The oil lamps were turned back up, and the television set was turned on to add more light and sound to the room in order to lighten everyones mood. Keller had produced his own hash pipe, and it was passed around; but this time Valerie abstained. She had other things on her mind.
"...a reasonable explanation," Keller was saying, still trying to rationalize what he had just witnessed.
"Okay," Jeff said, "then what do you think happened here?"
"Im not sure..."
He pointed a finger at him. "A-ha!"
"Aha, my ass. Just because I havent got an explanation, that doesnt mean there isnt one. Im sure a good shrink could explain all this. You said your old man used to be a shrink, right? What did he have to say about this kind of thing? Im sure hes run across it before."
"Oh, yeah," Jeff said. "Several times. He thinks theres something to it; hes seen it too often to just write it off as nothing."
Keller leaned back in his chair with a disgusted, "Shit."
Valerie rose silently from the sofa and went into the bedroom. She returned a moment later with the Tarot deck. "Anybody want his fortune read?" she asked. She looked at Keller. "How about the ol cynic here? You up for it?"
His sharp look quickly softened. She didnt know him, and he quickly held back his first response. Instead, he said, "No one gets away with calling me a coward. Deal em out." He went to kneel with one knee on the floor by the coffee table, and he rested his forearms across the other knee.
She studied him for a long moment as she slowly sifted through the cards. Without looking at them, she suddenly stopped at the Knight of Swords. It showed a determined young man riding a horse, sword held high and charging forward as if either to do battle or rescue someone. Perhaps both. It seemed to fit him, so she placed the card to face her on the table, and then shuffled the rest of the deck four or five times. Placing it on the table face down she said, "Cut. Right to left into three stacks." He cut the cards and Valerie picked them up again. Despite never having studied the Tarot before, she dealt the cards out as though they were self-explanatory.
She covered the Knight of Swords with the first card off the top. "The Six of Pentacles," she said. It showed a man, evidently a merchant of some kind, giving coins to one of the two kneeling men in front of him. In his other hand he held a set of scales. Six five-pointed stars surrounded the picture. "It would seem youre quite a generous person," she said. She turned up the next card. "This crossing card," she continued as she laid it across the first, "shows the opposing forces at work." The Five of Cups. It showed a man with his head bowed, looking at three overturned cups and ignoring the two behind that stood upright. "Perhaps youve shown a little too much generosity. It seems that youve suffered some losses, although you still have something left over."
Keller kept his eyes on the cards, studying them intently, and said nothing as he thought about the man to whom he had loaned a great deal of money; money that had never been repaid. Keller didnt get ripped off often, but it did happen.
She turned up the next card and placed it below the others. "This is a part of your past." It was the Ten of Swords. It showed a man, lying face down with ten swords in his back and his blood soaking into the ground. "A death." There were endless possibilities, but she was certain Keller had killed someone.
"This is behind you, something that is just passing away." She flipped up the next card. The Three of Swords, which showed three swords piercing a heart. Keller thought of his dead sister and said nothing. He looked back at the Ten of Swords and thought about the undercover soldier who had tried to set him up for an assassination. He had always been wary of the man, and... Needless to say, the assassination attempt had failed, and Keller was still alive--unlike the undercover operative.
"This is above you," Valerie went on. "It represents an influence that may come to happen." She turned up a major key card, the Fool.
Jeff chuckled. "Suits im."
Keller smiled good-naturedly at his friend and casually flipped him off.
Valerie didnt notice their antics; the cards had her full attention. "As is shown by the bag tied to the pole and the accompanying little white dog, it would seem that you are about to embark on a journey, but you dont know where you might be going."
Yeah, right, he thought.
"This is before you." She turned up another card, the Six of Swords. It showed a man, a woman and a child in a boat with six swords. "A voyage. Either arriving or departing." She looked at Keller for the first time during the reading. "Seems like youre headed somewhere in the near future."
The cards formed a cross. Valerie turned up the next four in rapid succession off to the right, from bottom to top. "The Seven of Wands here shows your own fears in the matter. You may have to go alone against your enemies."
"Ive been doing that a long time."
The next card was the Wheel of Fortune, upside down. "You may be in for some bad luck. At least, thats what others think."
"I never really cared much about what others thought of me," Keller said, mildly surprised at the way he was beginning to get into this.
"Yes, I know," Valerie muttered to herself as she studied the cards with keen interest.
The next card up showed a nude man and woman standing with what appeared to be an angel hovering above them. "The Lovers," she said. "It seems that youre hoping for some companionship on a permanent basis. Its not surprising, after seeing these other cards that have shown you to be doing a lot of traveling around."
The final card up was the Six of Wands. It showed a man riding a horse, apparently into a town. One of the wands had a green wreath tied to it. "Success," she said.
He looked the cards over, and refused to admit--even to himself--how well she had nailed his past.
She looked the cards over again. "Youve had some rough times and narrow escapes," she said.
"Havent we all?" he asked.
"Youve suffered losses, yet you always manage to stay one step ahead in the game."
"See previous question," he drawled.
She sighed with mild exasperation. "The cards indicate that you are tired of always being on the road and that you want to settle down to a lasting relationship with someone. And it seems to me that youll succeed."
"Yeah," Keller said as he looked up from the cards to regard her. While she seemed to have described his past with surprising accuracy, his future seemed a little... "Me and about fifty zillion other people. Could you possibly be more vague?"
"Hey," she replied, somewhat sarcastically as she scooped up the cards, "if you want something more specific--like youre going to find true love next Thursday evening at ten-oh-seven with a green-eyed blonde at Kellys Tavern, and with an air temperature of fifty-six degrees and a four mile per hour wind coming out of the southwest while youre suckin on your third bottle of Bud--Im afraid youre shit out of luck."
He looked at her with a sharp scowl. How did she know he had a weakness for green-eyed blondes? And how the fuck did she know about Kellys Tavern??
"I want to go next!" Tony said, quietly pleased with her shooting Keller down. "I want to see if we strike it rich in the near future."
