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"ALLIES"

by Ernie Whiting

Part 6

 

Chapter Eighteen

"We need law and order. Without law and order, our nation cannot survive."

Adolph Hitler, c. 1938

"This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their Constitutional right of amending it, or their Revolutionary right to dismember or overthrow it."

President Abraham Lincoln
Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861

A gust of cold wind blew through the dark October night, carrying with it the scent of countless wood fires. The weatherman had predicted forty-one degrees for the overnight low, which was unusual for this time of year, but by 10:30 p.m. the temperature in this small southern California town had dropped to thirty-six. Despite it being a Saturday night--a night to blow off a little of that steam that had built up all during the work week, or to have that final chance at going out and having some fun before having to repent in one of the State-run churches the next day--there were very few people out on the streets. Business at the local movie theaters and restaurants was depressed, even though people were encouraged by the Foundation to continue with at least a semblance of normal life in a badly damaged country, but they preferred to stay home with a comforting fire in the grate or the wood stove, and their favorite shows on TV. The gusting winds outside made the thirty-six degrees feel even colder; so most folks had decided hours ago that it was just too damned cold to go out anywhere.

But the explosion sure as hell brought them out.

***

It was a pretty slow night for the soldiers. Colder temperatures meant less general activity, and that meant less suspicious activity. Black-and-white radio cars prowled up and down the boulevards, through quiet residential streets and along damp, dark alleys, like nocturnal predators looking for easy prey. Finding none on one avenue, they would move on to another and another, always searching, searching...

Every so often, a youth in an old battered car would be singled out for a routine search. One such youth, the dark-haired owner of a green 1962 Ford Fairlane with an off-white right front fender, let it be known that he was not amused with this "routine search."

"What’s the deal, man? I wasn’t speeding or anything."

"Step out of the car," said the soldier who had gotten out of the driver’s seat. His partner cautiously approached from the other side. "Put your hands on the roof, feet back and spread ‘em." To emphasize the order to "spread ‘em" he kicked hard at the inside of the suspect’s ankle, causing him to go into almost a full split. His ankle exploded in pain, and as he wondered if the cop was wearing steel-toed boots he also wondered if his ankle had just been fractured.

"What are you doing out here tonight?" the other soldier asked as the driver began searching the young man’s pockets.

"I was on my way home," the young man replied through gritted teeth as he tried to shift his weight from his injured foot. "Hey, get your hands out of my pockets." He started to turn.

The soldier gave him a hard shove back into position. He then pulled a set of keys out of his right pocket and examined them.

"Did you know that possession of marijuana paraphernalia is now a federal offense? A long time ago, people used to get roach clips that looked just like ordinary keys..." He tested them and found that they were all real. He stepped away from the man and headed for the rear of the car. "What are you carrying back here?" he asked as he began to unlock the trunk.

"A spare and a jack. Hey, if you haven’t got a warrant, you can stay the hell out of there. I didn’t say you could search my trunk; this is an illegal search."

"Illegal, huh?" asked the passenger soldier. "So go call the cops." He began searching inside as the youth stood by, in pain, helpless and angry.

The passenger soldier sat in the front seat on the right and shined his flashlight around the floor. A couple of small dead leaves, a little dead grass and a bit of dog shit decorated the worn rubber mat. He looked inside the glove box and found three crumpled boxes of Marlboro 100s, crumpled cellophane, three empty matchbooks, and a plastic flashlight. "What’s under the seats, boy?"

"Springs."

The driver soldier came back from the trunk and began searching the back seat. "You’re a real comedian, you know that?" he asked. "You’d think it’d be funny if I just happened to find an ounce or two of maryjane in here?"

The young man didn’t quite know what to do. Part of him was outraged at the fact that if he stuck up for his rights these soldiers could plant drugs on him and arrest him for it. Another part of him wanted to laugh derisively in the soldier’s face. Maryjane? he thought. Good God, what a dork. Only a soldier, trying to sound cool, would refer to marijuana as "maryjane."

"I’m going to call headquarters and check this guy out for any priors," said the passenger soldier as he headed from the Ford’s front seat to the radio car.

"You do that," said the young man. "And while you’re at it, tell them I’m going to sue your asses off for harassment and illegal search."

The driver soldier came from the back seat, and with both fists he suddenly grabbed the youth by the front of his denim jacket. He slammed him violently down on the hood and brought his face within inches of the young man’s. "You listen to me, you fucking little punk!" he roared, with tiny droplets of spittle spraying in his face. "We’re still under martial law, so there’s no such thing as an ‘illegal’ search! Now, if you don’t want me to bust your ass for obstructing justice and interfering with a Guard in the performance of his duty, I suggest"--he pulled him up and slammed him against the hood again--"you shut your fucking mouth and answer our questions! Got it?" He slammed him once again, his face a mask of barely restrained rage. "Got it?"

The young man nodded quickly in agreement, his eyes wide with terror. Holy shit, he thought, this psycho pig really wants to kill me!

The passenger soldier watched his partner with mild interest as he spoke into the radio’s microphone. "Headquarters," he said, "this is four-niner-Charlie."

"Go ahead, four-niner-Char--" said the cool, impersonal female voice of the dispatcher before the explosion cut her off.

***

The local Guardian building sat atop a small hill, squatting low and wide like an ogre before a bridge, surveying all in its domain. It’s parking lot held some three dozen black-and-white units, and along with the dish-shaped radio and radar antennae there were two Bell helicopters that sat like grasshoppers on the roof. Occasionally an electronically distorted voice would blare out over the public address system to page one soldier or another, and the cars irregularly pulled into and out of the parking lot in back. And then suddenly, as if by an ironic act of God, the whole place blew up with an earth-shaking roar and spewed flaming debris in all directions.

People in their homes jumped from their sofas and chairs as the shock waves rattled and cracked their windows, and stared at each other as they wondered what in the hell had just happened. They rushed outside to try to see something, and they saw, off in the west, the pulsating red glow in the sky that heralded the destruction of the local Guardian building. They didn’t know, at the time, what had gone up--they only knew that it was something big.

The gasoline pumps and the storage tanks added fuel to the growing flames. Men were running back and forth, yelling to one another with questions and suggestions of how to handle the emergency. The whole place looked like it was about to go up, and as they tried to save as many cars as possible from certain destruction the second blast went off. It took out the entire parking lot and the repair garages, along with everyone in them. Several soldiers had run out of the front doors--or what was left of them--with their uniforms and fatigues on fire and screaming horribly. Their pain was short-lived, though, as the third bomb--this one planted in the armory--went off. The stored ammunition there added extra force to the blast; the roof collapsed and brought down the two helicopters, and moments later they, too, exploded into flames. Sirens began to scream in the night, and by the time the fire department arrived with their bright red trucks and canvas hoses the entire building and all of its contents were a total loss.

After sifting through the soaked and charred remains, the arson investigators determined that the explosions were caused by bombs that had been concealed in and around the building--concealed in the same pattern as those that had been found in the local draft board last week and the FLM recruiting office across town the week before that. Sabotage by Communist terrorists was the official report filed by the investigators. A very clever inside job; unquestionably the work of spies.

Those damned Rebels had struck again.

 

 

Chapter Nineteen

Cold, gray clouds hung immobile in the autumn sky, and against them, almost obscured by the line of trees that grew in front of its hill, squatted the Betatron Nuclear Power Station. Despite the fact that it sat less than two kilometers from an active earthquake fault--a fault that was capable of delivering better than a 7.5 jolt on the Richter scale--the plant was given its license for a full-power start-up. Arguments over the high probability of a total meltdown were ignored; the construction company that had built it claimed to have taken this detail into consideration, and said that the plant was earthquake-proof, while a former technician from the United States Geological Survey and two former Nuclear Regulatory Commission engineers had disagreed vehemently--and had never been heard from again.

"Let’s see if we can move those speakers just a little further back...yeah, that’s good--right there," said the stage manager, who was directing a team of roadies in setting up the equipment for the concert. "Yeah, the amps can sit on top of them..."

People were arriving from as far as Reno, Fresno and Medford for the anti-nuclear concert. Four different rock bands were giving a free concert to get the public exposure they needed to get their careers started. They weren’t trying to appeal to the mass public, they just wanted to go from one small gig to the next, and maybe next time they could get paid. They preferred to keep out of the attention of the Foundation, for obvious reasons, so their advertising had been partially word-of-mouth and mostly pamphlet-passing among the various small towns and communes. If they were found out, this could wind up being a very short concert.

Mother Nature didn’t seem to be helping matters any. Several panels of photovoltaic cells were connected to a massive collection of 12-volt car batteries, and five aluminum windmills with their three-meter blades were hooked into generators that, in turn, were connected to the amplifiers. The concert’s aim was to warn people about the inherent dangers of fission reactors, and to show by practical demonstration that alternative energy sources most definitely could supply all the electricity that was needed. And the only cost of it was in the equipment itself; the energy generated was free and unlimited.

But there wasn’t much sunlight on this gray, dismal day. The wind that had brought in the unwelcome nimbus clouds had stopped, leaving them to hang like a thick, gray quilted shroud of melancholy. Some argued that there was enough sunlight to power the vast panels of solar cells, while others said there wasn’t. One thing that everyone did agree upon was the fact that there was no wind to spin the blades of the windmills, and the crowd was growing impatient as they wondered when--or even if--the music was ever going to start. So far, solar and wind power were a big bust. There seemed to be only enough power to allow the band members to hear themselves tune their guitars. And, on top of all that, a light drizzle was beginning to fall.

"Damn, will you look at that?" Valerie grumbled under her breath as her amber eyes gazed at the cold, gray sky. "It would have to start raining now."

Earlier this morning, while having breakfast at Oscar’s house, she had met some of the people who were putting on the concert, and she had come along to help get things set up. Keller was nowhere to be seen; he was still out trying to meet with some people who might provide a possible lead or two on the replacement parts he needed for the Charger. The engine block had not cracked after all, but the radiator had; and his suspicions about the sending unit had been confirmed. He had no idea if he would be able to obtain the needed parts, or of when he would be back.

She watched the crowd that had gathered in front of the stage. All these people had brought food and wine, and their children had been promised a day of fun and sun and music; and now they all looked around sadly, realizing that the good time they had been promised would not come to be. And it was all because the damned weather had turned bad. Everyone was disappointed, and many of the children’s faces were streaked with tears. People grumbled and cursed the lousy weather, and began to gather their blankets and baskets as they prepared to leave.

Valerie felt sorry for all of these people who had come from so far away to indulge themselves in a few hours of fun. Good times were all too rare since the takeover by the FLM... Damn, we can’t let this concert get washed out, she thought. It isn’t fair, damn it, it just isn’t fair.

She went to the edge of the stage and placed her hands on it, then boosted herself up and swung a leg over. She walked to the center edge, from where she saw a number of disappointed people beginning to edge their ways through the crowd, baskets in hand and blankets draped over their shoulders. "Hey!" she called out. "Where are you all going?"

Several heads turned and saw a dark-haired woman in snug white jeans and a faded blue sweatshirt addressing them. "You just got here, man; you aren’t all going to leave because of a couple of little clouds, are you?"

