But anyone trying to get in the window would have to make their presence known to her.

An icy tremor of fear rooted aside the spark of vengeance in her heart. She was just Ingrid, alone against the monster. Her fear dropped the temperature in the room by ten degrees.

There was a noise outside. Ingrid snatched her hand away from the window as if it were ablaze. She backed away hastily and stared at the darkened square against the wall. She felt her way back to her seat, unable to concentrate because of the numbness in her brain.

She located the pistol and pointed it with trembling sureness at the window, waiting for another sound. There was a definite squelching as of a foot settling into soft mud; a sound tailor-made to be heard above the swishing whirl of wind driven snow.

She drew her breath and held it as a gentle tapping came at the window. Not a tapping for entry, but an exploratory sound, as if Hall were trying to pull the window up. Some emotion poured into the room that filled her with an icy dread and loathing.

The air became as moldy and stuffy as a tomb. She looked at Clifton lying helpless and immobile. Something tried to pry its way into her head, but she shut it out.

No more tricks. Just give me one good shot.

The squishing sounds outside the window continued. She heard the sound of wood splitting. A low, snapping sound of a jimmy being inserted to turn the lock, or someone trying to pull the window up by brute force.

Oh, God. Oh, Jesus. Please let me see him before he sees me.

Her blood pressure skyrocketed and her knees buckled as the sound of cracking wood grew louder. She leveled the gun at arm’s length. The barrel trembled.

An explosive crash filled the room as the window flew up in its tracks with a screech. The lock popped free from its rivet with a loud ping! and shot across the room. The curtains stirred and an arm reached in.

In answer to her prayers, a flash of lightning lit the room and a shapeless, black outline appeared outside the window.

Ingrid squeezed the trigger. The shots crashed into the night, merging with the thunder. The silhouette at the window was shoved rudely backward as if by a battering ram. The clutching hand took most of the curtain out of the window with it.

The flashes seared Ingrid’s eyes. The pressure waves from the thundering reports made her eardrums ache and threatened to crack her skull. By the time she had spent the clip her ears were ringing so badly she didn’t hear the firing pin strike on an empty chamber. The smell of spent gunpowder was sickening. Snow whirled into the disintegrated window and the chilling wind tore the gauzy, blue haze apart.

Ingrid staggered to the window, sick with relief and revulsion. The gun dropped from her numb fingers. She leaned out over the sill and into the freezing rain, letting the cold drive some sense back into her throbbing head.

If he’s still alive, that’s too fucking bad.

That sickening, ghostlike presence was weaker now, but still trying to get in.

The cold quelled the last of her dry heaves and she finally looked up to face the last of the monster, to see how he looked in death.

Seth lay spread-eagled on the ground, his entire eight foot length splayed out, bleeding his very special blood into the already drenched earth. Three of the bullets Ingrid had fired had found their mark and Seth was quickly dying, his strength already sapped well beyond the point where he should have perished.

Two of the bullets had torn through his chest, one below each shoulder. They had exited through his back, taking two fist sized chunks of flesh with them. The third had planted itself in his neck.

Blind and reckless, Ingrid blundered out the window. Her knees snagged on the sill and she tumbled gracelessly. She splatted full length in the muddy snow and regained her footing only after slipping and floundering.

She knelt by Seth, feeling his wounds with studied fingers. The wetness soaked through to her skin and she began to shiver almost immediately. The snow around Seth had stained a dark pink. She felt dizzy as she realized the only time she had ever touched him was to minister to his injuries.

The urgent voice still tried to burrow into her head and now, with her defenses down, it did.

Ingrid, the voice said. She sucked in her breath and stared at Seth. His one good eye was open. He struggled and pulled the other eye open, looking at her. Black and irisless, but still warm. They were Spaniel eyes that mirrored no hurt, only understanding. Ingrid saw the huge, infected gash on his cheek and knew it was bound to be painful. But Seth actually seemed to be trying to smile.

“Ingrid,” he said softly. It sounded like a croak, but she had never heard a voice so human. He reached out one huge hand weakly to touch her arm.

He squeezed her arm urgently, wanting to tell her she was safe, but he had no words but the one. He tried to smile again, not minding the pain for once, and said her name again.

A huge tear rolled out of his eye as he exhaled his last breath.

Ingrid held onto Seth awhile longer, needing to convince herself that some good had to have come from it all. The sky lightened toward dawn as the snow fell more steadily, covering the ugliness of the night in its fine white purity.

Ingrid was nearly covered in snow and half frozen when Joel and Leon finally arrived.

Leon took Ingrid’s arms, Joel her legs, and they carried her gently away.

[]EPILOGUE

They sat together in the fragrant grass along the banks of the Coosa River. A dry summer breeze rustled the ankle high blades and rippled it in waves. The smell of wildflowers was a particularly good one, miles from the bloody scent of a muddy killing field on a hillside in North Carolina. Alex, his arm still in a sling, breathed deeply.

Ingrid’s eyes were closed. She wore a tasteful, knee-length white dress. She slipped her shoes off and let her toes dig into the warm, mellow grass. The gesture brought back feelings of a long-abandoned childhood.

Her squeaky clean blond hair was tied back with a wide, blue ribbon. She had gained weight and was no longer so pale and gaunt, though she knew she could never look young again. She had been outwardly unharmed; her wounds were on the inside. Despite that, Clifton thought her beautiful.

A simple marker was set at the tree line. The land had been leased to Ingrid in perpetua, which meant the span of her life plus ninety-nine years. There was no body beneath the marker. It was one of the cold realities Ingrid had accepted in her new life.

There had been a small hullabaloo some four months ago, but it was like a mountain giving birth to a mouse. Josh Hall’s body had never been found. It was generally assumed that whatever schemes he had hatched had soured and he had taken the fly-by-night express to Bolivia. Many unsavory things -secret bank accounts, contract killings, drugs- were being learned about Josh Hall and most people were trying to bury any association they had ever had with him.

Ingrid laid a wreath at the marker. Her face was dry and soft in the warm sunshine. She had no tears left.

“It’s time to go,” Clifton said. He always felt strange here with Ingrid. Here lay the closest thing to a child that Ingrid had. Alex still had Merrifield. He had survived by the skin of his obstinate teeth to be sure, but he was now back to his cantankerous self. His narrow brush with death had mellowed him not a bit.

“Do you mind if I stay a minute or two longer?” Ingrid squeezed his hand and looked at him with her Periwinkle eyes.

Alex relented.

The stone was very plain. It read, simply:

Infant Seth

March 7, 2003 March 9, 2003

“It’s hard to believe it was only four months ago,” Ingrid said. “I would never have thought I could start up again.”

“A little thing like a slit throat won’t stop Jon,” Alex said wryly.

“And there are no more madmen hiding in the woodwork to ruin it this time.” She looked at Alex. “Are there?”

He could have told her there was always someone left to tear her down; to douse the light of discovery in fear. She knew all that, but now was not the time to say it.

“No,” he said, giving her a hug. “They’re all gone.”

“His body was never found.”

Clifton remembered what little had been found of Jay Thomas.

“It won’t be,” he said.

“It all seems like a dream now, doesn’t it,” Ingrid asked.

Clifton looked at his arm. “More like a nightmare. No doubt this was a strange one. If Ron Walton knew it all, he could write a hell of a story.”

 

 

THE END

Thank you for purchasing and reading Xeno Sapiens. That you would invest your money, and, more importantly, your time into reading something I wrote means a great deal more to me than I can properly express. In looking over the offerings of the many book selling sites, it seems readers these days are spoiled for choice, but there are never really enough good books, are there? And in that spirit, my most fervent desire is that you consider reading Xeno Sapiens your time and money well spent.

As an aside, though Xeno Sapiens is not my favorite book, it seems to be the favorite of a great many of my readers. Which proves but one thing: An author is his own worst critic.

Please enjoy the excerpts that follow. If something intrigues you, it’s only a few clicks away.

Again, and as always, thank you so much for you time and consideration.

Best wishes in everything, always,

Victor Allen

[]Essex

by

Victor Allen

Copyright © 2006 all rights reserved

 

From Essex…

 

1955

Essex Pass lies buried between Pisgah Park and Bald Head mountain in the southern Appalachians of western North Carolina. At 5500 feet it is a shorter and older sibling to the high mountain passes of the Rockies, and a lifeline to the seven hundred people who inhabit the mostly anonymous towns erected on the cold broadsides: towns like Judas Point and Prairie’s End. Snow chokes the roads for six months of the year and the tracks laid 150 years ago by the N and S railroad are the only commercial artery that flows to the towns as winter’s slow heartbeat pulses at the edge of life.

Neal McAlister stood up in the cab of the loco. At age twenty, with a six months’ pregnant wife at home, he had remained mostly silent on his first run after eight weeks of training in Atlanta as a fireman, a mostly useless position perpetuated by union rules and held over from the not too distant days when locomotives had been fired by coal. He was relegated to the front of the train with the engineer while the brakeman and conductor tried to catch forty winks in the caboose at the far end of the one hundred car freight train.

His initial anxiety had been subdued by the constant, low key thrumming of the diesel engines which were, in reality, generators that powered the electric motors which actually moved the locomotive. After a time the powerful, steady vibrations became less cacophonous than soothing, but his uneasiness at being the new guy remained.

He wasn’t yet seasoned enough to have a colorful nickname and his picture tacked up on the bulletin board at the depot in Stella, NC. Not like the conductor, who was called Bobo for no apparent reason that Neal had been able to figure out. Neal’s companion in the engineer’s cab was an easier study. His fleshy jowls and ruddy features lent themselves to his own affectionate nickname of Hogjaw. The brakeman, a middle aged man with a U of red hair and a leonine head was Hub, a simple variation of his given name, Herbert.

They hadn’t been distinctly unfriendly to him. A little distant, a little doubtful of the new guy who came to them from a succession of menial, low paying jobs. Railroading was still dangerous work and the old crew weren’t yet ready to believe in the new guy until he proved himself in some fashion or another. Neal had grimly resolved to make this work. He had more to think about than himself.

The train had been making a steady thirty five miles per hour on a fairly level grade for the past thirty minutes. The snow-covered plains of the desolate landscape had been long unscarred by buildings, electric lights, or even natural features. All was blameless white glory, glowing heraldic blue in the cold light of the full moon. The clatter and clank of the steel wheels on the rails and the perpetual swaying of the freight cars were sleepily hypnotic in the wasteland.

Neal peered out of the tiny window at the side of the locomotive. Picked out in the brilliant beam of the locomotive’s headlight was a white on green metal sign mounted on standard Highway department steel posts. The reflective sign glowed with an unaccountable brightness. Drifts of snow had piled up against the robotic legs of the sign and the occasional capricious wind blew sprays of snow from the tops of the drifts.

Essex Pass

3 Miles.

“Best sit back down, Neal.”

Neal looked at Hogjaw. It was the first time he had spoken in an hour. His face in the feeble bulbs of the cabin had taken on a tense, drawn look that seemed impossible in so much flesh. His pressure on the throttle eased and the steady thrumming of the electric motors spun down. The cascading effect of thousands of tons of freight avalanching behind them shook the locomotive and Neal quickly sat down as the inertia threatened to spill his legs from beneath him.

Hogjaw applied the brakes with an ogre’s hiss of compressed air. The train began to glide to a stately halt, taking a full half mile to ease into motionlessness.

Hogjaw stood and wrapped himself in a heavy coat, leaving the locomotive’s massive diesel generators at a rattling idle. He pushed past Neal and stepped off the engine, down the steel steps of the locomotive and onto the snow covered ground before Neal even had a chance to ask what was up. He stared out the window, unsure whether to get up and follow, or stay put.

Hogjaw stood just off the tracks in a foot of snow, a blue hued blob in the moonlight, blowing on his cupped hands with hot breath that condensed into a cold mist on contact with the subfreezing air. Neal wondered why he hadn’t put on his gloves.

Neal stood and swung around the steel pole that connected the cab’s floor to its ceiling next to the steps. As he descended he looked toward the rear of the train and saw two dark figures floundering through the snow toward Hogjaw.

Hogjaw gave Neal an offhand glance, equal parts distrustful and impatient as Neal swung down into the crunching snow. Neal ignored the look and wished only that he hadn’t left his coat on the seat of the engineer’s cabin. He stood his ground amid the hostile glances as Bobo and Hub trudged up.

As boss of the freight, it was Bobo’s place to give Neal an approving look.

“You want to get your coat, or do you want no part of this?”

Nervous and awkward amidst these hardened, middle aged men with bristly faces and dark, fleshy circles beneath their eyes, Neal forced a steady reply.

“What’s going on?”

Hub made a derisive, blowing sound.

“He ain’t got the beans for this,” Hub said. He looked at Neal. His expression was earnest and past condescending. He emphasized his points by shaking a finger the size of a Polish sausage in Neal’s face.

“This is likely gonna be your first and last trip. You best go on up in the cab and hide. Let the menfolk do what has to be done.” There was no challenge in Hub’s eyes, only inflexible belief.

“Don’t count me out yet. All I want is a clue.”

Hub sighed heavily and only the ghost of a look passed between the three men. Without another word Bobo opened his satchel and began pulling out cloth wrapped bundles. Hub and Hogjaw each took a bundle and waited. Bobo took a bundle for himself and offered a parcel to Neal. Neal took it in slightly trembling hands and unfolded the cloth.

The cold dampened down the smell of oil as Neal unfolded the cloth. He knew even before he saw it that the steel of a handgun would be glinting up at him, glistening cold black and blue in the moon and snow-slashed night. He shook from the cold and a new unease dried the spit from his throat. Minutes ago he had been warm and mostly comfortable, whiling away his time in the workaday world. Now he shivered in the cold and snow-ravaged night only minutes later, among armed strangers who were secretive and hostile and wouldn’t tell him what was going on. He laughed shakily.

“What’s the gun for?”

“Dangerous times,” Hogjaw said hollowly. “Dangerous places.”

Neal looked around at the white nothing.

Here?”

Bobo pointed ahead of them at the brightly lit tracks slowly moving up the steep grade before perspective narrowed them to a converging point in the distance.

“Up yonder. Essex Pass.”

Neal looked from face to face, trying to find a trace of humor or some sign that this was an elaborate prank. Finding neither, he stared down at the gun. A good one, a 9MM he reckoned, though he had never held or fired a gun in his life.

“You really expect me to use this?”

“If you have to,” Bobo said.

“For what?”

“You’ll see,” Hub promised. “And once you see, you can never say. That’s just the way it is. If you can’t live with that, you can leave us after the end of the run. It’s just the luck of the draw, kid. You got the short end. If you’re with us, you’re with us. If you’re not, just keep out of the way and try to stay alive. Keep your trap shut about things you don’t understand.”

“Don’t be so hard on the kid,” Hogjaw said. “Hard enough times ahead tonight.”

Hub looked disgusted. “This guy’s just like old Bird Cole. He ain’t never been nowhere and don’t know nothin’.”

“Take this,” Neal said, re-wrapping the gun and handing it back to Bobo. Some bad business was up ahead. He didn’t stop to think what he had counted himself out of, only that his knees knocked with cold and fright at the thought of some unknown dangerous doings that were well out of his league. He kept his eyes averted from Hub, expecting some crisp jibe at his lack of manhood, but Hub remained silent. He had bigger fish to fry.

“Cold out here,” Bobo said. “Go on and get back in the cabin.”

Neal climbed back up the metal stairs, thinking that if he were a real man his booted feet would make the metal clang. But in the cold his tread didn’t even make them squeak. He sat back down in the cab amid the mocking silence of the stairs.

He sat on one of the thinly cushioned benches as the men outside talked. They spoke for a few minutes, their icy breath pluming bright and shiny in the crackling cold.

“Whatchoo wanna put the kid up here with us for, Bobo,” Hub complained. “He ain’t gonna be worth a tin cup bailing out a battleship.”

“Kid alone in the caboose,” Bobo mused. “A man alone would be easy pickings. Just make sure he stays out of the way.”

The men climbed the stairs into the loco’s cabin, the steel steps ringing out as if in a cheer.

They pushed past Neal with barely a glance. Hogjaw took his customary position at the throttle. Bobo sat at the left side of the cabin, staring resolutely from the window on that side. Hub sat on the bench next to Neal. Neal sneaked a glance at him. A tight little smile crimped Hub’s face, but not one of good humor. It was full of a deep unease. A short, tense tic jerked at the corner of his right eye, causing him to look almost as if he were winking. All three men had their sidearms within easy reach.

The air brakes snapped and hissed as they were released. There was no sound of conversation for the electric motors to muffle as they loudly spun up. The rapid, throaty, rum, rum, rum of the electric motors torquing up and the metallic rattling of the diesel generators joined in screeching chorus with the clank and crash of cast iron drawheads losing their slack and accordioning out as the locomotive began to inch forward. Steel wheels bit against steel rails, striking orange sparks into the white night.

Hogjaw had the throttle pushed to maximum, urging the behemoth forward. Against all prudence, he seemed to be urging the metal monster to accelerate up the steep incline to Essex Pass. The engines grumbled and complained but tried valiantly to comply like an iron horse under his master’s whip.

Rum rum rum rum.

The control panel voltage meters had danced up to 610 volts, nosing in and out of the red, danger zone. The already muted bulbs of the cabin burned down even more as the train improbably gained speed up the incline. Shadowed faces became darker and grimmer as the train snaked between the bulking mountains straddling either side of the pass. An ominous shadow fell over the train as the moon was wiped from the sky by the hostile mass of the mountain.