Valerie shuffled the cards again as she studied Tony. The card she chose to represent him was the Knight of Wands. She had him cut the cards the same way Keller had, then dealt them out one at a time, evaluating each as it turned up. "The Ten of Cups," she said. "Contentment, happiness...these are your current surroundings."
"So far, so good."
She turned up the second card and laid it across the first. "The Moon. Hmm. Despite the happiness you now enjoy, there may be hidden enemies about. There may even be some danger." She turned up the third card and placed it below the others. "The Lovers again," she said.
"Must be us," Tony observed with a smile. Valerie smiled back at him, but he couldnt tell the smile was forced. Valerie was worried.
The fourth card up was placed to the left of the others. "The Seven of Swords. This represents what you have to work with. In this case its your self-confidence, hope, whatever..." She turned up the next card. It was the Six of Swords, another of the cards that had shown up in Kellers reading. "Youve been on a long journey from somewhere. Perhaps an escape."
"The Guards were after me for a speeding ticket," Tony said. He was trying to make light of the situation; this card reminded him of the time he had escaped from a prison farm in Florida three years ago, where he had been incarcerated on a marijuana possession charge.
The next card was Justice, upside down. "This shows what may lie ahead. Unfairness, unjust or excessive punishment."
"Terrific," he said dryly.
Valerie looked at the cross that she had formed with the cards, then turned up the next three, off to the right again, repeating the Celtic Cross method of divination. The card at the bottom was the Ten of Swords, the same that had shown in Kellers past. Only now it was in Tonys future. The second card was the Tower, which showed a tall stone tower being struck by lightning. Flaming bodies were falling to the craggy rocks below. The third card was the Devil. In this position it showed Tonys own fears in the matter, and the card itself represented ravage, violence, and possible fatality. Valerie turned up the final card and looked at it. It showed a skeleton with a scythe, reaping a bloody field of human heads; it was number thirteen, the card of Death. To keep him from seeing it, she let the deck slip from her hands to the floor, scattering around her feet. "Aw, shit!" she said, feigning clumsiness.
"Oh, way to go, Val!" Tony said irritably. "Now Ill never know if I make it rich!"
"Im sorry, Tony," she said as she bent to retrieve the cards. She didnt want to tell him the cards were saying he was going to die. On the other hand, it may not be true after all; but this reading had frightened her. A lot.
She reached under the table to get the last few cards, and suddenly she stopped. She sat frozen, her face just inches from the table.
Keller watched her for a moment, wondering what she was doing. And then he suddenly he felt a rush of adrenalin; his smugglers instinct was warning him that something was about to go down.
"Whats the matter, Valerie?" Tony asked, still sour over not having his reading completed. "You throw your back out or something?"
She said nothing. She didnt even move, not a twitch.
"Val?" Tony asked.
"Valerie?" Jeff asked. "You okay?"
Her eyes were focused on the dark wood grain of the coffee table. There were images moving in it; images of black-and-white cars with flashing blue and red roof lights. Screaming sirens echoed in her mind, and the cold hand of terror once more clutched at her heart. She saw men in black fatigues and helmets, armed with automatic weapons and approaching the house, kicking in the door... "We have to get out of here," she muttered.
"What?" Jeff asked.
She finally looked up at him, and there was fear in her amber eyes. "Weve got to get out of here," she said again. "Soldiers are coming."
"I think wed better do as she says," Keller agreed. His hand instinctively went to the small of his back and he thought, Damn!
And then they all heard the sirens. They were faint and far away, but they were rapidly coming closer.
Leaving the cards scattered on the table, she joined Tony and Jeff in moving quickly through the small house, packing what they could into small backpacks. Keller was the first one out the door.
"Sure moves fast for a skeptic," Tony remarked.
"Dont worry," Jeff told him, "hes not going far."
He was leaning through the open car door with his hand in the glove compartment. Toward the rear his hand found the small toggle switch that re-connected the starter. He had installed this small security device after having two other cars stolen from him when he had been on some smuggling runs, and so far no one had ever found this switch. The car had been broken into on several occasions, and things had been stolen--registration slips (forged, of course), spare change, small amounts of currency, cigarettes, flashlights, and an old Army .45 semi-auto, but never the car itself.
He reached into his jacket pocket and found his car keys. He slid the proper one into the ignition, and then reached into the pouch on the bottom of the drivers door to find the Desert Eagle .44 Magnum, which usually rested snugly in the small of his back. He hadnt thought he would be needing it when visiting friends of Jeffs.
He looked up once and spotted the beams of approaching headlights. He pulled his other foot into the car, closed the door, and lay into the passengers seat. A moment later a Guardian car came around the corner and pulled up behind the bronze convertible. A spotlight swept over the back of the car, found nothing, and snapped off. The two soldiers headed for the front door of the house and Keller cautiously peered over the top of the door to watch them.
Jeff reached for the contraband .32 pistol that he had found in Tonys bedroom a fraction of a second too late. The soldier already had his Beretta 92F out and he fired five times, hitting Jeff in the chest. The impact of the nine millimeter hollow-points slammed him against the wall and he slid to the floor as blood oozed from his wounds. The soldier went over to him to make certain he was dead, then looked up when he heard another noise. The baseball bat in Tonys hands came down on top of his head, and while it didnt split his helmet it did break his neck with a major compression fracture. The sound of it exploded in the soldiers ears, and everything went black.
Valerie came out behind Tony as the second soldier came in. He turned to push her back into the bathroom and the soldier fired a short burst from his M-16 into Tonys back; steel-jacketed slugs pierced both lungs and exited through his chest. Another burst, also meant for his back, hit him in the back of the head. Tony fell against the wall next to the bathroom and slumped to the floor, leaving a wide smear of blood next to the bathroom door.
Valerie ran to the bathroom window. She flipped the lock open and pushed at the window, but it was swollen with moisture and wouldnt budge. Glancing over her shoulder with terror-stricken eyes, she pounded against the bottom of the old wood-frame window, but it was jammed tight.
"Stay where you are, witch!" the soldier shouted as he raised the muzzle of his rifle and pointed it at Valeries back.