More and more people were turning to see who was addressing them. One or two of them, thinking she might have looked a little familiar, might have recognized her from the wanted posters they had seen and then tossed away, and then had gone back to packing their baskets. Others had heard some rumors about her; rumors about killing two Foundation mercenaries with black magic...

"Come on, people, you just got here. You don’t want to go home thinking you wasted a trip out here, do you?" And then it suddenly hit her as to how many people she was addressing. With her heart suddenly racing wildly with apprehension, she asked herself, What the hell am I doing up here in front of all these people? Please, dear Lady, don’t let me make an ass of myself.

It was clear from the many grumbling voices that most people wanted to stay, but they didn’t think they had much choice in the matter. After all, what could they do? It was cold and gray, and a depressing drizzle was falling on them and threatening to bring even more rain.

"So what are you gonna do about it?" asked a loud voice from somewhere near the front of the crowd. Evidently, its skeptical owner had seen some of the posters that bore her picture. "You gonna change the weather or something?"

There was a strikingly beautiful Asian woman, dressed in leather sandals and faded black jeans, and a white tank top with a worn brown jacket thrown over her shoulders. She was standing next to him, and she not-too-gently jabbed him in the ribs with an elbow. "Hey, shut up and give her a chance, willya?" she growled. She had seen the wanted posters, too.

Valerie saw her, and her heart raced for a moment as their eyes locked. Oh, yeah... they both thought as they smiled at each other...and Valerie’s apprehension suddenly washed out of her.

"No, of course I’m not going to change the weather," she told the man in the crowd. "You are." She raised her eyes to take in the entire crowd. "All of you are."

"Oh, yeah?" asked another skeptical voice. "How?"

"Remember an old childhood chant? How many of you remember ‘Rain, rain, go away?’"

Most of the looks she received were blank, and only a few voices responded.

Her eyes fell on the Asian woman again, who was still smiling at her and nodding slightly. She knows, Valerie thought, and again she smiled back. As their eyes held each other’s for a moment, she thought, I’ve got to meet you later. "Well, that’s going to be our weather spell.

"You see, there’s an energy that is produced by all living things. It’s produced by animals, plants, even the soil and the rocks--because we are all alive, and this very planet is alive. And magic is the use of this energy to obtain a desired goal. But we don’t want to make a permanent change in the weather, just a temporary one. So it’s not exactly a fail safe that we use, but... Well, just follow along and you’ll get the idea." She took a deep breath for an extra shot of oxygen, and then began clapping her hands together slowly to establish a steady rhythm. She shouted to the sky, "Rain! Rain! Go aw..." She stopped and looked at the crowd with mock scorn. "Come on people, how about some help here? You want to put the rain off or not?"

"Yeah!" shouted mostly children’s voices.

Smiling at them, she said, "Okay, let’s try it again." She began clapping her hands again, with a couple dozen kids and a few adults joining in. "Rain! Rain! Go away! Come again another day! We want to hear the music play!"

A few more people joined in, reluctantly and somewhat embarrassed at first, and the chant gradually grew louder and stronger. Valerie was soon walking across the stage, bouncing lightly with each step, and she increased her rhythm as she continued to clap and chant in time with her steps. She went from one end of the stage to the other, keeping her attention on the crowd and on the gray sky. Please, Goddess, let this work, she thought as she continued to chant. "Rain! Rain!" she shouted.

"Go away!" the crowd responded.

"Come again--"

"--another day!"

"We want to hear--"

"--the music play!"

A cold wind began to blow in from the northwest. Gently, at first, not much more than a light breeze. But it was better than nothing. For a few moments, though, the sky seemed to grow even darker. Children looked up with despair in their eyes, and for that they chanted even louder and more fervently.

"Keep it up! Keep it up!" she encouraged. She had to shout now, because a lot of adults had joined in at the prodding of their children. "Come on, you can do it! Come on!" She increased her rhythm again; not so much in encouragement this time, but rather to keep up with the crowd--they were getting ahead of her. She glanced quickly at the sky and said, "C’mon, louder! I can hardly hear you!"

The crowd responded by chanting louder and louder, their voices roaring.

She looked up again. She wasn’t sure, but she thought she saw a lighter spot of gray in the oppressively low clouds. "Louder! Faster! C’mon, let’s do it!"

The crowd was on its feet, jumping up and down and clapping and chanting and having a great time, even though there wasn’t any music. They got louder and faster, almost in a frenzy, and suddenly the sun began to break through the clouds. The wind grew stronger and warmer, turning the blades of the windmills, and Valerie pointed to the sky. "Look!" she shouted. "It’s working! Keep it up--c’mon, you can do it!" Instead of leading the crowd, she was now getting swept away by the white water rapids of its enthusiasm. More energy, she thought. We need more energy... She grinned as an idea suddenly came to her. Still bouncing on her toes, she suddenly peeled off her sweatshirt and threw it high, and it landed on top of a speaker cabinet nearby. A new deafening roar of male voices came from the crowd along with shrill whistles and wild cheers, and a few howls. Even the Asian woman, with a wide and surprised grin, threw a fist in the air with an enthusiastic "Woo-hoo!" The crowd’s energy level suddenly shot up about ten-fold, and its physical force actually staggered her back a couple of steps--and still she continued to chant and clap and bounce across the stage. Then a sudden gust of wind blew in and set the blades of the wind turbines to spinning in a mad frenzy, and there was a sudden wide tear in the clouds that let in the brilliant sunlight that shone on her like a spotlight, growing wider to illuminate the entire stage. The photovoltaic panels began soaking in the sunlight, producing more electricity than the installers had expected. Several band members plugged in their guitars again, another went to sit behind the massive drum set, and a keyboard player switched on his synthesizer. They broke into a spontaneous and note-perfect rendition of Jackson Browne’s "Running On Empty," and the crowd exploded into another wild, hysterical cheer.

Valerie grabbed a microphone from its stand and shouted into it. "Look at that, people!" she said as she pointed at the sky. "You did it, man! YOU DID IT!! Give yourselves a cheer!" And as she thrust the microphone in their direction, the crowd roared again with as much energy as the sun itself. She raised both fists to the sky in victory, then blew a two-handed kiss to the crowd and jogged off the stage. She returned a moment later, retrieved her sweatshirt with an embarrassed grin, and hurried off again, waving once more in farewell. Soon food was being passed around from previously closed baskets, and the adults began passing joints and bottles of wine.

"Jesus Christ!" said one of the roadies. "I don’t believe you did that!" He had to shout to be heard over the music and the cheering.

"I didn’t! They did it!" Or is he talking about the bit with the shirt? she wondered a moment later. I can’t believe I did that! Gods, she dismally groaned to herself, I’ll never be able to show my face in public again... "All I did was show ‘em how!"

The roadie grinned lasciviously. "Yeah, you sure showed ‘em, all right!"

Sexist male pig, she thought with a wry grin. She straightened her shirt and shook her hair once more so that it settled the way she liked it, and then parted it slightly to one side. As she did, she suddenly felt a deliciously soft and smooth hand on her forearm. She turned to see to whom it belonged; it was the Asian woman from the crowd. She was smiling at her and urging her to come out on stage again to do a couple of songs. She couldn’t be heard over the music, nor could Valerie as she tried politely and unsuccessfully to beg off. She finally let herself be led out, and the other woman went to sit behind the drums.

The crowd cheered again as she came out, and almost immediately the band began to play an old Jefferson Starship song called "Song To The Sun." She had never heard it before, but she felt that somehow everything would turn out all right; the band was putting out loads of energy, and she was tapping into it and picking up the lyrics from the guitar player and the bass player a fraction of a second before they sang them. And it couldn’t have sounded better if they had rehearsed for a week. Toward the end of the song, the music got louder and faster, and as it did the wind grew stronger and warmer; and by the time the song came to its abrupt finish, there were blue skies and just a fringe of clouds off to the northwest. Another wild cheer came from the crowd and the band did another song, an older Jefferson Airplane song called "Somebody To Love." They stretched it out and mellowed it a bit, and Valerie sang with a strong, even and low voice that was a seductive and bewitching combination of Grace Slick and Alannah Myles; it exuded a cool, dark sexuality that made one think of dark angels and cold, windswept October nights.

Then they shifted up a gear, and did "Barracuda," by Heart. The music was loud and fast, and the drums sounded like rapid-fire thunder as they pulsated through Valerie and urged her on. Then they shifted down a gear, slowing and relaxing into a couple of jazzy and more whimsical songs: "Trouble Child" and "Twisted," from Joni Mitchell’s "Court And Spark" album. The soft drumming and gentle tapping of cymbals had an intoxicating effect on her, and she swayed gently with the music as it softly surrounded and permeated her. She sobered immediately when the songs ended, and belted out "Back In The U.S.A." (Linda Ronstadt, eat your heart out! she thought), and then they finished with Graham Nash’s "Teach Your Children." The audience begged for more, but her voice was giving out, and she reluctantly had to call it quits.

She turned to walk off the stage, and bent to pick up a guitar that had been leaning against a speaker cabinet but had slipped to the floor. It was an old Ibenez electric, painted gold with black trim, and she was about to lean it against the speaker again when a pulse of psychic energy came from the instrument and ran up her arm to engulf her. There must have been seven or eight dozen songs in it--energy and talent absorbed from the instrument’s various owners--and they flooded into her like a drug rush. She held it for a moment, not knowing to whom it belonged, and then she asked the guitarist, "Do you know the Outlaws’ ‘Green Grass And High Tides?’"

"Sure do. You play?"

That wry grin spread across her face as she replied, "We’ll find out in a second."

Not only did "Green Grass And High Tides" come out perfectly, but so did REO Speedwagon’s "Riding The Storm Out," and Robin Trower’s "Day Of The Eagle" and "Little Bit Of Sympathy," with the guitar and bass players doing the vocals. And then she traded leads back and forth with the guitarist as they did "Satch Boogie," "Big Bad Moon," and "The Extremist," by Joe Satriani. Close to the end of "The Extremist," she made her way over to the drum set, and the two women watched and smiled at each other in open admiration as they played to and for each other. By now, the rest of the group was ready to take a break, and as the song finished they got ready to unplug their instruments; but Valerie and the Asian woman paused for only an instant, and then they simultaneously broke into Satriani’s "War." The other guitarist gave up and walked off with a rueful grin and a shake of his head, but the bass player heroically played on. The two women were barely aware of him, though; as far as they were concerned, they were the only two people in the world--the audience, the stage, and the rest of the band, for the time being, had ceased to exist. But toward the end of the final song the rest of the world returned, and when she went to stand in front of the trio of Marshall stacks through which she was playing, Valerie closed her eyes and turned her face to the sun, and wrenched the volume control on her guitar to full. The sun warmed her and the music blasted through her, and to her the combination of warmth and the pulsating roar was the next best thing to sex. They finished the song, letting the final chord fade out to silence, and for a long moment the audience just sat there in stunned awe. And then they exploded into hysterical, shrieking applause.