The pass was less than a mile away now as the train passed twenty-five miles per hour. Craggy, black rock faces peered out from ledges of white snow drawn above them like aged eyebrows. Some of the snow showered down in shallow spills triggered by the vibrations of the passing train. The freight cars swayed dangerously from side to side behind the locomotive, their massive springs squeaking. The wheels clattered rapidly over the expansion joints in the rails and angry sparks spat from rough spots in the steel ribbons.

The train entered a wide bend to the left, still accelerating. Thousands of tons of freight hastened through the black heart of the night at forty mph, the contained kinetic energy of a small, nuclear explosion held in check only by the thin ribs of rails. The stink of diesel fuel and burnt ozone drifted through the cab. The electric meters stood riveted to the far right, past the danger zone. Neal felt the viscera-rattling vibrations through his feet and legs and rear, so strong that a wave of nausea gripped him.

The mountain on the right suddenly dipped and Neal saw the faint glow of a dozen or so lights nestled down in the dark valley. Orange light, not like electric lighting. More like oil or kerosene lamps. Kerosene lamps shining dimly from some tiny little village swallowed in the dark belly of the mountains.

The train cleared the bend. Directly ahead of them, no more than five hundred yards away, a ten foot high barricade of flaming, creosote-soaked cross ties lay across the tracks. Thick, roiling billows of greasy, black smoke boiled angrily into the night. Twenty foot towers of orange and yellow flames raged and screamed their hot fury. Oil bubbled and festered from the cross ties while gases boiled and hissed and flared. Within seconds the roar of the flames would be enough to drown out the onrushing train. Thirty seconds more would take then crashing directly into the flaming mass, yet Hogjaw hinted at no intention of slowing down. If anything, he pushed harder on the already maxed out hand throttle, trying to urge just a little more juice out of the engines.

Neal gripped the rail next to the steps and held on.

“What the hell…” he began.

Shut up!” Hub snapped. “Sit down and stay out of the way.” Hub looked tensely at Bobo.

“Ready?”

Bobo nodded.

Eyes shining with singular purpose, Hogjaw sat steady at his post, one meaty hand on the throttle, the other on the pistol in his lap. Bobo opened the door on the left hand side of the cabin and stepped down onto the second step. Hub did the same thing on the opposite side. Frigid air whistled into the naked cabin like a hurricane, flapping the pages of the engineer’s log and flipping the brim of Hogjaw’s engineer’s cap up. Snow churned into the cabin and stung Neal’s eyes like icy grains of sand.

The train churned toward the barricade, keening through the night, motors whirring and wheels pounding. To his right and below, Neal heard the misplaced, ululating whinny of a horse. He snapped his head around and looked down.

Riding parallel to the train, half a dozen riders dressed in black capes and cloaks kept pace with the speeding train. Long snakes of tangled hair streamed out behind the riders. Ghost white faces shone like blank bone above tangled black beards. Eyes glinted like coal chips in black-shadowed eye sockets. Galloping hoof beats thundered in the night.

Hogjaw laid on the air horn and added its long, ear slitting bray to the roar. He held the cord tight, no sign of let up forthcoming.

My side! My side!” Hub cried.

Bobo reeled across the cabin and stood by Hub, crowding onto the step with him.

Shocked by this skewed re-enactment of an 1880’s train robbery where the Indians and bandits had been replaced by black clad cossacks and the steam engine supplanted by a three hundred ton, high tech diesel-electric monster, Neal watched in slow disbelief as one of the riders swung toward the train. There was a rattling clatter not five feet away from him and a now riderless horse peeled away from the train.

To your right! To your right,” Bobo yelled over the screaming of the wind. Hub spun to his right and fell backward against Bobo. A crackling shot rang out. A high pitched yell was cut off in mid shriek and a black shape went tumbling across the open doorway and plummeted to the ground, tumbling through the snow and plowing gouges in its unsullied white.

Neal watched the man’s body bounce and skid and roll away from the train in a bone-breaking tumble. If the shot hadn’t killed him, the subsequent fall would. He snapped his head back front and saw the flaming barricade looming in front of the train. This close he could feel the heat from the flames blowing into the open doors, mixed hot and cold. The smoke smelled thick and cringing and oily. Orange flame glow flared in the engine’s cabin, overwhelming the already dim lights and painting stroboscopic shadows of men in a life and death struggle splashing on the inner walls of the cabin.

Bobo and Hub struggled to right themselves from the attack and keep from falling to the ground themselves. Bobo hugged the railing like the last, providential handhold on a precipice, his feet dangling inches above the ground speeding by below him. Hub had hold of Bobo’s heavy coat, his red face colored an impossible purple by the orange of the fire. Bobo’s legs air-danced in a mad dash and he was finally able to swing himself back up onto the step.

Neal stood without thought to grab onto Bobo and Hub. His eyes fixed on the doorway on the opposite side of the cabin. A wild figure swung into the wind split chasm. A pale, unhealthy face glowed sallowly in the fire glow. The man grinned a sickly grin and Neal saw in the erratic light that the man’s teeth had been filed into points. The figure held onto the doorway with his left hand. In his right he held a long, thick bladed knife.

Forgetting about Hub and Bobo, Neal lunged for the gun in Hogjaw’s lap at the same instant the train crashed through the barricade in a tornado of orange sparks and splintering wood.

The mass of the barricade was too pitifully insignificant to slow the train an inch, but enough to knock everyone off their feet. Hub and Bobo fell in a new, interlocked tangle on the loco’s step. Hogjaw pitched forward in his seat, completely oblivious to the threat on his left. The unwelcome boarder stumbled but remained upright, shielding his eyes from the tumbling timbers and flying sparks with his left hand.

Neal lunged forward on his hands and knees, scratching for the gun in Hogjaw’s lap. He cried out a garbled, nonsensical warning from deep in his throat and Hogjaw finally looked to his right. His eyes widened in surprise and curiosity as he saw Neal on his hands and knees, his right arm stretched toward him.

Neal snatched the pistol from Hogjaw’s lap and used both hands on Hogjaw’s right shoulder to push himself up and away. He skidded backward until his back hit the bench. Hogjaw pitched sideways off his seat, just in time for the intruder’s arcing knife blow to hiss through only empty air over his head.

The train careened through the night, leaving the demolished barricade burning in exploded fragments behind it. The intruder gathered himself for another blow.

Neal pointed the gun and pulled the trigger, knowing that Hogjaw’s only hope was that it was primed to fire.

BLAM! BLAM! BLAM!

Three quick shots echoed in the cabin. The reports slammed back and forth in the tight space, seeming to stretch the metal of the cabin with their savagery. Blood and flesh sprayed from three sudden holes in the intruder’s chest. The slugs knocked the intruder backward in stuttering steps toward the open doorway. The intruder flung his arms out and slapped the door jambs, but the slipstream was too much. He held on for a split second, then slipped backward into the night like a piece of litter tossed from a car window.

Instead of rapidly returning darkness in the doorway, Neal saw something else. The gun fell from his hand and bounced on the floor. His heart hammered harder and a new kind of fear -not primitive fear for his life, but fear of a more intellectual kind- stole the last of his strength.

A towering, white body literally filled the doorway; some light being of immense proportions. An intense, diamond-fire glow radiated from the being’s forehead, but the white face was hideous. A huge, hooked Indian nose stood out above the fleshy lips. The lips were okay on the thing’s right hand side, but on the left they curved down grotesquely almost to the tip of its pointed chin. Eyes as pale and cold as arctic ice stared at Neal with a narrow cunning. The white light in the doorway that surrounded it seemed to shimmer liquidly as with some kind of energy. And then, as capriciously as it had appeared, it vanished. The doorway was as pitch black as it had ever been.

Hogjaw was up from the floor in an instant. He crossed the darkened cabin in a flash and knelt down by Neal. Too stupefied for immediate reaction, it took a few moments for Neal to register that Hogjaw was shaking him and screaming in his face.

Did you see it?” he demanded. The wind had whipped Hogjaw’s hat away and his steel gray hair swirled in the wind.

“The face,” Neal whispered weakly. “The white…”

Aww, shit…,” Hogjaw muttered. He seemed about to say more when a rattling and banging announced the arrival of Bobo and Hub into the cabin.

“Hogjaw! Get on that throttle! Now!” Bobo reached down and hoisted Hogjaw from the floor.

“He seen it, Bobo,” Hogjaw said and his face was as white as a ghost’s. “Holy God, he seen it!” Hogjaw’s trembling lips began to move in silent prayers. Bobo slowly shifted his gaze from Hogjaw’s face to Neal’s.

“Did you see it, boy? The white star?”

“White star? I don’t know. Something white…”

Bobo and Hogjaw lifted Neal from the floor and sat him on the bench while Hub closed the doors. The flaming barricade was well behind them now and the entire episode of the murderous horsemen, though only seconds before, seemed like it might have happened a year ago. Bobo and Hub sat on either side of Neal on the bench while Hogjaw retook command of the train and steadied it down.

“What happened back there,” Neal asked shakily. “That man. I shot a man!”

“That man would have killed you,” Bobo said. “You did nothing no other man wouldn’t do. Here, let’s get a blanket on you.”

Neal hadn’t realized it, but he was shivering openly, his body spent with cold and an adrenalin rush. Hub pulled a blanket out of an overhead compartment and draped it on Neal. Neal wanted to talk about what had just happened, but was unable to force words through his chattering teeth.

“Don’t, Neal,” Bobo admonished. “Don’t even think. Don’t play it over in your head.”

Bobo turned to Hogjaw who was already on the radio.

“How long?”

“Forty-five minutes, maybe,” Hogjaw said. “Too late for him, though.” And the oddest thing about that statement, Neal was to reflect later, was that Hogjaw had sounded sympathetic.

Hub had poured a cup of hot coffee from a thermos and Neal slurped it down gratefully. It suddenly seemed too hot in the cramped cabin and Neal tried to throw his blanket off and stand up, but the two men gently, but firmly, held him down.

Neal’s eyes roved from one man to the next. “Tell me what’s going on,” he asked in a near whisper. “I just killed a goddam man and I’ll have to answer for it. I’ve got a wife and a kid on the way! I can’t go to jail!”

The three other men exchanged a silent look.

“Finish your coffee, Neal,” Hub said gently. Neal looked at him as if he were crazy. Hub gave Neal a hopeful look and he slowly drank the last of his coffee, looking between Bobo and Hub.

Then they told him how it was and why he could never say what had happened that night.

By the time the train chugged to a halt at the depot the next stop down the line, Neal was already off the train and running for the office. The silent patrol car sitting in the depot parking lot told the rest of the crew all they needed to know.

By the time the rest of the crew trudged in after Neal, he was in tears, the patrolman standing by him as if wanting to give comfort, but knowing his job prevented him from doing so. Neal looked at Hub, and Bobo, and Hogjaw.

“She’s dead,” he said. “How could you know?”

The three crewmen remained silent. They had already given him his answer.

They watched him as he climbed into the passenger seat of the patrol car, a young man whose entire life had been irrevocably altered in an instant.

“That’s the last we’ll see of him,” Hub said knowingly. The other men silently agreed.

But they were wrong.

Two weeks later, after a proper period of grief and mourning, he was back. He walked slowly and deliberately into the depot with his satchel in his hand, still a twenty year old kid, but with an indefinable aging to his features, as if he had been through hell itself and made his way back not whole, but alive. He stopped by the bulletin board and looked up there, the first smile in two weeks creasing his lips. Someone had found a photograph of him and pasted it on the board right there amongst Hub, and Bobo and Hogjaw. Written on the bottom border, the nickname,“Deadeye”.

Condolences passed among the crew and they boarded the train. And this time, on the approach to Essex Pass, nobody had to ask Neal to take up his position.

He had brought his own gun.

1961

Doyle Rathmun couldn’t believe his luck. Twenty-four hours before he had finally been pinched and locked up in a twelve-by-twelve holding cell with a bunch of drunken southern sots, now he was a free man. On the run, but free.

He’d started his Southern odyssey a week before, fleeing his home town of Boston during the first snow fall of the year, when the native Bostonites engaged in the singular Bostonian ritual of flocking to the ice cream shops. The cops had begun to get too close. A string of rape murders that had started with an eighty year old woman named Joanna Michaud and ended eleven corpses later with twelve year old Susan Kelly had somehow been tied to him.

The Boston PD had eventually netted a sad, simple minded man named Albert de Salvo for the run of murders. But even the thick, Boston cops already suspected that De Salvo, if he had committed any of the murders, certainly hadn’t committed them all. The twelve stranglings had been evenly divided between strong, young women, and defenseless old women and children. De Salvo looked good for the murders of the healthy women, but the steely eyes of the law had already looked beyond De Salvo for the murderer of the elderly women and children.

Doyle knew his own mouth was to blame, recalling that he had bragged to one of his coworkers at the rubber plant, one George Nasser – a man as twisted and sadistic as he- that as long as a woman had “two tits, a hole, and a heartbeat,” she was within his range of acceptability. And once the cops, in their plodding, foot dragging way, had finally chased down enough leads to get a bead on a few suspects, a remark like that would likely land him in their net. They had already scooped up Nasser for questioning.

On the run from the heat in Boston, he had driven south in his ’58 Chevrolet. It was the first car he’d ever owned or driven, a virtual land yacht with huge, wide-whitewall tires, automatic transmission and standard AM radio. He had no real aim or plan other than to put distance between himself and the Boston PD. He was no career criminal; had never spent a day in jail. Maybe the killing was caused by the steel plate in the back of his head, compliments of a Chinese mortar shell in Korea. The bone had never completely mended, leaving a two inch indentation that was covered only by steel and skin.

He made his way more by accident than anything else to this mountainous area of North Carolina. When the local legal beagle had put the light on him just as darkness was falling, he had remained cool. Nobody knew him here.

He watched in his rear view mirror as the heavy southern cop squeezed himself out of the cruiser and meandered up to his driver’s side door. He lingered near the rear of the car, taking down the license number on a notepad.

“Evening, officer,” Doyle said cheerily. “What seems to be the problem?”

“I need you to turn off your engine and step out of the car, please, sir.”

Doyle’s cheerful exterior wilted a little.

“Officer, I…”

“Do it now, please, sir.”

The look in the officer’s eyes left no room for argument. Doyle switched off the engine and stepped out of the car.

“Somethin’ I need to show you,” the officer said. “Step to the rear of the car, please, sir.”

Doyle accompanied the officer to the rear of the vehicle.

“You’ve got a taillight busted out.”

The unbroken lens of the taillight gleamed at Doyle even in the growing twilight. He turned to face the officer and saw that he had his pistol drawn. Before he could react, the officer swung the heavy butt end of the pistol against the taillight lens and it crashed out with a sad tinkle. It was so cliché it would have been funny had Doyle not realized his chances of getting out of this were becoming extremely remote.

“You got Massachusetts plates,” the officer said. “They let folks in Massachusetts drive around with a broken taillight?”

“Officer, we can work something out…” but before he could finish, the cop had interrupted him.

“That’s gonna cost you, son.”

So now they came down to it.

“How much?”

“How much you got?”

“Oh, hey, now,” Doyle protested with a cadaverous smile. “You have to leave me something so I can get out of here. Never darken your lovely state with my presence again.”

“You makin’ fun of the great state of North Carolina?”

Doyle backpedaled. This cop was no weak old woman with a heart condition or a little girl without the strength to resist him.

“Look,” he said. “I’ve got thirty-five bucks. It’s yours.”

“Goddam right it’s mine,” the cop said.

Doyle pulled his battered wallet from his back pocket and extracted three tens and a five. The cop took the bills and tucked them in the breast pocket of his uniform.

“You know what I think,” the cop said. “I think you’re one of them northern boys come down South to stir up trouble with the darkies. Get ‘em riled up so’s decent folks can’t feel safe at night while you go back home where you got ‘em all penned up in the middle of your cities.”

“Nothing like that. I’m just passing through.”

“Well, tonight you’ll pass through a holding cell, enjoy some Southern hospitality, courtesy of Castonmeyer county.” The cop wandered over to the other side of the car and smashed out the second set of taillights. “We can’t have you drivin’ around with no taillights, even if you are from Massachusetts. I’ll have Royce Reid come up here, haul your vehicle in. Tomorrow, you’ll be in front of the magistrate, trying to figure out how to pay the tow bill, the fine, and the repair bill for your taillights.”

He’d been handcuffed and shoved into the back of the cruiser to await a hearing before the magistrate the next morning. And the cop had told him if he couldn’t raise the needed money, he’d likely be a guest of the state of North Carolina for the next month. Doyle had been issued his prison blues and escorted to a holding cell filled with greasy haired southern thugs and more real, live black people than he’d ever seen in his life anywhere besides the television. He’d been taciturn in the cell, unwilling to speak for fear his heavy New England accent would mark him for even more special attention.

Before dawn the next morning, a screw came around to the holding cell with a list and began calling out names.

“Darrow, DeBerry, Herrick, Nichols…” The call out continued until the guard got to Doyle’s name.

“Rathman,” he called out.

Blinking, scared, and uncertain of what to do, Doyle filed out of the cell with the rest of the call out.

They trudged into the cafeteria and had a dreary breakfast of oatmeal, toast and fatty sausage. Falling in line as the roll was called again, Doyle puppy-dogged the line as they loaded onto a bus and drove off to parts unknown. Mountains and fields rolled by outside the lightening windows. Farmland mostly, lots of barns and a few grimy cinder block and brick buildings. Even as a first time prisoner, Doyle thought it odd that only one armed guard rode on the bus with them. Twenty minutes later, the bus rolled into the small town of Prairie’s End and the bus hissed to a halt at the corner of two fairly large streets.

