erniewhiting@centurylink.net

Warning: This story contains graphic scenes of violence.
 
 

"Outlaws And Allies"

by Ernie Whiting


Chapter Three

       She had been dreaming that dream again, when she suddenly awoke in the dark. It was that recurring dream about horses and dust, and the thundering hooves, the blond man and the echoing gunshots... In one way, she wanted to re-enter it to learn more about it-to find out where it had come from and where it might take her, and to find out why it felt so damn much like the last recurring dream that she'd had; the one that had eventually proven itself to be a past-life memory of being burned at the stake for witchcraft, and had resulted in her being chased by soldiers from Colorado to California some seven years ago.
       She sighed with a soft moan as she stirred on the foam sofa, and struggled to remember more. Jasmine was lying warmly on top of her with Sierra sandwiched comfortably between them. Both were sleeping peacefully. Gods, she thought, what was that damn dream about? She hated not being able to remember more of it; the details faded quickly as she came more and more awake, and withdrew from her grasp to conceal themselves in the dark, murky depths of her subconscious.
       The hell with it, she thought with a sigh. To shake off the feeling of dread--to silence that persistent, irritating little voice of anxiety that was nagging away in the back of her mind, like an unrelenting in-law from some twentieth-century television sitcom--she wondered what time it might be. Peering at the flashing readout on the VCR's face, she saw 2:17am in small blue-green numbers. She had no idea if the time was accurate; after the last time the batteries had run down and the player's memory had been wiped clean, she couldn't remember if she had ever bothered to program the proper time. Not that it was important; after all, to her the concept of hours, minutes and seconds was an unnatural creation of older societies whose sole function was to provide a forced schedule for corporations and their activities, and had no part in Nature. Besides, there were no other clocks in the house anyway, so she had nothing by which to set the player's clock.
       She shifted under the weight of her two girls and sighed again. "Bed time, babes," she said with a soft, dry voice.
       Jasmine shifted slightly and cracked her eyes open. "I'll put Sierra to bed," she whispered.
       "Naw, that's okay, I got her. You go back to sleep."
       She slowly rose and lifted the sleeping child in her arms as Jasmine shuffled off toward the bed, and carried her to her room. She lay her down, pulled the covers up around her shoulders, and tucked Dylan--a stuffed Panda that was a gift from Sierra's only "uncle," Garrett Keller, from long ago--comfortably next to her before softly kissing her forehead and cheek, and returning to the main room.
       Jasmine had shut off the stereo receiver and the DVD player, but had left the TV monitor on so that its bright and pale blue glow could provide Valerie with sufficient light to make her way to their bed. With the remote control, she switched off the TV and then slipped into bed and curled up behind a still warm and naked Jasmine, and in a minute or two she was sound asleep.

***

       Sierra was reclining once again on the foam futon sofa that afternoon, caught up in yet another episode of "XENA: Warrior Princess." Normally, she preferred to practice reading; but this show had captured her heart, and she just could not get enough of it. So now here she lay, her eyes glued to the screen and lost in the world of fantasy, and dreaming about ancient times and ancient lands.
       Perhaps it was that nagging, half-remembered dream that had added an extra, unintentional sharpness to her voice. Dressed in buckskin shorts and an open vest, Valerie ominously folded her arms beneath her breasts. "Are you watching that again? Sierra, you're going to run the batteries down, and we won't have enough power for tonight."
        Low clouds had gradually crept in from the coast, but still it was a warm and humid day. Dressed in her own buckskin shorts, Sierra had decided that it was much too hot and muggy to go outside and tend to the horses or play with the wolves, and had figured that the weather just might be the perfect excuse for hanging around the house and watching TV. And if there had been an edge to her mother's voice, the child hadn't noticed it.
       "It's a good show," she said. Her eyes never left the screen.
       With growing annoyance she said, "I don't careif it's a good show! TV watching during the day when there are better things to do is irresponsible, and it's a waste of time and electricity." She watched the child for a moment, and then softened her voice. "Wouldn't you rather practice your reading?"
       No answer.