Break time, she finally told herself as she shook out the tension that had built up in her picking hand. She waved to the audience once more as she carefully leaned the guitar against the speaker cabinet and shared a couple of high-fives with the band members. "There’s a lot of Joe Satriani songs in that thing," she loudly said to the bass player.

"Not surprising; it used to be his guitar."

She went over to the drum set and shook hands with the Asian woman. Sweat was pouring out of the latter and she seemed out of breath, yet she was ready for more. ("God, that was fantastic!" she shouted over the cheering, sounding almost as though she had just had an orgasm. "Let’s do it again!") But Valerie was not, and she blew another kiss to the crowd before she finally left the stage.

Yeah, boy, this is what it’s all about, she thought as she folded her arms and surveyed the band and the sea of delighted, beaming faces. She felt warm inside; it made her feel so damned good to be able to help these people help themselves have such a good time, and she sent a sincere prayer of gratitude and thanks to her Goddess.

Now another band, with the Asian woman still at the drums, was doing some cuts from an old Who album called "Quadrophenia." First was "The Real Me," then "The Punk Meets The Godfather," and they finished with "Dr. Jimmy." Valerie watched the Asian woman in unabashed awe as she hammered at the drums with a blur of drumsticks. One of the sticks snapped in the middle of a fast roll, and she continued to play with one hand as she casually reached down for another, never missing a beat. Valerie grinned as she thought again, Yeah, I’ve definitely got to meet you.

As she turned away to get something to eat, her eyes fell on the Betatron Nuclear Power Station. Suddenly, her heart raced with fear at the thought of what that thing could do to the people who lived here if it ever--or when it finally--melted down. And then her eyes narrowed dangerously into cold slits as her mood suddenly darkened and chilled. I’m not afraid of you, she silently told it. A couple of roadies passed by her, and they shivered and wondered where that blast of cold air had suddenly come from; they felt as though they had just passed by the open door of a coroner’s freezer.

Valerie didn’t notice them. She was staring too hard at the hulking concrete monstrosity to take note of anything else around her. "I’m not afraid of you," she said under her breath, "and I’m going to shut you down, you mother fucker!"

***

Night fell at last, after the conclusion of a long and successful concert, and so did the rain. Thunder rumbled through the heavy clouds as lightning flashed through them in jagged streaks of silver. Rain pounded at the woods, turning the dirt roads to mud, and hammered at those who had not yet managed to find shelter.

She burst in through the front door and slammed it shut. Leaning with her back against it as she tried to catch her breath after the long run, she looked up at the sky through the ceiling. "Couldn’t you have waited just a little longer?" she asked the storm. She ran her hands through her wet hair and pulled the soaked blue sweatshirt away from her cold, damp skin. "Oh, man," she said softly. She went over to the fireplace and began stuffing wads of newspaper and small pieces of kindling under the grate. She set them alight with a long fireplace match and watched them burn, then rested a small log on top of the grate and sat back to watch for a moment, making certain that the fire caught. She rose quickly, shivering uncontrollably from the cold and the damp, and then went upstairs to her bedroom to strip out of her wet clothes. She returned to the fireplace a few minutes later, naked and wrapped in her warm hooded cloak, and then spread her clothes out on the hearth to dry. She pulled a wide chair over to the fire and curled up in it, and leaned back to gaze into the fire and think as she toweled her hair dry.

A few people at the concert had referred to her as a witch, and she smiled as she remembered. Not that they had any idea of what a witch really was. Her idea, now always with the upper case "w," was of a healer and a helper; but the common concept was that of someone out of a bad cartoon, with poison apples and warts and foul breath (the way she envisioned television evangelists), and stroking a black cat while hexing innocent people. She felt that now it was up to her to change that image. And she thought she was off to a pretty good start, too, as she remembered that voice that had said something about her curing that "dying kid," as he had put it. She would have to play up that angle, and try to downplay the story about the soldier’s body being found floating in mid-air. She really couldn’t blame Rob for telling one or two people what he had seen, but God, how word had gotten around!

And then the face of that Asian woman came into her mind again. Damn, she was so cute! she thought, with a sudden and surprising sense of longing. With that dynamite body, her long, black hair, her rich, bronze tan, and those exotic almond eyes... She never did get a chance to talk to her again. Now her chances of meeting her again, she figured, were somewhere between zero and nil. She sighed as her hopes were crushed like a bug.

Curtains had been drawn across the broken windows earlier, to keep out the rain and cold drafts, and the living room only slowly grew warmer. With a sigh, she slowly moved from the chair to sit closer by the fire to finish drying her hair. A small pop came from the fire, and created a small shower of glowing orange sparks that landed near her on the stone hearth. She smiled slightly to herself. Sitting here by the fire, wearing only her cloak and the silver pentacle that rested against her heart, and thinking about her recent events--the concert, her self-initiation ritual, and the ritual she had used to save Kelly’s life--Valerie was beginning to feel like a Witch. She put the towel down and unfastened the lace from her neck, and let the cloak slip from her shoulders to pool around her like a black liquid shadow. Then she held the pentacle in one hand to examine it; the silver star, with its obsidian center and the stone’s silver horns of the crescent moon, was still glowing faintly with that blue-white light. She shifted slightly to sit on one side, with one hand supporting her as orange light flickered and danced against her bare skin, and let the pentacle drop back against her breast.

Word was most definitely going to be circulating about her. Even though it was the concertgoers themselves who had actually changed the weather for a while, the credit was most likely going to be hers... Between that and the way she had helped Kelly, she would soon have built quite a reputation for herself--and she hoped that all this talk and speculation wouldn’t attract the attention of the authorities.

But if it does, she thought, then there are some things that I’d better take care of. And one of them is that fucking nuke plant.

She went back upstairs to dress warmly for her covert mission.

***

The rain had finally let up, but it was still cold. Valerie shivered uncontrollably under her thermal underwear and black jeans, a dark brown wool sweater, and a fleece-lined corduroy jacket and her black hooded cloak, but she was determined to keep the promise she had made at the concert.

There was no way to get past the tall, chain-link security fence that surrounded the plant, not with the five thousand volt current that ran through it. The armed guards and the dogs were another deterrent as they patrolled the grounds inside the fence. That makes things even tougher, she though. So I’ll just have to cast a bigger Circle.

She didn’t like the idea of using curses. She remembered the old law of the Craft that whatever you do will come back to you--three-fold, some believed. But this had to be done, she thought, regardless of her own personal safety. So she went ahead and placed the four black candles at the four compass points around the power station, lighting each as she stuck it into the ground. When at last she finished, she stood up straight behind a tall bush and stretched her back and legs, and waited for the ache of fatigue to subside. She hadn’t thought about how much walking she was going to have to do before she came out of here. It was a damn big place, and she was beginning to wonder just how much longer she was going to be here before she could finally go home and--

Snap!

She silently dropped into a crouch behind the bush, and froze with terror as a pair of guards with a leashed Doberman--patrolling outside of the fence--came toward her. God! she silently cried out as her heart suddenly raced in panic. Oh, shit! They were still forty or fifty feet away, but they were coming straight to where she was hiding--and she could almost swear that if they drew any closer, the fierce and traitorous pounding of her own heart would give her away. The dog would hear her and be unleashed, and she would either be torn to shreds like a demonstrator at a freedom rally or taken prisoner to be later executed for witchcraft--and now also for sabotage, espionage, and terrorism. Or, if she were actually lucky enough, she would simply be shot on sight, like a wolf in the woods.

As they drew closer, the guards could easily be heard joking and laughing. "‘So, you want to see a warrant, huh?’ I says to this kid," one of the guards was saying. "So I took out my nightstick and whopped him up side the head and says, ‘Here’s my warrant, punk!’"

As they drew closer, the other guard laughed. "Fuckin’ civil rights people," he said. "They all think they can get away with that shit. You’d think they would have learned by now."

They were coming closer; now they were no more than twenty feet away from her. She tried to lean farther back into the shadows and the bushes to better conceal herself...and her cloak snagged on a small branch. Oh dear Lady, she thought in terror as she silently worked to free it while watching the guards as they came even closer. Now they were only ten feet away. Dear Goddess, please, dear Lady... And then the branch came free, and swept back into place with a gentle rustling of the bush.

The dog stopped suddenly, and the two guards almost bumped into it. It froze like a statue and raised its ears, alert for any sound as it sniffed the air. She clearly heard one of the guards ask, "What’s the matter, boy? You hear something?" He reached for his flashlight and clicked it on, and its bright, white beam swept over the area where she was hiding. The light continued to creep slowly, reflecting from the glossy, broad leaves of the thick shrubbery and disappearing into the shadows between them, as it slowly glided over them, searching... It passed slowly across Valerie’s heavily shadow-dappled face, and she froze like a deer caught in the headlights of a speeding car.

The light continued to pass to her left as the second guard softly said, "I didn’t hear anything."

"You ain’t got ears like a Doberman, either. I’m gonna cut ‘im loose, and we’ll see what he finds."

A gentle breeze blew at her back, gently rustling the shrubbery around her and carrying her scent toward the dog’s sensitive nose. And she knew now that she was about to be discovered.

"Aw, man! Do you really want to go chasing the damn dog around in the dark?" There was a short pause. "Look, if there was someone out there, don’t you think he’d be barking his head off right now?"

The flashlight beam slowly swept back over Valerie’s position, and found nothing.

"Come on; it’s probably just the wind, or a squirrel or something," the second guard said. He looked at the dog and took note of its now relaxed attitude; it was looking around, not focused on anything. "Come on, even the dog doesn’t give a shit now. There’s nothing out there."

There was another long, silent pause, and then the first guard’s voice said, "Yeah, I guess you’re right..." The flashlight clicked off, and the patrol team slowly moved on.

She waited until she could no longer hear or see them before she released the breath that she had been holding in a long sigh of relief. And then she waited another five minutes or so for her heart to slow to its normal rate. When she was satisfied that they were gone, she slowly and stiffly rose from behind the bush.

All she wanted to do was just get the hell out of here. To forget the cursing of the power station, and just go home. She knew she couldn’t, of course; she had made too many promises. And because of those promises, she was suddenly more determined than ever. Burning with a newly found rage, she dug into her bag (with hands that were still trembling a little) and found her athame, and then began to walk carefully around the outside of the fence a second time, this time keeping a sharp eye out for more patrols as she drew a line of flickering blue-white light around the entire complex.

Standing at the southern edge of the Circle and facing north, she turned her face up to the black, overcast sky. And this time she did remember to ground herself; to absorb as much energy as she could from her surroundings before casting the spell. She wanted all the energy she could get, because this was going to be one motherfucker of a curse (at least, she hoped it would be). Holding the athame’s point to the sky in both hands, she said, "I call upon Artemis, goddess of the moon and protector of all things wild and free. Protect us, your children, and defend us against those who work inside this vile, stinking invention of death and destruction. I beg you to neutralize the sheer malice and evil that dwell within it. I want no one to be killed, but these people must learn that what they are doing is wrong and dangerous! Don’t let them poison the air with their nuclear vapors, and stop them from contaminating your land and water with their radioactive waste. I call upon you and beg you to stop them before it is too late. So mote it be." She stood, silent and unmoving, and waited.