The word hit her like a blow from a sledgehammer, stunning her with disbelief and terror. How the fuck did he know about--? Oh, my God, she thought as she turned slowly to face the soldier. She fell with her back against the wall, slipping into hysteria and shock. It cant be! The dream of Spain, and the memory of Bavaria... Please, God, she thought, please, please, dear God, dont let it be true! Her legs started to give way, and she began to slide to the floor, slowly shaking her head in futile denial as she stared with wide, terrified eyes down the barrel of the automatic rifle. This cant be happening, it just cant be! she told herself again. Please, dear God, no not...not again!
He took careful aim at a point below her throat, and at the sound of the gunshot she jumped violently as the soldiers head exploded in a spray of blood and bone and brain matter.
Standing in the doorway, Keller lowered his hands with his arms still fully extended, and in his hands he was holding his Desert Eagle. "We havent got any time," he said as he thumbed the hammer down and put the gun away. "Weve got to get out of here now. Tony and Jeff are dead."
"Dead?" Her voice was small and quavering, like that of a terrified child.
"Come on," he said, approaching her in two quick steps. "More of those fuckersll be here any minute." He took her hand and led her back through the living room.
Tony lay in a heap, crumpled in the hall by the bathroom, and Jeff lay sprawled by a far wall in the bedroom. Their blood soaked into the blue shag carpeting. "Jeff?" Valerie said with a tremor in her voice. "Tony? Oh, God, Toneeee!" she screamed. "Oh, God! No!" She started to reach for his ravaged body, but Keller pulled her back. Not knowing what to do, he put an arm around her shoulders, and she turned to sob against his chest.
"Weve got to get out of here. I know how you feel, but we dont have time for this. Youve got to keep your head clear, okay? More cops are on their way, and weve got to run." He shook her to get her attention. "You with me?"
Valerie nodded as she stepped back from him, and wiped tears from her face.
"Good girl." He picked up an M-16 that lay next to a dead soldier, and with his other hand he took Valeries and led her outside.
In the car, Keller rested the automatic rifle between the bucket seats and started the engine just as another black-and-white unit rolled around the corner. He popped the clutch and the rear tires screamed against the asphalt as the car took off, leaving a trail of exhaust and burned rubber. The Guardian cruiser made a fast U-turn, bumped over a curb, and went off after the convertible. Valerie was trembling in fear as she watched the unit behind them, and her mind was in shock with the realization that she really had lived three times before, and had died twice because of a witchcraft charge--and it was all happening again.
Keller reached above the windshield and said, "Hit that roof release!" He glanced at her and saw that she was still looking behind them with shocked and tearful eyes. He slapped hard at her shoulder with the back of his hand to get her attention, and snapped her out of her stunned torpor. "The roof release!" he shouted at her. "Hit it! Now!"
Valerie stared blankly for a moment, and then reached up and snapped open the chrome release. The slipstream of air caught in the canvas roof and tore it off, sending it flying back toward the Guardian car. The black-and-white swerved to one side, barely avoiding having the roof land across the windshield. Valerie watched the car slip back into pursuit, and then her eyes fell on the M-16. She reached for it.
"Leave that alone, woman!" Keller shouted.
"Im gonna stop those fuckers!" she shrieked back at him.
"You know how to use one of those?" He shouted as much in anger as necessity to be heard over the roaring engine and air.
"Yes, I know how to use one!" she snapped back at him. Then, muttering angrily to herself, she said, "Wheres the goddamned safety on this thing?"
With a growl of exasperation, Keller reached over and snapped it off for her. "Thats the barrel," he said as he gave it a hard tap. "You point it that way"--he jerked a thumb backward--"and pull the trigger."
She gave him a look of cold rage, then turned in her seat and aimed the rifle at the Guardian cruiser. She braced the stock against her shoulder, sighted down the barrel (hoping she was doing this right; in reality, she had never fired a gun in her entire life), and pulled the trigger. A long burst frosted the front windshield of the cruiser, and it exploded and sent shards of glass into the faces of the two soldiers inside. The driver lost control of the car and slammed on the brakes, but he was too late to avoid slamming into a telephone pole. The pole snapped and came crashing down to smash the cruisers roof, and sparks erupted and sputtered all around it as the electrical lines pulled free and exploded in a brilliant electrical shower.
Keller spun the wheel hard, whipping the convertible around a corner. The car fishtailed from side to side and threw Valerie against the door. The door held, but the M-16 flew from her hands and landed clattering in the street. Another Guardian car sped toward them from the left and swerved to avoid hitting them; it slid to one side and smashed against the side of a blue van with a loud crunching of metal and shattering glass. It took off after them, and Valerie picked up the Desert Eagle that was resting near Kellers thigh. She turned in the seat again and aimed it with both hands at their pursuers.
"Be careful with that!" he shouted. "Its got a lot more of a--"
BLAM!! The explosion blasted at her ears, and she found herself pointing the big Magnum straight at the sky. Her eyes widened in shock as she thought, Jesus!
This is no gun, she thought, its a fucking cannon! She aimed the big gun again, gripping it more tightly. With its wide grip, it was almost too big for her to hold; but now that she knew what kind of recoil it had, she was more prepared to deal with it. She clenched her teeth and aimed carefully, but reflexively she squeezed her eyes shut as she fired off two more shots. The Guardian car swerved to the right as one of the stray bullets caused a front tire to explode, and the black-and-white slammed into the rear of a parked Pinto. The two cars exploded into flames that shot twenty feet into the air, momentarily illuminating the darkness into full daylight. Valerie could hear the screams of the two soldiers as they ran from the car with their uniforms on fire, but she thought nothing of them. Keller could hear them, too, and he cast a quick glance at Valerie. She still sat with her knees on the bucket seat, staring back at the burning wreckage and still holding the gun. Her face showed neither fear nor remorse...just emptiness. Not bad, Keller thought in surprise, for a woman. When backed into a corner, this Valerie St. James could be one tough lady.