       She had been straightening the bed, fluffing the pillows and pulling up the bearskin they used as a blanket, and now she was approaching the TV monitor. The skin, by the way, had been reluctantly donated by a large brown bear one day, when Valerie had heard the shrill screams and answered them by running outside with a compound longbow in her hand and slinging a quiver of arrows across her back. And because she had recently returned from an unsuccessful hunting trip, her Parker-Imai hunting knife with its beaded sheath and ten-inch blade of stainless steel--razor sharp along one edge and serrated along the other--had still been hanging at her right hip. Jasmine had been running from the river and toward the house, and clutching a hysterically screaming four-year-old Sierra to her while being chased by a rogue bear and screaming for help. With her nerves suddenly set afire by adrenalin, Valerie had run out to meet them as she drew a hunting arrow and notched it. She raised the bow and drew its string back; thanks to her own physical strength and the adrenalin, the 100-pound pull came back quickly and effortlessly, as though the bow were a mere toy. She stopped and took aim, and fired. The arrow, with a razor-edged hunting tip, struck the bear low in one shoulder, and caused it to stumble and fall, and bought Jasmine and Sierra a little more time and distance. But the bear was up again and in pursuit, and quickly making up for that lost distance. Valerie rushed forward again as she drew another arrow, and had shouted at the huge animal, "Hey, asshole--over here!" in an effort to divert the bear's attention away from her family and toward herself. The bear turned toward her and raised up on its hind legs, and she fired again. The second arrow struck it in the front of the throat, slightly off-center and partially slicing the carotid artery, and piercing the trachea. The bear tried to roar in pain and rage, but blood welled in its throat and choked off its air. But the animal still would not go down; slowed but not stopped, it fell to all fours and charged toward Valerie, looking more like a lumbering rhinoceros than a bear. But Valerie stood her ground; she quickly notched another arrow as her heart pounded in terror, and drew another bead. The arrow flew and struck deep in the bear's shoulder, near the neck. The animal stumbled again, giving Valerie enough time to notch another arrow--she was drawing and notching them almost as quickly as she could fire--but it came up again and continued on, slowly closing the distance and determined to kill. She fired again, striking it deep in the other shoulder, this time closer to the neck. Hindered even more, but stillnot stopped, the bear came on. Less than twenty feet away, it slowly rose on its hind legs once more to its full height and prepared to throw its weight on top of this puny human that was inflicting such pain. Valerie drew two more arrows; one she clenched in her teeth and the other she notched, and fired again. The first arrow hit the bear high in the left chest, piercing the lung. With both terror and determination in her eyes, she took a step back and quickly snatched the other arrow from her teeth and notched it. She forced herself to steady her arm in spite of her trembling terror, and took careful aim. She let the arrow fly, and this one punched its way into the center of the bear's heart. With a strangled and gurgling roar of agony, the animal lunged toward her with outstretched paws as its strength and blood drained away. Valerie dropped the bow and leapt to one side, throwing herself into a shoulder-roll. The hulking brute barely missed her and fell to the ground, and she came up in a crouch to draw her knife. The bear tried weakly to rise once more, and Valerie immediately jumped on top of it and began plunging the knife into its neck. The bear rolled onto its back, throwing her off, but in an instant she was on top of it again, straddling the huge animal and grabbing its throat with her left hand in a futile effort to crush its windpipe. With her face literally an arm's length from the bear's powerful jaws and its huge yellowed fangs, and with its foul, moist breath wafting into her face, she plunged the bloodstained blade into its chest again and again as she screamed in terror and rage. Blood flew from the wounds and splattered her with gore, and still she stabbed at the animal. When she finally realized it was no longer putting up a fight, she paused for a moment with the bloody knife poised to plunge again, panting like an Olympic sprinter after a two-hundred-meter dash.
       "Is it dead?" asked Jasmine's terror-filled voice.
       Valerie turned for an instant and saw her, still clutching Sierra. She turned back to the bear that stared with unmoving eyes at the sky. "Yeah," she said, her voice sounding more like a bark. "Yeah," she said again, and then the realization hit her. "Yeah," she said once more, this time in astonishment, "the fucker's dead!"
       "Are you sure?" Jasmine asked, incredulous yet wanting very much to believe it. Still holding Sierra in her arms, she slowly approached.