Lightning flashed brilliantly overhead. It was as bright as the noonday sun, and as the silver light flashed against concrete and steel it illuminated the entire complex, making the unnatural landscape look eerie and foreboding, cold and...evil. Thunder exploded like a bomb over the complex, echoing from the walls and through the woods, and gradually died as the wind began to pick up. It quickly grew stronger and stronger, like someone turning up the speed on a gigantic fan, and in a moment it was blowing with nearly hurricane force. It tore at her cloak and billowed it behind her like a rippling black shadow, and still she continued to stand motionlessly as she held the dagger in both hands toward the sky.

A jagged bolt of silver lightning flashed down from the sky, and struck the tip of the knife. As her long dark hair streamed in the wind and whipped around her face and shoulders, she absorbed the energy through the athame and let it permeate her; she became a blinding orb of solid blue-white energy as more deafening thunder exploded around her like a series of nuclear devices. She slowly lowered her arms until they were pointing the athame at the containment dome of the plant, and as another blast of thunder rolled across the sky the energy she had absorbed suddenly shot out of her through the dagger, and blasted into the concrete dome in a rippling beam of cold, blue lightning that showered acetylene sparks in every direction. Thunder exploded again and again, one rapid-fire blast after another, as the energy struck the building and began to spread, engulfing the entire complex. The containment dome, the cooling stacks, and the main offices all glowed with the pulsating blue-white light.

The glow around her finally dimmed and faded as the energy finally exhausted itself, and the energy beam itself faded and died as its power supply emptied. The winds and the lightning gradually died down as the thunder tapered off, and as the rain began to fall she slowly lowered her hands as the energy was absorbed into the concrete and steel structure. Exhausted yet still standing, she held the athame clenched tightly in both fists, a dagger that was ready to be thrust into the underbelly of an enemy, and she visualized the plant as being nothing but a dead, empty, and harmless shell that would soon crumble and turn to dust. She slowly sank to her knees on the damp ground, tingling and trembling in the aftermath of all that energy that had passed through her as though she had been an electrical connector between two terminals, and slowly collected her tools. She hoisted the bag over her shoulder, and left the candles--which surprisingly had not been blown out by the gale force winds--to finish the spell by gradually burning down and extinguishing themselves. It was all she could do; now only time would tell if the curse had been successful.

 

 

Chapter Twenty

The night shift at the Betatron Nuclear Power Station was checking out after one of those nights. You know the kind; where absolutely nothing went right. None of it could be blamed on the storm, either, which some were calling the biggest bitch of a storm to hit this area in nearly half a century. A lot of the workers had been angry as hell; others were scared to death.

"Jesus, Bruce, what happened to you?"

Bruce Winston, the night shift manager, was being helped into his office and eased into his chair behind his desk by two workers. His left shoe and sock were off, and he rested his foot on top of the oaken desk. It was swollen to nearly twice its normal size, and the skin from his toes to the middle of his shin was a dark purple, which gave way to a sickening shade of yellow around the edges. He winced and sucked air through clenched teeth as he tried to relax his leg, which throbbed with even the tiniest of movements. "I think I broke my fuckin’ ankle," he groaned. "One of the men wanted me to go down and take a look at intake four; the goddamn thing’s leaking again."

"Again?" Bob Fagan asked. "I thought we had that fixed last month, when they came to fix number seven."

"Obviously someone didn’t do a very good job of it," Winston retorted. "Otherwise I wouldn’t have slipped and busted my damn ankle in that puddle of water, now, would I?" He sighed and winced again. "At least we got a smooth shut down of the core this time."

"Yeah," Fagan said. "I’m going to have all the welds on each intake re-checked."

"We don’t have time to re-check all of the intakes. The longer we’re off-line, the more it’s gonna cost the company. Just have them repair number four and start up the core again as soon as possible."

"Hey, I think--"

"You’re not paid to think, you’re paid to follow orders," Winston said sharply. "Now get your ass down there and do as you’re told!"

Fagan stiffened and looked coldly at Winston. Too bad you didn’t bust your fucking head, he thought. But what he said was, "Yes sir." He went down to intake four to supervise its repair, and found something rather peculiar: not only was there no puddle of water on the floor beneath intake number dour, but the intake valve itself was bone dry and completely intact.

***

Hugh Carson was glad to get home after working graveyard shift. The first thing he did when he got home was to go straight to the liquor cabinet and take a good, healthy swig straight from the scotch bottle. Liquid fire burned its way to his stomach, like plutonium melting through the ground below its containment dome. He set the bottle on the counter with a thud, still holding onto its neck, and waited for the fire to subside. Then he took another hit. This one didn’t burn quite as much, and the third went down even more smoothly. Carson was not an alcoholic; he never drank to excess. But that just might change after what he had been through last night. He wasn’t angry, or depressed; he was scared shitless. He had been a cop and a Holy Guardian for thirty years before he retired, and nothing like this had ever happened to him. And he certainly hadn’t expected to see anything like what he saw last night inside a nuke plant, for God’s sake. Hell, even the streets hadn’t been a place to see ghosts. But, by God, that’s exactly what he had seen, and no one was going to tell him anything different. He knew what he had seen.

Carson carried the bottle over to the sofa, and collapsed gratefully on the soft cushions. He leaned his head back, still clutching the bottle, and stared at the ceiling, afraid to close his eyes. He was afraid he might see that face again.

It had begun with the noises. He had been expecting another night of the same old routine; walking up and down the corridors, checking the offices and making certain that they were all securely locked. Bor-ring, he had been thinking to himself. Certainly no action like there had been when he was with the San Francisco Police Department, and later as a sergeant with the Holy Guards. He had transferred to them so he could continue working until he was eligible for retirement; it had its slow and boring nights, like tonight had started out to be, but for the most part he liked it almost as much as being a cop. Of course, he had to take a religious test--not to see how much he knew about religion, of course, but rather to see whether or not it agreed with the new National Party Line--but he didn’t mind that at all. After all, he was a loyal Party member, and people who weren’t had no business being in law enforcement anyway--and didn’t deserve to live in the United States, either. ("If you don’t love America, then get the fuck out, you Commie atheist bastard!" was his motto.) The test had been required by federal law since the early days of the Foundation, and had to be passed by all those who wished to work in the Government--civilian, the Holy Guard military (except for draftees, whose numbers were increasing steadily), the justice system, and especially by those who wished to run for public office.

He tested another office door, mumbling to himself, and found it securely locked. He went on to the next, and the next, and the next. Bor-ring.

Something at the end of the corridor caught the corner of his eye. He looked up from the office door, but whatever it was wasn’t there anymore. Just the old imagination kicking up, that’s all, he told himself. Just tired. Working too many nights, that’s the problem. And this damn storm wasn’t helping matters any, either--Christ, it was a big one! He ought to get back down to Admissions, where that thermos full of coffee is waiting. Ray’s there, too, and right now he didn’t care much for the idea of being alone.

He tested one last door, and then turned to leave. That was when he heard the footsteps. They seemed to be coming from the end of the corridor, from where he had just come. They were faint and slow, and stealthy. "Hello?" he called out, expecting to be answered by another guard. "Anyone there?"

No answer.

But the footsteps continued, growing louder. And then Carson heard the breathing. Wheezing, actually, a deep and strained wheezing that was coming from someone or something invisible, sharing the corridor with him…and coming closer.

Carson began to slowly back away, retreating toward the elevator. "Who’s there?" he called out again, this time demanding as he unsnapped the holster that held his Colt Python .357 Magnum. He withdrew the revolver and cocked its hammer back. "Whoever the hell you are, you’d better start answering me, or there’s going to be hell to pay."

The footsteps continued to approach, and the wheezing grew louder and harsher. The very air in the corridor seemed to be turning colder, and Carson could see his breath as puffs of white vapor as a nervous sweat broke out on his face. He backed up a few more steps, then holstered his gun and ran for the elevator. There were no formed words in his mind; it was instinct that told him to get the hell out of here, and he wasted no time in doing it.

The elevator stood open and empty at the end of the hall. He wondered if he would be able to reach it or if it would slam shut in his face, only inches from safety. He lengthened his strides and increased his speed, hoping against hope that it would stay open just long enough for him to get inside. He leapt the last few feet, throwing his body forward, and hit the floor with his shoulder, rolling to safety. He scrambled to his feet, and slammed his open palm against the ground floor button.

The doors stayed open.

A cold chill raced up his spine as he stared in sudden horror at the control panel. What?? he thought. Oh, God! No! What’s happening here? Panic writhed in his belly like a snake, threatening to consume him from the inside. He slammed his palm against the ground floor button again and again, and still nothing happened.

The footsteps were coming down the corridor, coming closer and closer. They were no longer stealthy; whatever was out there knew that its prey was aware of it, and it didn’t care anymore because the grinning unseen knew that the chase was over.

The harsh wheezing grew louder and louder...and closer. And then the moaning began. It, too, grew louder as the invisible footsteps grew closer, and it took a moment for Carson to realize that the moaning was coming from his own lips--a moaning of absolute terror.

The footsteps were almost at the door. Carson beat at the control panel with the bottom of his fist, and suddenly realized that he might have damaged the controls, and that the doors would not close. "Close!" he screamed. "Close! Close, goddamn it, close! Please, oh God, please, CLOSE!" and the footsteps and the wheezing continued until they were right outside of the elevator...and then they were cut off as the doors slid casually shut.

Carson sagged against the control panel in relief, his forehead pressed against the cool, cool steel. Oh, thank God, he thought as sweat ran down his face and neck and back. Thank you, Jesus, thank you, thank you...

With a gentle hum and a tiny jolt, the elevator began a smooth and steady descent as Carson took a deep breath. He didn’t know what the hell was going on around here, and right now he didn’t even care. He just wanted to get out of this place. He was going to turn in his badge and his gun, and just get the hell out of here.

The overhead lights flickered alarmingly, and then the elevator suddenly jerked to a bone-jarring stop.

Oh Jesus, he thought as he looked at the ceiling and then the control panel as though they might tell him something. Now what’s going on? This can’t be happening, God, it just can’t! He reached for the lobby button again, and the lights went out. Oh, great! he thought. A power failure inside of a fucking nuke plant! Ain’t that a kick in the head? Christ, if the anti-nukers knew about this, they’d laugh themselves sick. Please, God, tell me this night isn’t happening. It just isn’t possible! I’ll wake up any second. This is all just some horrible nightmare, and I’m gonna wake up any second now. Any second...

He reached for his flashlight and switched lit on. It’s beam illuminated the control panel, and he began pressing buttons again, trying to get one of them--any of them--to work so he could get this damn thing moving. He pushed one, then another, and another. But none of them worked. He reached for the emergency phone and put it to his ear.

The line was dead.

And then the breathing began again. With a sudden and terrifying realization, he knew that the invisible something, which he thought he had left safely behind him in the corridor just a few moments ago, somehow had slithered into the darkened elevator with him.

He spun around and flashed the beam quickly over the walls of the small cubicle. Please, God, he thought in despair, not again. Please...