He gently took the gun from her hands, thumbed the hammer down, and set the safety on. Setting the gun down on the seat, he yelled, "Hang on!" and yanked the wheel hard to the left. The car slid around another corner and almost tumbled Valerie against the door again. He floored the accelerator again and guided the car to the nearest freeway on-ramp. Valerie sat back in the seat and thought this had to be the fastest car she had ever been in. She had seen pictures of cars like this in some of Tonys old hot rod magazines, but she had never expected to ever see the real thing. And now here she was, riding in one. The body was mid-sized, much the same as many cars that were seen on the roads these days because of the high cost of gasoline. It took her a moment to recognize it as a museum piece 1964 Pontiac; and above the padded glove box were three little chrome letters--GTO. The old bronze paint on the outside was pock marked with gray primer spots, dents, and scratches. Empty beer cans rattled and clinked in the back seat, and the roar of the engine was deafening. She thought back to some of the articles that Tony had shown her concerning this model; it was equipped with a 389 cubic-inch engine and a trio of Holly two-barrel carburetors, and a four-speed stick. All this stuff about cubic inches and transmission gear ratios had held no interest for her before; they were just a lot of meaningless numbers to her. The old, beaten-up looking car blended in perfectly with the mid-sized and smaller models that were seen on the road these days, what with the cost of gasoline, repairs and new cars being what they were. But God, it could move! It was the perfect smugglers road machine.
She glanced at Keller. His eyes were narrowed and fixed on the road, and there was a faint, grim smile on his lips. He was in his element now, and Valerie could tell he was mentally snarling, Come and get me, motherfuckers. Once they got to the freeway, she figured, nothing would be able to touch them. Guardian cars today were mostly larger models; Lincolns and Cadillacs and the like. Gasoline was always in good supply for all military/law enforcement vehicles, and as usual it was the taxpayers who were stuck with the bills--so why not go in comfort? After all, the soldiers never had to chase down anything other than small, fuel-conscious cars or ancient relics that were about the only thing that most people could afford, and it was against Foundation law to have anything faster than a police car. I bet the soldiers are shitting in their pants right now, Valerie thought as she watched the speedometer needle make a steady, rapid climb from the 50 mph mark to the 80.
Their only problem now was that first they had to get to the freeway...
Two Guardian cars were parked in front of the on-ramp. The two formed a wedge, with the noses pointing toward the ramp, and four soldiers stood behind them with their rifles and pistols ready. With his dying breath, the passenger of the first car to lose the GTO had radioed that the convertible was probably headed for the nearest freeway out of town, and these two cars had responded by getting to the freeway ahead of the fugitive. The soldiers were ready; the Devils agent would not escape them. They waited, and waited...and waited. Any moment now, and the Pontiac would be in sight. Yes, any minute now.
They waited some more.
"Where the hell is she?" one soldier muttered.
"Be patient, shell be here," replied the sergeant.
No bronze convertible showed.
"Come on, dammit," the first soldier muttered to himself.
"Watch that language," ordered the sergeant.
Still, no Pontiac showed up.
"You suppose maybe she headed somewhere else?" a third soldier asked.
"Maybe," said his partner.
"Blake," the sergeant said, "You and Sanchez take one of the cars and go look around. Well stay here in case she shows up after all."
"Right." He and Sanchez got into one of the cars and sped off. They headed south, passed by an alley, and went off toward the center of town. No one heard the high-powered engine come to life in the alley.
The two remaining soldiers relaxed a little. One of them lit a cigarette. "I dont think shes gonna come this way," he said.
"You could be right," said the sergeant.
"Shouldnt we go help look for her?"
"Nah. She might come by this way after all. Besides, if we go looking for her we stand a better chance of getting zapped. Which would you rather do?"
The soldier with the cigarette smiled. "I see your point," he said. Get zapped? he thought to himself. What exactly was that supposed to mean? Get blown apart? Turned into a frog? Sent into another dimension, maybe? He had no idea of what it meant. But as long as his sergeant did, well, that was good enough for him.
He dragged on his cigarette and looked down the road at nothing in particular. The rain had let up some time ago; the garbage that had been in the streets was now plastered down firmly in the gutters, the water gurgled noisily as it struggled to spiral into the sewer drains, and the city air almost smelled fresh and clean.
Something moved about a hundred yards down the road. The soldier with the cigarette wasnt quite sure of what it was; faint light from the street lamps gleamed from its darkened features. It seemed to be coming from out of an alley, and it turned toward them, grumbling deep in its throat. It moved slowly, like some ominous beast that was getting ready to move in for the kill.
"You see that?"
The sergeant looked down the road. Suddenly the beasts eyes blazed to life on high beam, blinding the two soldiers, and the engine roared as radial tires tore into the asphalt with a wild scream. The sergeant yelled, "OH, SHIT!!" and dove for the ground as the bronze GTO bore down on them like a Bengal tiger leaping from out of the night. The other soldier stood frozen for a moment, unaware that his cigarette was hanging stuck to his lower lip. His paralysis broke, and he jumped aside a mere two seconds before the GTO came on and rammed the front end of the Guardian cruiser at a diagonal, brutally shoving it aside and roaring on up the on-ramp.
The sergeant rose from the small grassy knoll on which he had landed, and wiped a wet brown mess from his face and fatigues. "Goddamnedsonofafuckinbitch!!" he roared.
The other soldier wasnt sure if his sergeant was cursing the driver of the convertible or the dog that had left the chunky brown pile; he was damn sure, however, that he wasnt going to say a word about the sergeants language--language that officially no Holy Guard was allowed to use (but most did anyway). No sense in getting beaten up or shot, and as mad as the sergeant was right now, hed probably do it.
"Dont just stand there, asshole--lets get after her!" They got into their dented Buick and began to climb the on-ramp. Or rather, it tried to. The front of the car bounced crazily up and down with a prolonged metallic shriek, and the tire went ker-thump, ker-thump, ker-thump. The car stopped again with a jolt and another screech of metal on metal, and the sergeant got out to inspect the damage. The tire was flat because a piece of the front fender was gouging through the rubber sidewall, and the axle was bent. The sergeant swore violently, kicked the car, and swore some more as he was forced to lean against the unit so he could clutch his injured foot in both hands. "Just one crack out of you," he growled at the other soldier with a malevolent glare, "and your ass is dead!"
