As always, comments can be sent to bloodyvisigoths@charter.net

 

"ALLIES"

by Ernie Whiting

Part 4

Chapter Eleven

A couple of grams of hash had been found along with an assortment of contraband rock and roll tapes that Dutch had mentioned were in the glove box of the Charger, and Keller was now quite pleasantly buzzed. Valerie had plugged in a Grace Slick tape and was softly singing along in harmony with it, and Keller quietly listened to the similarity between the two voices as he concentrated on his driving. After a while, Valerie became quiet and just listened to the music, and thought about Keller.

He was so completely different from Tony. She had been fond of Tony in her own way, at one time, though at other times that fondness had been strained almost to the breaking point. But she found herself liking Keller, too. Sort of. She didn’t feel sexually attracted to him or anything; maybe it was because of her recent loss, or maybe because--despite his good looks--he just didn’t affect her that way. No chemistry. And there was little that she knew about him and his past. Not that it was really any of her business. When asked, he spoke openly about some of the things he had done over the years, but he never volunteered any information. Tony, on the other hand, was unpredictable and constantly changing. He was always trying to be someone different, almost as though he were constantly trying to win approval from others by trying to be someone else. In bed, he seemed almost indefatigable; even there, it seemed, he was trying to prove something. It seemed that he had always been trying to prove something, but to whom?

Keller seemed to be more of an adventurer. Not for money (although that, no doubt, frequently came in handy, she believed), but for the sake of his friends when they needed him--regardless of the risk. He often put himself in severe danger, and almost always won out; and he also knew that he could always rely on his friends when he needed their help. And he enjoyed the pure spirit of adventure; he enjoyed living on that dangerous edge of life, where the slightest nudge either way could send him to that final great adventure, perhaps because it made him feel really alive, and not merely existing. Some who didn’t know him might have thought he had a death-wish, and others may have thought he was just plain crazy, but it was through some of these outrageous escapades of his that he met and kept most of his friends.

Valerie touched his arm once, and she had received such a tremendous input of images that it was hard to separate them. He’d had a number of failures: he had once been shot by a soldier during a raid and had nearly died; a girlfriend had left him because she didn’t approve of his lifestyle; he had been arrested three times on a wide variety of charges (and had organized successful escapes from jail each time, freeing not only himself but also those who had been incarcerated with him, thereby making several more valuable, life-long friends); and a few barroom brawls could have turned out a little better if he hadn’t been so damned plastered at the time. But his failures were far outweighed by his successes. And he wasn’t out to prove anything to the world like Tony had been. Keller was secure in the knowledge of who he was, how he lived, and he didn’t give a damn about what anyone thought of him.

The Grace Slick tape ended, and Keller reached forward to plug in "Special Forces" by .38 Special. He cranked up the volume, and "Back Door Stranger" came blasting from the four speakers. "Want to light me up another pipe?" he asked loudly over the music.

"No. You’ve had enough." She reached for the pipe that was resting on the dashboard, with the intention of putting it away, and then she froze.

Keller looked at her suspiciously. Oh no, he thought, not again.

"Company’s coming."

Shit... He checked the rear-view mirror. "There’s no one there," he said, but his smuggler’s instinct felt it, too.

"They’re coming. I can feel it."

He killed the tape player and checked the mirror again. All he had seen in it was a speck in the sky, probably just a piece of dirt or something on the glass itself. The speck had grown. "Shit," he said softly as the speck grew quickly into a military helicopter. A moment later, it was only about a hundred feet behind and maybe twenty feet above them. The roar of its engine filled the car, and the down blast of air from its blades threatened to tear the Charger from the road.

"You there, in the black car. This is the Holy Guards. Pull over to the side of the road."

"Fuck you," Keller softly growled.

"This is the Holy Guards. I’m ordering you to pull over, right now!"

Keller downshifted to third and punched the gas pedal to the floor. The car leapt forward as the tachometer needle shot up to 4500 rpm, and the speedometer needle went to and passed the 115 mark. My God, we’re still accelerating! What the hell did Dutch build here? For the first time in his life, he felt a twinge of fear from a machine that he was driving, feeling not quite in control. But he was even more afraid of what would happen to him and Valerie if the soldiers caught them, so he decided that from here on out they were already dead as he shifted back to fourth. The tach needle dropped while the speedometer showed 130, and with a slow smile he said to himself, Okay, li’l Charger, show me what you can do.

"This is your last chance. Pull over!"

Keller reached out through his window, made certain that the pilot could see his hand, and flipped him off.

The chopper shifted over to the left side of the car. The metal towers that supported the power lines on the side of the road zipped by like slats on a picket fence, and Keller regarded both them and the chopper with a nervous glance. And then he noticed the rocket launchers. "Shit!" He shifted to overdrive as the first rocket launched; the car lurched and bucked madly for a moment, and the engine died. "Oh, shit!" The car began to slow, and he tugged the wheel to the left. With the power suddenly cut, it felt dead in his hands, yet he still managed to swerve wide. The rocket flew over them and exploded in the road to the right and just ahead of the Charger, right where it would have been had the engine not died. The crater it left was about six feet deep and maybe twelve feet wide. Keller hit the clutch, restarted the engine, and shifted to fourth. The tach needle sprang back to life, hovering at almost 6,000 rpm. Redline. The turbo was screaming like a raging demon, and the speed showed 140. This engine is gonna blow if this keeps up, he thought. What kind of a gear ratio was in this thing? The gas pedal was on the floor, and the tach now sat at 6,500; it could go no higher. Gotta try once more, he thought, and he shifted into overdrive.

The demon’s scream suddenly became a tiger’s purr. The ride was smooth, as the front and rear spoilers used the car’s slipstream to force it lower to the ground, and for a frantic moment Keller thought the engine had died again. He glanced at the tach needle and saw it resting at 2,600, while the speedometer needle was jammed hard against the pin at 140. It could go no higher.

The chopper was falling behind, and for a few insane seconds Keller thought they might actually outrun it. Then the helicopter overtook the Charger, this time on the right, and then Keller could tell that another rocket was being armed and aimed. He yanked the wheel to the right, clutching and downshifting and braking, and the second rocket blew a hole in the road, narrowly missing the Charger again. Chunks of molten asphalt pelted the car, leaving dents in the hood and scorch marks along the sides. Too damn close, he thought as he watched the chopper pass overhead. It swung around in a wide turn, and Keller punched the gas again, bringing the speed back up to 140. The chopper came at them again; this time going in the opposite direction, and a burst of machine gun fire erupted and left a trail of bullet holes in the road alongside the car. Keller began weaving the Charger back and forth across the road, trying to become as difficult a target as possible. He shifted back up to the modified overdrive once more, and glanced in the mirror. The chopper was growing smaller and smaller, and then it came around in another wide, sweeping arc and began chasing down the Charger again. The gently curving road, which at 70 miles per hour seemed almost straight, had at 140-plus become a twisting gray serpent, and Keller felt as though he was back on the racing circuit with his old buddies before the Air Force, risking life and limb for that all-important gold trophy.

The chopper no longer seemed to be gaining on them, nor did it seem to be falling any farther back. There was no way that Keller was going to outrun a helicopter, so it was definitely time for a change in tactics. His eyes fell to the fuel gauge; it showed a little under a quarter tank. There were an additional five gallons of gas in the back, but he didn’t think the soldiers would let him take the time to stop and refuel. There was nothing in sight in the middle of this damn desert, just road and power lines and a whole lot of dirt and dust. Nowhere to hide. Just road and...dust and...and an idea came to him.

The helicopter was coming up from behind at full speed. Keller shifted to neutral and hit the brake just as the chopper opened fire again. He pulled the car to the left and another line of bullets spat up asphalt a few feet from Valerie’s side, and he heard her yelp in fright. The chopper roared over them and Keller continued to let the car slow down. The speedometer needle dropped to 120, then to 100, and continued on down as the car continued to decelerate.

The .50 caliber machine gun opened fire again, strafing Keller’s side of the road, and missed the Charger by scant inches. It swung around once again, and Shipman was about to fire another long burst when he noticed the car was losing speed. Looks like he’s finally giving up, he thought. Bright boy.