       Valerie nodded in exhaustion. "Pretty sure," she replied, suddenly weak. She collapsed on top of it, and for a moment Jasmine and Sierra both thought she might be injured. Jasmine quickly came forward and released the child, and pulled Valerie up by her shoulders. "Are you okay?"
       It took a moment for her to respond, and she finally said, "Yeah, I'm...I'm okay. How about you two?"
       "We're okay..."
       And then the tears came. Tears of terror and of relief. They held each other close for a moment, and then they turned to Sierra, who was staring in frightened fascination at the bear. Valerie reached a hand toward her. "It's okay, honey, c'mere," she said, trying to reassure her. "He's dead, sweetheart, he can't hurt you..."
       Still staring at the huge animal, she slowly edged her way toward them. And then she rushed to them and burst into tears. She fervently hugged Jasmine for being the one who had rushed her back to safety, and she thankfully hugged Valerie for being the one who had killed this monster from the woods.
       And then Valerie suddenly bubbled over in nearly hysterical sobbing laughter as relief finally washed over her. With tearful eyes, Jasmine and Sierra looked at her as though she might be losing her mind. Between pants for air, Valerie asked, "Where... Where the hell...is Davy Crockett...when you really need him?"
       She got a nervous laugh from Jasmine, but Sierra was still terrified. With wide eyes and tear-streaked cheeks, and with a tremulous voice, she said, "H-h-he was g-g-gonna eatus, Mommy, he was gonna e-e-eatus..."
       As her breath slowly returned, Valerie gently took her daughter's face in both of her hands and kissed her reassuringly on one corner of her mouth. "I'll tell you what," she said, panting gently. "What do you say we eat himinstead? Okay?"
       It had taken a moment for this idea to register in the child's mind, but when it did a new light grew to life behind her terror-stricken eyes. Then her lips slowly curled into a tiny smile.
       They celebrated that night. It was a celebration of victory and of life, and after gorging themselves on bear steaks and fresh garden vegetables, the three of them danced to The Clash's "Rock The Casbah" compact disc as the music blasted from the stereo. Of course, the nightmares had come to all three of them--they had come for several nights--but eventually their visits had become less and less frequent, until they scarcely bothered to return at all; and when they did, they were not nearly as terrifying. All things considered, not only had the bear provided the two women with a blanket, but its meat had fed the family of three for months. The following day, Valerie had managed to trade a kilo of homegrown sinsemilla and half a dozen DVDs for the Sauer 200 hunting rifle. If there were to be any more attacks on her family, she wanted to be able to put the fucker down right now.
       And Sierra had learned a valuable lesson that day, one that she seemed to have forgotten for the moment: Don't Mess With Mom.
       Valerie went over to the entertainment center and shut off the DVD player.
       "Aww, Mom!"
       "Don't 'Aww, Mom!' me, young lady." She shut off the monitor and the stereo receiver. "Besides, I've got something that's a lot better than goofy old 'Xena'; I've got a bookthat you haven't seen yet."
       Sierra looked glumly at her mother, and defiantly folded her arms across her chest. How dareshe diss the Warrior Princess! "I don't feellike reading," she pouted.
       "Aw, come on; don't be a grump. You'll like this one."
       She regarded her with a suspicious yet thoughtful look in her eyes. "Is it a new 'Calvin and Hobbes?'" she asked at last. She might be talked into reading that.
       "Better than that. Hang on a second, I'll be right back." She stepped over to the wide pine bookcase which stood near the fireplace and was crammed almost to bursting full of books (most of which she had already read). In the middle of the center shelf, there stood an eight-by-ten framed color picture of the three of them, when Sierra was four years old and just before the incident with the bear. Sierra was between them, and all were sitting posed on the front porch and dressed in faded blue denim and worn, brown leather, and grinning at the camera. Written across the bottom of the picture in graceful strokes of black ink from a nylon-tipped pen was the inscription, "Beltane-2014."
       She lay the picture aside and reached past its resting place to remove a large flat stone in the wall, and removed from its niche an old leather-bound volume. She brought it out. "This," she said conspiratorially as she approached the sofa, "is an old, oldbook that was written many, many years ago. It's the kind of book that the Foundation doesn't want you reading."
       Thatgot Sierra's interest. "Really?" She was all eyes now, her glum mood completely dispelled. "Who wrote it?" she asked as Valerie reclined next to her. "What is it?"