The other man turned to reach for the radios microphone and called for assistance. "Car Twelve to control. Vehicle down, need assistance. Over." He turned his back to the sergeant as he listened to the dispatcher, and held the mike close to his lips so the sergeant wouldnt be able to see his broad grin.
The GTO lay by the side of the road as its oil gathered in a spot on the ground beneath it like a pool of black blood. After ramming the cruiser, it had traveled another thirty miles or so at 140 miles per hour before the last of the radiator coolant had leaked out through a small hole in the grill. The engine had overheated to the point of causing several gaskets to rupture; the engine itself seized with its pistons jammed tight, and the car could go no further. It lay quietly, abandoned on the muddy roadside, and the engine clicked occasionally as it gradually cooled in the lonely post-midnight air.
Six Holy Guards stood rock-steady at attention in Colonel Warrens office. They stood silent and sweating, and moved only to blink their eyes. None of them dared to speak.
Warren paced slowly behind them from one end of the line to the other while reading the contents of the file folder in his hand. Tarot cards had been found at the witchs house, scattered on the table in the living room; she had been in the middle of practicing her heinous art when the Guards had arrived. He sighed and closed the folder. "How could ten Holy Guards allow a lone witch to escape?" he wanted to know. "What were you men doing, anyway? Was she too much for you? Did your weapons fail to function properly? Do any of you have anything to say for yourselves?"
One of the Guards blinked nervously, and apprehensively said, "Permission to speak, sir."
"Denied!" He glared silently at his men. "You men are pathetic," he growled softly. "Ten men...ten of you went out to arrest one woman. You were well armed, you had the fastest cars in the county, you had the element of surprise, and what happened? I now have three men dead, one critical, and six more of you who simply say" --here his voice changed to a sarcastic whine-- "She got away, sir. Good Lord, you men are trained soldiers! What were you all doing out there?"
Sergeant Walters, with his foot still throbbing from a possible fracture, wanted desperately to clear his throat--but was afraid to. He didnt want to make a sound. But he could feel, as he stared straight ahead, a wad of phlegm gathering at the back of his throat, and it began to slide uncomfortably down. He fought the urge, but ultimately he could control himself no longer. Very quietly, he cleared his throat with a soft "...ahem..."
"Shut up!" Warren snapped in his ear with a near scream, making Walters flinch violently. He came slowly around the end of the line and started again, this time in front of his men. He walked slowly and deliberately, watching them for the slightest movement, and then came to a stop in front of Walters. He stared hard at him. "And what," he asked at last, his voice a soft growl, "in Gods name, happened to you?"
"I...I fell, sir."
"And just what was it that you fell into?" Then the odor reached his nostrils. He stepped back. "Never mind. Get out of here and clean yourself up."
"Yes sir." The sergeant executed a perfect about-face and headed quickly out the door, relieved to be out of there. In the hall he turned to look at the closed door that bore Warrens nameplate. "Son of a bitch," he quietly called him.
Warren fixed his eyes on the soldier who had been with Walters. "You say she rammed your blockade of the freeway. Which freeway was it?"
"Highway 36, sir," Miller replied. "Southbound. Dispatch has already been notified, and units are searching the area right now, sir."
Probably headed into the city itself, Warren told himself. Once she got there she could go anywhere. "Get to Communications and have them put the posters on the wire to all offices," he said. "I want every office in the country to be on the lookout for her. Notify Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco...all major cities. I want this witch. Do you understand?"
"Good. Get moving."
"If I may, sir..."
Warren sighed impatiently. "What is it?"
"We have good reason to believe she isnt alone, sir."
His eyes narrowed. "Not alone?"
"Begging the Colonels pardon, but there was no way she could handle a car the way she did and shoot at us at the same time. She had to have had some help, sir."
Witches could do just about anything with the power of Satan, he told himself, but even the Devil had his limits. Help from an accomplice? Another witch, perhaps? Or maybe a Familiar? Witches always had them; demons that could assume any shape the witch wanted. "Put all of this information on the wire."
"Yes sir." Miller turned and left.
"As for the rest of you," he went on, "I want full reports in triplicate on my desk before you go off duty tonight. Dismissed."
Once alone, Warren sat behind his desk and sighed again. He flipped open his well-worn copy of Malleus Maleficarum and skimmed over the pages. These people knew how to handle witches, he thought. None of this rights-of-the-accused crap. The book was mostly an instruction manual, written in the fifteenth century by two German monks, on how to identify and prosecute a witch. It recommended several ways on how to obtain confessions from them; there was the lash, of course, and the boot--a device for crushing the foot on which it was placed; the thumbscrews and the eye-gouger, the branding iron and the forehead tourniquet (extreme measures were necessary, it was claimed, when dealing with someone whose unholy Master could grant such great strength and power to his followers); and then there was Warrens favorite method: to have them stripped naked and stretched on the rack.
God, how he longed for those old days.
His mind kept wandering away from the book and back to his current problem. He knew what this witch could do to him, to his men, and to the rest of society. If he should allow her to escape, it would be the same thing as encouraging others to break The Law. Besides, he had a personal score to settle with her now.
Threaten me, witch, he thought. Ill show you who burns this time.
Matthew Gordon had never introduced himself to anyone as just Matt. He liked the idea of having been named after one of the saints in the Bible, and he would never even dream of degrading that fine man by thinking of him as just "Saint Matt." He had never introduced himself that way to children when he was in school, not to new neighbors, co-workers, his ex-wife, nor to the two hitchhikers that he had picked up when heading west on Interstate 70 early this morning, coming out of Denver.
"You two look like you been out in the rain," Gordon told them. "Bet youre glad its cleared up, eh?"
"Yeah," said the man with the dark hair and moustache. "It hasnt been a lot of fun."
"Whatre you doing out here, anyway?"
"Our car broke down," said the dark-haired woman in the aviator-style sunglasses. "The genius here forgot to buy oil with the last tank of gas."
Keller raised an eyebrow as he looked back at her. Her eyes were unreadable behind the dark gold lenses, but her slight shrug said, "Well, I had to tell him something." At least it sounded like a logical reason for being out on a rain-soaked highway; and Valerie had figured that he would pick up on the false story and go with it. As long as she could keep Gordon thinking they had been having a fight, he would understand their long silences. And as long as they didnt talk very much--or even at all--their chances of slipping up would be even smaller yet.