The light fell flush on the dead man’s face. His skin was a ghastly pale gray, and the eye sockets were empty except for the white maggots that roiled inside them. The jaw fell open and the lips stretched back in a putrescent grin, and hundreds of spiders--big and brown, with snapping horizontal mandibles--came rushing like a flood of vomit from between the cold, decaying lips. They fell to the floor and began skittering toward Carson’s feet and up the insides of his trouser legs. He stumbled backward and tried to shake them from his legs as a strangled scream escaped from him. The beam of his flashlight danced madly over the corpse, shining on its chest and illuminating the roaches and fat black beetles that crawled and squirmed inside its rib cage. Its skeletal hands, sparsely dotted with bits of decayed flesh, came up and reached for him as it grinned at him once more, revealing stringy strands of thick, yellow mucus that hung between its gray lips.

And then the corpse began to gently glide toward him. In a soft, moist voice it whispered, "Come to me..."

Carson screamed in terror. He pulled his revolver from its holster again and fired at the face and chest, spraying blood and pus and rotted flesh all over the rear wall. He fired until the Magnum clicked empty in his hand, and he still squeezed the trigger uselessly. The flashlight fell from his nerveless fingers to shatter on the floor, plunging the elevator into total darkness. He threw his arms in front of his face and screamed again, for all he was worth. His legs gave way and he slid to the floor, and he huddled in a corner and continued to scream until his voice was gone.

Two other security guards heard the gunshots and the screams, and they ran down the corridor to the elevator. One of them hit the button to open the doors, and they looked into the brightly lit elevator. It was empty except for Carson, who was sitting in a corner with soiled pants and trying to scream. There were six bullet holes in the opposite wall, and nothing else.

Hugh Carson shuddered at the thought of the night’s events and took another hit from the scotch bottle. Almost empty, he thought as he eyed the level. Well, I guess it’s time for the bourbon. Hell, why not? It wasn’t like the plant could fire him or anything; they were too late for that.

***

Walter Franklin sat alone in the control room. He thought that there should be more people here as he began his routine checks of the meters--coolant intake and discharge rates, generator and turbine speeds, core temperatures and the rest. Everything was going along just fine. Perfectly, as a matter of fact, which was unheard of. Under normal conditions, there was always some kind of a problem. Last month’s little "problem" had been a real doozie--they had nearly lost the plant, not to mention the entire northern half of the state. That goddamn earthquake had given them all one hell of a jolt, Franklin thought. The support structure under the pump at Intake Three had held, but just barely. Franklin had suggested that the plant be shut down while the support was being replaced, but Winston had said no. "Too expensive," was his constant excuse. So instead of replacement, Winston opted for having four welders repair the support. Franklin didn’t like the idea, but he was not the manager--Winston was. Franklin knew that he should have stood up to Winston, but that kind of thing could get you fired real quick, and Franklin had a family to support.

After finishing his check, he returned to his magazine. But for some reason he couldn’t make out any of the words on the pages in front of him. The cover was indefinable, but that didn’t really matter because he wasn’t really reading a magazine anyway. His six-year-old daughter was there with him, and he wondered what she was doing here. This was a restricted area--authorized personnel only. His eight-year-old son was there, too, standing before him. But he, like his sister, was barely recognizable because of the burns and deformities. They looked like questionable survivors rising from the smoldering ashes and molten slag of Nagasaki. Their skin was burned black, and oozing abscesses had erupted on their once beautiful faces. Hair had fallen out in clumps until there were only a few dried strands left, and their hands and feet were twisted into grotesque, blackened claws.

"Why, Daddy?" the boy asked.

"Why are you killing us, Daddy?" the girl asked.

"They said the earthquake would cause the meltdown, Daddy," the boy said. "But you didn’t do anything. Why?"

"You knew it could happen to us, Daddy. Why did you let it happen?"

Walter Franklin leapt from his chair and ran for the door. I had no choice! his mind screamed. Didn’t they understand? It wasn’t supposed to happen this way! He had to stay...to earn a living, to send his children to school, to put food on the table and a roof over their heads... They had told him that the plant was safe, that this could never happen!

They lied!

I know they lied! he finally admitted to his children. But I didn’t mean for this to happen! What could I do? I’m just one man! I just did what I was told; I was just doing my job! I was just...following orders!

His running footsteps were painfully slow. His arms and legs felt as though they had suddenly turned to lead, and the very air had turned thick and syrupy, like protoplasm, and forced the breath out of his chest. Each step forward brought him no closer to the door. He groped for it in slow, blind panic, and finally reached the control panel that opened it. The door slid open, and outside--where he hoped to find fresh, clean air and escape--he found more children. Hundreds, thousands of children, all with their festering flesh dripping from their bones like oozing blobs of molten rubber, all blood-red and pus-yellow, puke-green and ash-gray, and charcoal-black. They floated toward him, reaching for him, wanting to share their death of radiation poisoning with him. Nooo! his mind shrieked. He turned away from then and tried to outrun them, but they kept coming closer and closer. Their hands clawed at him, grabbing at him. He could see his children standing by his desk in the control room. Help me! he sobbed. Help me, please, I didn’t want this to happen! Please, help me...help me... And his children watched sadly, pointing accusing skeletal fingers at him.

And the others grabbed him, shaking him, shaking him. "Your fault," they said. "Your fault...fault...ault..."

"...alt, wake up! Walt!" Michelle nearly shouted as she shook him.

He sat up on the sofa with a lurch, his face a metal etching of pure terror. He looked frantically around himself, and suddenly realized that he was in his own living room. Bright sunlight shone through the open drapes. He was panting and sweating like a panic-stricken man being pulled back from the edge of a cliff. He slumped against his wife, exhausted.

"My God, Walt, what was it?" Michelle asked. She knew that he had been having something more horrifying than a nightmare, but still she wondered what the hell had been chasing him.

"Michelle, where are the kids?"

She looked puzzled. "The kids? What…"

Franklin grabbed her by the shoulders. "The children!" he shouted desperately. "Where are the children??"

"They...they’re out in the backyard, playing... Why? Walt, what’s wrong?"

He bolted from the sweat-soaked sofa and ran for the back door. He banged it open and ran outside, then stood frozen on the porch. From there he could see Dennis and Lisa climbing all over the jungle gym. When they saw him, they jumped down and ran for him. "Hi, Daddy!" Lisa shouted.

"What’re you doin’ up?" Dennis asked.

Walt fell to his knees and hugged his children, burying his face between them. Michelle had come outside, and even from this distance she could tell he was sobbing. Dear God, she thought, what happened? What had terrified him like this?

Walt took a few minutes before he managed to get himself under control. At last he looked into their beautiful, unmarked faces and said, "Do you two remember that house we saw in Arizona last summer? The little one in Flagstaff? Near the forest?"

"Yeah?" they both said.

"How’d the two of you like to live there?"

"Really?" they asked excitedly. "You really mean it?"

"I really mean it."

"HECK YEAHHH!!!"

Walter Franklin kissed his children, then straightened and turned to his wife. He put his arms around her and held her, and shook with silent sobs. Once he could control himself well enough to speak, he finally said, "The first thing I have to do, before we move, is write a couple of letters. The first one is a letter of resignation from Betatron, and the second one is for the Times. Even if it doesn’t get printed, there are a few things that I want to tell them about that plant."

***

The switchboard at Betatron was jammed with phone calls all day--employees from the night shift were all calling in to quit. The stories were all different, each as terrifying as the last, but they all had the same conclusion: there was absofuckinglutely no way that anyone was ever going back. And all through the day, people were being inured. Not seriously--Winston’s ankle turned out to have been severely sprained, not broken. Another leak was reported at Intake Three, and this time there was water there--it was everywhere, although there were no signs of a leak anywhere in the pipes themselves; just water all over the floor. The support structure at Intake Three was showing signs of weakening again, and this time the reactor had to be taken off-line. And a stairway had collapsed under Ben Paulson; he had fallen some six feet and sprained a wrist when he landed. Harve Beckworth had reported seeing thousands of rats scurrying and squeaking all over the pump at Discharge Nine, and no one would have believed him if it hadn’t been for his seven witnesses. A loose light fixture had swung down and bashed Tony Mendoza across the back of his head, giving him a minor concussion and a nasty scalp laceration. Leroy Knott said he heard something big wheezing inside his office, and it had a stench like something two weeks dead.

By the end of that day, there was no one left to run the place. There were only a few die-hards around, one of them being Bruce Winston. But there weren’t nearly enough people to do the job. Word had spread so fast through the telephone lines to neighbors and friends that not one qualified person in all the surrounding towns would go there.

"It’s the Devil who’s doin’ it all!" Winston had shouted. He could now be seen wearing a crucifix, a St. Christopher’s medal, and--just to play it extra-extra safe--a gold Star of David. He had never worn such things in his entire life. "We’re Christians, goddamn it! We don’t let the Devil win! We can whup his ass!"

"Yeah?" said Gary Cruz. "If it’s the Devil that’s in there, then he can fuckin’ have it! I ain’t goin’ back in there!"

An emergency crew was eventually put together, and they wouldn’t go in for anything less than triple overtime. And the only job they would do was to remove the plutonium core. While they worked, they saw no specters, heard no noises, smelled no mysterious smells, and suffered no injuries.

By 9:00 that night, the entire plant was completely shut down and abandoned.

 

 

Chapter Twenty-One

Valerie enjoyed being able to go outside wearing nothing more than her pentacle. She had always wanted to try nude sunbathing back in her old neighborhood, but she had never had the guts; she had always worried about having some neighbor leering at her with a pair of binoculars as she lay naked on the low-walled, flat roof. There was absolutely no privacy in that small apartment complex. But now she had her own private yard, her own private home, practically her own private forest, and she was finally getting rid of her tan lines as she dug in the soft, damp soil with a gardening trowel, yanking weeds in an effort to start a vegetable and herb garden. (The only reason why she was wearing the pair of denim cut-offs that she had found upstairs, and which had been trimmed down to not much more than just a bikini bottom, was because sitting on uncovered ground with a bare derriere made it itch.) The storm clouds from the night before had cleared away, but sitting just beyond the western horizon there were more that were threatening to move in; but for now, brilliant sunlight glowed warmly on her back as she worked in the rain-softened soil, and sweat beaded and ran down her back and chest, and down her face and into her eyes, making them sting. She wiped slowly at her brow with the back of one dirt-encrusted hand that left a dark smear, then jammed the trowel into the ground and sighed wearily.

She had slept well the night before. She wasn’t sure if she would or not, considering her close encounter with the guards at Betatron. And she still could not understand why the dog had not reacted to her presence; it had to have known she was there. Maybe, she thought with an amused smile, it was smarter than the two guards with it, and it had wanted her to continue with her mission. And then she had considered the possible payback for using black magic on the power station. She had no idea of what kind of effect her spell would have on the people who worked there--other than that of driving them out--and she had half expected to be plagued with bad dreams as a way of working off some possible spiritual debt; instead, she had slept soundly and peacefully.

But now she was tired and hot. She wiped at a trickle of perspiration that ran down her side, leaving another dark smear of soil, and she thought to herself, Valerie, m’dear, you are one sweaty mess.