"Reeves! You can slow down; he’s had it! We’ve got him!"

***

"Why are you slowing down?" she screamed. "Are you fucking crazy?"

"We can’t lose him on the road! Besides, we’ve got a bit of a fuel problem, so this calls for a change in strategy!"

"Stopping isn’t going to help!"

"Who said anything about stopping?" He let the speed drop to fifty miles per hour, and then pulled the car off the road and into the dirt. "Roll up your window! It’s gonna get real dusty around here!"

***

Thinking the Charger was going to finally stop, Reeves began chopping power. Instead, the car went off the road and began leaving a trail of dust in the air. "What the hell is he doing?" he wondered. He pulled the control stick to the right and began following the car again, then pushed it forward to take them into a dive as Shipman opened fire again. Shipman shouted excitedly into his microphone, "We’ve got him right where we want him! Let’s dust him; he can’t see where he’s going!" Reeves replied with a nod and took the helicopter farther down. Then they saw the Charger do something totally unexpected--it took straight off into the desert, where there was no road, no asphalt, no real traction…nothing. Just a lot of loose sand and dirt and rocks. And the chopper, not wanting to lose it, continued after it with another strafing run. Then the car turned, and instead of heading straight off again it began to run in circles, with its tires spitting clouds of dirt and dust into the air. First it would circle to the left, and then to the right, and then it began doing figure eights. What the hell is he doing? Reeves wondered. The car continued with its erratic driving pattern, and the chopper stopped and hovered so it could observe the car’s antics. There was so much dust being kicked into the air that soon the car was completely hidden from sight, and the chopper had to go down into the giant dust cloud to clear it away with the down blast of its rotors.

The Charger was gone.

"Where’d he go?"

Shipman strained to turn, and surveyed the ground below them. "What the hell? How’d he--" He looked out his own window and looked backward. "No, wait--! There he is! Shit, he’s headed back for the highway!"

The gun ship swept around in another wide arc, and went in pursuit.

Keller whipped the car back and forth, zigzagging it toward the road and kicking up more dust. He drove in circles again, letting the helicopter overshoot him again, and circled again and again. Although he could barely see where he was going, he managed to bring the Charger a little closer to the highway with each circle. He’s out of rockets, he thought, so he’s making strafing runs. Well, come on, sucker, do it again. Just one more time, nice and low. You don’t want to miss.

***

The only objective in Reeves’s mind now was to kill the driver of the Charger. As his co-pilot/weapons engineer brought the other set of machine guns on line, switching from empty to fully loaded, the pilot struggled to get a radar lock. "Gotcha this time, motherfucker," he muttered. "Gonna gitcha this time."

The chopper went after the car again. Reeves could barely see the car through the trail of flying dust that it was leaving, but as he gained on the dust-coated Charger he could see it more clearly as both car and helicopter drew closer to the highway. "Gotcha," Reeves muttered again as he guided the gun ship in for the kill, hanging right on its tail and coming in low. He adjusted his microphone in front of his lips, and prepared to radio back to Warren to inform him of the situation.

The car was almost to the highway. Reeves went straight for it. "Oh, this is going to be soooo good," he said as he prepared for another strafing run. "You son of a whore, you’re mine!" He switched on his mike with a malevolent grin. "Colonel Warren! We’re in pursuit of a black 1984 Dodge Charger, westbound on Highway 40. We’re somewhere near the Utah b...border..." His voice trailed off, and his grin slowly slipped away. He peered through the thinning dust and saw...the power lines. He was flying right into them. "Oh Jesus, NO!" He yanked back hard on the stick, but he was too late; the helicopter hit the lines and tangled them in its rotors. The drive shaft to which the rotors were attached suddenly jammed with a wrenching jolt as another black, serpentine cable wrapped itself around it. It snapped and lashed against the helicopter’s fuselage with a shower of sparks, and suddenly twenty-one thousand volts of raw, unreleased power surged through the helicopter to short out its electrical systems and set off the fuel in its tanks. With a thunderous blast that shook the earth, the helicopter exploded into a massive fireball of orange flames and thick black smoke, and the Charger roared away from under it as flaming wreckage went flying everywhere.

Keller guided the car back onto the highway, and finally brought it to a screeching stop, sliding its tail around nearly 180 degrees. Sweat had broken out on his brow, and his hands were soaked and cramped from gripping the wheel so hard. The car’s cabin was filled with hot humid air and the smell of sweat, so he cranked his window down. A hot breath of fresh desert air blew gently across their faces, and Keller took a deep breath and let it out as he turned to look at the flaming wreck. Black oily smoke rose in snake-like coils into the pale blue desert sky to mark the death of the FLM gun ship.

He looked at Valerie. "You can open your eyes now."

She let them open, but she still gripped the armrest and the side of the bucket seat. Her nails were sunk into the leather and corduroy.

Keller flashed her a grin. "Beats the hell out of any ride at Disneyland, doesn’t it?"

She let out a long, long breath. "I thought for sure we were goners."

"What are you, kidding?" he asked with a smug smile. "I know what I’m doin’."

Valerie released her grip and stared in awe and disbelief at the smoking wreck. "I never would have believed it," she said. "Not in a million years."

Neither would I, Keller thought. But he never would have admitted it to anyone. He turned away from the smoking helicopter and said, "I love you, darlin’."

Surprised by this sudden admission of such emotion, Valerie turned to look at him. True, they had been through a lot together, and had nearly died on several occasions; but what really surprised her was seeing Keller kissing his fingertips and pressing them gently against the Charger’s padded dashboard. "I absolutely love you," he told the car again.

Valerie just sat there, staring at him in stunned silence and not really knowing what to say, or do, or even think.

With victorious contempt, the Charger turned its back on the defeated FLM chopper and pulled onto the road. It stopped again, and Keller got out from behind the wheel to refuel it.

Valerie didn’t even try to suppress the laughter of combined relief and incredulity that suddenly bubbled out of her. "You’re really something, y’know?" she said.

He approached the passenger window. With a smug, satisfied smile, he leaned on the door, looked inside, and said, "Yeah, that’s what everybody tells me."

***

The sun had disappeared beyond the distant horizon, and a suddenly cold twilight wind began to stir the dry dust of the Utah desert around Colonel Warren’s black leather boots. He was gazing in silent fury at the distant mountain range as he thought about how yet another full day had gone by, and he still had not caught the witch. The convoy had arrived at the final location where the black Dodge had been seen, and there was nothing here but the scorched and smoldering pile of wreckage that had once been a two-million-dollar helicopter. For a long time it had been impossible to talk to him; he had raved for over an hour, pounding on the hood of his cruiser and screaming almost hysterically at his men, asserting that this was positive proof that the Devil was aiding her. Her slave--the Familiar that had been driving the car--had used some kind of black magic to bring down the chopper. What better evidence was there, he had shrieked, than these charred remains?

"I’m really starting to worry about the Colonel," one of the soldiers later remarked. "I’ve never seen anyone act like that before. Did you see what he did to the hood of his car?"

"He’s got a right to," replied another. "After all, Ted, how would you feel if you had lost so many men on account of one person?"

Ted thought for a moment. "He’s obsessed, Mike," he said at last. "He’s obsessed with the idea of capturing a witch. How can we even be sure that she is a witch?"

"Look at how many men she’s killed--"

"All we know is what Warren’s telling us."

"Are you defending her?" Mike asked, his eyes wide with shock. He pointed to the wrecked helicopter. "How the hell do you suppose that happened?"

"Pilot error. I don’t believe it was ‘black magic.’ Look, I didn’t say I was defending her, I’m just saying you and I and probably the rest of this entire unit doesn’t have all the facts. Warren says she’s a witch, right? What does he base this on? He’s got a picture of some girl, and he says he saw her in a ‘vision.’ That’s not evidence. When I was a kid, I was taught that I should always examine all sides of any given question before making up my mind on it. So far, all I have is his side. You and I don’t know for certain that she’s a witch at all. Hell, I’m not even all that sure that witches even exist."

Mike took a step toward him. "Don’t you ever say you don’t believe in witches or the Devil," he said, his voice low and threatening. "They used to burn people at the stake for speaking such heresies. Talk like that can get you into some deep, deep shit."