Keller could think of no reply, so he simply returned his eyes to the road ahead without comment. Some fuckin gratitude, he thought with an inward grumble. I haul her ass out of the fire, and this is what I get for it. He figured she could have thought of something else to tell Gordon, but...
And then he slowly smiled a wry little smile. Shes probably still pissed about me telling her which way to point the rifle.
Valerie leaned back in the cargo bay of the old white Dodge van, and rested against one of several wooden crates. "Whatve you got in here, anyway?" she asked.
"Bibles," Gordon replied.
That isnt all, she thought as she ran one hand over a smooth wooden lid.
Keller noticed just how big the crates were. Thats a lot of Bibles, he thought. "You a collector or something?"
"Naw," Gordon replied. "I sell em. I got Bibles, study guides, tracts, you name it. I supply most of the Christian bookstores in southern Colorado; I sell em at bargain prices. Sure beats getting them from some big publishing company back east, as far as my customers are concerned."
Oh, God, Valerie thought, not another one of these guys.
"Yeah, I supply stuff for the Jehovahs Witnesses, the Seventh-Day Adventists, the Baptists and the Lutherans, and even your bleeding-heart liberal Catholics," he proudly rambled on. "Theres good money in it, you know. Personally, I like the Foundations way best. They dont twist the Lords word around to suit themselves like everyone else does."
"Whereve I heard that before?" Valerie muttered softly in disgust.
"Nothing. Just thinking out loud."
Gordon reached forward and turned on the radio, and blipped the dial from one station to the next. He finally settled on the Foundations news.
"...radical terrorists, sacrilegiously calling themselves the Sons and Daughters of Liberty, have been arrested and are expected to receive prison terms of no less than ten years," the newscaster was saying.
"Praise Jesus!" Gordon exclaimed in triumph. "They oughtta lock up the whole damn bunch of them Godless Commie bastards and shoot em!"
Valerie and Keller exchanged a quick, surreptitious glance. Right, they thought. We dump im.
"...with the seemingly increasing number of dangerous terrorist groups, so the authorities are asking for the full cooperation of the people in reporting any person or persons who are particularly critical of the policies of the Foundation for Law and Morality. Remember, it is your morals they are protecting.
"In other news, there is still no word on the witch who is responsible for the deaths of three Holy Guardians during an attempted arrest last night. She is believed to be on her way out of Denver on Highway 70, and a partial description of her is tall with dark brown or black hair. She was last seen accompanied by a possible Familiar in a bronze Pontiac convertible. If anyone has any information they should immediately contact Colonel Elias Warren of the Denver Holy Guardians office..."
Valerie leaned farther back in the van, hoping Gordon wouldnt look back at her. Not that it made much difference; he had already had a good look at her.
"Hell of a terrific description," he said dryly. "Tall with dark brown or black hair. I wonder how many people fit that description." He craned his neck to look over his shoulder at his passenger. "I mean, hell--" he grinned a wide, amused grin "--that could even fit you!"
Valerie smiled a weak smile in return.
Keller stared ahead and said nothing. Up ahead he saw the small self-serve gas station and mini-market, and thought that this just might be the perfect place to get rid of ol Matthew Gordon. "Listen, are you hungry?" he asked. "I was just thinking that since you were kind enough to give us a lift, we could buy you lunch."
Gordon turned his grin on him. "Well, thats real nice of you! Now that you mention it, I am a little hungry." Without another word, he guided the van to the small parking lot.
"Why not pull up to the pumps?" Valerie suggested. "We may as well get you some gas while were here."
"Now, thats downright neighborly of you!" Gordon beamed. He pulled up next to the pump marked supreme (Get the good stuff, as long as theyre payin, he told himself) and shut off the engine. He handed Valerie the keys. "Its got a locking gas cap," he explained. "Nobody rips me off."
Valerie watched him head off toward the store, and then jingled the keys with a wry smile. She climbed out through the side door and went around to the pumps. As she unlocked the gas cap, she noticed a man sitting in an old wooden chair, leaning back against the wall in the shade of the long porch. He rubbed his dark and stubbly chin and narrowed his eyes, watching Valerie as she bent over slightly to insert the nozzle and squeeze the handle. The man slowly leaned forward and stood, then started for the pumps. He pushed his cowboy hat further forward with the heel of his hand (just as he had seen all the cowboys do in the movies), and his pointy-toed boots kicked up small clouds of dust. The girl seemed familiar to him somehow, but he couldnt quite place the face. The sunglasses she wore didnt help any.
He suddenly leaned against the side of the van with one hand, startling her. "Youre supposed to pay first," he told her with a gravelly voice, a result from smoking too many unfiltered cigarettes.
"My...boyfriend has the money," she said. "Hes inside buying groceries. Hell be out soon."
"Boyfriend, huh?" He ran his eyes over her, feeling her up with his gaze. "Hope youre not havin too much trouble with that thang," he drawled, indicating the hose with a slight nod. "Course, I bet youre good at handlin...big hoses." There was a lascivious gleam in his bloodshot eyes.
Oh, shit, she thought with an inward groan.
A pair of old wooden ceiling fans spun slowly as the stores clerk sat behind the counter, ignoring the cash register and watching Valerie as she pumped the gas. The only other customer in the store stood in front of the counter, and he, too, was watching Valerie. Gordon picked up a red plastic shopping basket and began making his way down the aisles while Keller headed for the refrigerated section to get some soft drinks; he figured it would be better to avoid buying beer, considering Gordon would probably disapprove of that sort of thing. But getting the soft drinks was only a secondary reason for approaching the fridge--his main reason for coming here was to disable the pay phone, which was right next to it. In the glass of the refrigerators doors, he watched the reflection of the store behind him and saw that everyone was preoccupied. He quickly flipped out the five-inch blade of his camouflage-handled switchblade knife, dropped into a crouch, and cut the line near the floor where he hoped no one would soon notice it. He folded the knife, slipped it into a back pocket, and then got a six-pack of Pepsi. Then, just to make things look good, he grabbed a few bags of corn chips and potato chips, a few bags of cheese puffs, and a variety of cold sandwiches.