The cons, unshackled, filed out the door and stood at the corner of Garner and Qualls streets. After the last con filed out, the bus door shut and the bus pulled away with a roar, leaving the cons in the backwash.

Looking around with wide eyes and finding no shotgun toting guards, Doyle turned to Crispin Cyrus, one of his erstwhile cell mates.

“This is a setup, right,” he asked, thinking of the venomous act that had landed him in the cooler. “They let you out so you can run, then put a bullet in your back?”

“No, man,” Crispin said. “Work release. This is the Slave Corps for the hayseeds. You wait here until some cracker picks you up in their truck. Then you go with them to do whatever it is they want done. Paint their house, work in the fields, bale hay, prime tobacco. You usually gets a good meal and a few cents in your pocket. Five o’clock, they gots to have you back here for head count. Don’t shit on a good thing, man. If you tries to run, they’s no place to go.”

They waited as a succession of trucks with fat farmers and ruddy rednecks pulled up and the drivers shouted from their widows.

“Need two to drive a dual axle and bale hay.”

“Here, boss,” the cons would shout, raising their hands.

“You,” the drivers would say, pointing, “and you.”

The smiling cons piled into the beds of the trucks and went off to work.

Who can run a splitter?

Me, boss!

Who can dig a ditch?

Me, boss!

Who can lay brick?

Me, boss!

And so it went until the last cons had been trundled off to whatever labors they were most qualified for.

When the call came for a man to do electrical work, Rathmun shouted out.

“Me, boss!”

“Climb up, boy.”

Doyle climbed into the bed of the truck and watched the last couple of cons recede into the distance. The truck was an old one, early forties vintage, and it labored and wheezed up the mountains. This high the air was cold and Doyle shivered, even though he was of hardy New England stock and used to it. He didn’t know how he had ended up in work release, but it was a godsend. He had to think.

As signs of even the most rudimentary civilization disappeared behind them, Doyle waited for the truck to slow on one of the steep upgrades. As the truck faltered down to fifteen miles per hour, Doyle jumped from the truck and fell to the road, lying there as if injured.

The driver stopped and carefully allowed the truck to roll backward to where Doyle lay. He heard the ratcheting of an emergency brake and the engine being switched off. Secreted in Doyle’s hand was a large steel nut he had found in the bed of the pick up truck. God knew where the massive, rust coated thing had come from, likely some sizeable piece of farm machinery. The important thing was it weighed nearly a pound, it was cold steel, and it was a weapon.

The driver, an old man with a trusting face who was pushing eighty, leaned over Doyle, his eyes concerned and friendly behind Harold Lloyd glasses.

“You okay, son?”

“My ankle,” Doyle said with a sheepish grin. “Goddam, I don’t know how I managed to fall out of the truck. This is really embarrassing. Help me up, will you? I think I can walk it off.”

The old man leaned down and gave a good effort to help Doyle up. Careful to keep the large nut hidden in his hand, Doyle pushed off the ground to help the old gent. He flung his left arm around the old man’s neck and hobbled convincingly to the passenger side door of the truck.

With a sudden grunt of effort, Doyle squeezed the arm looped around the old man’s neck and pinched him in a headlock. Simultaneously, he brought his right hand with the massive nut in it around in a great, looping right hook. The old man’s thin skull caved in just above his brow ridge with a crack and a spray of gouged flesh. Doyle let the old man’s sudden dead weight slither from his grasp as he crumpled to the road.

“That’s for your Deputy Dawg, old man.”

Leaving the old man’s lifeless body, Doyle jumped into the driver’s seat of the ancient truck. He was mortified to discover an extra pedal on the floorboard and a shift mechanism on the column. As a Bostonian he had ridden the commuter trains most of his life and driven only sparingly. His own car was an automatic and he had never driven a straight drive in his life. He would have to take a crash course and he hoped that wouldn’t be literally.

He turned the key and the engine sputtered. The whole truck jumped and rattled like a massive, shivering dog before the engine died. Doyle looked down. The clutch. He pushed the furthest pedal to the left in and keyed the engine. It groaned and turned over for a few seconds before catching into rocky life.

Good. Good. Now what?

The brake. He eased the emergency brake down and the truck began rolling alarmingly backward down the steep grade.

The clutch! The clutch!

He let the clutch out. Unknown to him, the driver had placed the gear lever in reverse when he stopped the truck. With the sudden engagement of the clutch and its already backward momentum, the truck abruptly accelerated in a series of jumping fits and starts. Doyle stabbed at the floor pedals, hitting brakes, clutch and, finally, the gas.

Already rolling backwards at twenty miles per hour, the sudden acceleration twisted the steering wheel in Doyle’s hand and he careened backward down the steep grade, the front wheels lazily turning until the entire rear of the truck slipped off the road and began rolling down the heavily wooded side of the slope. Doyle wrenched up on the emergency brake and heard the stretching whine of the cable breaking. He pushed the clutch in to change gears but the sudden loss of engine compression only made the truck roll even faster down the slope. Trees and bushes flashed by him as the steel stallion bounced and reared and bucked, snorting oily, blue exhaust and whinnying in squeaks and groans. He released the clutch and when the grinding gears engaged they slowed the truck enough for Doyle’s head to snap back into the window glass behind him. The engine died with a hiss and Doyle might have continued in free descent had the truck not crashed with finality into a large tree, snapping his head back once more.

Seeing stars, Doyle climbed out of the truck, struggling to push the heavy door open against the force of gravity, hearing the cooling engine ticking, smelling burnt oil and exhaust. He slipped down on the steep slope as his feet hit the ground and the door swung backwards with a mighty squeal. It banged heavily shut, just missing Doyle’s head.

He stood up, supporting himself on the truck’s fender, and looked around in this strange land. Steep hillsides draped in rioting fall color craned around him, deep valleys beckoned below. Now a murderer in two states, his only choice was flight. Whatever bureaucratic slip up had allowed him to be placed in work release would soon be discovered, as well as the dead body of the old man. And Doyle believed the crackers who would be coming after him with dogs and shotguns would likely have no desire to bring him in for “justice”. They would deliver it themselves.

He slipped and slid downhill for a way before he came to a clearing that allowed him to see into a tiny little hamlet, not the same one he had come from, tucked into a little fold of a valley like a lost coin that is luckily found shining like gold. It was beautiful, wreathed in low lying fog and sparkling with new morning dew, almost as lovely as the mountains of New England. Still quite distant, maybe six miles, he could see a few houses and a careless dirt road leading into the town. And it was downhill. He had to find a place to hole up, to think, to hide. He would be easy pickings alone in the unfamiliar hills.

He traveled steadily downhill, trying to keep the town always in sight, panicking slightly when he had to scale sudden rises that blocked his view of it, breathing a sigh of relief when it finally showed up again. It crept closer by maddeningly slow increments and it was only after the sun began its skid into the west and he heard the first, distant howling of the dogs in pursuit of him that he was convinced he was closer. Two more miles, maybe.

He forced himself to hurry, panting, hoping to have the town within reach before darkness hid it from sight. Once there he could steal a car, maybe get across the border into Tennessee or South Carolina. He couldn’t think of anything beyond that.

The dogs were closer, that was certain. Not within sight, no, but their frantic baying and barking was more distinct, not safely muffled by distance. Before now, the howling had been merely benchmarks to measure progress. Now he counted the howling as second hands marking time toward his escape or recapture.

Time had hastened as steadily as his heartbeat. His prison blues dripped with fear sweat. The sun would fall quickly in this part of the world, first impaled, then devoured by the mountain peaks. Already the woods were shadowed, even though blue still lingered in the sky.

Doyle picked his way down another steep slope, the sound of howling dogs now a sharp discord. He reached the bottom of the hill only to look up and find his view of the town blocked by another hateful rise.

“Christ,” he muttered, despair cracking his voice. He began laboriously climbing the slope, knowing that when he reached the summit the town would be spread out before him beneath the last pink of the darkening sky behind him.

He crested the rise and there it was. Lights shone from the windows of houses only a half mile distant. Soft, yellow light, like candles. Save the lights, he saw no sign of life in the town. No cars, no streetlights. He frowned. He had come this far, he had no choice but to force himself forward.

He nearly fell headfirst down the last slope, his body outrunning his churning legs. He found his balance and the ground suddenly eased its precarious slant and leveled out. He hurried forward, slipping through little copses of trees, the houses of the town now real and substantial, not miniatures seen at a distance.

He gave a backwards glance in the darkness toward the sharp sound of the dogs baying and shrilling. Despite his headlong rush, he had to stop and look.

Outlined against the darkened sky at the crest of the slope he had just traveled, he saw flashlights and lanterns. Silhouettes of braying dogs and shouting men scurried back and forth at the top of the rise, illuminated by the lights. Gaunt silhouettes of rifles and shotguns were visible. He watched for perhaps a full minute before it dawned on him what was wrong with this scene.

Doyle could have been no more than half a mile from them, possibly even visible to them, even in the darkness. He had escaped from one of their prisons, killed one of their own people. Yet they refused to make the final effort to come the last half mile after him. They paced restlessly back and forth across the top of the rise, both men and dogs, but none would come closer. No-one took a pot shot at him, no men shouted. After a few seconds of excited activity, the lights and the men stood still, the dogs stopped baying and pacing, as if standing sentinel.

Again, Doyle didn’t question his luck. He turned and plunged forward, but more slowly. He slowed to a casual walk, catching his breath, letting his heart slow. The woods were still fairly heavy around him, but the town was plainly in sight. This close he could finally make out more than just impressions. Somewhere in the distance behind the houses, he caught the flicker of burning fires. Then the smell of smoke, but odd. Not like charcoal, but a thick, meaty smelling smoke, like grease that has gone rancid on a charcoal grate.

He stumbled slightly and caught himself. He looked down to see what he had tripped on and was surprised to see snow on the ground. This far south, even in the mountains, there shouldn’t be snow in October. But this snow was crunchy. He stopped and looked more closely. His stomach racked into a noxious coil. Not snow. Bone. Chips and dust and powder and fragments and even full specimens. Bones ahead of him and to the side of him, as far as the eye could see, a pavement of bones all the way into the town. White bones, not sun bleached or time scarred, but white. Boiled white; stripped white.

It was then that he saw the unsound, yellow eyes of those who had been hiding and waiting for him. They came from their concealment behind the trees and closed in on him from all sides. Doyle smelled stinking, diseased breath, foul body odor, sour, rancid clothing. Scant night light glinted on teeth filed into tearing points. He tried to run but got no more than three steps before they fell on him, subdued him, and carried him into the town, gagged and bound, and still alive. Behind them, the men and eerily silent dogs turned and walked back to where they came from, leaving the night totally dark again.

Even hell on earth has its benefit.

1963

William Keane awoke as tipsy as a kid on Christmas morning, but happy June sunlight shining through his window made a lie of that. Yet it was still a day all the ten year old boys and girls in Judas Point anticipated with the same high spirits. Coincident with the first weekend after school let out, it was the kids’ first step into adulthood. No longer would they have to be constantly chaperoned by adults, or remanded to return home by seven in the evening even on the long, summer days when the sun lingered in the sky until nearly nine o’clock. After today, the young boys could go fishing, or bike riding, or treasure hunting, or all the other things ten year old boys do without the onerous and joy-killing shadow of an adult hanging over them.

What actually went on at the “commencement” was a closely guarded secret from those who had yet to attend, but older kids would always drop subtle hints about the commencement, enough to scare and captivate those uninitiated tenderfoots.

There was talk of burnings and piercings and spooky stories with the adults sitting out in the audience in their Sunday clothes, all glassy eyed and hanging onto every word of the stories. The stories, William figured, were always embellished to frighten the younger kids, and they worked. William had convinced himself that it was like a trip to the doctor. You didn’t know what he was going to find, and sometimes you got a shot. But there was always a reward after the pain, even if it was nothing more than feeling better. He felt a little heave of pride in his heart. Today, he would know the secret.

Will-Yum,” his mother called.

“Already up.”

He smelled coffee in the percolator and frying bacon and eggs. He threw the covers back and rubbed his hand over his close cropped crew cut. He walked through the living room and saw his sixteen year old beagle, Baby Pig, slurping coffee out of his mother’s cup. She was nearly toothless now, giving her gray muzzle a sunken, puckered look like old people without their false teeth in. Numerous skin lesions peppered her coat and there were hard calcifications of bone on her ribs. She was skinny now, not muscled up as she had been many years ago. She was no longer able to jump up onto the bed or even furniture and she had her own little dog bed she now slept in. Scattered around her dog bed were the remains of chewed cigarette butts.

“Mom! Baby Pig is drinking coffee and smoking again.”

“Leave her be. Let her enjoy herself. She hasn’t got that long left.”

Baby Pig looked up at him with her still bright, brown eyes and seemed to smirk at him before going back to lapping her coffee.

William went over to the stove and poured himself a cup of the “Black Drink” his mother had steeping in a pot. There was some good natured rivalry in the town among the Indian kids who called it the “White Drink” while the white kids called it the “Black Drink.” It was all the same thing. Brewed from the leaves of yaupon, and various toxic seeds and flowers, the specific recipe itself was handed down only from mother to daughter (his sister knew how it was made), and it was as much a part of William’s morning meal as the coffee his parents drank, and had been for as long as he could remember. As a younger kid, it had sometimes made his hands and tongue tingle, but the poison administered in low doses over so long had so saturated his tissues by now that he rarely felt its effects anymore.

“You have to look your best today,” his mother said with a smile. “My little boy’s growing up.”

“Aw, jeez, ma.”

“Are your nails cut?”

“Last night.” All the parents in town were fanatical about keeping their children’s fingernails and toenails cut. Most of the labor in town was farm work and not favorable to long fingernails, anyway, even among the grown women. Biting, also, was strictly forbidden and woe was the kid who resorted to using his teeth in a schoolyard brawl.

“Your dad will get off work early today. You’ve got a couple of hours to get ready. Soon’s you finish your breakfast, you’d better get hopping.”

While William dressed, he heard his father come in; the squeak of the door, the thump thump of his booted feet on the floor. The floorboards creaked as he walked down the hallway to William’s room.

“Your mom’s frettin’ a little,” he said from the doorway. “All moms do, I guess, when their kids take one more step away from them. Dads, too, I won’t kid you about that. You’ll be brave for her, no matter what, right?”

William was a little disturbed. This wasn’t like his dad. Hesitant, openly concerned.

“I’ll be okay, dad.”

William’s father smiled.

“I know you will.” He turned to go, looking back once.

“We’ll be leavin’ soon as I get changed,” he said. “Time to wrap it up.”

They walked to the school, where the ceremony would be held in the auditorium. There were maybe twenty kids who would go through the ceremony today, and they walked -some a little grimly- with their parents down the narrow streets. Older brothers and sisters who had already gone through the ceremony congregated in superior little groups, giving knowing glances to the younger kids on their way to the ceremony.

William saw his own brother, Ken, four years older than William, with a gang of his teenage buddies, giving him the wise old eye that said “I know something you don’t.” William had tried without success to get Ken to tell him what would happen, but Ken had adamantly refused to part with his hard won knowledge.

“You’ll find out soon enough,” he had told him ominously.

Among the throng of folks streaming to the auditorium, William saw the Kellis sisters, buxom teenage farm girls from the spread across the way. Once, William recalled, he had been hanging around with Ken and some of his friends down by the railroad tracks.

The two Kellis sisters had been walking along the other side of the tracks, trying to ignore the taunts of the teenage boys.

Hey, Lynne, why don’t you show us your candies?”

This had gone on for some time, until one of the Kellis girls had finally called back.

Come on down here and we’ll show you what we got.”

Interested looks passed among the teenage boys and Ken, the bravest of the gang, had ventured down to the Kellis sisters while the rest watched with breathless anticipation.

Sauntering with a false swagger up to the girls standing between two idled boxcars, his grin had quickly turned to a look of chagrin when the sisters fell on him, got him down, and rubbed dirty sand from the rail bed into his eyes. Ken had run back, fighting back tears, while the Kellis sisters laughed.

Thinking of that now, William was able to forgive his brother’s superior attitude.

Just outside of the school, there was a small, tasteful statue of the town’s founder, Judas Wakalona, a full blooded, Cherokee Indian. Judas, his father had once told him, was not his real name, but one given to him by his own people.

“Why,” William had asked.

“You’ll find out,” his father had told him, “when you’re ten years old.”

That day, William knew, had come.

********************

What poisonous secret laces the ground and flows through the black waters of Essex, turning men mad and filling them with a taste for human flesh? The terrifying secret is revealed with only a few mouse clicks….

 

Available at http://www.wandilland.com

 

[]A-Sides

The Laughing Lady (Bookends II)

By

Victor Allen

Copyright © 2014

All Rights Reserved

 

I might never have found myself in this spot if three things hadn’t happened: If I hadn’t heard the woman screaming behind my house last night; if she hadn’t worn that dress; and if I hadn’t known her a long time ago.

So I’ll tell you the second thing first, the first thing second, and the third thing last.

I noticed her, of course the very pretty, very dark-haired lady who supervised the little Sub Shop in our store while I was concealed away in the sporting goods department. Curiously enough, I don’t recall speaking to her for the first couple of years I worked at the big box store. It was sort of like if an empty cab drove up, out I would step. I was that invisible.