       "It's a special book. Just about all of books here are the kind that the government wants to keep away from you, but this one is extra-special."
       She scooted in closer to her mother and attentively curled up against her. "Really? Why?"
       "Because I know the woman who wrote it."
       She looked at her expectantly. "Yeah? Who? Who wrote it?" Her eyes returned to the book.
       Resting the book on her drawn-up knees, she draped an arm around her daughter's shoulders and opened it to show her the first page. Sierra read it aloud without any help. "'For Valerie, on your seven...seventeenth birthday. Use it...wisely...and Blessed Be. Love, Alexa.'" She looked up at her. "Who's 'Alexa'?"
       "She was my mom--your grandmother."
       "Really? Way cool! What's the book?" She closed it and read the title that had been hand-written on the cover. "Book of Shadows?" It sounded mysterious to her. "Neat!" And then a moment later it also sounded vaguely familiar; she thought she may have heard the phrase once or twice before. Excitement immediately switched to puzzlement. "What's it about?"
       "It's a book about magic and Craft stuff, with spells and incantations and secret herbs and everything."
       Oh yeah, Sierra thought, suddenly remembering. Yeah, she'd heard her parents and other coven members mention such books before, but nobody had ever gone into any details with her over it. She had always figured that it was probably just more dry, dull, boring stuff that grown-ups perpetually talked about; stuff like politics and farming, and sex. "Magic spells?" she asked, her interested suddenly piqued even more. "Witchcraft stuff? Cool!" Having been initiated as a Witch some six months ago by her parents at a coven meeting, she wanted to learn as much about the Craft as she could. To her, the Craft represented much more than just magic and spells, and living a natural life on this planet; it gave her a feeling of connection, of belonging; of being a part of everything in the universe, both physically and spiritually. And this feeling of belonging may have had something to do with the fact that no matter where she was--no matter how far she was from this cabin in the woods, whether in the deserts of the Southwest or the unfamiliar forests of northern Oregon--she always felt as though she were at Home.
       Eagerly, she started to reach for the book.
       "But--" here Valerie held the book shut with one hand, and her expression became serious. "--you have to promise me one thing before I show you anything in it."
       "What's that?"
       "You have to promise me that you won't tell anyoneoutside of our Circle about this. Not Marianne, not Linda, not Allison, not anyone." She paused for a moment, letting the implication sink in. "Do I have your promise?"
       Sierra liked secrets. She liked the mystery, the intrigue, and the sense of conspiracy...and she could keep a secret as well as any undercover operative. Being the garrulous kid that she was, when she wanted she could also be amazingly tight-lipped. "Yeah, you got it!"
       "I'm serious here, Sierra. You mustn't tell anyone; this is strictly family stuff. Okay?"
       If her mom was making this big a fuss about secrecy, it must be something reallybig. "You have my word of honor," she told her quite seriously. To Sierra, giving one's word of honor carried more weight than making a promise. Between her mothers and her Uncle Garrett, she had come to learn that honor was something to be cherished, and not to be taken lightly. For a moment, she seemed far more mature than her seven years. "On my word of honor, I won't tell anyoneabout this without asking you or Jasmine Mom first."
       Satisfied, Valerie reached into an upper pocket of her vest for her reading glasses--aviator style in shape with gold rims--and slipped them on, and they settled a little more comfortably into the foam backrest to read. With her knees drawn up to support the book, and with one arm slung around her daughter's shoulders, she let Sierra slowly turn the pages. She showed her the picture of the pentagram and reviewed with her what it represented, and they went over the names of the Major and Minor Sabbats. They discussed Nature and Spirituality, as opposed to organized religion, which both Valerie and Jasmine felt was an affront to spirituality. Organized religion was based on a belief system that was devoted to exercising power over others through fear and intimidation; it relied on convincing people that a supreme deity would punish them for not accepting corrupt laws of power-hungry men as the word of God, and it ignored life in the natural world. Spirituality, on the other hand, was a part of Nature, the two Witches believed; to them, spirituality was a belief in a deity that spoke not through the constantly re-translated, re-interpreted, and revised written words of men, but through the actions of creation and destruction; through the cycle of life, death and rebirth, and the changing of the seasons; and in the progression and evolution of the human spirit through compassion, honor, and the capacity for independent thought and the uniquely human ability to reason. Spiritual people took responsibility for their own actions; religious people, in Valerie's opinion, said "I don't have to be responsible; I'm forgiven!" She also kept a Bible around for the sole purpose of demonstrating how self-contradictory she found it to be, and next to it she kept Tom Paine's "Age of Reason." The Bible passages to which Paine had referred were all highlighted in bright yellow, and notes were written in black ink in the Bible's margins.