She surveyed the ground before her. More weeds. Oh, man, this was turning out to be a bigger job than she had thought. She brushed her hands against each other to rid them of some of the encrusted dirt that clung to them, then closed her eyes and emptied her mind of all conscious thoughts. As she meditated in the warm morning sun, she could hear the merry chirping of several nearby birds, and about a hundred yards away she could hear the flowing river as it beckoned to her. She could see the cool, clear water in her mind as it invited her to come for a long, relaxing swim, and she smiled at the temptation. She opened her eyes again and looked around her. Yeah, the weeds were still there. Dang. Still too much work to be done. With a sigh, she reluctantly pulled the trowel from the ground and held it for a moment, thinking. Yeah, there was a lot of work to do, but...what was the rush? It wasn’t like the garden was about to go off anywhere; it would still be here when she got back. And it was so damn hot out here, too. What was it, anyway? Ninety-five degrees? Ninety-eight? It was a scorcher for this time of year--and especially so soon after that cold and monstrous storm last night. And the humidity was almost as bad as the heat; she felt as though she were sitting in a sauna. It would be a good way to clear out the pores, but she didn’t feel like taking a steam bath right now.

Sure, why not go for a swim? a small voice asked temptingly. Just a short little skinny-dip. She could already feel the gentle caress of cool water sliding sensuously over her bare skin, gliding deliciously between her legs and caressing her breasts, and stroking her nipples to full, throbbing erection as she floated on her back, and then moving up to envelope her as she sank into cool, refreshing comfort. It would be so much nicer to be floating gently in the cool, cool water...to quench her burning thirst, and just to be in the water... Yeah, why not?

She jammed the trowel into the ground again and looked at the encroaching army of weeds. "I’ll see you guys later," she told them. She rose with a swift and graceful movement, and with a mild thrill of excitement she tugged her shorts open with a short and muted burst of popping buttons, let them drop from her hips to the ground, and then stepped out of them to kick them up onto the back porch. Naked and grinning with delightful anticipation, she quickly headed off toward the trees.

Following the cables that led from the house to the waterwheel--and suddenly feeling like a forest animal, as the breath of her woodland habitat and the sun’s warmth gently stroked her in places it had never touched before--she picked her way between the tall redwoods and brushed lush green ferns and shrubs aside. The thick, spongy moss and the bed of dry pine needles that carpeted the forest floor felt soft and cool against her bare feet, and after a few minutes of stepping over a number of fallen, moss-covered tree trunks and swiping at buzzing insects that danced before her eyes, the trees seemed to suddenly part before her like a pair of stage curtains to reveal a wide, majestic waterfall. It stood maybe twenty feet high and maybe thirty feet wide, and fell into an even wider pool. Across from the waterfall, the pool narrowed and flowed into the river itself, which gently wound its way to the Pacific Ocean.

Standing near the edge of the water, and leaning with one hand against a sturdy redwood, she gazed in wide-eyed wonder and delight at the beauty of it. "Sweet Goddess," she softly breathed. As she beheld the pure, blue-green water with its white caps of foam that washed up on the gray stones, and the rich, brown and moss-covered shore, the surrounding firs, pines and massive redwoods and the pale blue sky with its brush strokes of white clouds and warm brilliant sun, she wondered if a male god could ever have created something of such beauty. Well, yeah, she thought, but not without the help of a Goddess. As she stood here, naked and silent and unmoving, she could feel its warm life-energy passing up from the ground and into her, and she happily accepted it and let it saturate her every molecule.

She approached the edge of the pool. On its near side, next to the waterfall, she found a wide, flat slab of pale gray stone that slanted at a very slight angle toward the water, and which would provide her with what she concluded to be a perfect place to work on her tan. This is gonna be great, she told herself as another thrill of exhilaration ran through her every nerve. She approached the waterfall and stepped carefully down the slick, wet stones, and went to stand under the fresh, pure and cool water that fell on her like a heavy shower. She ran her hands through her long, dark hair again and again as she luxuriated in the refreshing coolness that sluiced down her body, while bright sunlight sparkled from her wet skin and hair, and from her silver pentacle. She opened her mouth to let it fill, and she drank thirstily. She couldn’t believe how good it tasted; there were none of the chemical or sedimentary impurities to foul its flavor as there had been with the stuff that came out of the tap back in her old neighborhood. There was no chemical taste of chlorine or God knows what else to add any artificial flavor--just pure, natural, clean water. She laughed in sheer exhilaration.

She carefully stepped farther down the slippery stones and away from the shower as she brushed her wet hair back behind her ears, and then eased herself into the clear, azure pool. Finding it to be about chest-deep--quite satisfactory for swimming and floating, yet also shallow enough to stand in--she pushed away from the shore, and with powerful kicks she glided across the sparkling surface. Angling downward, she slipped beneath the surface and grabbed onto some stones to pull herself along the bottom, then grinned as a rainbow trout--at least a five pounder--swam past her and darted quickly away as she reached out to touch it. She pushed off from the bottom and swam beneath the surface some more, then angled upward and broke the surface. Leisurely rolling onto her back, she slowly backstroked as the warm sun and the cool water continued to caress her, and made her way back across the pool to the shore.

She pulled herself out of the water to sit on the stone slab. Dripping wet and staining the warm stone beneath her a darker shade of gray, she brushed her wet hair back with her fingers and leaned back on her hands with one leg stretched before her and the other bent at the knee, and with a contented sigh and narrowed eyes she surveyed the scenery before her. She had forgotten just how beautiful this place was over the last ten years, and how much she loved it. She was Home now, and she would never leave it again.

And then she thought, as she continued to survey her surroundings with a grin, This place is going to be great for swimming on hot summer nights under a full moon. She couldn’t wait.

She lay back on the stone and raised her arms to rest above her head, and closed her eyes to bask in the warm sunlight. Boy, this is the life, she thought with another deep, contented sigh as the warm and gently pulsating life-energy of the forest continued to caress and saturate her. No clothes, no shame, no guilt trips. This was absolute, total freedom! Freedom to live her life and worship her Goddess and God any way she wanted; freedom to cast her spells and work her magic for the betterment of all; freedom to swim naked in the river any time she wished, or lie naked in sun-washed meadows; freedom to make love to whomever she wished...freedom to do anything she wished, and without having to answer to anyone but her Gods. Not to society and its repressive rules and regulations, not to those gun-toting and Bible-thumping FLM wackos and their so-called "morality," where sex and nudity were evil, filthy and sinful while the rape of the natural world and genocidal wars in the name of religion were perfectly acceptable, so long as they served their purposes...not to anyone, as long as she harmed no one. With an almost jarring shift somewhere deep within her psyche, she suddenly broke through the last vestiges of religiously induced guilt, shame and repression, and boldly seized in both of her fists the spiritual freedom and her absolute right to be who she was--a Witch, a free woman, and a child of Nature.

"An’ ye harm none, do as ye will," stated the Wiccan Rede; and as she offered her thanks to her gods, Valerie thought, Good rule to live by.

Between the heat of the stone under her and the sunlight above as it sensuously caressed her bare skin with its warm rays, she was quickly becoming deliciously aroused. With her arms still resting above her head, and spreading her legs wide to fully expose herself to the sun and to welcome its pulsating and caressing warmth like a celestial lover, she found herself longing for someone smooth and soft and warm with whom she could share this special place. But since there was no such person, she decided with a lazy smile that the next best thing to do was to just take matters into her own hands. As she absorbed even more of the forest’s life energy, she moaned softly as she began to gently and thoroughly squeeze and stroke and caress her high, full breasts and gently squeeze and pinch her throbbing and stiffening nipples, and run her fingertips lightly over and down her sloping belly to send circular, fluttering waves of pleasure throughout her entire being; and it wasn’t long before one hand finally slid down to send rippling currents of sensual delight into her very core as it slowly and thoroughly went to work between her thighs. With gasps and groans of quickly increasing urgency, she squeezed her eyes shut; and then, with her second and third fingers buried inside herself, she suddenly arched her back and cried out in ecstasy as she climaxed with the force of a volcano. Completely out of control, with one hand ablaze between her legs and the other playing with first one breast and then the other as she writhed passionately against the warm granite beneath her, and with another sudden gasp and cry and a thrust of her hips, she could actually see in her mind’s eye the Earth’s red-hot lava spurting and oozing from its molten core through a steaming and swollen, vagina-like crevice even as she felt it overflowing from her own.

And then she saw that Asian woman from the concert. Her face seemed to just come out of nowhere; and the vision swept her on to another, even higher, cresting peak and crashing wave of nearly blinding rapture. In sweet, euphoric surrender, she gasped like a desperate diver coming up for air, and ecstatically cried out to her nameless lover as she suddenly released all of that absorbed energy back into the forest in a mind-shattering orgasm. With that woman’s face still in her mind’s eye, she gasped and panted, and then gasped again as she climaxed a third time, erupting against her hand with the longest, loudest and most powerful orgasm that she had ever experienced.

She collapsed against the granite slab. Exhausted and tingling all over, and shimmering with perspiration, she finally relaxed with her arms above her head, to lie in the brilliant sunshine and to catch her breath as she basked in the warm, mellow afterglow. Satisfied for now, she rolled onto her stomach and stretched luxuriously with a wide and lazy grin, and spread her legs once more as she pillowed the side of her face on her folded arms. With a deep sigh and soft moan of contentment as the warm sun continued to sensuously lick and caress her nude form, and as the reassuring sounds of the forest--the gentle rustling of the wind in the trees, the steady rushing of the waterfall, and the harmonious songs of birds--glided serenely through her mind, she soon drifted off to sleep.

***

She was startled awake by a sharp metallic clang! and the shrill, screaming cry of an animal in brutal agony. Jesus! she thought as she bolted upright. She scrambled to her feet and leapt from the stone to land on soft soil, and ran off into the woods in the direction from where the cries were coming. Dear Goddess, she thought, someone’s dog got caught in a trap! Not even considering whether or not she ought to return home to dress first, she ran as fast as she could, leaping over fallen logs and dodging under overhanging branches, and dashing through shrubs and ferns. Somebody was about to get an eyeful, a part of her mind was telling her, when they came to find a naked woman trying to free their dog from a trap. But that wasn’t important. What was important was trying to help the poor trapped animal. Gods, she thought, who the hell would be stupid enough and mean enough to be setting steel traps around here? True, there weren’t many pets in this area, and they certainly didn’t run loose through the woods; but damn it, no one had a right to be setting steel traps around here, she believed. No one had a right to be setting them at all. There had been so many times when Valerie, upon hearing of incidents like this, had wished that the bastards who set these spring-fed steel jaws would fall victim to them themselves; it would serve them right.

The snarls and cries were growing louder as she drew nearer. She pushed aside some shrubs and found the animal that had been screaming in such agony: it wasn’t someone’s dog, but a massive, gray-and-tan timber wolf. One of its front paws was caught, and the animal was biting furiously at the trap. When it saw Valerie, it flattened its ears against its head and snarled menacingly at her, warning her off.