While Keller was doing all the shopping, Gordon was at the magazine stand and reading up on all the latest Hollywood gossip; even after all the death and desolation of the Plagues, government and society--and the yellow press--had to continue with the illusion of business as usual.
On his way to the counter, Keller saw the wanted poster that bore Valeries picture hanging near the magazine rack. Oh, shit, he thought. If he sees it... "Hey, Matthew?"
Gordon turned in Kellers direction, away from the poster.
"My wife has the money; Ill be right back."
"Take your time," Gordon replied. He was in no hurry to finish the article hed just started. How can they be allowed to print such filth? he wondered disapprovingly as he excitedly flipped to the next page.
Keller stepped out into the warm muggy air. He saw Valerie topping off the gas tank and the man standing close to her. The cowboy struck a wooden match with his thumbnail and lit the cigarette that dangled from his lips. Goddamn fool, Keller thought as he removed his jacket. He started toward the van, and he could hear Valerie saying, "Look, just leave me alone, okay? I dont want any trouble."
"There wont be no trouble at all," the cowboy said. "Lets just go on back to my place and..." And then he remembered where he might have seen her. She looked a lot like the woman in the posters; hed know for sure if it wasnt for those damned glasses, but he thought hed try a bluff. "...and I wont turn you in."
Valerie stiffened, and the cowboy thought he heard a faint gasp of fear. It is her, he thought. Now I gotcha.
Instead of pleading for mercy, as the cowboy expected any woman to do, Valerie suddenly pulled the nozzle from the gas tank and squeezed the handle again. Chevron Super-Unleaded splashed all over the cowboys crotch.
That ought to cool the asshole off, Keller thought with an amused grin.
The cowboy jumped backward with a panicked, "Goddamn it, bitch!" He hastily snapped the cigarette away. "Watch what the fuck youre doin!" Then he clenched his fists and took a threatening step forward. "You stupid cunt," he said dangerously, "Im gonna--"
"Gonna what?" Keller asked him from behind.
"This stupid jerk doesnt seem to have anything better to do than hassle me and get this place blown off the map," Valerie told him.
"Oh, yeah?" he asked with a quiet voice. He tossed his jacket to Valerie, who instinctively caught it. This was the first time she noticed how hard and lean he was; like a middleweight boxer, without a visible trace of fat. He took a step closer to the cowboy, looking very relaxed. "Whats the hassle, tough guy?"
The cowboy was at least four inches taller than Keller, and a good thirty pounds heavier. He had taken on many men his own size, and some even bigger; but there was something in this mans eyes that made the cowboy think twice. There was no fear or anger, no challenge...just a flat, expressionless look. Like that of a shark.
He backed off. "No hassle here. I just thought the lady was havin trouble with the gas hose, thass all." He stepped back a couple of paces, then turned and headed back for the store.
"Uh huh," Keller said.
Valerie sighed in relief. "Thanks, Keller, I--"
"Get in the van. Now."
Matthew Gordon was in the midst of a very detailed article about sex and murder in one of those pulp detective magazines when the clerk yelled, "Hey!"
Startled, and with a guilty look on his face, Gordon hastily closed and dropped the magazine with a rumpling of its flimsy pages. He glanced at the clerk and saw that he was running for the door. "Hey!" he yelled again. "Come back here! Stop!"
Gordons confusion cleared when he heard the engine of his van roar to life. "Shit fire!" he shouted, and followed the clerk out the door. He got outside just in time to see his van roar on down the road, leaving a trail of dust and exhaust hanging in the air behind.
She relinquished the sunglasses to the driver, and now sat with her elbow on the windowsill and one booted foot on the dash. "So how long do you think itll take us to get to the coast?" she asked.
"A couple or three days, I guess," Keller replied. "Whats on the coast?"
"My uncles ranch."
"Oh, yeah. Mendocino, right? I was through there once or twice. Pretty place."
"Yeah." She sat quietly for a few minutes, thinking about the chase out of Denver, and about Tony and Jeff. Tony was dead. Jeff was dead...
And then, seemingly from out of nowhere, she suddenly asked, "Hey, what was that crack supposed to mean?"
Keller pulled his eyes from the road for a quick look at her. "What crack?"
"You know. Not bad, for a woman. That crack."
Kellers eyes returned to the road as he thought, and he looked genuinely puzzled. He looked back at her. "What are you talking about?"
"When I was shooting at the soldiers with that machine gun and that fuckin cannon of yours. Remember? You were being a smartass, showing me which way to point it, and then you said, Not bad, for a woman, when I shot out their windshield."
Keller frowned in thought as his eyes returned to the road. It seemed familiar, now that she mentioned it. "I never said that," he told her. "I may have thought it," he mumbled, "but--" He cast her a quick, unobtrusive look through the corner of his eye, and shut up.
"Have you always been such a sexist?"
"Im not a sexist."
"Yeah, you are. Youre a male sexist porker."
"I am not!"
"Im not, goddamn it!" he said, genuinely angry. "I just happen to think there are some things that should be left for men to do, thats all."
"Yeah. Like handling guns, driving a car, and voting. Come on, I thought I did pretty well back there, and so did you. Come on, admit it."
He said nothing.
It doesnt matter, she thought. She knew what he really thought; shed already proven her point. He was just being stubborn, thats all.
Keller drove in silence, thinking and watching the gray asphalt speed toward them and disappear under the van. Valerie turned her attention to the scenery as it sped by, and squirmed uncomfortably in the seat. She looked at him through the corner of her eyes to make certain he wasnt watching her, then plucked her shirt away from her chest and surreptitiously sniffed at it. Oh, man, she thought. She looked over her shoulder into the storage compartment to see if there were any clothes hanging there, since the van was owned by a traveling salesman who would need an occasional change of clothes, and crawled into the back and pushed a few crates out of the way to make room for herself. She curiously eyed them as she ran her hand along one of the wooden lids, and felt...not clothes, but something most definitely not of a religious nature. She glanced around the floor for a moment, found a jack handle that lay near the sliding door, and used it to pry open the lid. "Bibles arent the only things that ol Matthew Gordons into."