It was common enough to hear her laugh ring through the workplace. Some of it was, I supposed, PR for the customers, some of it real. Since I didn’t know her name I simply thought of her as The Laughing Lady. We passed each other on our assorted errands, not speaking or acknowledging each other. She was just one of a hundred other people drudging away in obscurity.

Until she wore that dress.

Our normal work uniform was a T-shirt, blue jeans and a baseball cap with the company logo on it. But one day, as I sat out front on the employee’s bench taking my break, she walked up from the parking lot. Gone the way of an honest evangelist were the hat and the blue jeans and kicks, in their places a Victoria Falls of shining black hair, a simple, black, tiered peasant skirt that stopped an unassuming inch above the knee, and a pair of high-heeled sandals (I wouldn’t have believed it possible but, yes, there really is such a thing). Her blouse was an eye-burning, multi-colored palette of diagonal stripes that formed a bodice that crossed her bosom like a double set of bandoleers. I suppose there’s a haute couture name for such a contrivance, but I didn't -and don't- know it. What I did know was that I could never look at her the same way again. We didn't speak even then, and she swept by me like a freshly born spring wind as I scooped my clattering jaw up from the ground, sadly pondering that I would have to bandage it later where it had scraped on the sidewalk.

Had she never spoken to me, all might have been well -at least for a while. Some notes will always come due- but speak to me she finally did a few days later. What she said doesn't really matter because -as threadbare and cliché as it sounds- the moment I turned and full-on looked her in the eyes for the very first time, that was it. In one stumbling instant I wondered how I could have passed by this woman year after year and not noticed she was breathtakingly gorgeous, a troubled white rose fretting in a thicket of wire grass. There was a thing indefinable, and bewitching, and provocative in those deep-green, all but brown eyes, and it took me but a moment to mark it.

She had the eyes of a little girl.

She was lithe and cream-skinned, maybe ninety-five pounds soaking wet and wearing a beach towel and a gold chain, as if her preferred breakfast was comprised of a carrot slice and three kelp strands. But the willowy look suited her. Trim ladies didn’t fool me. I once had a similarly trim girlfriend many years ago. We worked third shift at a hosiery mill and one summer morning after work, we decided to go to a local water park. When she came out of her house sporting a bikini fashioned from three eye patches and a couple of hanks of twine, buddy, my cap snapped. So I knew what might be decorously concealed beneath the sedate jeans and loose smock of my little sandwich maker. I spent many a moment trying to get a look at her without her catching me (which really wasn’t difficult, since she hardly ever glanced my way). I had seen those legs. It was hard to believe those pins wrapped in blue denim had been rolling for better than four decades.

Though her pale skin hinted at Celtic or Gallic roots, her dark eyes and hair, and almost Roman nose told a different tale; a story of a bloodline further east. A bit of the Wallachian or Moldavian in her, a thin trickle of Romany blood from centuries past.

I was smitten -badly smitten- for no good reason I could dope out or discern. At least not then. Charisma is a word you hear, but until you have firsthand knowledge of it, you can’t really know what it means. And when God doled out her share, she got it paid to her in spades. She was like a queen bee, but instead of drones it was an unpromising mix of fifty know-nothing duds and ten watt bulbs buzzing around her every day. Of course, my opinion was a little colored. I was more attracted to her than any woman I had ever known, and this from a man who has known the company of a wide and varied array of ladies over many years. I’ll not tell you how old I am, but the candles on my birthday cake look like the firebombing of Dresden, the Great Chicago Fire, or the eruption of Krakatoa. I thought with better than half a century churning in my wake, such things as crushes were long past me. Still, I knew if she came into the store barefoot, wearing a bulky flannel nightgown, with her hair rolled up in beer cans, I would have turned to look. You know, there is nothing more beautiful in God’s Creation than a woman in the moonlight, and I would be lying if I didn’t admit that only a man who was a fool wouldn’t wonder what it would be like to look down and see her face in that moonlight, her eyes closed, lips partway open, that ink-black hair untidy, tousled across her brow and forehead. And I’m no fool.

She fascinated me, but getting her to talk about herself was like giving CPR to a corpse, or trying to teach color to the blind. She was outgoing, but always left aside the best of herself for someone else. It was a sad recognition that I was never going to be that someone else. I was never going to be her fair-haired boy; she was never going to have eyes for me.

We were, I guess, friends, but always a little distant. She may not have even realized it, but there was always some barrier between us: a cart, a counter, even something as inconsequential as a clipboard or a piece of paper, but always there. And that bothered me. I didn’t know then why she seemed always a little afraid of me. It was ever down there, buried so deep you could barely see it, skulking beneath the sparkle; that mistrust in her eyes from some previous, great hurt that had become a slothful, unevictable squatter.

Since I worked only part time I would once in a while, only half teasing, hit her up to let me come to work in the sandwich shop full time. The last time I did that, she looked up at me, eyes bright and coy, and said: “If you had to work for me, you wouldn’t like me anymore.”

“I’d like you less,” I answered, “for letting me starve to death.”

But that was okay. I didn’t want to not like her.

And I liked her very much. Some things just stick with you, small sketches that seem trivial to most, but mark the beholder deeply. Like the time she came out of the store shaking out that mane of coffee-black hair. She caught me looking at her and, in saving my soul from perdition by telling the truth, she gave it a little extra flip, knowing I was watching. But that was just her, and just me. Dark haired women have always monkey-hammered my brain into hot oatmeal. Even if I just acted normal I would be fool enough, but she rocketed me into full-metal moron territory. I would think of the times I heard her laugh carrying through the store, and wonder who it was that caused it, and think: if only I could make her laugh like that. But we did laugh now and again and my best times with her were when she would smile, the lines crinkling up at the corners of her eyes and the bridge of her nose, and I knew we had shared a genuine chuckle.

Of course, we were both sinners and saints in this thing. I tried not to be up her ass all the time, as my dear, departed mother was fond of saying, but sometimes I just couldn’t resist speaking to her. And that could be a problem. Most times she was lively and laughing, but when she did lose it, she lost her shit completely. More often than I want to confess, I’d say something that would set her off to the point that if I were to go running through the store on fire, she would sprint after me with a pack of hot dogs and a bag of marshmallows, and those watching would acclaim her actions. There were other moments she was so sweet that honey would have seemed vinegar in her mouth. But I suppose it’s fair to say that about all women, isn’t it? If they weren’t dynamite and blasting caps, gunpowder and matches, we wouldn’t love them so, would we? If I was a writery sort of fellow, I might have written down all these things I could never say to her out loud. But I’m not, so I never did. Until now.

Even so, events pile up, and the thing that started the train wreck for fair was when we had to attend some mandatory work function. Who could have guessed that something that started off so well would end so badly?

At a pleasant enough lunch, we sat at a table supplemented with one of those stylishly trendy kiosks that let you order from the table without need of a server, as if the passably fashionable sit-down restaurant we had walked into had somehow unluckily devolved into Jack in the Box before we even got settled. She asked me if I wanted to use it.

“If I’m going to pay ten dollars for a hamburger,” I said, “I’m not going to order it from a clown’s head.”

And that, I guess, was the last smile I ever got out of her.

After lunch we ended up sharing an elevator. It struck me again how tiny she was, standing there by the lighted panel. She told me she didn’t like elevators and when I asked her why, she said she was “afraid of the drop.” A peculiar thing, but not so curious that it should have made a sudden chill raise goose pimples on my arms.

Which brings me to the first thing.

I heard it last night, the woman screaming behind my house. I sat upstairs at my computer, finally contriving to let it all out, pecking out this very thing you're reading now, when I heard the scream drift through the open window above my back porch. I stopped abruptly, listening, my hackles raised, not quite believing what I had heard. A screaming woman is not a reassuring or usual sound and I was taken aback by the inconsistency of the thing. Such a sound didn't fit my world view, where women were at home or at work, being watched over and cared for by husbands or fathers, not beaten and raped and killed by predators. And it was that cognitive dissonance – that belief that what I was hearing was incompatible with what should be- that made me stop typing, move my chair back, and listen.

The scream came again a few seconds later. It seemed to have moved a little from left to right, coming from somewhere in the one hundred-yard-deep woods that set apart my back yard from the fields of the next door neighbor. It was just loud enough to be upsetting -not so far away that it would be useless to try to render aid, and not so close that I could have seen what was happening and helped. It seemed to be… baiting me.

I got up from my desk, chilled, and walked across the creaking boards of the next room to the open window above the back porch, looking out into the darkness of a moonless night. I could see nothing save the hulking trees in the woods, fat and lazy with summer growth, the stars pulsing dimly in the humid murk above their crowns. The scream came again as I leaned my palms against the window sill, straining to hear. The sound had moved again, now coming again from my left, but no closer. And this time I sensed something a little off key. Yes, it sounded like a woman screaming, but not exactly. And a screaming woman would likely not be moving back and forth and voicing those screams at precise, eight to ten second intervals. Still, it was a close enough thing that I grabbed my cell phone, walked downstairs and outside into my back yard, and called the police. I would never forgive myself if, after everything, it actually was a woman screaming for her life.

I waited a harrowing ten minutes for the police to show up, listening to the screams track back and forth every few seconds, but unable to see anything. Sometimes the screams moved away, sometimes they came so close that I believed they were coming right from the edge of the woods that came up onto the cleared lawn of my back yard, the maker slyly hidden just inside the tree line. Then they would move off again.

Finally, with no sign of the police after ten minutes, I could stand it no more. I waded into the woods, exhibiting as little good sense as I usually did. As a young man, when I normally wandered around like a gasoline-soaked scarecrow looking for a spark, fist fights and gun-play were a weekly feature and I wouldn’t have thought twice about such a foolhardy effort. But I wasn’t a young man anymore, and still I rushed blindly into what might have been real danger. I carried no flashlight, no arms, bumbling through the blackberry thorns and poison oak hither and thither, wearing nothing for protection but a pair of navy-blue sweat pants.

I could have been no more than twenty yards into the woods when I heard the scream again, off to my left. I jerked my eyes that way and saw it for the first time. The summer-sweat streaming down my arms and bare back turned clammy and cold.

Whatever it was was low to the ground, lissome and muscular, sable and blending with the black pastels of the night. A pair of green-brown eyes stared back at me from twenty-four inches above the ground, a tapetum reflecting back far more light than was available. I couldn’t see it, but I had the impression of a stalking quadruped, crouched, its tail swishing back and forth. When the scream came again, there was no doubt it issued from this creature. I was looking right at it.

I froze, still as a gravestone, fear speeding my heart like the jolt of a cattle prod. With what seemed synchronous thought, I began to slowly back away and the creature moved in the opposite direction, weaving sinuously through the undergrowth, shuffling aside dried leaves and slipping through low hanging vines, its passage plainly heard in the windless night. Neither of us, this night at least, wanted to push the confrontation.

By the time I backed out of the woods, I was shaking and sweating uncontrollably, my legs as soft as hot taffy. I turned to hurry back into my house when the Deputy Sheriff’s cruiser pulled into my driveway.

The deputy was a big man and as I told him what had happened, the screams started up again. I felt foolishly relieved. At least there was some confirmation of what I had reported. We both stood there, listening as the screams moved back and forth with little pattern, the deputy’s face betraying the same consternation mine had: it was impossible to believe it was a woman screaming, but equally impossible to just dismiss it out of hand. The deputy clicked on his flashlight and shone it into the woods, its critical beam picking out nothing but more shadow. Even with his badge and his gun, the big man reassured me very little.

Some two hundred yards to the north of my house, a dirt road ran adjacent to the fields that curved around the woods behind my house. Probably in contravention to every police procedure known to man, the deputy had me ride with him down this dirt road to a spot where the cleared fields butted up against the woods on my property, but on the opposite side.

We stood silent in the muggy night, the deputy’s cruiser spotlight playing over the nodding heads of wheat. It happened to land on movement in the field. There it was, moving around in the field, its back below the tops of the wheat, just out of sight. We could see the wake it left as it began to move off. We stood there for twenty more minutes and heard no more screams. The deputy drove me back to my house and left. There seemed to be nothing else we could do.

I didn’t hear the screams anymore that night, but I didn’t sleep, either. A more reasonable man would have closed his upstairs window, but I didn’t. I didn’t think I was meant to.

Instead, I spent the next few minutes searching the interwebs for an animal sound that mimicked a screaming woman.

And I found it.

As I listened to the electronic file faithfully playing back the primeval sounds on the cool, digital circuits of my computer, I was possibly more chilled than when I had heard the actual screams. I played it over and over again, trying to make sure I wasn’t injecting any bias into it. But it was unmistakable. I could have recorded the sound myself with a tape recorder out of my window that night.

The most terrifying thing was knowing it had been only twenty feet away from me. And it was still out there.

It was the sound of a Mountain Lion screaming.

Now for the third thing. When I said before that she always reserved the best of herself for someone else, I didn’t necessarily mean a different person, but perhaps a different incarnation. She never appeared to truly dislike me, but was always wary of me. It seemed a conundrum I would never riddle out. The puzzle began to fit together a little better when I finally admitted to myself that I had known her before. Not years ago, but lifetimes ago, and, when you think about it, why should that really be any different? It’s one of those inexpressible things that you really can’t explain, like seeing a ghost or discerning Jesus in the butter. You could never tell anyone for fear of being labeled disturbed, but it is real enough.

Never one to throw in much with the idea of kismet or past lives, I could no longer deceive myself about vague memories that had floated up from time to time over the years like spirits emerging from some blackened ruin in my brain. Ghosts that formed body and blood and wrote a dark story of early, seventeenth-century Wallachia, a place I’ve never seen. I recalled the place not from dreams, but from the first time I looked directly into her eyes. I knew instantly that she was that unformed spirit in my mind, now given substance by cordial flesh.

I had met her in a tavern, a black-haired vixen with a smile that could light up the dark side of the world. Time had not touched her fairness with its withering hand. It had been only a few years prior that Wallachia had been completely under Ottoman rule, and a tavern, if one could be found, would have been a good place to get arrested. But the oppression of the Ottoman empire was slowly eroding, and it was a time to celebrate.

I am not sinless now and was less so then, and I found her as seductive and bewitching then as I do now, and she, me. Leave aside that I had a wife and children at home. Being with her was like dancing on knives, or walking through fire, or diving headlong from a precipice. She was as wild and unbroken as the nail marks she clawed into my back, and I looked with more than eagerness to the times I could steal away and feel the heat of her body against mine, or bury my face in her hair, or run my fingers down the pink bloom of her cheek, or hear her laugh. And she made me laugh, too. She was hot-blooded and hot-tempered, unbridled and full of life in a time when life was cheaper than dirt. She was the drug that made my life worth living in a part of dismal, seventeenth century Europe which had yet to be lit by the newly budding Renaissance. It was a place where familiars still prowled and witches were hanged. It was the black time; the Burning Times.

Then, as now, she was a closed book. What I knew of her life when she wasn’t with me was a secret. And so it was that her secrets didn’t sit well with others of the town. Such beauty, they whispered cattily among themselves, was not natural. That she was unmarried and childless was the pinnacle of scandal. It was rumored, far and wide, that she had dishonorable liaisons. She was a free-spirited threat to the town’s loathsome, swamp-donkey women, heartless harridans, and court eunuch, Pope’s whores, clown-suited as the town council, whose piety stretched a mile wide and an inch deep. And they intended to punish her for it.

I was nearly caught many times, but managed to steal away when discovery was at hand. Our trysts were always at night and nobody got a really good look at me. But tongues started wagging. Where was she when the Great Cat that had begun to plague the town was seen? Livestock had been slaughtered, children frightened. The attempt was a ham-fisted one to paint her as a familiar. Wallachia was home only to some rather small, wild cats, nothing so large as a cougar or a panther. No-one I knew had seen such a cat, and I dismissed it as political theater, but the seed for her destruction had been planted. Wallachia had thrown off the shackles of the Sultans only to hang the anvil of the Holy Roman Emperor around its neck, with its inquisitions and imprisonment of heretics, and its burning and hanging of witches.

I couldn’t discount the stories entirely. Indeed, I was not with her every moment and knew nothing of her life outside of our time together. In one of my only noble gestures, I tried to persuade her to leave, at least for a while, until things had settled, but she refused. I told her that powerful forces were aligning against her. They meant to have her head, and I couldn’t help her. My job was such that I couldn’t be associated with her and risk not only myself, but my family. Like Icarus, I was only a man, with wings of wax, and I was flying too close to the sun, about to plunge into the killing sea with her.

She didn’t want to listen as I tried to explain the ugly realities of life to her. I don’t think she really believed it could be that bad, and was content to think that everything would, somehow, turn out alright.

I wasn’t there when she was arrested at the tavern and hauled away, charged with adultery and witchcraft. She was tried and convicted that night in a candle-lit sham of a drumhead court, convened specifically for that reason. The judge made his pronouncement and she was sentenced to hang the very next afternoon, when the crowd would be the largest. Yet when I heard, I didn’t protest. I had too much to lose.

The assemblage was restless the next afternoon as she was rudely shoved up onto the rickety gallows, its unsound wood gray and sad, the hooded hangman standing by. I saw confusion and hurt in her eyes more than fear, the sadness that was the lovelorn’s unhappiest harvest. The whispers flew amongst the crowd. Who was it? Why didn’t she tell? What kind of a coward would let a good woman, if indeed she were good, to suffer the gallows and not reveal himself? She looked into the crowd, her scared eyes searching for me, perhaps expecting me to step forward and put an end to this. But she never saw me. No eye, neither hers nor the crowd’s, fell upon me. I was invisible and beyond suspicion. I was respected and respectable with a good, necessary job. A decent, family man with children and a loving wife.