"I’m just trying to learn the truth, that’s all. That’s what being a cop is supposed to be about, isn’t it? To examine facts, and to get to the real truth about a person before deciding whether or not to make an arrest? From what I can tell, lately there have been a lot of innocent people thrown in jail--and I thank God I never put any of them there."

"There are no innocent people in jail," Mike replied. "‘If a person is innocent of a crime, then he is not a suspect.’ A US attorney general once said that; and only suspects are arrested." He regarded him carefully. "Look, I’m going to do you a favor: I’m going to forget that we had this conversation."

Ted stared at him for a short moment. "Ahh, I don’t know," he said at last. "Maybe you’re right." He smiled a thin smile. "I guess this’ll give me something to think about while I’m on guard duty."

"You drew guard duty tonight? You poor soul."

"Believe it or not, I’m actually volunteering for it."

"You’ve been out in the sun too long," Mike told him as he finally permitted himself a small smile. "But I’ll still buy you a cup of coffee."

"Thanks. I’ll need it."

"And no more doubtful thinking, okay? Thinking too much isn’t good for you. It’s a lot easier if you let someone else do your thinking for you."

***

Later that night, while the rest of the men were asleep, Ted quietly pushed a patrol car down the slight incline of the road until he was certain that he was far enough away to start the engine without anyone hearing it. No, Mikey, he thought, I’m not crazy for volunteering for guard duty.

He sat behind the wheel for a few minutes as he let his tired muscles relax. Then he started the engine and drove off toward the Colorado border. Let them report him for desertion; he didn’t care. At least, he wouldn’t care until they managed to salvage enough parts to get one of the radios working so they could call in for repairs for their sabotaged cars. Warren’s so whacked out on catching this "witch" of his that he won’t even bother coming after me, he told himself. When he managed to sneak back into Denver, he told himself (and he hoped to God he would have enough time), he would ditch the car and return home on foot via a circuitous and unseen route through several back yards and alleys. Once he got home, he and his wife would use the connecting door between the kitchen and the garage to secretly pack the Jeep Wrangler with food and clothes and his weapons, and then they would bundle up their daughter and head straight for the Canadian border.

 

 

Chapter Twelve

Valerie leaned against one fender of the Charger and deeply inhaled the fresh, pure air of Mendocino, and let her breath out slowly. Almost home, she thought. If it hadn’t been for Keller, who was at the moment engrossed with activities under the hood, she would never have made it. She folded her arms and watched him as he worked. He had remained behind the wheel all night and all the following day, driving at a steady 100 miles per hour and stopping only for fuel and calls to nature, right on up until the car broke down on this lonely mountain highway that was surrounded on all sides by massive redwoods, pines and firs. The sky was slightly overcast and made the colors of the forest look deeper and richer than in bright sunlight, and a chilly breeze teased at her dark hair. She stuffed her hands into the pockets of the down vest and shivered slightly.

How does he do it? she wondered. Keller had hardly slept at all since their flight from Colorado, and she hadn’t seen him take any stimulants; he didn’t even appear tired. He just looked a little scruffy and unshaved. She supposed that as a smuggler he either must be accustomed to making such long runs like this one, or he was running on adrenalin. Or both.

In some ways she kind of reluctantly admired him, and maybe even liked him a little bit. She admired him for being an individual, and not someone who changed with the fashions, styles, and attitudes just to keep up with what was considered to be popular or trendy. ("I don’t follow trends," he told her. "I set them.") And she admired him as a human being--a true human, one who believed in helping people when possible because he believed it was the right thing to do. Even though it seemed, sometimes, that doing the right thing was far more difficult than doing what was convenient for himself. Nancy was right; Keller was a man of honor.

His slightly muffled voice came from under the hood. "Shit," he grumbled. "Miserable goddamn ‘cooling-on-demand’ system. Why couldn’t he have put in a real fan, one with a belt?" He grumbled and cursed for a few more minutes, then straightened. "It’s gotta be the damn sending unit," he said at last. "And the radiator’s busted."

"Sending unit?"

He rested his hands on the hood, with a ratchet in one and a screwdriver in the other. "The fan that he put in here has its own motor. When the engine reaches a certain temperature, an electronic signal from the sending unit turns on the fan; that way, there’s no belt to pull horsepower away from the drive train. It’s gotta be the sending unit in here that’s kaput. The engine overheated, and now we got us a cracked radiator. And maybe a cracked block, too. If that’s the case, then this car is dead."

"So we walk."

He transferred the ratchet to his left hand and pulled down the hood support, and let the hood drop into place with a loud bang! as he said, "Unless we can flag down a cab or something." He dug into his blazer for his cigarettes and lit one. He sat on the hood and groaned. "Oh, man..."

"Aw, come on, Keller, look at the bright side." She turned to face him, and leaned against the fender with one hip as she re-folded her arms. "We’ve got fresh air, a chance to stretch our legs after all those hours of sitting... Wouldn’t you like to go for a nice walk in the woods?"

He thought about what Dutch had told him; about the return of a lot of wildlife, now that so many people were gone. About all the bears and cougars and wolves…

"No, not really," he said with a sigh. "But it’s not like we’ve got any choice, though, is it?" He dragged on the cigarette and dropped it, and ground it out under the toe of his boot.

"Hey!"

He looked at her with wisps of smoke trailing from his nose and mouth. "What?"

"Whaddaya mean, ‘What?’ Do you have to start dropping garbage around here already? This isn’t the city, y’know."

He looked at the mashed cigarette butt. "What’re you complaining about? It’s only one butt--it’s not like I unloaded a garbage truck or something."

"Yeah, well, the place isn’t an ashtray, either."

He sighed in exasperation. "Oh, good God," he muttered. He bent and picked up the butt. He slid into the car, pulled out the ashtray, and dropped the butt in. He slammed it shut and got out again. "There," he said, dusting his hands together. "Happy?" He went around to the hatch and together they took out the sleeping bags and the small packs. He shut the hatch again, and then locked the doors.

"I don’t think there are a lot of car thieves around here."

"Yeah, I know. It’s just a habit... Besides, I feel kind of bad about abandoning her out there like this. This puppy saved our lives."

After a moment’s reflection, she thought maybe she had come down a little hard on him about the cigarette. Come to think of it, she didn’t know why she had acted that way; maybe she simply thought that this place deserved a little more respect. "Personally, I’d like to believe it was the driver who did all the work," she said, trying to smooth things over.

He thought it over for a moment, not looking at her, and then nodded slightly. "Yeah, you’re right." He pulled the Desert Eagle from the back of his jeans and chambered a round, set the safety, and put it back. "Listen, it’s going to be dark in an hour or so--we’d better get moving." And with that, they picked up their gear and started down the road.

***

They were captured some forty-five minutes later. Wolves had been howling off in the distance, and Keller had been feeling uneasy about them, so he decided to keep the Eagle in one hand and Valerie’s hand in the other in case they had to run for it. He had been concentrating on the wolves so hard that he had never noticed they were being followed by two human figures until one of them shouted "Freeze!" and they stopped immediately.

"Put the gun down gently," said a voice, and Keller complied. "Step away from it. Now both of you, turn around slowly and keep your hands in sight."

Keller’s mind raced, trying to think of an escape plan, as he and Valerie turned to face their captors. It was a minor relief to find that these two people were not soldiers. "Who’re you?" he asked.

"We’ll ask the questions, if you don’t mind," replied a female voice that was filled with suspicion and tinged with a trace of fear.

"Sorry."

"We want to know who you are. We’ve never seen you around here before; what do you want with us?" She was pointing a scoped Parker-Hale 2100 hunting rifle at Keller’s chest.

Not a bad sniper’s rifle, he thought. "No, we don’t live around here. My name’s Keller, and this is Valerie. Our car broke down three or four miles from here." He paused for a moment. "Care to give us a lift?"

Dead silence.

"What are you doing out here?" the woman asked a moment later.

Keller rolled his eyes as he sighed in exasperation. "I just told you--"

"I’m trying to find a friend of mine," Valerie said, cutting in. "His name’s Oscar Corey. He used to know my uncle, Vincent Ryan. It’s his ranch that I’m trying to get to."