"It’s okay, I’m here to help." She began to move toward the wolf, and with a snarling bark and a snapping of its jaws, it lunged at her. Had the trap not been securely staked to the ground, the wolf would have had her by the throat.

Startled, she fell backward from the sudden movement. She recovered quickly, though, and crouched out of the wolf’s reach. "Easy," she said, trying to sound reassuring. She slowly extended a hand, palm up, as one would try doing with a strange dog. "I’m here to help you. Honest."

The wolf lunged at her again, its teeth barely grazing against her fingertips.

She reflexively yanked her hand back. "Damn it, please!" she said, her voice soft yet desperate as she found herself choking back a sob. "I want to help you, dammit! Come on, let me help." She watched the wolf for a long moment, frantically wondering how she could possibly get it to understand that she was a friend, and the wolf stared back at her with a dangerous look in its eyes and a low, rumbling growl deep in its chest.

Valerie stared into its eyes; an unwise move on her part, because while she was trying to send whatever thoughts it might understand that she was here to help, the wolf took such a direct and open stare as a challenge and a threat. And then she suddenly noticed that its eyes were the same shade of pale, clear amber as her own…

"Please," she said again, very softly. Down on one knee now, naked and defenseless before the wolf and with her dark, damp hair hanging limply about her shoulders, she spread her arms wide to show that she was no threat. "No weapons, okay? I’m here to help you. Please trust me. I know you don’t have any reason to, but give me a chance, okay?"

The wolf continued to stare back at her with its own amber eyes locked onto hers. It wasn’t growling at her now, but it was still watching her carefully and dangerously, with blood all over its muzzle; it had cut its lips and gums on the steel while trying to free itself.

Now on her hands and knees, she slowly took a cautious step forward, and then extended her hand again. This time, the wolf let her approach--but it never took its suspicion-filled eyes from her. "It’s okay," she said again with a soothing voice. She continued to approach in this submissive posture until she was within easy striking range, right in front of it. She reached forward and slowly wrapped her fingers around the jaws of the trap and pulled hard, trying to separate them. For a moment, she thought that the trap might be too strong. "Easy, pal, I’m going to have to relax here for a second." She relaxed the trap’s jaws, and they began to bite into the wolf’s leg again. The animal whined once and wrinkled its lip in warning, but didn’t move as Valerie shifted her grip for a better hold. She took a deep breath and tried again, and this time the jaws slowly came apart. Not far, but just far enough so that the wolf could draw its leg out. Valerie tossed the trap as far as its chain would allow.

The leg wasn’t bleeding too much; the blood vessels around the wound had been crushed, pinching off most of the blood flow, but the wound would have to be treated. "There’s no way you’re going to be able to get around on that," she said, "so it looks like I’m going to have to carry you home. Now, take it easy--I’m not going to hurt you." The wolf, still suspicious but now also curious, watched her as she cautiously moved around to the side, always staying in its line of vision so it wouldn’t get too suspicious, and slid one arm around its chest and the other behind its hind legs. She slowly straightened from her crouch, lifting. Jesus Christ, he’s fuckin’ huge! she thought. She hoped she would be able to carry him all the way home.

It wasn’t easy. Sometimes she had to turn and step backward through a bush as its branches scratched at her bare skin and left red, raw marks on it, and sometimes she used the wolf’s hindquarters to hold the shrubs back as she stepped through them. There were a couple of times when she thought she might drop him when she had to step carefully over a fallen tree and support the wolf’s weight on one leg at a time. Through remarkable strength born of sheer desperateness, she did manage to get him home.

She carefully set him down and gave him a gentle pat on the head. "You’re a good lookin’ kid, you know?" she asked. Then she went in search of a first aid kit. She couldn’t find one, but in a medicine cabinet in the upstairs bathroom she did find an old tube of antibiotic cream (she hoped this stuff was still good after ten years) and some sterile gauze pads, and a roll of white bandaging tape. She carried the supplies downstairs and left them near the wolf, then went back upstairs to get her craft supplies. She set out her candles, censer, chalice, pentacle, and athame, and quickly cast a Circle; in only a few moments, they were enveloped by the now familiar, opaque and blue-white energy that blotted out the rest of the living room. "I’ll try not to hurt you," she said as she reached for the medical supplies. "Just bear with me, okay?" She uncapped the tube and squeezed out a glob of white goop onto a gauze pad, then placed it gently on the wound. The wolf flinched slightly. "Sorry," she said. "I’m not too used to this kind of thing. It isn’t every day that I pick up strange wolves--you’re my first, believe it or not. I suppose it shows, doesn’t it?" She slowly pulled off three long strips of tape, then thought she better add a couple more gauze pads. She gently taped them into place, then carefully took the wounded leg in both hands and guided the energy to the injured area. Through it all, the wolf watched her with a combination of keen interest, mild disbelief, utter puzzlement, and pleasant surprise.

Now sitting on the floor with her legs folded beneath her, she looked back at him. "Do you do this kind of thing a lot so you can get picked up by naked chicks?" she asked.

The wolf watched her for a moment longer, and then it leaned heavily against her and reached up with its muzzle to zealously lick her face, throat and chin.

"Well, you’re welcome!" she said with a surprised chuckle. Sliding her arms around the animal, she hugged the big wolf against her breasts to enjoy the feel of its surprisingly soft coat against her bare skin, and kissed the top of its head.

The wolf’s eyes softened, and its lips parted as it began to pant slightly. The expression on its face looked almost like a contented smile, similar to the look one sees in the face of any domestic canine. For a brief moment, she thought this wolf looked a hell of a lot like Gus.

"Listen," she said as she stroked it a couple of times, "you stay here and take it easy, okay? I’m going to go back and get rid of that trap. I don’t want whoever planted it to use it again."

She opened a doorway with her athame and stepped through it to leave the injured wolf within the protective Circle, and then without bothering to dress she went out and found the place again with little trouble. She found the trap and followed its short chain to a steel spike that had been driven into the ground, and she took a firm hold of the chain and pulled. It didn’t even budge. She tugged the chain from one side to the other, hoping that by doing this she could loosen the spike’s hold on the ground. She dug with her fingers around the spike to clear away the soil and exposed more of the steel, and then jerked the chain left and right, again and again, to loosen the soil around it. She dug again, tugged some more, and suddenly the spike came free. She had been pulling so hard at it that she fell backward and landed on her rear, with the spike in her hand. "Gotcha, y’fucker," she said with a satisfied smile. She stood with the trap in one hand and got ready to leave. Deciding to keep the trap, she swore that she would find its owner and clamp the thing on his fucking head.

And then saw something else on the ground. She knelt for a better look.

It was one of the wolf’s teeth. A long and pointed canine had broken loose, just above the gum line, when the wolf had been trying to free itself. She picked it up and held it in her palm, and as she ran the index finger of her other hand over it she could feel the tooth begin to vibrate. Her attention instantly became enraptured by it, and as she examined it more closely it began to pull her into it. Nocturnal visions flashed through her mind; she saw the forest at night, with the land bathed in the light of a full moon, and she could suddenly feel herself running through the woods, accompanied by half a dozen more wolves and immune to the cold, and leaping easily over fallen trees and sliding under thick shrubs as they ran and played and hunted.

And then the sun and the warmth were back. She grinned as she tossed the tooth lightly into the air and caught it in her palm, and closed her fingers around it. This is gonna make a really neat earring, she thought.

When she got home, the wolf was still lying inside the Circle. It raised its head from its paws, fully alert with its ears up and eyes wide, but once it recognized Valerie it settled down once more and relaxed. It began to pant softly with that smile-like expression in its eyes again.

"How’re you doing, kiddo?"

The wolf’s tail thumped against the floor a couple of times.

She stepped inside the Circle once more and knelt beside the wolf, and it nudged its cold wet nose against her hand. She grinned and draped an arm around him, and scratched him behind an ear. "You’re not such a big bad ol’ wolf after all, are you?" she asked softly as she leaned against him. "Well, you’re certainly big"--she corrected herself as she looked it over--"but you’re not a bad guy at all."

The wolf groaned pleasurably, and turned its head slightly. Valerie sat on the floor, supporting herself on one hand and with her legs folded beside her, and began to scratch it behind the other ear. The forest predator closed its eyes and sighed deeply and contentedly as it settled down to rest its head on her thigh.

"You and I have a lot in common, y’know?" she asked in her soft, throaty voice. "We’ve both been lied about, and we both got hunted down to near extinction; you guys got hunted down and shot, and we got burned alive. The same damn dumb people who’ve called us Witches ‘evil devil-worshipers’ throughout the centuries are the same uneducated jerks who called and still call you wolves ‘ravenous, slavering demons of the woods.’"

The "ravenous, slavering demon of the woods" rolled onto its back with a drawn out groan of contentment, and the "evil devil-worshiper" began to scratch its belly. In reflex, one hind foot began to kick at the air.

"Yeah, you’re a friendly guy, aren’t you?" she asked with a grin and a chuckle as she slowly ran her fingers through the wolf’s soft coat, gently scratching his chest. "I’ll bet you’d like something to eat. Well, let’s see if I can get something. My uncle used to have a rifle around here somewhere, unless the feds confiscated it. I’ll try not to be gone too long." She got up and finally banished the circle, and then went to look for the rifle. She found a scoped Sauer 200 bolt-action hunting rifle in a dark corner of the closet by the door. She pulled the dust cover from the end of the barrel and opened the bolt, and peered into the breech to see if the weapon was loaded. It wasn’t, and after another moment’s search she found a box of cartridges resting on an upper shelf. She took it down, opened it, and loaded five rounds into the built-in magazine. She ran the bolt home and set the safety. She headed upstairs and dressed in jeans, moccasins and a t-shirt, then came back down and told the wolf, "You stay here and rest up, okay? I’ll be back in a little while."

Favoring its injured leg, the wolf rose quickly and hopped lightly onto the sofa. He settled down on the soft cushions with a grunt, rested his chin on one armrest, and with a sigh of contentment he made himself at home.

Okay, she thought once she was outside. Where do I find a rabbit? Do I even have the guts to kill it once I find it? Gods, I don’t want to kill a bunny... A cute, fuzzy gray little bunny... But I told him I’d try... Maybe I’ll be lucky and I won’t find one.

The more she thought about it, the less she liked the idea. But then another idea occurred to her: Wasn’t that how the cycle of life went? Some die so that others may live? Sure, we could all become vegetarians, she thought, but what good would that do? Plants are living things, too. Death is just part of the circulating life force, she decided, and if this life force really does move in a constant cycle, then nothing is ever really dead. After all, the body is not all there is to the being, she told herself; everything has that spark of life in it, whether it’s called the life force or spirit or soul or personality, everything has that spark that makes us who and what we are as individuals. It also made her think more seriously about the idea of reincarnation. Since we are all a part of Nature, she told herself, and if everything else in nature is recycled, then why not that spark of individuality that gives life to the physical body?

There was no rabbit to be found. Of course, Valerie was no professional huntress, either. Any potential game in the area undoubtedly had heard her come stomping along, in their sensitive ears, from a hundred miles away. She sighed resignedly, slung the rifle over her shoulder, and returned home. "Sorry, guy," she said as she went in through the front door, "but I couldn’t find any..." Her voice trailed off as she looked around the living room.