There were catcalls and tears, advocates of her good nature and detractors out for innocent blood. I suppose I was the last one to see the hopelessly lost look of betrayal in her eyes before the hood was placed over her head and the noose secured. It was this, this look in her eyes, that I had recognized those many centuries later. The crowd quieted as the moment approached and I heard her softly sobbing beneath the hood: small as a child, her fragile wrists bound with thick coils of rope, alone, and finally afraid. The lever groaned back with a clank, the trap door banged and clattered.

Then the drop.

As I said, I didn’t sleep last night and I didn’t expect to hear her laugh today when I came to the store, working the twelve-thirty to nine shift. And I didn’t. Perhaps it was one of her days off, but I didn’t think so. Some things weigh like a black spot on your heart and I knew it was going to be my last day. I even thought about going around and saying goodbye to everyone at work, but I didn’t. The only one I wanted to see was already gone. The place seemed downright cheerless without her laughter, and I knew now it was best for her when she laughed alone. When the door closed behind me, it was already dark and I didn’t even look in my rear view mirror.

On the drive home, I pondered over why she never outed me, but I can’t dwell on it for long, because the only answer that makes any sense is too bittersweet and shameful for me to deal with:

Maybe -just maybe- she loved me.

I didn’t sleep as I lay down, because I was thinking. They say each trip back is a chance to improve yourself and I hoped that, in this life, at least, I was a better man. That this time I would do better by her than I did the last.

The screams are very close tonight, coming from just beneath my back porch, close enough that if I got up to look, I would see her on the ground, looking up. But I stayed in bed, listening as she scaled the tree by my back porch and landed on the roof with an easy creaking of wood. The soft thud of padded paws thumped lightly on the sill as she slipped through the open window, the curtains silent silk gliding along her back. I heard the catty fall of her pads as they crossed the room next to mine, tolling like the tell-tale heart that beats accusingly beneath the bed of every villain. I felt the sinewy weight as she crawled up onto my bed like a serpent, the sultry heat of her body as she nestled down beside me, a thing I had looked forward to in happier circumstances lifetimes ago.

I feel the warm fog of her respiration on my neck, the wet, black-velvet nose on my cheek. The soft growling and intake of breath -almost like a purr, or a low chuckle- are directly in my ear. I turn my wide eyes to see her final embodiment: Fur black, like her hair, green in eye and red of tongue, white in tooth and claw. So this is what happens when the world goes pear-shaped, the trap drops, and your life is whittled down to a few, final ticks of breathless anticipation. I wonder if I will see her ears laid back, or hear the snarl as she lunges for the killing strike.

Because all things come around in their own good time; all debts get paid in this life or another, and I wouldn’t beg for redemption, even if I wanted to.

You see, I was her executioner.

And I miss her laugh.

**********

 

 

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[]The Lost Village of Craven County

By

Victor Allen

Copyright © 2006 all rights reserved

 

From The Lost Village of Craven County…

 

 

He had expected something just like it, but that didn’t keep him from being afraid when he awoke and heard the footsteps outside of his trailer. Whatever it was, it could bode nothing but ill. No human being would be here in this place at three in the morning when the blood struggles through cold, pinched veins.

He could hear whoever it was tramping with bold defiance around the trailer. Around and around, stopping here and there as if inspecting something. Twice, the rustling of leaves stopped directly beneath his window, the dark, shadowy thing only the breadth of sheet metal away from him.

He had thought he would know what to do when the time came. Too much of a strange nature had happened to him over the past years for him to balk at a strange noise that might be only a roving ‘possum. Except he knew that wasn’t what it was.

His eyes were playing tricks on him. Eerie, phantom shadows leaped and swirled in the dark corners of the trailer. The wind leaned against the walls, squeaking and stretching the thin metal skin. The kerosene heater was burning low and its guttering flame gargled and sputtered.

The rustling noises receded from his trailer and he let out his pent-up breath in a trembling sigh. He hadn’t realized he had been holding it, his eyes wide and glazed, his white-knuckled fingers gripping the hard mattress.

He stayed that way until the rustling footsteps had been silent for five minutes. The heater’s glow had diminished to a sullen red ring and the trailer’s temperature was falling. It was either get up and put more fuel in the heater or spend the rest of the night not only scared, but cold.

His first thought when he sat up was not of his fright, but of how the cold would bite into him when the insulating blanket’s seal was breached. He pulled the ragged, care-woven quilt around him as he placed his foot on the frigid trailer floor. Metatarsals, stiffened by the cold, recoiled in protest as they were forced to yield to their weighty new burden.

He navigated the camper’s narrow corridor, wobbling sleepily between the beds that ruled both sides of the aft section. His heels made jarring thumps on the linoleum covered floor beams. His feet and ankle joints popped like lady finger firecrackers.

The heater was a useless lump of metal, cold to the touch, the last of its fire extinguished. There was a fifty five gallon drum of kerosene outside, but Mark’s fear of fire ever since the night his barely know classmate had been consumed had not allowed him to bring an extra supply inside. An uneasy calm that was only the result of sleep induced half-awareness settled on him.

He was at the door, his hand on the light switch, when he saw the man standing outside. His finger froze on the switch. The figure was obviously a man, but something was hauntingly, in its most literal sense, familiar about him. Mark could ferret out no details in the moonless night, only the outlines of long sleeves and long pants snapping in the stiff wind. It was the slight rightward tilting of the head, or the barely hipshot stance that nudged some part of his mind towards recognition.

Fresh fear burned in his heart like a powder keg set afire by a stray spark. The figure stood alone, almost complacent in its study of the trailer. It showed no sign of retreating, rooted as firmly as any tree to its spot in this darkly enchanted glade.

A two foot hickory club with a leather thong attached to it leaned against the wall by the door. It was an inch and three quarters thick along its entire length and sturdy as concrete. Kim’s father had made it in high school, intending for it to be a table leg. As he had turned it on the lathe, a worm-eaten flaw had emerged, rendering it useless for its intended purpose. He had given it to Kim when she and Mark had moved to the city. She had carried it as she walked to work at the Burger King in the days before they could afford a car. Mark could only guess at how many attacks Kim had thwarted with it, simply by clunking it heavily on the sidewalk as she walked.

He closed his cold hand around it, hefted it, and found its weight good. He gripped the metal door handle. He levered it up and pushed. The door was stuck in its frame and he had to shove it before it would jar loose from its moorings. It swung outward with a grudging squeal, banging into the thin, aluminum and wire screen door. The night was split by the raucous twangs of the screen’s metallic voice.

Who is it,” Mark called, his voice sharp and brittle as kindling in his mouth. The wind was an Arctic intruder, prowling his home on soundless feet. “Who’s out there?”

Save for the chilling cries of distant night fowl, there was no reply. The figure’s stoic complacency was eerily threatening. Mark turned the outside light on. The feeble glow opened a useless parasol of light that lit only ten feet beyond the rickety wooden steps. He stepped onto the top plank. The make-do staircase wobbled and groaned, tilting sideways three inches. Mark raised his club and smacked it into the palm of his left hand, but was unable to put any real menace into it. He imagined himself, wrapped in a blanket like a feeble woman, shaking with cold and fright, threatening shadows from his stoop like an old man with a cane.

“Come closer, asshole,” he challenged, swelling his voice with a tinny belligerence that was contrived, wondering if anything he could do would make a difference. “Come closer and see if I can’t scramble your brains for you.”

Any human would have answered the slur with a threat of its own, run, or come closer. This figure did none of those things.

Dartlike cold prickled Mark’s bare feet as he eased down the steps, club at the ready. He stepped onto the earthen floor of the forest. Fallen leaves, thick with a coating of frost, stuck to his heels.

He thought he knew who it was that awaited him in this place of thick shadows, mirrored lives and endless nightmares. It was the dark Narcissus from the sinkhole.

He moved towards the shadowy figure like one mesmerized by a rara avis, unaware of the darkness that cloaked him as he retreated from the safe glow of his lights. Dried weeds, snap-happy as arthritic bones, grated across his naked shins. The rip saw of the wind sliced through him, whipping the folds of the blanket up and away as it searched for ingress. Rocks and hard knots of earth frozen into erratic shapes bruised and slashed the soles of his feet.

The figure remained rock still until Mark was within thirty feet, then began to move backwards. Not walking in any sense that Mark could see. It just seemed to recede away, like the water as Tantalus tried to draw a drink. Trying to catch and hold the phantom would be as impossible as Sisyphus rolling his stone up the hill.

The figure drew him onward, away from the false safety of his trailer and its logical, man-made walls, and into the lightless, ancient woods where nothing of man’s constructs had prospered. It was a fatally hypnotic need to know that pushed him ahead. A humid raft of wind, cold and sharp with the sting of water droplets, bit his eyes and he knew he was near one of the sinkholes. There was something in the sinkholes, perhaps something as wondrous as a wall of gold sunken in its depths, or something as dark and corrupting as a legion of lost and tortured souls that would arise at his bidding, their only need his ability to flesh them out; to make them breathe again.

A clearing emerged from the velvet wall of night and Mark saw the faint glimmer of starshine mirrored on the rippling surface of the sinkhole, as delicate as a rue anemone. It twinkled and faded, glowing bright then dim as the wind stirred the waves. There were new fingers and freshets of ice under his feet, channels carved by the ever-advancing water. His toes were frozen wooden blocks, his nose a dripping chunk of ice. He still held the club in his hand, but he drew no courage from it.

Any time now the figure would slip from the edge of reality, tumbling backwards into the fantasy world of the sinkholes. It was at the edge now, and fading. It grew shorter, first its feet, then its legs disappearing.

Mark trudged forward, gathering speed, needing to see more than just the hazy form of his nemesis. Deep in his mind, warning bells clanged, ordering him to halt his headlong rush. The sinkhole was too close, the ice too slick.

The figure was only head and shoulders now, peering above the center of the sinkhole like some creature from a horror movie, its body submerged. There had been not a breath nor ripple of water as it had slipped silently and completely into its numbing depths.

The lip of the sinkhole was ten feet away, now five, yet Mark never diverted his eyes from the puzzling enigma of the man in the lake.

The figure slipped elusively away. Its shoulders went under, then its chin. For a fraction of a second Mark thought he saw the flash of eyes before they, too, submerged, leaving not even a ripple to mark their passage.

Mark’s leading foot suddenly slipped on a frozen slate, plunging his right leg knee-deep into the paralyzing waters. A cold as painful as the sting of a jellyfish shot down the pathways of his nervous system and violent shudders instantly wrested control of his muscles.

He jerked his right leg from the freezing water and his balance failed him. He fell to his left, throwing his right arm out for equilibrium. The heavy club in his right hand swung out and its inertia added the final touch to his loss of stasis. As he toppled, the club was thrown clear somewhere in the woods. He heard it snapping off small branches in flight before landing with a crackling thud. The blanket fell away from him and he landed hard on the packed earth, naked to the cold except for his cotton briefs.

Somehow, both of his feet had managed to find their way into the sinkhole, and he yanked them out. That old, pre-adult dread of something grabbing an exposed limb blotted out his pain. It had been an irrational fear in childhood, now it wasn’t. He had seen the thing himself. It could grab him, pull him down with its skeletal arms, hold him under until his lungs filled with water, all his struggles useless. It had happened before, he was sure of it.

His feet had already numbed to the biting cold settling upon his exposed body. The hair on his chest stung as the wind tore at it. His shoulder where he had fallen ached like frostbite. He pushed the pain aside as he searched for his quilt. His only thought was to wrap himself in the quilt, restore some warmth to his body. He had fallen into such cold water once before, and he knew it could kill him in less than fifteen minutes.

His groping hand happened on the blanket and he wrapped it around his quaking shoulders, sitting huddled on the ground. He didn’t trust himself to make it all the way back until some warmth returned to his body. Just a couple of minutes, he told himself.

Clear mucus ran from his nose, trembling on his upper lip as the chattering castanets of his teeth clicked together. He stared glassily at the wind-lapped surface of the sinkhole, expecting the phantom to return and take him as he sat swooning and immobile. The circle of trees around him writhed into arcing life, bending and stooping, whipped by a freshening wind. Frozen bark cracked and thick trunks creaked like bone-dry boards. Leaves loosened by fall’s imperative fluttered down, some of them falling on the surface of the sinkhole where they floated, odd little boats with no passengers or cargo.

Frozen starshine refracted and trebled in his watering eyes, as ephemeral as the figure itself had been. Time had somehow sped up and he had been out in the subfreezing temperatures for more than three quarters of an hour, first drawn by the figure, then seduced by his own memories. No good thing could come of it. ‘Scilla had said whatever was here cried out to be worshiped, or fed. There was no God here, only something with a ravenous hunger for pain. And if he fed it would it not grow? Become even stronger?

The light in his eyes burned brighter, swelling into more than starshine. He blinked and shook his head, trying to drive out this new nightmare. But it was no nightmare, unless it was a waking one. Near the center of the pond, a silver-white light burned, coming to life near its unknown floor. It rose from the depths like the lambent, shining eye of a sea monster.

The disc of light was eight feet across and rising slowly as if on currents, bubbling and pushing the water ahead of it in a gurgling wave. The water roiled and eddied, as if some huge creature were turning beneath the surface. Some pre-human, Lovecraftian abomination with the head of an alligator and the body of an eel, with two gigantic saucers of light for eyes.

A second flat disc of light slowly came into view, turning from flat profile to hazy full face, slightly glazed and shimmering from the lapping waters. The flat, glassy saucers drifted up with laconic stateliness, as subdued as the headlights of a funeral procession.

The two spherical lights filled the width of the pond. They never surfaced completely, only drifted dreamily inches beneath the wave crests. Mark watched them, a new rime of fear icing his heart.

They came in a rush, all their former docility and sluggishness gone. In one second they went from enigmatic, shining questions to active dangers. Their advance was preceded by a slight dimming as they pushed a new depth of water ahead of them in a bow wave. The reflected light from the saucers ran over and over the wave crests, running into a backwash like a wake. Rushing liquid hissed and foamed.

Mark yanked himself up from the ground with a screech of still-locked tendons in his knees. He staggered backward in a daze as the first wave of dark water crashed over the bank. The icy spray broke apart and washed over him. Spinning water droplets glittered like sparklers in the night, congealing into streaks of shining ice on his skin. His hair froze to his scalp in icy spikes. He waited for the thunderous tremor as whatever was under the waves crashed into the granite walls of the sinkhole. He stared with dreamy apprehension at the sullenly glowing lights that had begun to pulsate slowly, like a tediously beating heart.

The crash never came. In its place, the water bubbled and swelled. With a heart as heavy as the weight of the endless depths, he realized that it was coming out. It would drag its behemoth, slimy bulk from the black fathoms and take him to sate its endless hunger.

Mark squeaked out a strangled, incomprehensible cry and turned to run. His legs were too cold and the muscles had stiffened. The blanket swirled around and between legs that moved as rigidly as wooden bowling pins. There was a groaning, sub-bass rumble in his head that almost overpowered the ghost’s whistle of the wind. It was the voice of the beast only he could hear.

He blundered blindly with no light to show him the way but the dim bulb outside of his trailer. And even that light was intermittently masked by hanging vines and the ebony bones of naked tree limbs.

He raced, white-livered, through the woods, passing the crumbling relic of the church. An orange, Halloween light burned from within, lighting the frost-covered windows with a macabre glow. Its crossless spire strained against the purple blackness of the night sky. Goose flesh from more than the cold crept down his chilled body as a maniacal cackling that was the voice of all-consuming madness shrilled out of the church’s open doorway. It was the sound a crazed deacon might make as he poured gasoline over the pew cushions and hymnals while the congregation sat stunned at gunpoint. He would have already shot a couple of the parishioners as a lesson before setting fire to the doused paper and fabric. Mark heard the screams of the trapped parishioners, yelling and yammering like a congregation trapped and set ablaze by a madman.

Thorns and prickly shrubs blocked his path, as if they had moved stealthily to impede him like the living trees in The Wizard of Oz. One reaching branch hooked his blanket and ripped it from his back. He stumbled on, tearing his gaze from the haunted church, past the open foundation of a destroyed building. A groaning wind blew out of the ground from the wishing well that had magically blown away its cover of boards and vines. Its endless blackness led, perhaps, to an underground cave filled with Native American artifacts and life-sized horses carved from the finest gold, with emeralds for eyes and dried scalps dangling their curly, blond and brown locks from golden pegs wrought into their beaten flanks. A place he had seen before when he was eleven years old, dragged away from his tent one night when he was camping in his back yard by crazy Willy, a drunken reprobate who suffered from emphysema and cirrhosis.

“You comin’ wid me, boy,” Willy had breathed into his pale face, wrinkling it with gin fumes. His one gold tooth had gleamed like a pirate’s earring in the moonlight, his face emaciated and cragged by the wages of disease.

“Willy goan show you somethin’, boy,” he had grinned, the last of his sanity faintly gleaming in those rolling white eyes.

And Mark had gone, following the crazy, drunken old wino deep into the woods, watching him as he staggered over a bolt set into a wooden door in the floor of the forest. Willy had unsteadily scraped leaves from the bolt, then had Mark help him haul the door open. A disturbed cold had bellowed from the hole as the door had squeaked back on its rotted hinges. Mark had followed Willy down into that cavern he had just thought of.

Willy had died two weeks later, and Mark could never remember where or in what woods around his home those fabulous treasures had lain secreted. But he had never forgotten they were there. Could this have been the spoiled land that Willy had brought him to?