The man and woman lowered their weapons. "We know Oscar," he said, and Valerie breathed a sigh of relief. He cast a quick glance at his partner and asked, "But why do you want to go to the old Ryan place?"

"I used to live there. Why? Is there something wrong?"

"You mean, you haven’t heard?"

"Heard what?" Keller wanted to know. "Are there soldiers there? Have they taken it over?"

Julie and Rob looked at each other, and decided it would be best not to tell them the truth about the strange noises that had been heard coming from the old house; the noises and the lights that shone in the old house in which no one dared to live. Some people said they saw things on the grounds after midnight, things that were uncanny and terrifying...white and luminous things that wafted across the cold, damp ground and through the bullet-shattered windows. Faint, white shapes that moaned in the dead of night and moved through the walls as though the walls didn’t even exist. One legend had it that a squad of soldiers had once gone to the old place to investigate these occurrences. Ten men had gone in, and none of them had ever been heard from again. People who lived in the area had their own ideas as to what had happened to them. There had been a lot of talk and speculation, but no one actually had ever dared to go up to the house and find out what had really happened.

"The wolves," Julie said. She was not about to stand out here and waste her time trying to convince these two strangers that the old Ryan place was haunted. They wouldn’t have believed her anyway, and she had no desire to have these people believe she and Rob were a pair of superstitious fools or, worse yet, crazy. The wolves were a convenient excuse, though, even though they had never been known to attack anyone. Actually, throughout the entire recorded history of the United States, there had never been a documented attack of a wolf on a human. Nor, for that matter, had there been any in Europe--those attacks had been by wolf-dog hybrids. But it had always been the voice of the wolf that had terrorized so many people over the centuries; and the accusations of being demons and devils by the religious ruling class throughout medieval Europe hadn’t helped any. The wolves had always been misunderstood, and their ferocity exaggerated, so they were a convenient scapegoat. And false rumors, repeated often enough by a sufficient number of people, had eventually become popular beliefs and generally regarded as facts.

"The wolves around here are vicious bastards that’ll rip you to shreds. At least four people have been killed by them up at the ranch." This, of course, was a lie, but she wanted to encourage Valerie and Keller to get moving. "There’s a pack of them that lives there. Come on, we’re taking enough of a chance just standing out here. We’d better get moving."

"Do you know where Oscar is?" Valerie asked. "It’s important that I find him."

"We’ll take you to him," Rob said. "Come on--the horses are this way."

***

"Oscar!" she shouted in unrestrained delight. She ran to him and threw her arms around his neck.

"Munchkin?" he said with equal shares of delight and amazement as he hugged her tightly. "My God, is it really you? You’re all grown up!" He finally released her, and with tears of joy in his eyes he added, "How have you been?"

"Fine," Valerie replied, with tears in her own eyes, "just fine. Until recently, anyway. Oscar, this is Keller. Keller--Oscar Corey, my uncle’s best friend."

Oscar extended a welcoming hand, and Keller accepted it. "That name sounds familiar," he said. "You wouldn’t happen to be related to the guy who snuck that escaped reporter out of Chicago and into San Francisco, would you?"

"What, you mean that reporter who dug up all the dirt about the Foundation giving tax money to that company that built the nuke plant in Newark?" Julie asked. "The one that melted down? People around here are still talking about that escape."

Keller hooked his thumbs in his belt, glanced down at the toes of his black boots in greatly embellished modesty, and only partially suppressed another of his smug smiles.

Now Valerie was looking at him again. "That’s one you didn’t tell me about." He had told her a few other stories when asked, and some were more difficult to believe than others. For being only thirty-two years old, it seemed he had gotten around quite a lot--and she hadn’t been certain if the stories were incredible braggadocio or merely some good-natured leg pulling.

"You didn’t ask," he finally said. "Besides, smuggling people isn’t really all that hard."

"Hey, come on!" Oscar said. "I read about that guy in the underground press." He turned toward Valerie, still keeping his eyes on Keller for only a moment longer. "There was this newspaper reporter who found out that the plant wasn’t safe. The thing had been thrown together so quickly that a lot of the safety features were ignored because the Feds were always yelling ‘America needs the energy!’ and other propaganda crap like that after the Arab oil imports got cut off during the bio-war. Someone in the plant got him the original blueprints, and in the tradition of the New York Times and the Pentagon Papers he was going to publish them--the informant knew the plant was going to melt.

"The Foundation, of course, called these guys a ‘group of Communist terrorists’ who were violating national security by publishing what they called plans for a terrorist group attack on a nuke plant to ‘hold the nation as a hostage.’ Damn near every major highway and airport was blocked off." He turned back to Keller. "How the hell did you get him across the country in just a couple of hours?"

Keller shrugged bashfully...and then he finally dropped his pretense. "It ain’t hard at mach two."

"Mach two?" Valerie and Oscar asked together.

"Yeah. Well, I..." he regarded them for a moment or two, wondering if they would believe him, before continuing. He decided to go for broke. "…I also stole an F-117."

The room had grown so quiet you could hear a feather drop.

"I was still in the Air Force at the time, so it was no sweat," he went on to explain. "I was stationed at Strategic Air Command headquarters down in Homestead, Florida. When I heard about him through a sympathetic contact of mine in Intelligence, I decided that was the right time for me to split and start doing something good. I told the tower I had some files to take to the Pentagon; they couldn’t radar track me, and I went to Chicago instead, where my contact told me the guy would waiting for me in an old warehouse in a corner of O’Hare International. I picked him up, flew him to San Francisco--by the time my CO and everyone else found out what happened, it was too late. No sweat." He smiled in fond memory; it was his first smuggling job.

Valerie gave him a skeptical look as she folded her arms. "You stole an F-117?"

"Yes ma’am."

"You stole a Stealth fighter jet, deserted the Air Force, and flew a fugitive reporter across the country...and you never got caught?"

He allowed himself a slight smile.

"That’s just a little hard to believe," she said. And then she remembered that this was the guy who had recently downed a helicopter with a car--and without ever firing a single shot. A slow grin spread across her own face, and she shook her head. After all, she had told him herself that he was really something.

She turned to Oscar. "So how are things with you, Oscar?"

"Not bad. A little chubbier, a little grayer. Got married and had a kid. Come on, I’ll introduce you."

***

"This is quite a place you’ve got here," Keller said as he eased back into the sofa that he shared with Valerie. He took a hit from the joint and passed it to her, but she waved it on. "You could have one hell of a nice growing operation here."

"We used to," Rob said. "But customers were getting pretty scarce because of informant paranoia, so we eventually gave it up. There weren’t a lot of informants, but just enough to start making us all doubt each other back during the early years. What really gets me is that most of them were just average people, not soldiers, who believed all the bullshit that the government was handing them. They’re gone now; once an informer is spotted, well, it’s tough to get by, y’know? Especially when you’re living in a rural community. So they decided it wasn’t worthwhile to stick around."

"However, even with the lack of manpower and technological resources," Oscar said, "the FLM still manages to continue with some aerial surveillance. And they’ve started spraying again."

"I thought that was outlawed," Valerie said.

"Yeah," Keller agreed. "Wasn’t there some major screw-up once? Instead of spraying the pot fields, they hit a vineyard or something?"

"The government doesn’t have to stop doing anything that it wants to do," Oscar said, "but you’re right about the other thing. What happened was this: back about seven or eight years ago, there was a small group of people who got the idea of growing pot next to a vineyard. They figured no one would take the chance of spraying carcinogenic herbicides around there because a lot of people in the wine industry had a lot to lose if they had their crops wiped out. The Foundation went ahead and sprayed anyway, saying the stuff wouldn’t affect the grapevines. They also said the pot fields were down wind of the vineyards." Here he chuckled sarcastically. "But a funny thing happened. On the day of the spraying, the wind shifted and blew the shit all over the place. As the grapevines began to wither and die, the Foundation came in again and said the grapes were perfectly safe..."

"Typical," Keller muttered in disgust.

"...and all you had to do was just wash them off really well before processing them into wine. As a result, there was a real piss-poor harvest. Not only that, but the herbicide had actually gotten into the grapes themselves. They were used anyway because the Foundation’s so-called experts then said they were perfectly safe... And never mind that they’d lied once before.