The wolf was gone.

***

It would be dark soon, and Keller’s butt was killing him. It had been a long time since he had done this much horseback riding; back down in Central America it was just about the only way to get around. But that had been three or four years ago, and he was terribly out of practice. The insides of his thighs were killing him, too, from squeezing them against the horse’s ribs for so long. He had been running it at nearly a full gallop most of the time, with a part of his mind thinking about Central America. That was where he had developed a true love of horseback riding. Odd, that he had never thought much about it back home. He had always enjoyed fast cars and fast boats; boats like that Cigarette 35 that he and André had used for smuggling weed from Jamaica to the tip of Florida. God, how he had loved that boat! It had a pair of fuel-injected Mercruiser engines that cranked out over 800 horsepower and propelled the boat to speeds in excess of 140 knots. The soldiers never did catch up with them in that. Not that they couldn’t--they had just been too afraid to drive that recklessly fast, and he was sure that they were still mad at him, even now. He also liked fast cars and fast planes, but it had been in Nicaragua where he had grown to love horses, and now riding one was the only time when he felt really at peace, even at a full gallop.

And he was galloping now, mostly because the rest of his mind was thinking about how dark it was getting, and how he didn’t like the idea of being out here at the mercy of the wolves. God, the cynical atheist had been half-heartedly praying all the way back, just let me get home, that’s all I ask. He finally relaxed when he spotted the lights on at the Ryan ranch. Home at last, he thought, what a relief.

He rode into the barn, dismounted, and lit a lantern that hung next to the door. He pulled the saddle off and, with a soft groan of fatigue, slung it over a sawhorse. The reins and bridle came next. Then he went to the hand pump and got a drink of water to rinse the dust from his dry throat, then filled a large pan for the horse. Going through the routine of feeding and watering a horse after a long ride reminded him again of Nicaragua and those two kids. Kids and horses, he thought with a smile; he learned to like both of them in a Central American jungle, and he wondered what Luís and Angela were doing right now. He hadn’t seen either of them in years, not since their parents had been killed by--

Back off from that, son, he sternly told himself. You weren’t going to think about that any more. There was nothing else you could have done. That’s what Roberto and the others said, anyway, and they seemed to be truly sincere about it. After all, he had gotten the rest of them out before the choppers had come, hadn’t he?

Yeah, I know, he told himself, but still...

He tossed half a bale of hay into the horse’s feed pan and added a couple of scoops of oats. "Here y’go, pal," he said. "Don’t eat too fast--I don’t want you gettin’ sick on me."

He went back to the barn door and retrieved the lantern, pulled the doors shut one at a time, and walked tiredly to the house and went in through the back door. He walked quietly across the kitchen to the refrigerator and eased its door open. It was well stocked now, but he found that he wasn’t really hungry. He closed the door and headed into the living room. The last time I came in through here she damn near tore my head off, he told himself. I hope she isn’t reading about more damn ghosts.

With one leg tucked beneath her, she was sitting on the sofa, wearing a long white t-shirt and reading a book on herbalism. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the kitchen door swing open, and she looked up. Then she grinned and said, "Keller!" She lay the book down and rose. "How’re you doing, stranger?" She greeted him with a warm hug.

He slid his arms around her, surprised and relieved. No ghosts, he thought. Thank God. "Not too badly," he replied. "I even had some minor luck with the car."

She released her hug on him, rested her hands on his shoulders, and looked into his eyes. "Yeah?"

"The guys at the shop managed to scrounge up a radiator, but we still can’t find a sending unit anywhere. It’s driving me nuts." Then he noticed something different about her. Was it her hair? It still framed her face and cascaded about her shoulders like soft ebony, but it seemed a little more...well, natural. Healthier. Shinier. There was something about her eyes, too; there seemed to be a much more friendly and compassionate inner glow to them. Even her smile was different; it a relaxed and easy smile that looked as though there might be a hint of something sly and playful in it.

And then he remembered their earlier antagonistic exchanges, and he suspiciously wondered, Why’s she being so nice? She’s got to be up to something no good.

"Well, hey. There’s plenty of time for that, so why not slow down and relax for a while? Are you hungry? I finally got the fridge stocked."

"Yeah, I saw. Actually, I’m just plain tired."

"I know just what’ll fix you up." She tugged his blazer off and tossed it across the back of the sofa. "Lay down on the sofa; what you need is a good massage." She took his hand and led him to the sofa. "Kick off your shoes, lie down, and relax."

He lay on the sofa, belly down, and she straddled him and started to work on his shoulders. He was still suspicious, but jeez, the massage sure did feel good. "Man, you’re tense. Long ride?"

"Mhmm." The side of his face was pressed against the sofa cushion, which muffled his voice.

"Well, you just relax and take it easy, and I’m going to see how much I know about you."

That shouldn’t take long, he thought as the built-up tension flowed out of him like a thick, dark ooze draining from a clear container. "Fire away."

"Let’s see...you’re name’s Garrett Keller..."

"So far, so good," he said, and then tried to remember when, or even if, he had ever told her his first name.

"And you’re from Louisiana..."

"Wrong."

"Wrong? Are you sure?" Then she grinned at the absurdity of her question.

Keller grinned lazily. "Well, I’m pretty sure. Last I can remember, ah’m from Austin, Texas." As he relaxed, his southern accent became more noticeable.

"You can’t be."

"Oh, yeah?" He tried to look at her questioningly, but he was so tired, and her massage felt so good... He just didn’t have the strength to move. "Why’s zat?"

"There aren’t any swamps in Austin."

"Well, that’s true... Swamps?"

"I keep seeing a swamp, and the southern accent and swamps kind of led me to think of Louisiana," she replied. "There’s a swamp and...and kids. Two little children, a boy and a girl..." Her eyes glazed over slightly as the vision swept through her mind, and she unconsciously began to slow her movements. "Black hair and dark skin...and fear..."

Luís and Angela, he thought He could remember slogging through the murky, knee-deep water, carrying the girl in one arm and leading the boy by the hand. And all three of them had been plenty scared. It still woke him at night sometimes, but at least now the shakes and the cold sweats were gone.

To change the subject, he said, "Hey, did you hear about what’s happening with Betatron?"

"No. What?" She moved from his shoulders to the middle of his back, between his shoulder blades.

"Word’s going around that the place is haunted."

She stopped and looked at him. "Haunted?"

"That’s what I heard," he replied as she started once more. "People are bailin’ out of there like it’s a plane on fire. No one is sure of what’s gonna happen with the place ‘cause they can’t...find anyone who’s willing to work in it. It sounds like it’s...gonna be...decommissioned..." he finally managed to finish as his concentration slipped away. God that massage felt good...

Valerie grinned. "No shit?"

"No ma’am."

"Well, son of a gun..." I’ll have to remember to cast another Circle and thank the Goddess, she said to herself.

Keller took a deep breath and moaned. "Boy, this is great. I oughtta go away and come back more...more often..."

"Not too often. Otherwise, I’ll have to charge you." She grinned at him as an idea came to mind, and she stopped her massage again. He certainly wasn’t her idea of someone soft and warm, she thought as she remembered being out by the river earlier, but he still might be kind of fun. Grinning with delight and in the spirit of her newfound freedom, she reached for the bottom of her shirt and peeled it off over her head, and tossed it across the room. "Oh, Gar-rett," she moaned seductively as she cupped and then gently squeezed her breasts.

Keller said nothing.

Naked and horny, Valerie leaned down on top of him to rest her full weight on him. She pressed her breasts against his back, and began to slowly and sensuously grind and squirm against him as she brushed her lips softly against his ear. "Garrett?" she breathed softly.

He snored.

She froze. She sat up. "Keller?"

He snored again.

She folded her arms beneath her breasts and scowled at him with a combination of annoyance and disappointment. At last, she snorted with chilled contempt. "Men."

***

It was dark and quiet throughout the house. In the living room, the only light came flickering from the fireplace, and the only sounds were those of the fire gently popping and crackling, and Keller’s quiet snores; everywhere else was calm, silent, and dark.

Valerie’s scream of terror came from upstairs, shattering the peace. Keller was awake in an instant and half way up the stairs before he was even conscious of his movements. He took the steps three at a time and slammed doors open until he found her sitting up in bed, screaming and thrashing wildly.

"Valerie! Jesus, what’s wrong?" He rushed to her bed, and in the dim moonlight that came in through the slightly parted white lace curtains he could tell that she was fighting with something--but it was grabbing at her with invisible hands.

She screamed again as she tried to grab at them and pry them loose, but there was nothing there for her to get hold of. Keller could see the long, ugly red welts that rose on the bare skin of her breasts, raking across her like dull talons. "Stop it!" she screamed. "Stop it!"

And then the hands were gone. She was surprised for a moment at the results of her command, and she ceased her struggles. She sat in bed and held herself, and cried.

He didn’t know what to do. He felt completely helpless; he wanted to do something to help, but he just didn’t know what the hell to do. He went to sit next to her, and put an arm around her and held her close. "God, Valerie, what can I do?"

"Leave me alone!" she screamed.

He flinched at her rage.

"God damn you, Priest, leave me alone!"

***

More than four hundred miles away, Colonel Elias Warren lay awake on his cot as he gazed at Valerie’s picture. He held it above his chest, studying it and wondering again what she must look like under all those clothes. He could see her in his mind, dancing naked in the dead of night around a huge bonfire, glistening with sweat and desire, and calling up demons and sending them forth to corrupt good men’s souls. He saw her as a succubus, flying through the night and wafting into the bedrooms of good Christians, seducing the men and draining them of their thick, sticky white life’s fluids while their wives slept peacefully beside them. And he could see her coming after him, offering him her breasts to kiss and stroking herself between her quivering thighs, with her dark hair flowing around her shoulders and her skin shimmering with sweat and lust.

And he wanted her so much.

God, how he wanted her! He longed to bury his face between her luscious breasts and to lick the warm, salty sweat from her flesh. Squeezing painfully at his erection through one pocket of his trousers, he longed to inhale her scent and thrust into her. He wanted so badly to cast off his clothes and be wrapped in her arms and legs, and to grind and thrust into her, and thrust, and thrust, and to finally release!--

"No!" he shouted. His voice was nearly a scream.

Satan was here! Satan was planting those vile, evil, filthy thoughts in Warren’s brain! The Devil was clever, oh God he was so very, very clever...but he couldn’t fool Elias Warren. "Get thee behind me, Satan!" he commanded as he quickly jerked his hand from his pocket. And then his eyes widened in terror as his heart suddenly jack hammered in his chest. He dropped the picture onto his chest and began slapping frantically at it as, at the same time, he tried to leap from his cot. "Protect me, Jesus!" he begged, shouting. "Dear God, help me!" He rolled from the cot, fell to the canvas floor, and rose to his knees. Sweating profusely and trying to catch his breath, he groped his way toward the flap of his tent. Gaining his footing at last, he stumbled outside in near panic.

Valerie’s picture had suddenly burst into flames.

To Be Continued


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