Mark looked away from the hole. The light of the trailer was close beyond a newly opened clearing. He ran as fast as he could, the pitiful cries of damned souls at his heels, the destructive crashing of the beast from the lake not far behind. He stubbed his numb toes on the stairs as he misjudged their height and his teeth clenched in unendurable agony. His hands shook so badly that the door handle jittered in his fingers and he had to steady them with his other hand to get the door open.

He fell through the doorway, the meager heat inside the trailer shocking to his numb body. He slammed the door shut behind him.

The noises stopped.

It was as if someone had lifted the needle from a record. The night was as still and silent as it had ever been. Still shivering, Mark wiped the condensation from the glass window in his door and peered outside.

Just within his field of view and off to his left, the steady shape of the church was dark and quiet, as brooding and lifeless as castle lions. He looked at the wishing well. The harsh wind had died to nothing and he tried to see if the parched weeds around it still whipped in that alien, subterranean wind. They showed no movement, rigid as steel beams. He couldn’t see the sinkhole at all.

He switched on the overhead light and sat on his bed, pulling an extra blanket around him. He knew his jaw muscles would be sore the next day from the strenuous chattering of his teeth. He huddled inside his blanket, ragged pain edging into his cut feet as his body slowly warmed. Once in a while the serpent’s tail of the wind whipped down and made the trailer lean. He would look up, eyes wide, before returning to hide in his blanket, realizing all at once just how small and used up he had become. How this place had turned him from a man to a withered coward with no balls, whimpering like a whipped animal in its den. He had thought it was because of the betrayal of all those who were near to him, but it was this place that had instigated that betrayal. He had been duped.

His glance strayed to the faceless Eleanor on the wall, her eyes regarding him with her self-serving mockery, then to Anna’s portrait. The brightness and understated sadness he had so lovingly crafted into her expression comforted him a little. Already knowing what he would see, he stood up slowly and went around the bed.

The blank canvas now had the beginnings of a painting on it. Just the bare outlines of a woman in a black dress, a newborn in a crib in a darkened room, a doorway with another woman standing there…

**********

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, all art is surface and subtext, and the artist dives beneath at his own peril. Mark Wright understands what it is like to lose himself in his art, to go too deep, to cut to the bone and all the way to the cancerous growth of an artist’s obsession. Nothing and everything is real: some things too false, some things, like an ex with an ax to grind, too murderously tangible in his fantasyland. The reach of The Lost Village is long, its appetite mean. Nobody would get out alive…

 

Available at www.wandilland.com

[]Wandil Land

By

Victor Allen

Copyright © 2006 all rights reserved

 

From Wandil Land…

October 14

Summer’s fleeting span had passed by the second week of October, bespoken by the yellowing of the leaves on the now fruitless pear trees. As if in compensation, apples hung in heavy, pulsing bunches. Patches of red had erupted like small fires in the Maple trees. When he had gotten up this morning, the water flowing in his sink had been cold, unwarmed by the length of pipes that now ran through the earth which had finally given up its summer heat. At night the chill came on more quickly. The moon, it seemed, had been full forever, rising red and burning bright silver by midnight, but still unable to dim the stars that now shone through air clear of summer haze.

The first pumpkins and sweet potatoes had come in and the corn was gone, the brown shocks now dry as kindling in the fields. White potatoes were plentiful, but peaches and plums were small and scarce. Scuppernongs and Muscadines (what his mother had always called “bullets”) were coming on strong. The second growth of cabbage had matured into dense, heavy heads, a little yellower now, but bug free. A surfeit of edible, fall squash glutted the fields. There were bright orange Hubbard squash, white ten toes squash, buttercup, butternut, spaghetti, acorn, and turban squash. Decorative gourds had begun to appear around the town, hanging from porch awnings and scattered about on tables. All the berries were pretty much gone and David had realized as early as three weeks ago that summer was over when the watermelons had disappeared. What came next were the cold weather crops; turnips, and collards, and rutabagas and winter wheat.

The next cross quarter festival was just over the horizon. The Big One. Samhain, Wilma called it. Halloween, Whisper Storm called it, with that familiar, dour note in her voice. God knew, the woman would complain if you hung her with a new rope.

He had slipped away that morning while Wilma was busy. He had managed to avoid a return to the Rose of Sharon tree and felt he could live without seeing it again for a dozen lifetimes. But there were other mysteries in this town yet to explore. His daughter was here, his wife had made her life here, and maybe he was kidding himself in believing that his own life lay anywhere else but here. But he couldn’t dismiss the gentle warning Jerry Potter had given him. Potter was a man who was probably at the end of his best years, his story told in the red snaps of broken capillaries in his eyes and his unsteady hands and sallow complexion, but David wasn’t willing to dismiss all of his experience from his good years so quickly.

What David really wanted was to see what lay at the end of Yankee Burying road. He wanted to form his own impression of the place without Wilma’s all knowing voice in his ear.

He picked his way down the unused trail that wove toward the northeast corner of the farm lands. The wind that blew through the variegated leaves of the trees was cool and dry, though the sun was out. Here, there were no tended fields and somewhere unknown, but always near, the cairns of Avalon. The woods were wild and barbaric. He felt watched, if by nothing other than the animals that lived here. He was trespassing into the abode of some elemental creature; something greater than himself.

Just as he was about to come out at the end of Yankee Burying Road, something made him look up to his right. He saw a fox at the edge of the forest, its bat ears perked up, looking at him like a keenly alert dog. Its eyes were wide and liquid as it regarded him, sitting still as stone. David stopped. He had seen many a dead fox on the side of the road, but this was the first live one he had ever seen. He felt a little pang of wonder. The fox turned and kind of whipped away, moving like a leaping mongoose, its puffy tail trailing, and vanished into the woods. It was a quick, catlike movement that caught David off guard. That same sixth sense that had caused him to look up in the first place dragged his gaze to the left. A yearling deer, antlerless, stared at him silently. It grazed a bit, looked up, grazed a little more, then looked up again. Large, brown, wet eyes looked at David with an almost human expression in them and David's heart stumbled. He heard a grating, chuffing bellow – a scary sound if you didn't know what it was- and the deer bounded into the woods, heeding the call of the buck for its herd. He could vaguely see their bodies moving through the trees. The way the animals had regarded him made David think of stoic Spartans guarding the pass at Thermopylae against the Persian masses, as if human souls inhabited the bodies of the animals. Wilma had spoken obliquely of reincarnation and David almost believed the deer could be Jeannie, free at last from the miserable bonds that had bound her in life; free to run and live in a place where she wasn't hunted.

It was a weird feeling he just couldn’t shake.

As he stepped out of the woods, he wasn’t sure what to expect, but what he found at the end of Yankee Burying road was more horrific than the Rose of Sharon tree.

The first artifact wasn’t so bad, but its sheer size was intimidating. Planted perfectly upright was a sturdy crucifix built from Ash. Sparse, fall parched grass crunched under his feet at its base. It jutted twelve feet into the sky with a crosspiece at least six feet wide. It was massively thick, a foot and a half in diameter. It’s gray wood was glass slick and must have been over a hundred years old.

But beyond this lay the real horror.

Growing in six concentric circles for a diameter of fifty yards were vast Oak trees, their trunks as smooth and limbless as telephone poles. They had either grown or been planted in geometric precision. Each was a perfect sixty feet tall, their leafy crowns sprouting directly from the tops of their untapered trunks in mushroom like parasols that interlocked in a visually impenetrable canopy. At the base of each tree was a leaning, gray marker. Etched on the markers, in the same white markings as the stones at the Rose of Sharon tree, were crude crosses and the names and ranks of the luckless, Yankee sailors that had met their deaths here.

Jim Ambrose, Seaman, June 5, 1864.

Evan Ball, Yeoman, June 5, 1864.

Civil war sailors, most likely part of the Yankee blockade, better than two hundred, all counted. Invaders or castaways, their fate had been the same. Shaking his head, David made his way through the brooding giants toward the center of the circle, noting with unresolved horror the old, sun-washed bones protruding from the midst of the hearts of the trunks. A half a skull with its jawbone open and filled with the growth of the trunk -as if it had taken a huge bite from the tree and couldn't quite manage it- jutted out. One eye socket was buried, the other gazing out hollowly in empty air. David saw the green waters of the Atlantic beyond through the empty space between cheekbone and jaw. On some of the trees, the bare flat surfaces of ribs girdling the trunks barely peeked out from the overspreading wood. As he drew deeper into the living relics, he saw long bones -leg and arm bones- wrapped in living, wooden flesh. The occasional, salt tarnished brass button gleamed dully from the imprisoning bark. He got the uneasy impression that the trees had, as saplings, been lopped off, their ends sharpened, and these hapless victims impaled and left to decay. The only thing that kept him fascinated instead of frightened was the fact that – whatever had happened here- had happened well over a hundred years ago.

In the center of the circles he discovered a burrow constructed of broken limbs and driftwood. It was seven feet in diameter and seemed to blend into the ground like the den of some vulpine animal. He stuck his head into its black maw to get a look around and was immediately driven out by its wild, musky smell. A smell of rotten meat and putrefacting vegetable matter. But he had seen enough to realize the den was constructed around a partial section of the ancient, busted ribs of the Yankee vessel. Most of the craft had been eaten away by worms and the bulk of the derelict was either broken up out in the surf or buried in the ground, but he had seen dull brass fixtures and black, rust thickened iron castings scattered in the darkness of the den.

Outside in the fresh air, David moved around to the rear of the den. Previously hidden from view, the black corpus of the boat’s anchor was half buried in the soil, the links of its heavy chain trailing from its eye and rooting into the earth. With all the care of a prize winning artisan, someone had carved a sign out of a glass smooth slab of wood and had lashed it to the iron anchor with a chain as stiff and rust coated as the anchor itself. It hung there lopsidedly with a faintly, sardonic air.

IN HOC SIGNO VINCES.

He pushed on, growing cold from the inside. He recognized the phrase, but didn’t know what it meant. It was as mysterious and unsettling as the carved word Croatoan from Roanoke Island.

He was now eager to come out on the other side of the eerie killing ground and get out on the sand and into the sunlight. The surf crashed fifty yards away and he walked out onto the sand, feeling the arid breeze drying the sweat on his brow. His forehead furrowed as he saw a cylindrical post about four feet high with something atop it planted in the sand at the surf’s edge, too far away to see detail, but obviously something man made.

He plodded warily over to the… whatever it was. As he scanned the beach from side to side he saw two more of the things, one each on his left and right, planted twenty five yards from each other on either side of the center post. As he approached the demarcation line at the furthest incursion of the surf, he looked the first of the things face on.

Fastened to the top of the straight, three inch diameter post with cruciate bindings of vines was a heavy, elaborately carved totem. Though vines couldn’t rust or tarnish, if they had been able to, the ones binding this totem would have.

The totem itself was of a triple faced woman, carved untold years ago out of dense Oak. As he faced it with his back to the surf, the carving looking to the left, or East, was a smooth, young woman, the face unwrinkled and the eyes wide and curious. The middle face was a mature woman with a few creases in her face, the forehead lined, the jowls beginning to droop, the deep set eyes looking wisely toward the north. The third face, gazing to the west, what Wilma called the Otherworld, was a wizened old crone, wrinkled and sagging, the nose grown long and hooked, the chin pointed. Nothing could approach from the sea without being observed by one of the faces of the triple goddess. The only way to approach the triple goddess was from behind, the town side. As he had felt at the Rose of Sharon tree, this eerie, spooky relic made his soul tremble. David extended his hand and let his fingers roam over the intricate, wind and sand eroded features of the carving.

Stanton Dru,” A voice said from behind him. “She calls it Stanton Dru.

David whirled around, the sudden shock from this intrusion making his heart hammer. Whisper Storm had appeared from nowhere. She stood before him, back draped by the churning ocean waters, dressed today not in her habitual black, but in something like a gray, sack dress. Like a beachcomber, she was barefoot, her face clear of makeup and unhealthily white.

She seemed tired, less combative today, the fire in her eyes not even embers. Quickly gathering his wits, David saw her wet footprints tracking down the beach, parallel to the surf. She had walked up on him unawares while he was deep in observation of the totem. He hadn’t warmed to the woman; couldn’t say he really liked or disliked her, but he felt no great joy at seeing her. She passed by David and walked further inland into the shade of the trees. David followed her until she stopped.

“Stanton Dru,” David repeated. “What is it?”

“It’s her place. Their place. You thought it was all a harmless bit of folklore, some ancient culture kept alive by one dotty woman. Now you know what they’re capable of. They wanted Rose and she fought them. Now they want your daughter and they’re using you to get to her. She needs to be baptized. She needs to be washed in the blood of Christ.”

She looked up at David, her eyes dreamy and misty behind her glasses. “We could do it here, purging her soul in the very shadows of her bloody, Pagan idols. Jesus will still the waters, like He did at the Sea of Galilee.”

David put a calming hand on her forearm, willing himself to be patient.

“Not now, Miss Storm. This isn’t the time or the place to discuss this. You can’t really take this seriously. This isn’t the eighteenth century.”

Whisper cut her eyes to the impossibly perfect circles of trees where silent skeletons screamed their death agonies endlessly into living wood.

“Even after this, you still think it’s a joke?”

“Not a joke. History. A hundred and fifty years have passed. Whatever happened here and whoever did this are long gone. This place is no different from a battlefield where the guns have gone silent.”

Whisper seemed to debate saying something, then remained silent. Perhaps her more docile demeanor was her attempt at a peace offering. At her age, she hadn’t made the arduous trek for her health. She meant to speak to him alone.

“It happened during the War of Northern Aggression,” she said, looking at David. “The rebels knew better than to use our little town as a staging area for the blockade runners. Some things endure even through the horrors of war. But not the Yankee sailors. Maybe their vessel ran into difficulties; maybe they wanted to invade the town. Who knows? But their biggest mistake was not in being Yankees. It was in being Christians. Maybe they saw the abominations carried on by the bloody Irish in this town. Maybe they tried to put a stop to it with their guns and cannon. It didn’t matter.” Whisper swept her arm around at the brooding trees.

“This is what happened. Men of pure Christian blood. English blood, and they were martyred for it. From that day forward, the sentinels of the Triple Goddess were placed here and none have bothered us since.”

“Triple Goddess?”

Their unholy trinity. Birth, death, renewal. Earth, air and water. Past present and future. Ignorance, learning, wisdom.” She gave David a sly look.

“You think me a backwards old woman, intolerant and blinded by my faith. They see me as filled with typical Christian greed. Life isn’t enough for us, they say. We want eternity, too. But I’m no fool. I know my enemy.”

“How can you know all this,” David asked. “Certainly what happened here was horrible, but horrible things happen in war.”

Whisper regarded him knowingly. “You saw the sign on the anchor? Do you know what it means?”

“No.”

“It was a sign given by God to the Roman general Constantine, the first Christian emperor. There was a great civil war in Rome in the year 312 with Constantine and Maxentius vying for control of the empire. Camped out the day before the ultimate battle and outnumbered by the legions of Maxentius, Constantine saw a flaming Cross of crucifixion written across the sky by God’s finger and the words ‘In hoc signo vinces’ written on it. That night he ordered his legions to paint the sign of the cross on their shields and the next day his army emerged victorious.”

“And,” David prompted. “What does it mean?”

‘By this sign we conquer,’” she said simply.

David recalled his uncomfortable impression that the sign was mocking. The sign of the cross hadn’t been enough to save the Yankee sailors. That made him think of the den he had found and he wondered if Whisper knew anything about that.

“It’s the lair of the Green Man,” she told him. “Their all encompassing deity. I had hoped he was finally gone, but I’ve seen him from time to time, skulking through the fields, watching from the trees. But my God protects me and it’s my Christian duty to protect others, to warn others, no matter what they think of me. This town is the last unspoiled place in this country and once the heathens are stamped out, it will be the closest thing to heaven we have on earth.” She paused. “Someone has to save the children, even if their parents won’t.”

“Miss Storm,” David said, not rising to the bait. “I’ve been to the cross quarter festivals. There’s no sacrifice going on, nothing evil. Can’t you just let Wilma be?”

“Do you think they would let you see it? An outsider? I said they were evil, not stupid. They work in darkness, but they hide in the open.” She grasped David’s right hand with her left and traced an outline around the caduceus on his forearm, his almost new tattoo. “They’ve placed their devil’s mark on you already. But you have the makings of a good, Christian man. I can see it in your eyes and hear it in your voice when you sing in church. But your soul is at risk here. And your daughter’s soul.” She gently pressed David’s arm away from her grasping hand. “Be careful what you wish for, Mr. Moore. You might just get it. I’ll pray for you.”

She abruptly pushed past David and began to trudge away the way she had come.

“Miss Storm…”

She didn’t acknowledge his call as she walked away from the relics of Stanton Dru and back up the beach. He watched her as she slowly shuffled her way up the sand, never looking back.

Once out of sight, David took a last look at the disturbing totems of the triple goddess. He wanted to get out of here, but he couldn’t make himself go back into the sunless ruins of Stanton Dru and past the lair of the Green Man.

He walked back along the beach, following in the wet footprints of Whisper Storm.

********************

 

David Moore had already thought it to himself on his way to Vister: Some things are best left to vanish in the mists of time. Some things are best forgotten. On short acquaintance, Vister seems like any other hidden backwater: peaceful, hard working, maybe a trifle odd. But as he becomes ever more ensnared in the twin webs of the bewitching Wilma, and the fundamentalist Whisper Storm and the ladies of the Crystal Sphere League, he learns that there is more to Vister’s strange culture and the tongues that give it voice than he could have imagined. And on that perilous journey to discovery, he finds the dark secret dwelling within him: a secret that will consecrate or condemn him. Welcome to Wandil Land…

 

Available at www.wandilland.com

[]We Are the Dead

By

Victor Allen

Copyright © 2006 all rights reserved

 

 

From We Are the Dead...