"So people drank the wine. Some of them did, anyway; anyone who advocated a boycott got thrown in jail for being seditionists or some damn thing, and that right there told us all something. Those who did drink it got sick. Liver cancer, renal failure, sterility in some people and birth defects in others, miscarriages, you name it. The Foundation first said there was no proof of any connection to these and the herbicides, but they decided to stop spraying for the time being anyhow so they could really study the problem. Then, after a lot of bad press from the last few remaining independent newspapers, the Foundation apologized to the victims and promised not to spray the stuff around anymore. And they made this really moving plea to the people through the media--‘The Lord forgives us our trespasses, so won’t you?’ That really alienated a lot of people; you won’t find much support for the Foundation around here."

"So now that a lot of time has gone by, and they figure everyone’s forgotten about it," Rob said, taking up the story, "they’ve decided to start spraying again because a couple of kilos have been sold from around here. They said it’s far more important to stop this ‘Satanic drug problem’ than it is to worry about the health of a few wine drinkers who really shouldn’t be drinking anyway."

"Someone was saying they started the spraying again because some federally subsidized oil company was making the stuff," Julie added, "and that this oil company was making a shitload of money from it and splitting it with members of Congress who had invested in that oil company and had pushed those laws through."

"So nowadays we just grow a little weed," said Karen Corey, Oscar’s wife. "We use it for barter when we’re low on cash--which is pretty frequently--and we only trade with people that we know really well. Soldiers still come through here every once in a great while, but not as often as they used to."

"As a matter of fact, we just recently picked up a report from some guy from Denver who’s looking for you," Rob said.

"It’s Colonel Warren," Valerie said. "Did they say where he is?"

"Somewhere in Utah was the last I heard."

Valerie sighed. "Even if he is that far away, I really should be moving on. You know what the penalty is for harboring a fugitive?"

"No worse, I imagine, than it is for having a concealed pot garden," Oscar replied. "Look, it’s dark out and it’s cold, and no one really wants to go through the woods at night. It may not be very likely that any soldiers would pick you up, but the wolves’ll get you for sure."

She was anxious to get to her uncle’s ranch, but Oscar was probably right. There was little that could be done tonight, so she might as well stay here for the night. Besides, she finally admitted to herself, she was exhausted and she desperately wanted a hot bath and a good night’s sleep.

And then there was Keller. No doubt he would be leaving as soon as he could. He had helped her get to Mendocino, and now that she was here he would probably be in search of a resistance group. After all, he had told her that was what he wanted to do, and now that they were here it was probably time for them to go their separate ways. She wasn’t sure of how he’d get around without the car, but Keller was a resourceful man; he would find a way. It was too bad, in a way, because she had grown to like him. Even if he was a sexist oinker, as she had called him several times, she thought there was a lot to like about him. She smiled at the thought, and at the way he had reacted to her accusation.

She watched him through the corner of her eye when he went to speak with Rob to discuss the possibility of finding a group that was fighting against the Foundation’s forces. "We’re just set up mostly for self-defense," Rob was saying. "Not very well, but it’s the best we can do. The Foundation has been drafting people to work in the munitions factories to keep them supplied with arms and ammo, and we’ve managed to sneak a small number of people in there to try and get us a few arms. We aren’t as well equipped to repel or launch a full-scale attack as we’d like to be, but there are a lot of people in the area who could be interested in getting together. I’ll take you to meet some of them tomorrow."

Valerie stretched her legs in front of her, leaned her head back, and closed her eyes. She could see Oscar’s farm again in her mind as she had seen it when they had first arrived. The main building was good sized, with two stories and seven rooms that housed three men, four women and three children. There was a barn next to the house where there were two cows and a bull, and next to the barn was a chicken coop that housed about thirty chickens that sat on their nests or wandered aimlessly about and cackled endlessly. On the other side of the house was a stable with five horses and their own corral. Behind the house was a large garden where they grew tomatoes, squash, lettuce, cabbage, corn, and a wide variety of beans, and in a secret plot in the woods, about three hundred yards away and well-hidden from view, was the marijuana patch.

"You must be tired," Julie said, and Valerie snapped her eyes open. She had nearly fallen asleep. "There’s a spare room upstairs at the end of the hall where you can get some sleep."

"Thanks, I could use some." She realized just now that she was too tired even to take a bath; all she wanted to do now was crash for the night. "I’ll see you guys in the morning. G’night."

There was a lively fire already ablaze in the fireplace. Valerie pulled the covers back from the wide four-poster bed, then sat on its edge and took off her boots with a sigh of relief, and massaged her feet. God, it was good to get out of those things at last. She unbuttoned her shirt, slipped it off and draped it over one of the bedposts, then hung her bra on top of it. She left her jeans and underwear in a pile on the hardwood floor next to the bed, and then slid gratefully between the clean, cool sheets that felt so good against her bare skin, and let herself sink against the firm mattress with a deep, satisfied sigh. Almost immediately, visions of the chase swarmed inside her eyelids, and she forced them out. Go ‘way, she told them, and it was only a few minutes before she began to doze.

There was a soft knock at the door. "Valerie?" said Keller’s voice. "You still awake?"

She pulled the covers up over her shoulders. "Yeah, come on in."

He stepped quietly into the room and closed the door behind him. He approached the bed and sat on its edge. "I just came in to see if you were okay, and to say good night."

"Everything’s fine, thanks," she replied, her voice almost a whisper.

"Good..." He could think of nothing to say for a moment. The fire popped and crackled in the silence, and the flames cast dancing shadows and orange light on the walls. "Well, it looks like we finally made it," he said. "It’s been a long time since I was in this area. It’s a beautiful as I remembered it."

"Yes, it is."

More silence.

"Mind if I ask you a question?" she asked.

"Go ahead."

"What was someone like you doing in the Air Force? You sound to me like a guy who’s never been too fond of authority."

"I was there to observe, and to learn," he replied. "When I was a kid, I always had this thing about cars and boats and planes and stuff. Dutch is the one who taught me to drive, but there wasn’t a lot he could teach me about flying--even though he’s a hell of a pilot himself--because he didn’t have the equipment. So I joined up with the Air Force and acted like a loyal Party member, and learned as much as I could. I never lost sight of why I was there, though, and I never let those bastards brainwash me. God knows they tried, though, what with their subliminal messages in all that religious music they always played in mess hall and at lights out, and the constant Bible study when we weren’t out in the field. And when I heard about that reporter, I figured that was probably the best time for me to make my move and desert...and I’ve never regretted it."

"I imagine the feds are pretty pissed off at you."

"You better believe it," he agreed with a sardonic smile.

For a few moments there was more silence.

"So... What are you going to do?" he asked. "Got any plans?"

"I guess I’m going to fix up Uncle Vince’s place and move in. It’s my home now." She paused for a moment. "What about you?"

He shrugged. "I don’t know," he said. "Nothing definite right now. Oscar said he was going to send a couple of his friends out to pick up the car and tow it to a garage somewhere, but he doesn’t know how long it’ll take them to hunt up the parts for it. It could be a few days, and it could be longer. This isn’t quite like L.A., where you can get parts twenty-four hours a day, so I guess in the meantime I’ll be hanging around here. Need any help fixing up your new place?"

"I’d like that a lot."

He smiled at her. "Good enough," he said. He looked into her exhausted yet clear amber eyes for a long moment, and then remembered once reading somewhere that the eyes are a window to the soul. In Valerie’s eyes, which were usually so expressive and lively but were now falling shut with fatigue, he saw extreme intelligence, compassion, sultriness, and a wry sense of humor...and for a moment, he felt as though he was beginning to fall into them.

"You look beat," he said at last. "I think I’d better get out of here and let you get some sleep. I got a sofa waiting for me downstairs." He felt more than a little beat himself.

"You don’t like me much, do you?" she suddenly asked. "Is it because I called you a male sexist porker?"

He grinned slowly. "Of course I like you," he said truthfully. "Even if you are one of them uppity feminist broads."

Valerie grinned, too, in spite of her fatigue. "Well, I guess that makes us even," she conceded.

He leaned forward and kissed her forehead. "Get some rest; tomorrow we start rebuilding the old family homestead." He rose quietly and went to the door. He turned to look back once more and softly said, "G’night," and closed the door softly behind his back as he left.