       They moved outside, bringing the books with them, and as they sat together on the edge of the porch and in the cloud-filtered sunlight, she summed up her entire philosophy: "Any man, or group of men, can write a book," she said as she dropped the Bible onto the dusty ground at their feet. "But only the Goddess--or whatever one chooses to call that all-powerful and universal force--can make a tree, or a mountain, or a sky or an ocean. Or..." She stopped for a moment as she raised her hand with her index finger extended, and an orange monarch flitted about before landing on it. "...or a butterfly," she finished with a grin. Afterwards, they went on to discuss the pagan beliefs in reincarnation and the metaphysical laws of Karma.
       Jasmine approached them. She was carrying an axe and dressed in brief battered denim shorts and a pair of heavy gloves; since it was her turn to be out chopping wood, she was also drenched in sweat. She saw the two of them on the porch together with the open Book of Shadows on Valerie's lap. "So what're you two up to?" she asked merrily.
       "Nothing," Sierra quickly replied, with what may or may not have been a suggestive twinkle in her eyes. She was already switching to conspiracy mode.
       "We were just reviewing some stuff," Valerie replied. "After all," she added, addressing the girl, "if you really want to be a practicing Witch, you're going to have to learn all this."
       "This whole book?" she asked uncertainly, noting its overall size and thickness.
       "Yeah," Valerie replied. "Well, in time. Not all at once. But you will have to learn it, sooner or later."
       "Especially sooner," Jasmine said as she settled down next to them and pulled off her gloves. Sitting next to Sierra on the porch's edge, she continued, "After all, tonight is a full moon...and we dohave that surprise for you..."
       Sierra looked at her with new excitement. "Really? A surprise? What? What is it?"
       "Well, if we told you, it wouldn't be a surprise anymore, would it?" She grinned mischievously at her, and began wiping herself down with the blue bandanna that had been rolled and tied around her head.
       Sierra looked at Valerie.
       "Hey, don't look at me, man; I don't know a thing about it." The playful glint in her eyes clearly showed that she did.
       "What is it?" Sierra wanted to know. "C'mon, tell me? Please? Please please please please please pleeeeeeze?"
       Valerie couldn't help chuckling. "Nope," she said, closing the Book of Shadows and laying it aside. "Not till tonight."
       "Aw, come on!" Sierra climbed on top of her and straddled her lap, and then her hands were on Valerie's shoulders. She shook her vigorously and said, "Gimme a hint?"
       Valerie's head was exaggeratedly snapping forward and backward. "Augh! Whiplash! I'll sue! Where's my lawyer?"
       "You're gonna need a doctorif you don't tell me what's up!"
       Her eyes widened, and with her hands on Sierra's sides she laughed in surprise at her daughter's playful threat. "Oh, yeah?"
       "Yeah!"
       "Yeah?"
       "Yeah!"
       "Tough luck, my friend. You'll just have to wait till tonight."
       Sierra turned in exasperation to her other mother. "Come on, what's the deal?"
       Jasmine shrugged apologetically. "I'm sorry, girlfriend. You're just gonna have to wait."
       "No fair!" She turned back to Valerie. "You grown-ups alwaysgang up on us little kids like this!"
       "Yeah, well...it's a hard life."
       Sierra leaned back, folded her arms, and pouted.
       "Listen, I'll tell you what," Jasmine said. "Go get one of your books and we'll go on down to the river and practice some reading, okay? It'll give us something to do while we're waiting for tonight."
       "I suppose so," Sierra said, giving up. "Can't you give me even just a littlehint?"
       "Sorry."
       "Shit."
       "Sierra!" Valerie's outburst was both shocked and slightly amused, and Jasmine turned away so she wouldn't see her grin.