BEDTIME STORIES

Over her second piece of Margie Saunders’ fabulously fattening Pecan pie, ‘Scilla had become right at home. Margie’s kitchen reminded her so much of her grandmother’s home. The ratty old stuffed armchair she sat in fit in perfectly with the homey, dimly lit feel. A prehistoric cast iron cook stove brooded over the humped and buckled floor. A cheap kitchen table balanced on rickety legs like a baby taking its first steps. The stovepipe wove its crooked path through the ceiling after too many twists and turns to be reasonable. Innumerable kitchen utensils and pot holders hung from the hooks and runners like dozing bats. Ricky polished off the last bite of his Persimmon pudding and belched. Margie glared at him.

“Honest to God, Ricky. I don’t know why you have to do that in front of company. Bad enough you do it in front of me.” She looked sympathetically at ‘Scilla, a handsome woman, a little on the plump side.

“Don’t mind him,” she said. “That moonshine he drinks has left him senseless after all these years. If you encourage him, next thing he’ll be stickin’ his finger so far up his nose he can stir the little brains he has left.”

Ricky smiled benignly. He was unknowably ancient, a stooped, grinning, green slacks-clad gnome. A cloth hat was plopped on his head. He held a cane in his right hand. Hyperpigmentation marks lay like shadowy sunspots against the pale, puffed and shiny skin. His teeth were stained brown from a lifetime of chewing tobacco, but his smiles were frequent and sincere.

“Margie’s just kvetching. She’s always said I wouldn’t have sense enough to poor piss out of a boot with the directions printed on the heel.” His anxious gaze fell on ‘Scilla. “That pie okay?”

“It’s wunnerful,” she answered around a mouthful of pecans and Karo syrup. “I’ve never had better.”

Ricky swelled in his chair. “Margie’s the finest cook for miles around. She purt near always wins the blue ribbon at the ‘coon dog races, though we ain’t been in several years. Ain’t that right, Margie?”

Margie acknowledged the compliment with a modest nod.

“You get on her good side,” Ricky advised. “She’ll show you a hunnerd ways to fix cabbage so it don’t blow a hole in your longjohns.”

Margie rolled her eyes. “Hell’s bells,” she muttered. “Would you like more tea? Lisa? ‘Scilla?”

“Yes, please,” ‘Scilla answered. “If it’s no trouble.”

“Not at all,” Margie said, picking up a gallon jar of tea. The jar had once held pickles. She filled ‘Scilla’s and Lisa’s glasses. “Slop it up until your back teeth float.”

Ricky produced a tin of snuff and wedged a bit into his mouth. He gauged the distance to his tarnished brass cuspidor with a practiced eye. It hunkered on the floor, its faded brass surrounded by juice stained floor panels.

“I’m glad it was somebody like you that took the old Morgan place,” he commented. “I’da hated to see it go to rack and ruin like so many of the fine old homes around here. A lot of history in that old place. You can turn it into a real showplace if you’re of a mind to. If you need some help with the carpenterin’, Phillip Anderson is a plus man. If you can get him to let you in his house to do some hirin’, that is.”

“I wouldn’t think someone who depends on service work for a living to be standoffish,” ‘Scilla said.

“Oh, he’s far from standoffish. Most likely he doesn’t want you to see those chintz curtains, lavender sheets, and good shoes in his house. I’ll give you directions when you leave.”

Ricky spat a thin stream of brown juice at his cuspidor where it plopped home with a ding. ‘Scilla looked helplessly at Lisa, who simply shrugged.

“Me and Willie Morgan went back more than seventy years before he passed over last year. House has been empty for all that time, until you bought it. He was a fair plumber, no doubt, and a better than par ‘coon hunter, but-not to speak ill of the dead-his brain always seemed to be in a perpetual state of brown out.”

“An oddball,” ‘Scilla asked.

“Not always,” Ricky answered. “Everybody’s best reckoning was it was the fire that pushed him off the deep end.”

“The fire?”

“Back in ’28, it was,” Ricky said. “The fire started in the old furniture factory. We had no FD to speak of and the only water pumps around were hand pumps on the wells. The whole town turned out in a fucked up Chinese fire drill, hauling slop buckets and milk buckets full of water, but I think we might have done just as much good by pissing on it. The whole town burned flat, except for three buildings. The furniture factory where the damn thing started, Willie Morgan’s house, and the place you’re sittin’ right now. And if it hadn’t been for Willie almost killing himself, I might not be alive today.”

“How is that?”

“At that time there was nothing but woodland all around except for these two houses and that little dirt road that was closer to a horse trail back then. My dad had gone off to town, helping with the main fire. He had left me at home to get the animals out of the barn just in case the fire did spread up this way.

“The smoke came up the valley, thick with burning green wood and sickening with that turpentine smell of burning pine. I could hear the cows bawling and the horses banging in their stalls, trying to kick them down. I went out to let ‘em have their head and their eyes were all white, rolling around in fright, their mouths foaming and their flanks soaked in fear sweat. I remember that, but not much more. The animals stampeded out of the barn, running at me, legs flying and hooves pounding dust up all around. I covered my head and tried to get out of the way, making my way toward the door with the horses shrieking and cows bawling. I made it out into the sunshine that even then was starting to darken. ‘Twasn’t thirty seconds later that the smoke had put me out. It was God’s own mercy that I passed out face first and got down beneath the worst of the smoke.”

“How old were you,” ‘Scilla asked. Her thoughts of rootlessness and dissociation were still very much on her mind and to hear Ricky speak about vintage Americana spanning seven decades gave her a sense of time and place that was comfortable and easy to slip into.

“I was eleven, Willie thirteen. Kids grew up into work faster then. I would put in ten hours a day after school. But we were luckier. We didn’t grow up into the ways of the world so fast.

“I don’t know how long I was out, slipping back and forth between daylight and darkness. It seemed like a dream most of the time while I lay there hearing the crackle of burning pine straw, seeing the red and orange of the flames moving closer, winking through the smoke. And I saw Willie Morgan, stripped down to the waist, sweat pouring off of him, his eyes flashing with the bright white light of a madman. Big as a grown man even when he was thirteen and had a full beard when he was eleven.

“He had a big old double sided ax and a pruning saw. I had seen that ax many times, hanging in the barn behind his house. It was old and pitted with a splintered handle, but Willie kept that edge sharp. Willie almost always done whatever cutting had to be done. His dad was a mean drunk and most likely would have ended up burying that ax in his leg when he swung it. He never got completely out of the bottle after his wife died, and that was where he was on the day of the fire. He likely never knew a thing about it until after it was all over.

“For three solid hours Willie chopped and sawed. I remember hearing the crash and thud of trees falling while I laid there; remembered seeing him shining with sweat, and though I was too far away to have heard it, I imagined hearing his breath coming harder and harder while he raced to make a firebreak. To this day I remember how I was almost hypnotized by how he worked; how I didn’t much care about the fire coming ever closer. That didn’t seem very important compared to what Willie was doing. He must have felled fifty trees in those three hours, working like a maniac without a single break, creating a small firebreak, but it was enough to stop it from taking these two houses.

“And it must have been right after one of those times I slipped away, but I opened my eyes and he was kneeling down next to me, reaching down to pick me up and tote me into the house. And even then, I could see in his eyes how much of a toll had been taken on him. There was a wild light in them, like a fever, and it never went away in all the years I knew him after that. It was a wonder it didn’t kill him, but the fact is he plugged along for another seventy years.”

“Sounds like you miss him,” ‘Scilla said.

Ricky tilted his hat up.

“Can’t help but miss someone you’ve known for seventy years, been neighbors with, got up to the dickens with back before the time there was even electricity in these parts.

“He was a hoot, no doubt. There wasn’t nothing Willie was afraid of. Strange things happen all the time-things that nobody can explain-but Willie couldn’t leave ‘em alone like regular folks. He would go looking for trouble, most often with my dumb ass right there beside him.”

“What kind of strange things?” ‘Scilla had had her fill of strange things over the past year.

“Here it comes,” Margie said. “The big lie.”

“Absolutely not,” Ricky said. “Margie knows I speak the truth. That’s why she’s stayed with me all these years. But as part of the town, you need to know this, ‘cause you’re gonna hear of it anyway.

“As a lad of fourteen, Willie and me were out burning the roads in his dad's old truck. Frank Morgan was the only one with an automobile around these parts and Willie, whenever his dad was laid up drunk -which was most of the time- would take that car and go joyriding.

“Me and Willie both had made a raid on Tom Danle’s likker still and were both pretty well lushed up, neither of us caring if the sky stayed up or fell down. We had already been given hell by a bunch of field hands who had their horses and wagon run off the road by this crazy Willie bearin’ down on ‘em, jammin’ the gears and sprayin’ dirt and gravel all over hell and half of Tennessee, the motor snortin’ and hollerin’ like a stuck pig. Bales of cotton and bushels of corn come tumblin’ down like manna from heaven when them carts went rolling into the ditch. Them field hands didn’t leave us much doubt as to where me and Willie would spend the afterlife. And the way Willie was drivin’, I didn’t think it would be much longer before I found out for certain.

“This was in October, not much later than this, and it was gettin’ on toward dark. I had slipped off during the day and I had no jacket. It had begun to get chilly, like it does, and I begged Willie to get us home. The booze had been my blanket for a while, but it was wearing off. And aside from that, I had something else weighing heavy on my heart.”

“And what was that?” ‘Scilla had finished her pie and Margie had magically whisked her plate away. She felt cool and uneasy now, with night falling on the Saunders household. The daylight had matured to spun gold, slipping in through the living room and laying its brassy sheen on the TV screen where it rattled on and on, unheeded. ‘Scilla’s palm was wet with condensation from the glass she held. She set the glass down on a folded paper towel.

“It was October 29th,” Ricky said. “The eve of Let To Day.”

“Some kind of local holiday?”

Ricky scratched one raspy cheek and stared at the ceiling with his pale, albino-like eyes.

“I don’t think I would call it that. More like a local superstition. Folks here in Brighton, even the newbies from East North Carolina and upstate New York don’t question it. They just let it be, like everybody else.” ‘Scilla thought this had the sound of a gentle warning.

“We were headed toward Ira Parnell’s pasture,” Ricky went on. “Nothing there now but weeds and thorn bushes. But the fence is still there. I used to sit on that fence during the trailing end of the summer and watch the sun go down over the pond. It would shine off the water and back into my eyes and it looked like there were two suns; one in the sky and one sinking into the water. I could almost see myself, a little towheaded kid with a wisp of straw in his mouth, decked out in crappy dungarees, a pretty stiff breeze kickin’ up a cowlick in his hair, the sun shinin’ the color of apple cider.” He smiled whimsically, bringing up the elfin charm that was a part of him.

“I asked Willie where we were goin’.

‘“You’ll see,’ he says. Folks thought it best to steer clear of Willie after the fire. Everyone thought Willie would come to a bad end and they all figured I would go down the tubes with him. And that night he was plain crazy, as crazy as the day he had built the firebreak. Driven by something or to something, I still don’t know.

‘“We’re here,’ he says.

“I knew right off it was Parnell’s pasture. I saw the fence stretchin’ off to my right, looking like black, iron bars with splinters of wood sticking out at the ends like hair. The wind blew a little, sort of sad like it does when darkness is heavy on the land with no electric lighting. Above the wind I could hear the fence creak from time to time. But for mine and Willie’s breathing, that was the only sound.

“Willie didn’t say anything, just took me by the arm and pointed me toward the side of the mountain that popped up on the far side of the pasture. It was then that I seen the shimmery white mist rising up out of the ground, drifting up from the face of the mountain and rolling on down the hill. It didn’t come up in one big cloud, or drift down like a lacy fall of dew. It came up out of the ground, like the earth had cracked open and was breathing in the cold. It shone in the moonlight, a watery silvery blue. It spun around like a wind chime in the breeze, slow as a country afternoon, and started to steal across the field, moving steady, spreading apart like fingers.”

He stopped for a few seconds and pried the top off of a Coca Cola. He grimaced slightly as he did so, glancing at Margie sitting across the room in her rocker, arms crossed, nodding gravely at times as if corroborating the tale. Ricky took a long swallow of the Coke and set it on the floor.

“The fog spread out into shapes, like columns about six feet high and two feet through the middle. It came on apace, moving toward us like an advancing patrol, five or six of those curtains of fog. And I started praying. I felt out of place, unwanted and…” he cocked his head, the exact phrasing he wanted eluding him.

“I knew I was seeing something I shouldn’t see, something maybe I shouldn’t have even known about. There was something. Something watching and waiting. And I felt like if we didn’t leave it might get tired of waiting.

“I grabbed Willie by the arm, just gibbering. He shook me off.

‘“It’s never been this close before. I have to see.’

“That’s when I knew he had seen it before, who knew how many times? And I wondered if it wasn’t this as much as the fire that had made him crazy.

‘“They’re gonna be here in a minute,’ I told him. And when he looked at me, he was smiling like a moron, hair all out in kinky curls, his beard twisted and tangled on top of that boy’s face.

“‘I know,’ he says.

Ricky looked sagely at ‘Scilla, but with an impish gleam of humor in his eyes. But it was a front. ‘Scilla could tell he was deadly serious.

“Then the fog was at the car, swirling around like blowing spirits, cold and wet, shining all silvery blue. I thought there was somebody in the fog, somebody or something that I couldn’t see, watching me, wondering if it could extend its unearthly arm and drag me into it and take me away back to that hole in the earth it came from.

“And then the fog seemed to trifle away a little and I saw something in the mist. A shape seemed to take form, flesh turned to vapor; a ghostly face in the fog.”

‘Scilla frowned. Ricky took no notice at all.

“And then it swept down over us, seeming almost to fall on us like some swooping bird, wet and cold and sticky.” Ricky took a whistling breath. “My Sainted Aunt, it felt as close to death as I want to be until my time comes.”

He sat back and drained the rest of his Coke. He set the empty on the floor. A lawn mower engine, the last of the season, wound down distantly beneath the twilit sky. Moths skirted against the screen.

“And then,” ‘Scilla prompted.

“Willie fired up the car and blasted outta there so fast he almost cracked us up by driving dead bang into a bigassed old pine tree. There was something in Willie like a streak of rock that can be chipped away but not broken. I could see in his eyes as he drove that something had gotten hold of his poor, scrambled brains, and had dug in and made a home there.

“After a short time, he stood on the brakes, damn near tossing me straight over the hood.

‘“I’m going back,’ he says.

“‘Fine,’ I say. ‘You do that. But you go alone. My daddy’s gonna bust my ass black and blue as it is. If you had any sense, you’d go home, too.’ I started to hoof it, afraid to be out in the dark after what I’d seen, but knowing it was preferable to going back.

‘“Where are you goin’’, Willie hollers, like he can’t believe I ain’t going back with him. Well, I felt for him some, you know. But nothing could have got me back there. I was just about cryin’, begging him not to go back.

‘“I have to go,’ he says. ‘I have to see.’ And just lookin’ at him you knew that nothing would stop him. And off he roared, leaving me there scared and cold, but glad all the same. Glad to be away from the fog, and glad to know I could make it home before midnight, when Let To Day started. Glad to take the beating I knew I would get.”

“Did Willie go back?”

Ricky was silent for a few seconds.

“I don’t know,” he finally said. “I didn’t see him again for a couple of days. I had tried to forget about it, though my dad forcibly reminded me of what had happened by whoopin’ my ass pretty soundly. When I did see Willie again, he said nothing about it. And for seventy years I never asked him about it, and he never told me about it.”

“Why didn’t you see him the next day?”

“It was October 30th, Let to Day. Nobody knows how old it is, or how it came to be. On Let to Day, none dare to venture out of their homes, especially not to work. Most of the town’s folk head out of town for a one day vacation. Take in Luray Caverns or Tweetsie Railroad. We’re all back the next day in time to give the young ‘uns their trick or treat candy. Only those that wish to fall to the Stranger’s Discomfort will lift a finger to till the land they’ve worked all summer.”

‘Scilla didn’t like the sound of that and said so. “Sounds very ominous. What’s the Stranger’s Discomfort? Diarrhea?”

Lisa giggled and Ricky smiled.

“Nothing of the sort,” Ricky soothed. “Just a phrase I picked up from my dad and his dad before him. Just a bit of local color we can call our own. But it’s tradition and tradition is mostly a good thing. No need in upsettin’ it just on the off chance it’s something besides a scary bedtime tale.”

He looked wisely at ‘Scilla. “Don’t worry yourself over some local mumbo jumbo. It’s our one excuse to get out of this one horse town and play hooky from work.”

“I’m not really in the mood for anything so dark.”

“Not much of a dark side to Brighton. Just a rinky dink burg with no claim to fame but a funny holiday and some nice scenery. Folks from all over the country live here, most of ‘em like you, only looking for a place to start over.”

“I didn’t come here for pity.”

“And pity you won’t get. I meant no slight, ‘Scilla. I didn’t realize you would take it that way.” Ricky put on his most penitent expression. “Forgive?”

“Of course.” Staying mad at Ricky would be like staying mad at a kitten in a ball of your best crewel work.

“Might I ask you how you came to pick Brighton as your homeplace?”