Valerie sighed heavily, turned on her side, and was asleep almost as soon as she closed her eyes.

***

He collapsed the telescoping antenna on the hand radio. "Still can’t reach them," he said. "Too far out of range, I guess." He put the radio away.

The other soldier, sitting across from him on the other side of the campfire, sighed with relief as he tossed his cigarette butt into the flames. "Good thing, too. He’d probably have us check out that old haunted place that the locals were talking about." He picked up his M-16 and laid it across his knees.

"What’s the matter, Art?" he asked with a mocking grin. "You believe in ghosts?"

"I don’t know," Art said. He didn’t want to think about ghosts too much right now, not out here in the middle of a night-shrouded forest and surrounded by only God knew what kinds of animals that may be out there. The slightest noises made him jump like he had an electric cattle prod shoved two feet up his ass. "Satan is real, right? And demons are real...so I guess ghosts have to be real, too. Don’t they?"

"I don’t know. I kind of doubt it, but I don’t know..."

A wolf howled in the distance, and a twig snapped nearby. Art jumped like he’d been goosed again, and his partner moved quickly to sit next to him and clutched his rifle close to his chest, and together they stared into the impenetrable darkness.

 

 

Chapter Thirteen

It was so different from her neighborhood back in Colorado, Valerie thought as she rode alongside Keller. The air was incredibly fresh and clean, there were birds singing everywhere, and scores of butterflies danced in the sunlight. There were no noisy cars, no blaring horns, no screeching of tires as teenagers raced up and down the streets, and there was none of the toxic stench of automobile exhaust. Just birds and insects and clean, pure air. And it was so very quiet; not absolutely silent, but so very comfortably quiet, with the birds and insects chirping and buzzing, and the soft breeze rustling gently through the treetops. It was even better than she had remembered.

Keller noticed that a subtle change had come over her since they had arrived in Mendocino. She seemed more alive, and more full of energy. It was almost as though just being here had washed away all the fear and grief that she had been feeling before. She still grieved for Tony and Jeff, but she was handling their deaths much better now; she actually seemed to be drawing new strength and energy from the land itself.

She said nothing at first. She just looked at the old house. "Home," she said softly.

"Must’ve been a nice place before the soldiers shot it all to hell," Keller said as he shifted in his saddle with a creaking of leather. "Makes the place look downright spooky."

Valerie continued to gaze at the house. Except for the addition of the tall weeds growing in front of the porch, the place had not changed much. There had been no one living here for the last ten years, so she didn’t even know what kinds of changes she should be looking for, but at least the surrounding landscape looked the way she remembered it. The wooden porch and railing were more rough and weather-worn than she remembered, and bullet holes were visible in the walls and windows; and dried blood could still be seen in the wooden porch, soaked in so deeply that not even ten years of changing seasons could wash it out. The grass was still lush and green, though, and the ferns and redwoods and firs seemed to be much taller than she remembered. Birds sang cheerfully a few yards away, and dozens of butterflies--monarchs, mourning cloaks and swallowtails--danced everywhere. And there was something else here, too; some underlying presence that only she could feel.

"It’s not spooky," she said defensively, although she did feel a little... "It’s just that the place hasn’t been cared for in a long time, that’s all."

"Uh huh," Keller said quietly as Valerie slid from her horse. He watched her as she slowly approached the wooden steps, and then his eyes returned to the house itself. He slowly dismounted and tied the reins to the porch rail as Valerie went up the steps as though she were in a trance, dimly aware of the hollow sounds her boot heels made on the old wood.

She crossed the porch as Keller moved up slowly behind her, and pushed at the front door. It swung open on creaking hinges, and the two of them went inside.

The house looked as though it had been deserted for a century rather than a decade. The dust on the floor and shelves was thick and gray-white, and occasionally it blew softly about with a slight gust of air that slithered in through a shattered window. Cobwebs hung from the shelves and in corners, and from the heavy brass candlesticks and books and oil lamps, yet there didn’t seem to be any musty smell that is usually associated with houses that have been closed off for so long.

Valerie went to inspect the bookshelves while Keller stood near the door. He watched her silently, looking for any signs of...he wasn’t sure. Delayed shock? It was a good possibility. The last time she had been here was when her family had been killed, and Keller had seen enough of delayed shock himself back in El Salvador. Not to mention that he had once been a victim of it, so he knew what she must have been going through right now.

The bookshelves were constructed of simple rosewood boards and large black decorator bricks, and covered an entire wall. And the books they held were of a wide variety: philosophy, political science, political satire, environmental science, science fiction, non-fiction, anti-nuclear, and anti-Foundation. And hanging in a glassed-in frame on a wall next to the shelves was an old, yellowed replica of a document that, for a brief moment, made Valerie’s heart race with pride and respect: it was a copy of the Bill of Rights, a document that did not grant rights to a nation of free citizens but rather recognized them. But rubber-stamped across it, in red block letters, were the words "Canceled by Order of the Foundation for Law and Morality."

Her gaze returned to the books, and she silently read off a few titles. "Hidden Channels Of The Mind," was one of them, by Louisa E. Rhine. "Telepathy," by Sybil Leek; "The Handbook of Psychic Discoveries," by Sheila Ostrander and Lynn Schroeder; and another book that she recognized immediately: "Born Again," by Hans Holzer.

(the attic)

What? she thought, shaking her head slightly. It seemed as though...

"You okay?" Keller asked softly.

"Sure, I’m fine."

He watched her for a moment longer, and then turned his attention to an expensive Toshiba stereo system on the other side of the room. He went over to it and pushed gently on the receiver’s power button. As he pretty much expected, nothing happened. "Did your uncle have a generator somewhere?"

"There’s a water-powered generator way out back," Valerie replied distantly.

The attic, the voice whispered in her mind again.

"I’m going to see if I can get it working."

Valerie turned slowly toward the stairs. Massive cobwebs hung from the ceiling to the broken banister and down to the floor. She remembered that several days ago she had been telling herself she had to see what was inside the attic; now, as she headed for the stairs, she felt as though she was being propelled, as if by some outside entity which had suddenly taken possession of her, and which wanted very much to show her something.

***

Keller walked slowly across the kitchen, where he could hear the faint sounds of flowing water. Here he found a heavy wood-burning stove, and across the room was a small refrigerator. A heavy redwood table and six matching chairs commanded the center of the room, and brownish rust-like stains could be seen on the floor--stains of spilled blood. This place is going to take a lot of cleaning, he thought. He crossed the kitchen to the back door and stepped outside. Kinda nice to see a forest from your back porch, he thought with a smile as he stepped down. The woods were only about a hundred feet away. A few tall wooden poles--simple pine 2x4s--formed a line that led from the back of the house and into the forest, and hanging from them was a pair of cables. He followed them through the trees, and they led him to a river that flowed some one hundred yards from the edge of the clearing, its water rushing briskly. At the head of the river was a wide pool that was some twenty yards wide, where one could safely go swimming on hot summer days or on mild summer evenings, and falling into this was a twenty foot high waterfall, whose water fell in a shimmering curtain of white and pale clear blue. At the top of the waterfall was a pipe-frame construction that supported a large waterwheel.

Nice piece of work, he thought with an admiring grin. Free and unlimited electricity. What would the electric companies say?

Many of the wheel’s paddles were gone, having fallen and floated down the wide river, and the frame itself was ready to join them, but after a few minutes’ examination he came to the conclusion that with some effort he could get it working again. It might take some time, but he was in no hurry. Maybe there was something in the barn he could use. With his thumbs hitched in his belt, he turned and started for the barn.