"Yeah, so what..." Keller grumbled, still stung by the remark about him being a sexist. I am not a sexist, he told himself again. Im not.
The lid came away with a squealing of metal nails being ripped from the wood, and she tossed it aside. The crate seemed to be filled with Bibles, all bound in black leather and with gold lettering stamped into each front cover and spine. She dug deeper into the crate and shoved a number of Bibles aside, and found a false bottom. Using the jack handle again, she pried out the bottom and tossed it next to the lid. "Oh, shit." A pause. "Oh, my God..." she said in shocked amusement, and then she laughed. "How sick!"
"What? Whats sick?"
"Matthew Gordons a dirty old fart!"
Keller began to smile a little. "Oh, yeah?"
"Either that, or he doesnt know hes been smuggling sex toys." She faced forward with one arm across the back of the drivers seat. "Exhibit A," she said as she waved a battery-powered vibrator in front of him. "This is no electric zucchini." She tossed it onto the passenger seat, then turned back to the crate and poked around in it some more. "Ohmigod...heres Exhibit B: the Portable Plastic Pussy Pal. Jesus Christ, do you guys really use these things? What do you do if you forget to clean it out right away? How do you get the crust out?"
"God," he groaned as his face twisted in disgust. "Leave it to a woman to ask a question like that."
"Yap, yap," he muttered, smiling in spite of himself.
"Its a perfectly logical question. And if you dont like it, then howd you like to wind up wearing this thing on your nose for the rest of your life?"
"No thanks," he said, and then quietly added, "Not if it smells like a tuna fish sandwich..."
She smacked him, not too hard, across the back of his head with the sex toy with a laughing, "God, youre disgusting!" She tossed it onto the passenger seat where it lay next to the vibrator, and rummaged around in the crate some more. "Uh oh."
"Whats the matter?"
"I just found a two-headed snake."
Her hand came forward, and in it she held a fourteen-inch dildo with a head at each end. "The man certainly does cater to all tastes."
"Can you imagine the looks on the faces of all those prudes who get these things as their surprise prizes at their Saturday night bingo games?"
"What are you, kidding? This is probably what packs em all in at the church bazaar each week."
"Wouldnt surprise me." He drove on, thinking. Of course it was possible, he supposed, that someone else had slipped all that stuff into those crates along with the Bibles; but he didnt believe it for a second. Hed had too much first-hand experience with people like Matthew Gordon. They were the kind of people who would cut you off in traffic and then flip you off, screw you over at work, and even stand on your own front porch and condemn you to Hell if you didnt let them into your home to spew their crap and try to convert you. They would pull all this shit on you and then hide behind their religion, secure in the knowledge that "Christians arent perfect, just forgiven," so they had no reason to change, and that it was all okay. Some of these people even had gone so far as to bomb womens health centers and family planning centers, which the Foundation and its supporters preferred to call "abortion clinics," and even shoot a few people who worked in them.
He heard her moving around again. "Now whatre you doing?"
"Im trying to find something in here to wear," she replied. "A spare shirt, or a sweater or something. Ive been wearing the same shirt for almost two days; its sweaty, and I smell."
"No lie," he mumbled, and then immediately wished he hadnt. He could feel a pair of eyes, as cold as a snipers stare, boring through the back of his head. He waited for a moment or two, and then glanced in the rear-view mirror. What he saw was Valerie with her back to him. She had peeled off her shirt, and was now unhooking her bra and slipping its straps from her shoulders. His eyes remained on the mirror instead of the road as he hoped that she might turn around.
She did. Her eyes suddenly widened in shock, and she yelled, "Look out!"
Huh? he thought, and at the same time his eyes snapped back to the road just in time to avoid running the van into a ditch. He spun the wheel hard to the left, throwing the contents of the van--and Valerie--hard against the right panel. Valerie yelped in pain as the side of her head connected with the windowsill, and then she quickly straightened and slipped into the black leather vest she had found. She tried to pull it shut as the van stabilized, and found that it wouldnt close all the way. Even if it did, it wouldnt have mattered very much because there were no buttons. There was only a long lace that held it barely in place, revealing bare skin between her high, round breasts and all the way down to her navel. Oh, great, she thought, hes gonna love this. It was either this vest or a red lace teddy, and the vest was only a little warmer. She tied it as near to closed as she could, and then rubbed the sore spot on the side of her head as she asked, "What the hell were you doing, trying to get us killed? What the hell were you looking at?"
"Nothing!" he said defensively. "Im...just tired, thats all."
Her voice softened. "You want me to drive for a while?"
"Yeah, thats a good idea," he said. Then he noticed the vest and his eyes widened. "Wheres that come from?"
"One of the crates. I think ol Matthew moonlights in the porno supply business. Its not very comfortable, but at least its clean and dry." Then she saw the way he was looking at her, and her eyes chilled again. "Dont say it."
Ever the picture of innocence, Keller said, "Me? Say anything? I was just thinking you look very..."
"Im warning you, buster..."
"You do." He smiled and glanced at her as she moved the sex toys out of the way and settled into the front seat once more. She didnt seem to be having a good time. He shrugged inwardly. Oh well, he thought, you just cant please some people.
He pulled the van over to the side of the road and stopped. He got out and stretched with a popping of several joints, and yawned. He realized for the first time how tired he really was--they had been on the road for more than fifteen hours, according to his black digital sports watch; fifteen hours since the raid at Tonys house. Seems more like fifteen days, he thought. He walked around the front of the van and climbed into the passenger seat as Valerie got behind the wheel. He reached into the glove box and searched until he found what he was hoping for--a road atlas. He studied it briefly and said, "Wake me up when we reach Highway 13. I got an idea."
"What is it?"
"Theres a friend of mine who lives in the area. If were lucky, we might get us a new set of wheels." He leaned back in the seat with a deep sigh as Valerie pulled the van back onto the road, and continued to guide it toward the Utah border.
To Be Continued
Return to the Academy