       Sierra's eyes widened in sudden realization. She hadn't meant to be heard... "I mean...okay."
       And then there was forgiving laughter.
       In some ways, Valerie really did not feel justified in reprimanding Sierra for using the same kind of language that she and Jasmine frequently used; sometimes, the child's choice of words was even justified. Instead, she now tried to set a better example by using alternatives to curse words--alternatives that were funnier, more imaginative, and more to the point. At other times, though, when she was really enraged and on a roll, she could surprise even herself with the utterly blistering invectives she could come up with.
       After they were gone, Valerie sat alone for a few minutes with the book once again open and resting across her knees, and read a page here and there. She and Jasmine had been adding their own notes to it over the years; while Alexandra Ryan's entries dealt with traditional European belief and ritual, Valerie's occasionally hinted at more of an American Indian style. She was interested in Indian cultures, religions and fashions, and became even more so each time she remembered that hypnotic session so long ago with Jeff Hastings, when he had regressed her to a previous life as a Cheyenne woman who had been killed at Sand Creek. As a result, her own practices--differing somewhat from Jasmine's poetic blend of ancient Greek polytheism and Hawaiian paganism--had become a unique combination of Greek mythology, Alexandrian and Gardnerian Witchcraft, and Native American paganism. It was important to them that they pass their beliefs on to Sierra, and to instruct her in the ways of the Craft; to be certain that she grew up to become a happy Pagan and a dedicated Witch. (And with that dimly remembered dream still nagging at the back of her mind, she thought that it would be a good idea to let Sierra learn a little more about the Craft, in case... She pushed the rest of the thought out of her mind.) But they also had to be certain that their daughter knew of the risks involved-after all, there were still too many people who did not know what the Craft was truly about, and Witchcraft was still a punishable offense in the eyes of the State.
       She finally closed the Book of Shadows with a soft thud, slowly rose to her feet, and turned and went inside. She took off her glasses and lay them on the table. Glancing once more at the Book of Shadows, she smiled as she suddenly remembered Sierra's initiation; when she had ceremoniously been made an official coven-member and sister Witch. It had been during a celebration of Candlemas with three other covens. It had been quite a party, too, she remembered; over fifty people--men, women and their children--had been inside a huge deep cave in the side of a mountain on that cold February night, skyclad and drenched in sweat, and dancing like primitives in a wild frenzy around a massive bonfire, raising power. Five kids, including Sierra, had been initiated into the Craft by their parents that night; parents had passed their traditions on to the next generation, insuring the survival of their beliefs.
       Good thing, too, she thought, just in case... Once again, she pushed the rest of the thought from her mind.
       She hid the book back behind the bookcase, and then went outside to join her girls at the river.

***

       Coven meetings were fun. Individuals would gather in their secret locations for Full Moon Esbats, and various groups would get together for High Sabbats on the eight major holidays-the solstices and equinoxes, and the half-way points between them. The hostess of these gatherings would always perform the duties of the High Priestess; since it was she who was opening her home as a sign of respect to the rest of the coven, it was she who took the risk of being accused as "the leader" if the authorities suddenly broke in. In return for the risk she was taking, the coven members showed their respect for her by bringing baskets of food as an offering for the Gods and the priestess, to be consumed by all after the ritual was over. While the possibility of the authorities coming this far into Allied Territory to make an arrest for witchcraft was indeed remote but not yet non-existent, nowadays the hospitality of the hostess and the risk of her being named as leader was regarded mostly as ancient tradition. And then after the ritual, the coven meetings became social occasions where everyone caught up on current events concerning everyone else. Contrary to Christian belief--fundamentalist or otherwise--the whole affair was in reality no more diabolical than a traditional Baptists' potluck dinner.
       But tonight things were different. Via a CB radio at a friend's house, Valerie had contacted Sonja Belzac, this month's hostess and High Priestess, to let her know that she and Jasmine wouldn't be attending the usual meeting this month. She returned home, and by late afternoon she and Jasmine had moved the pillows and futons out of the way to lay the foundations for a personal rite that they would be performing with Sierra.