***

The attic was closed, dark and dusty. The door slowly creaked open on its rusty hinges to reveal Valerie standing in its frame, and she stepped cautiously inside. The first thing that struck her was the fact that this room looked exactly as it had in her vision that night with Tony...even though she had never been in here before. She had tried to sneak in several times as a child, but she had always been caught--it had been a game that she and her mother had always enjoyed. She walked slowly across the room, stepping carefully over a collection of assorted junk that had been tossed carelessly up here, to a small, octagonal, blue-tinted window, and pulled it open to let in some light and fresh air. When she turned from the window she found, resting on the floor in a darkened corner, the large brassbound wooden trunk that she had seen in her mind. She knelt in front of it and ran her hands lightly over the old wood and stained metal, and images of her mother--whether they were psychic flashes or merely memories, she couldn’t be certain--suddenly came to her mind. It was almost as if those ten long years had never existed, and she suddenly remembered playing in the woods and swimming in the cool river which gave so much relief from the heat of summer. Her brother was there, too, laughing and playing, and tossing a Frisbee for Gus, their big Golden Retriever, to snatch out of the air and joyfully rip to pieces. Valerie smiled at the memory as she gently fingered the massive padlock that held the trunk’s lid securely shut.

The lock fell off and hit the wooden floor with a thud.

She flinched and gasped, and her heart seemed to skip a couple of beats. She slowly reached for the lock and examined it. It had been locked, hadn’t it? She wasn’t sure now. Her attention had been on the trunk itself, rather than on the lock, but it was obvious that the lock wasn’t broken or rusted through. It didn’t matter now, though, as another question crossed her mind: how could it have removed itself from the closed hasp?

She opened the hasp and slowly lifted the lid, and looked inside.

It was full of her mother’s belongings. A feeling of warmth and love washed over her as she examined old jewelry, clothes, and other personal items. She found an old black velvet dress that was still in good condition, and with it a matching jacket and a white silk blouse. They looked as though they would fit her perfectly, and she made a mental note to try them on later. There were also small colored bottles of heavy cut glass that contained perfume and scented oils, and in the bottom there were books on plants and their medicinal purposes. And under those were books of magic. Not the sleight-of-hand tricks practiced by stage magicians, but of real magic. One of them was a hand-made spiral bound notebook; on its dull brown cover were the black letters "Book of Shadows." Valerie opened it slowly and read the first page. "For Valerie, on your seventeenth birthday. Use it wisely, and Blessed Be. Love, Alexa." The book was a combination of a diary and a book of magic spells and rituals; health spells, healing spells, garden spells for healthy crops and successful harvests, and spells of self-defense, to be used in times of desperation and to save a life, and to actively protect one’s self and others.

"Oh, Mom," she said. Tears began to well in her eyes as her voice choked. She had never known, until now, that her mother had been a witch--and that she had been saving this book for her for all those years, never even suspecting that she would not have the opportunity to personally give it to her.

"Hey, Valerie?" Keller’s voice shouted from the living room. "Where are you?"

She quickly wiped away the tears. "Up here, in the attic," she replied as she heard him coming up the stairs.

"That waterwheel’s a mess, and the generator’s going to need a lot of work," he said as he stopped and stood in the doorway, "but with some sweat and some cussin’ I think we can get them working pretty well... Hey, are you okay?" He gave her a concerned look.

"Sure, I’m fine. I found some stuff that my mom left for me."

"Oh..." He was silent for a moment, uncertain of what to say as she began to put things back into the trunk. "Well, listen. I was going to head back to Oscar’s place and see if I can pick up a few parts somewhere. Want to come along?"

"No, I don’t think so. I guess I’ll stay here and see if I can get things cleaned up a little."

"You’re sure you’ll be okay?"

She smiled at him. "Sure--it’s my home. Remember? What can happen to a girl in her own home?"

"I guess it depends on whether you’re way out here or in the middle of New York," he said to himself. "Okay. I’ll be back in a couple of hours or so."

"Okay."

She could hear him as he headed back down the stairs, and a moment later there was the retreating sound of a horse’s hooves, and then Valerie was alone. She turned back to the trunk and started looking through it again. Inside, she found a small, handcrafted wooden box that was painted a brownish orange with intricate black markings. She opened it and found something wrapped in blue silk. What she unwrapped was a Tarot deck, identical to the one that she had found at George’s bookstore. My God, she thought with wide-eyed wonder... She also found a sparkling object that hung from a brown leather lace. It was a silver pentacle; a five-pointed star within a circle, that was about three and a half centimeters in diameter and with its top point toward the chain loop. There was a round, polished piece of obsidian in its center that was topped by the silver horns of a crescent moon. My God, she thought again, even more fascinated now with the idea that her own mother had been a witch. Why didn’t she ever tell me? she silently asked herself. She slipped the pentacle over her head and around her neck, and continued to rummage about in the trunk some more. In it she found old clothes, small jars of dried herbs, a couple of pairs of dark-brown moccasins--one ankle-high and unlined, and the other almost knee-high and lined with fleece--and a matching buckskin jacket with a sash but no buttons to hold it closed. There were brightly tie-dyed t-shirts, faded blue jeans--one pair with the legs cut off to make a pair of shorts--and a faded pair of black jeans, a pair of buckskin shorts and matching long pants. Everything looked as though it would fit perfectly.

She took another look at the pentacle she wore. I’ll be damned, she thought with an amused grin. I guess Warren wasn’t so far off the mark after all, about me being a witch. She picked up the Book of Shadows, then leaned with her back against the trunk and drew up her knees, and rested the book against her lap to study.

***

About an hour later she heard the voices. "Go on in," one of them said. "I’ll keep watch out here in case anyone shows up."

"Who’s going to show up in a place like this?" asked the other. "I’ll bet she’s a hundred miles from here. I know I wish I was."

Valerie softly put the book down and crept toward the open window. Quietly and cautiously, she peered over its edge and looked outside…and her heart froze.

Standing outside by a pair of horses were two men dressed in the all-too familiar black fatigues, with their black helmets buckled by their chins traps to their belts. Oh God, she thought, what are they doing here? He’s supposed to be in Utah!

"What’s the matter--you scared? I thought I’d never see a Holy Guard who was a coward."

"I’m not a coward!" Art said defensively.

"Then why don’t you go on in?"

"I just think it’d be wiser to wait for some back-up, that’s all."

"Yeah, well, there is no back-up. It’s just you and me, kiddo, and we can’t wait for God knows how long it’ll take for those guys to get here. If they ever get here."

Just these two, she thought as she started for the stairs. Small relief. In a bizarre way, this was almost comical; they sounded like a couple of chicken shit kids, each daring the other to go first. If it hadn’t been a couple of soldiers out there, she would probably be thinking of ways of scaring them off.

She was dimly aware of the weight of the talisman around her neck as she came into the living room to look for a weapon. She had to defend the house somehow; it was her home now, and she would not tolerate an invasion by these Foundation bastards that represented the established authority and spread lies about her; the same authority that had destroyed her family ten years ago. But what could she do? God, if only Keller were here! But she was on her own now, and she couldn’t go on relying on him; it was up to her to fight off the soldiers.

Art’s footsteps began to cross the porch. Call me a coward, huh? he thought. Last night you were more scared than I was. He stepped up to the door and put his hand on the handle.

Valerie’s eyes darted to the massive stone fireplace. She quickly went to it and picked up the poker that stood leaning against the stone encasement, then went to crouch behind the sofa, gripping the poker tightly.

The door slowly creaked open. Slightly muffled footsteps walked slowly across the thin rug, then stopped in the middle of the room. There was only silence, for a moment, as the soldier looked around. "Come on in, Dick. You should see this place."

At the sound of his voice, Valerie stood with the poker in her hand. She cocked her arm back and threw it as hard as she could, and it whizzed end over end across the room to strike the soldier in the back of the head. He went down with a grunt.

The other Guard saw him fall, and rushed into the house, pulling his helmet from his belt and clamping it onto his head before Valerie had a chance to retrieve the poker. Their eyes met, and he immediately recognized her from the poster he carried. "You!" He quickly regarded his partner, who lay bleeding on the floor, and let the hatred flare in his eyes as he raised them once more to look back at the dark-haired woman. "Dead or alive, bitch," he said, "I’m taking you in. And I’d just as soon have you dead." He kicked the poker toward the door and far out of her reach, and advanced slowly, like a predator stalking its prey. He slipped the strap of his rifle from his shoulder.

Valerie backed slowly away, trying to feel her way behind her. She edged around the sofa, and glanced frantically around in search of another weapon. She took another two steps backward, and stumbled over the low coffee table behind her to fall sprawling on her back. The soldier quickly came around the sofa, smiling maliciously and drawing out her terror. Valerie knew right then that she was about to die; and then, in the back of her mind, she suddenly remembered something she had once been told so long ago: "If you ever need our help, I mean really need it, you call and we’ll come."