“It sounded like a nice place,” ‘Scilla said in half truth. She didn’t want to tell him that she had simply opened a map and picked the first place her finger had landed on. But it was turning out right, more so than she would ever have believed in the days of tunnel vision after George’s and Jenny’s deaths.

Ricky didn’t seem to want to press her on the matter. He clasped his hands across his belly and leaned back like a duke in his home, lord of all he surveyed. ‘Scilla was struck by the simple ruralness of the gesture.

“I think I’d better be on my way,” ‘Scilla said. “I want to thank you for your hospitality.”

“You don’t have to go,” Margie said. “We’re happy to have you.”

“I don’t want to wear out my welcome on the first day.”

“No danger of that,” Ricky said, standing up with effort. “We don’t want you to be a stranger.” ‘Scilla thought Ricky said this last with a slight emphasis. “We’re just down the street.”

Everyone is just down the street in Brighton,” Lisa said.

“I won’t be a stranger,” ‘Scilla said. “Count on it.”

She said her goodbyes and walked down the street to her house. Lisa chatted with her for a few moments before going on to her own house. It wasn’t cold enough for frost yet, but the dew that fell on her arms as she talked to Lisa was like pinpoints of ice.

She had gotten used to lying awake at night until the loneliness abated, but by the time she lay down that night on a makeshift pallet in place of a bed that had yet to arrive, she had almost forgotten about Let To Day. Ricky had made a half-assed effort to shrug it off, but she knew there was more to the story than Ricky had told her. She had often thought that, in her shattered life before this bucolic time, she and her family had been haunted by some stalking terror. But now her family was gone and, she hoped, the stalking terror with it. Even so, as she lay down to sleep, she wondered what it was that Willie Morgan had seen in the water lace shroud of silently spinning fog.

**********

 

George Walburn has found no comfort beneath fate’s umbrella. His life has been one of being gut-kicked and back-stabbed, and the only thing that he anticipates with any eagerness is death. But whatever gods there might be will not be denied their fun. The old voodoo witch doctor, Unk Maum, had told him so. Not even in the supposed serenity of the grave can George find solace. Find out why in We Are the Dead…

 

Available at www.wandilland.com

h2={color:#000;}.

[]Katerina Cheplik

by

Victor Allen

Copyright © 2006 all rights reserved

 

From Katerina Cheplik…

22

“I went home to visit one weekend after you had left for Colorado,” Sharon began. “I wouldn’t have told you then, but I was terrified. You had been the only friend I could count on. I didn’t have many of those left.

“Mama and I were so far apart and we had always been so close. I had lost Vince, I had lost you, and I was close to losing my family. And when you’ve lost everything, you belong to the devil.

“Oh, I know people won’t believe me when I tell them, but I came face to face with the devil one night. He came into my room, through the window and stood by the end of my bed. He was huge, Bernie, and red with a kind of black sheen to him, like someone who has been badly burned. His eyes were dark, oh, awful dark, like gargoyle’s eyes. I wasn’t even scared, as if I had expected it all along. He taunted me, told me I belonged to him. He looked down at me with those black eyes and called me his child.

“I told him to leave and he laughed at me. He was, I don’t know, liquid in the dark, the way he moved and the way the moonlight shone off his skin. I argued and moaned and cried for at least an hour, but nobody ever came to my room. Not mama, or daddy, or my brother Kevin. It was like something kept them away. I told him I would never be his.

“‘But you already are, my child,’ he said. ‘Once you’ve let me in, I never go away.’ His voice was horrible, a deep, rumbling bass like an underwater earthquake. Then he left, going out the window. I watched him go, so huge and scary, sort of skipping away toward the road on those cloven hooves. Sparks jumped on the pavement before he vanished into the woods. I listened to the sounds of branches snapping and crashing for a long time before it stopped. The next day, I went out and looked in the road and the hoof prints were still there, struck into the pavement like the hoof prints at Bath. They were still there the last time I went home, and probably will be until the town paves the road over.”

Bernie said nothing. Sharon wasn’t scared, but very intense, as if reliving the episode. He had no choice but to believe her. The devil didn’t waste his time on sinners. He went after the pure at heart.

“I had a long talk with mama that morning. Besides you and Father O’Donovan, she’s the only other person I’ve ever told about it. Mama and I came to a reconciliation. I had put my faith in earthly things, the princes of the world, not where it belonged. Not with you and my family and the people that really cared about me. I did what you did. I redefined myself and brought back the little girl I didn’t see in the mirror anymore.”

Bernie’s heart broke when he realized she was crying.

“I’m just so afraid he’ll come back, that he’ll never leave me alone, that I’ll have to fight him again and again, every single day of my life. That he’ll take everything I love just to get to me.

“So when you ask if I want anything for myself, I can say yes. All I want is to love and be loved. Is that so much to ask?”

“Shh, baby,” Bernie said. He stroked her hair, feeling warm tears on his shoulder. “It’s not so much at all.”

“All I want is for you to hold me tonight. Will you do that? Just hold me?”

“Yes, “ he said in a trembling voice. “For as long as you want.”

And he did.

23

And now my soul is poured out upon me; the days of affliction have taken hold…

24

Mother and child had fled their home in the late hours of the night. The little boy was crying, half-asleep, not knowing why his mother had spirited him away from his daddy. He was cold, only slightly comforted by his mother’s warmth. The gamin smiles of the stars were blurred through his tears. His head bounced painfully with every half-running step his mother took.

The rushing cold stung Carolyn Table’s eyes, burning and raw from sobbing. Her feet and nose hurt. Jeremy was heavy, but she couldn’t put him down to walk for himself. Even with her stumbling, he wouldn’t be able to keep up. She glanced fretfully behind her from time to time, as if some fearful fiend in the person of her drunken, bullying husband close behind her trod. But Frank had passed out an hour before, drunk and abusive to her for the last time.

Frank kept his utility hatchet on top of the kitchen cabinets, and she had spent the better part of that hour with it in her hands, debating murder or flight.

I’ll kill you if you ever leave me, he had said, a shotgun held unsteadily in his hands. His eyes were black slashes, puffy and glassy as those of a barfly. His sweat stank yellowly of alcohol. He had hit her three times by then, the last blow bloodying her nose and making stars burst through her head. He had grabbed her roughly and hauled her to her feet, pawing at her blouse. She had jerked away from him.

Get away from me, you bastard, she had hissed. I’m calling the police. You’ve hurt me for the last time.

He had stalked her, hitting her again. The heavy class ring he wore plowed a bloody gorge high on her cheekbone. He yanked the phone cord out of the wall. The plastic connector popped out and shattered into winter icicle shapes. She stayed still on the floor while he kicked her in the belly, stifling a grunt of pain that would only further enrage him. He kicked her again, rolling her over. He cursed and roared and drank, tipping a bottle of Vodka, draining it. A few minutes later he toppled over with a titanic crash.

She had pulled herself painfully up, wincing at the fiery stab of a broken rib. She glared murderously at the man she had once loved. Her hatred was blacker than an ocean abyss. It would be so easy to take the shotgun from him, hold it against his throat, and pull both triggers. She had reached for it, intending to pull it from beneath him. He had stirred slightly and she had yanked her hand back. It would have to be some other way. She couldn’t risk his waking up.

She had held the hatchet in an upraised hand, even testing her aim once or twice against his head, knowing all she had to do was follow through once with all her strength and cave his skull in.

But in the end she had chosen flight with her son. The car keys were in Frank’s pocket, but she dared not roll him over to get at them. They lived in a tumble down shack on a backwoods lot that belonged to Frank’s father. They had running water and electricity, but not much more than that. The nearest pay phone was a half a mile away. She would call the police from there, then take a cab to the bus station. She had hoarded her last three measly paychecks for the month for just such an occasion. She handled the finances and Frank had been too drunk over the past month to even notice it.

Cold, wet grass slashed at her bare ankles. She inhaled through her mouth, parching her tongue and palate. Jeremy wept, but she didn’t mind that as long as he was safe.

She reached the end of the long, dirt driveway and struck asphalt at a secondary road. The glow of Red River’s city lights pushed up into the night sky over a wall of pines. She set Jeremy down. An automobile swooped down the hill behind her, lighting up the road with cold, white brilliance. She waved her arms wildly at the approaching vehicle, thinking she must look like a scarecrow version of Sylvester Stallone from the Rocky movies with her swollen nose and disheveled hair. The car eased to the left and flashed by her, never slowing. She turned after it passed, watching its red taillights recede over the top of the upcoming hill.

She hoisted Jeremy up and started walking again. She would have welcomed a good Samaritan, would have sold her soul for someone to help her for just these few minutes. But the chances of happening on someone on this backwoods road late at night were almost nil. Oh, there might be a couple necking in a car, or some teenagers on a ‘ghost hunt’, but of someone with a kind heart and a car, she felt was a futile hope.

So she was surprised instead of afraid when she saw the man stumbling down the road just at the top of the rise. Hopeful and a little fearful, she hailed him, crying out like a charwoman begging for alms.

The shadowy figure of the man crossed the road to her side, moving closer. The figure appeared to be a teenager rather than a full grown man. His face was a pale bone in the moonlight, his eyes unfocused. He walked slowly, not as if drunk, but very, very weak. Carolyn felt the sturdy weight of the hatchet in her purse. Jeremy stirred fitfully in her arms.

“Do you have a car,” Carolyn asked when the boy got close enough to hear her rasping, blood-clogged voice.

“A car,” the boy said weakly. “No, no car. Are you in some kind of trouble?”

Carolyn reeled away from the man’s voice. His breath was foul beyond description, like someone suffering from a bad throat infection.

“I have to get to a phone,” she said uneasily. “If you don’t have a car, I need to get going.”

“No, wait,” the boy said in that deathbed voice. “I’ve been sick with the flu. I felt a little better tonight so I decided to go out. Can your boy walk? Are you okay to walk?”

“Jeremy? Do you feel awake enough to walk by yourself?”

“I guess so.”

“I’ll walk with you to a phone,” the boy said. “I need to get back. I’m weaker than I thought. If you need a place to stay for the night, I’ll call some of the girls’ dorms and see if they can put you up.”

He turned and Carolyn saw him in profile, handsome despite his pallor. His thick hair was pulled back from his forehead very much unlike the way teenage boys wore their hair today. She judged him to be eighteen or nineteen. His nose was a sloping protrusion between cheekbones as sharp as arrow points. Moonlight fell over him in a cold glow. She felt safe with this wan, weak fellow.

They started walking, a cozy trio with a tiny boy between the two adults. No cars passed as they moved up the hill. They had reached the top before the man introduced himself as Tommy Hopson, grinning at her madly with long, sharp canines surrounded by thick, liver-colored lips.

25

State street was dark an hour later when Tommy walked down to Katerina’s house with a duffel bag slung over his shoulder. He looked like a typical college student going to wash a load of late night laundry.

He felt strong, the bundle over his shoulder light as a feather, more precious than gold. It was his offering for his new life. He had been picked to bring the sacrifice. He remembered the woman clawing at him ineffectually, pathetically slashing at him with a pitiful little hatchet that found only thin air when he had snatched Jeremy from her.

Monster, give me my child!

Perhaps he was a monster. The moon filled him with a vitality and sureness he had never felt, probing its unearthly light into the darkest corners of his soul, freeing pockets of mindless, dark malevolence.

His mouth was splashed with crimson and his eyes glowed like Venus in full phase. He mounted the steps to Kathy’s door and dropped the bundle. It hit the boards with a dead thump. A small, pale hand flopped out of the top of the bag, its tiny fingers curled. The door cracked open and Tommy walked in, dragging the bag with him.

The wind freshened and whistled through the night, whipping the trees into writhing titans tilting against the night.

26

William Davis awoke with a deadly chill clinging to his bones. His heart raced and his limbs trembled. The screams still echoed in his head. The memory of a nightmare as vivid and lurid as any he had ever had still pealed its dread toll in his brain.

He sat up in his bed, his head in his hands. He glanced fearfully at the dark rectangle of his window. Moonlight streamed through the bars, turning them half- light, half-dark, like the terminator across the face of the moon. He thought of witches racing through the skies on brooms, their brittle hair streaming out; of monsters hiding greedily in the dark shadows of roadways, waiting to pounce; of vampires promising a world of glamor and allure, then draining the blood and the soul from their victims.

He pulled his covers close to his chest and sat there the rest of the night, his eyes wide, wary and scared. He waited for the first rays of the sun to seal the nightmare away in a burial vault it could not escape before moon rise.

27

The light in Frank Table’s house was still burning when he came around two hours later. His head thundered and his stomach was queasy with the beginnings of a grand mal hangover. His swollen mouth and tongue were as dry as talc. He squinted in the harsh light, shading his eyes with one hand.

He hefted his upper body from the floor and rolled sideways, still not willing to try to stand. He supported himself with his arms, his palms flat on the floor. The phone lay on the floor, the blue, plastic receiver off its cradle. The cord curled and looped like a snake. An empty Popov vodka bottle lay between his hands.

His greasy black hair had fallen over his forehead and stuck there, feeling like a crust attached to his skull. He looked up. His wife stood above him. The shotgun with which he had threatened her was held in her hands, both barrels carelessly pointed toward the bridge of his nose. She wore the same loose fitting, black dress she had been wearing when he had decked her. He could have sworn he had broken her nose, but it was unswollen and straight. Her dark hair shone like ink in the naked light. She looked like a dark angel let loose on the earth to strike down the iniquitous. She stared at him with eyes that were black gashes, as coldly unemotional as those of a space alien. Her skin was pale as a dream. He opened his mouth to speak, his eyes blinking, his brain still not focused enough to understand.

Carolyn, I…”

He never got the chance to finish. The shotgun roared, flames belching from both barrels. Its voice was a shout, its words a hail of lead pellets. Frank’s body rolled off his arms and flopped on the floor with a headless clump. Bright red dots and slivers of gray brain matter peppered the wall behind him.

Carolyn dropped the gun on the floor, gliding toward the door with somnambulant, bridal-march steps. She appeared to drift down the porch steps and into the front yard.

He awaited her, looming mighty and omnipotent. His eyes burned radiant in a face that was a study in cold dispassion. She came to him, a child enraptured by the strength of a father. She fell on her knees, staring up worshipfully. He had given her the strength to do what she should have done years ago.

“All I have,” she whispered in telling, adoring tones. “All I have is yours.”

He took her hand and they became as one, a spinning, phantasmagoric whirl in the face of the helpless night that screamed uselessly against a force it could not contain.

28

Marilyn had lain awake most of the night, afraid to open her eyes for fear of seeing the man who had come for her last night. She had been able to drift off for brief periods, but the little rest she got was fraught with frail dreams in which soft footsteps tripped lightly outside her window, and voices that were no more than whispers plotted just on the other side of the thin pane of glass. She thought she recognized Tommy’s voice.

And beneath it all, like the portentous rumblings of earthquakes and magma pits that boil unfettered in the bowels of the earth, another voice overriding all. It was only hinted at, never arrant or shrilling, but full of soporific power. It was as if the man she had seen had taken the world as his own, glowering over it possessively like the Roman gods of old. The moon was a blazing jewel in his forehead, the stars his all-seeing eyes. The clouds that boiled across the night sky were his facial expressions, showing one time black humor, another time rage as ominous as a runaway asteroid.

The murmuring voices outside were insidious, hypnotic.

Choose, Marilyn, they whispered. Choose the night. Choose a life of freewheeling abandon where every lust is sated, every dream of power fulfilled, every hunger satisfied. A life where the gala runs all night, breaking off at cock’s crow. Be one with us. Immortal, invincible. A queen in a world where those who have spurned you dare not tread. Vow your vengeance on those who cannot fulfill Shylock’s bargain. Their hands are stained where they have torn out your bleeding soul. Our hands are clean. Choose a world where vengeance will be yours. Be forever young and beautiful. Come, Marilyn. Come learn of the night.

She opened her eyes and looked at her window. A face, pale as snow, with wide, burning eyes, was pressed against it. Tommy grinned in at her with teeth like tusks curled inside the scarlet blush of his lips. Who, Marilyn wondered, could be so mad as to choose that life?

You could, Marilyn, her mind taunted her. You could choose it easily.

With the last of her tattered will she rolled away, closing her eyes and shivering beneath her covers. There was an angry rattling at her windowpane and the voices continued like unhappy winter winds. They whined and pleaded and moaned for what seemed like an eternity, but finally faded away…

**********

 

[_ Youth is innocence, remembered in bloody cuts, scars, and insensitive barbs, but, still, the uncomplicated, wide-eyed time of your life. Sharon Hurley has weathered the storms of her troubled past and emerged into the sunny, lee waters. But life is not static, and life is not fair, and some have a cross to bear. She doesn't know why, but before Sharon can find true peace, she must pit her life -her very soul- and stand against the dark, demimondaine, Katerina Cheplik… _]

 

Available at www.wandilland.com


Xeno Sapiens

Headhunted by a national conglomerate to engineer humans for deep space travel, geneticist Ingrid Milner can read between the lines. She is wanted for a Frankenstein project; to fabricate a genetic werewolf. She works in secret, but she is not unknown. Set against her is the enigmatic Josh Hall, a fire-breathing minister with a sordid past. As the forces build against each other, a new player emerges, one part and parcel of the overwhelming coalescence of insanity and hubris. Nothing so powerful can be contained, and it will lash out...

  • ISBN: 9781310438295
  • Author: Victor Allen
  • Published: 2016-06-04 16:05:16
  • Words: 121189
Xeno Sapiens Xeno Sapiens