She never needed his help more than she did right now; and the twelve-year-old girl inside her suddenly screamed, "Uncle Vince, help me!"

With a sneer of hatred and contempt, the soldier raised his rifle to his shoulder and aimed it at her chest.

The living room door suddenly burst open with a gale-force blast of Arctic wind that nearly tore it from its hinges. Books, magazines and curtains were torn from their resting places and blown about in a raging tempest, and with them the soldier was blown from his feet and thrown against a far wall where he lay, momentarily dazed yet still clutching his M-16. Valerie rolled against the blast of air and lay in the shelter of the sofa, and covered her head with her arms as heavy objects blew about like leaves in a raging hurricane. And then the door slammed shut with a thunderous crash that shook the entire house--and as papers, magazines and the heavy curtains settled and became still, everything was suddenly very quiet once again.

The soldier slowly sat up and looked around as terror etched itself across his face with cold, metal claws. A thousand questions ran through his mind, all having to do with devils and demons, and suddenly he was very much afraid. He looked over at Valerie and asked, "What in God’s name was that?"

She slowly pushed herself up to a kneeling position by the sofa, and looked around for a moment in mystified awe at the sudden mess. Her eyes were wide and her jaw hung slightly in sudden astonishment…but suddenly, she wasn’t afraid any more.

Help had arrived.

***

Keller was carrying a pair of saddlebags filled with parts for the waterwheel toward one of Oscar’s horses when a mild feeling of anxiety suddenly washed over him. He slowed as he tossed a leather bag over the saddle, and then stopped.

"What’s the matter?" Oscar asked.

"I don’t know. Nothing, I guess..." He tried to shake the feeling, but it refused to go away. There was no apparent cause for it, but still it continued to nag at him like an unrelenting in-law.

He looked at Oscar. "You think Valerie’s okay out there?"

"Sure. Why shouldn’t she be?"

"I don’t know..." He tried again to shrug off the feeling, but his "smuggler’s instinct" alarm wouldn’t go away. Turning away from the saddlebags, he slid one foot into a stirrup, pulled at the saddle horn, and swung his other leg over. "It’s probably nothing," he said, unconvinced, "but I’m going out there anyway." He snapped the reins, kicked with his heels, and took off at a full gallop.

Oscar hesitated for a moment, then started for another horse. He didn’t like the idea of running out to that old haunted place, even though it had once been the home of his oldest and closest friend. He had heard some strange and inexplicable things there on his few visits after the shooting had finished, and those horrible sounds had scared him enough to make him swear he would never return.

But now Valerie was there, and she might be in trouble. At least that was what Keller seemed to think, and Oscar didn’t think he should go there alone. "Rob!" he called out. "C’mon, we’re going out to the Ryan place!" He mounted another horse and took off after Keller. It’s nothing, he silently said to himself as his stomach twisted in a nervous knot. We’ll get out there and everything will be okay...I hope.

***

The soldier stood and stared at the door, with the pistol grip of his rifle still in his hand and the barrel angled toward the floor, the weapon momentarily forgotten. There was nothing there, but he knew he was no longer alone with the witch. The best thing he could do now was to kill her and leave his partner’s body, and just get the hell out of here as fast as he could.

He turned back and approached her, and raised the rifle a little higher as he looked into the puzzled--not terrified or even mildly worried, but puzzled--amber eyes of the helpless woman on the floor. I’ll put some fear into her, by God, he thought as he brought the rifle’s muzzle up and pointed it at her chest once more.

"Die, witch."

Something invisible grabbed the rifle and yanked it out of his hands, as easily as an adult would hastily disarm a small child, and sent it flying across the room to land near the front door.

The soldier stood paralyzed with sudden fear as the room’s temperature rapidly plunged to the levels of a walk-in freezer. He was barely aware that his breath was turning to vapor before his terror-filled eyes, and he shivered violently with cold and terror as he tried to comprehend what was happening. Demons? he wondered. Could it really be demons? It wasn’t worth it to him to find out. Hiding behind his badge of authority while harassing defenseless civilians was one thing; he could certainly live with that. But he had never been prepared for something like this!

God forgive me, but this just isn’t worth it! he thought. His partner was dead--he has to be dead, look at the way he’s bleeding!--and he didn’t want to die with him; all he wanted to do now was escape. Just run like hell and never look back. His eyes returned to Valerie, and he began to slowly back away from her and move toward the door, unnoticed (he hoped) by the invisible force.

The unseen assailant grabbed him by the front of his coat and threw him violently across the room as though he were nothing more than a rag doll. It slammed him against a far wall with enough force to rattle it and the ceiling, and let him slump to the floor. Sweat broke out on his face and neck, and suddenly he had an urge to soil himself. "Demons!" he whispered to himself as he raised a severely trembling hand to straighten his helmet, which had fallen askew despite the chinstrap. "God help me, it really is demons!" He scrambled to his feet and ran for the front door. The invisible hand caught him by the throat, and threw him against the wall again--and this time it held him pinned there. Valerie watched in horrified fascination as the soldier began to strangle when a set of icy steel fingers sank into his flesh. The air grew even colder, and Valerie could see the frost and ice that were growing on the few remaining windows that had been left unbroken. She could see her own breath now, as large, trailing white clouds of vapor, and she could see the indentations on the Guard’s throat as the pressure of the invisible fingers increased. His hands were at his throat in a vain effort to pry them loose, but the feeling in his own fingers told him there was nothing there. The pressure grew even stronger, and the soldier made moist, gurgling sounds. He thrashed wildly, trying to kick at the assailant, but there just wasn’t anything there to fight. He kicked with both feet, and that was when Valerie realized he was beginning to rise into the air, held against the wall and suspended by nothing but an invisible pressure at his throat. He rose even higher, and then his helmet was touching the ceiling, and still he couldn’t break the hold on his throat. His vision was beginning to fade and his face felt as though it was about to burst with hot pressure. His face went red as his tongue began to turn blue; blood vessels in his eyes ruptured, and crimson tears squirted and fell down his cheeks. He thrashed in wild panic, like a trout on a line, kicking and twisting as something continued to strangle the life out of him. His struggles weakened as his vision faded, but still he fought, even with diminishing strength. His struggles grew weaker and weaker, and then, finally, they ceased.

From the floor, where she was still sitting back on her heels, Valerie could hear the sounds of crackling bones as the soldier’s neck was crushed. And then the entire body shuddered for a moment, as if some great effort was being expended to be certain that the Guard was dead.

And then there was only silence.

***

When Keller and the others finally arrived, he was relieved to find her sitting on the porch. But even from this distance he could tell there was something wrong. He drew up to her and dismounted, and approached her quickly. "Are you okay?"

Valerie sat with her elbows on her knees, staring straight ahead at nothing in particular. Then she slowly looked up at him, and squinted against the warm, brilliant sunlight. "They’re inside," she said. "They’re dead."

Keller stared at her as Oscar and Rob went inside. "Dead?" he asked, and then he began to follow them inside. "Who’s dead?" Then he tripped over a body. "Oh, shit!"

"Holy Mother of Christ," Rob said, his voice a shocked whisper.

Keller got up and looked over at Rob, and saw the horrified look on his face. Then he looked to where Rob was staring, and his blood ran cold.

The other soldier’s body was still hanging against the wall, like a grotesque hunter’s trophy. It floated there with its head tilted at a horrible angle, and for a moment it reminded him of a hanging that he’d once seen down in Mexico; the only difference here was that there was no rope, or anything else, that held the body from the ground. Oh my God, he thought, what the hell’s happening here?

Oscar’s eyes were also wide in terror. "Dear God, it’s really true!"

"What?" Keller asked, staring in horror at the floating corpse and slowly backing away. "What’re you talking about?"

"This house; it really is haunted!"

The three men stood in paralyzed silence as they stared at the floating body.

"He’s back." Valerie’s voice came from behind them, and the sound of it made all three men start violently. She was standing in the doorway, darkly silhouetted in its frame against the bright sunlight. "Uncle Vince has come back."

To Be Continued


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