       It was a perfect night for casting a Circle. The thick gray blanket of clouds that had moved in from the northwest that afternoon had been gently pulled apart by the light breezes, leaving only the occasional white shred to pass silently before the brilliant full moon and across the sparkling, midnight sky. Sierra watched for a moment with a sigh as she tried to guess what her parents were up to. She had been told that she might want to get into her ritual gown-a sleeveless garment of red satin, tied shut at the waist by a red cord-and she had, but she was not certain of what the purpose was for tonight's Circle, other than that it was a standard Full Moon circle. And she was dying to find out. But she had promised that she would wait here until one of them called for her, so in the meantime she sat on her bed and returned her attention to "Calvin and Hobbes," and sighed impatiently.
       She didn't hear the door open. She just looked up from the book and saw her standing silently in the doorway, smiling. She was bare-footed and wearing a long sleeveless gown of glossy black satin, tied at the waist with a silver cord, and a braided leather headband on which sparkled the three phases of the moon. As always, the silver pentacle hung below the base of her throat. Sierra had frequently seen her parents dressed this way when they had been on their way to attend coven meetings with their friends, so this was no major surprise to her.
       "Are you ready?" Jasmine asked.
       She regarded her with an excited smile. "Sure!"
       Jasmine's own smile became a grin. She took her daughter's hand and led her to the main room. "Sur-prise!" she said softly.
       Resembling a pagan goddess in the ethereal glow of the full moon, Valerie was standing beneath the wide skylight and behind the low altar, in a circle of four tall, thick candles. Each was a different color; in the north, a green candle for the color of Earth burned in its tall bronze holder behind her; in the east was a white one, for the color of Air; in the south burned a red candle, for Fire; and at the west there burned a blue one for Water. With her dark hair loose and cascading about her shoulders, she wore only her own leather Triple Moon headband and her silver pentacle.
       Sierra loved ritual circles. She was always fascinated by the ambience that was provided by the smoke of the incense, the darkness of the night, and the flickering orange light of the candles. They gave the entire room a delightfully mysterious and supernatural atmosphere. Secret stuff was going on here; Magickwas being worked.
       Depending on the purpose of a given ritual, and upon the traditions of other covens that they happened to be meeting with, Valerie and Jasmine would decide whether to wear their ritual gowns or go skyclad in order for the raised energy to flow freely through them. Some witches swore by skyclad ritual work with great regard, while others scoffed at it with mild derision; and still others thought it made no difference one way or the other. (For themselves, Valerie and Jasmine had been far from indecisive about it when they had cast their first Circle together seven years ago.) But from a purely intellectual viewpoint, they had later discussed it at great length, finally raising four points: (1) If psychic energy could travel great distances, they had asked themselves, passing over massive bodies of water and through walls and mountains, why would it be inhibited by clothing? (2) They considered the possibility that perhaps on a minute, almost imperceptible level, clothing really might interfere just enough with the flow of energy, if a lot of energy was needed. (3) Valerie had once almost caught a loose sleeve on fire from one of the candles, hence the sleeveless ritual gowns they wore when they attended coven meetings. (4) Not only was skyclad worship customary in many ancient traditions as a symbol of equality among coven members--to be without the artificial adornments and accouterments of their status in society--but it was also a sign of freedom. It was a symbolic and defiant act of shedding the bondage and guilt and shame that had been heaped upon the masses for generations by the various religious ruling classes. Unlike those repressive and self-righteous cults that spoke so grandly of their morality while conducting their violent and numerous crusades and inquisitions against those who dared to disagree with them, the various and diverse live-and-let-live Pagan communities saw nothing wrong or obscene in the naked human body, as it had been fashioned by the Gods.
       Besides, when it came right down to it, nudity was just plain more fun for everyone anyway.
       "Come on." They shed their ritual gowns and left them lying together in colored puddles of satin on the floor, and then Jasmine followed Sierra around the edge of the circle of candles to the northeastern quadrant. She didn't need to stop her before the child stepped into the ritual area; with her wand in one hand and her athame in the other, Sierra knew not to enter a Circle before a way had been opened into it.
       Valerie stepped up to meet them. With a wide, sweeping motion of her arm, she used her own athame to open a doorway. "Welcome to our Circle," she said to Sierra with a smile, and then she stepped back to let them enter. Once inside, Valerie used her athame again to close the entrance. And then as one, all three of them went to sit before the altar with their legs folded beneath them, with Valerie laying her dagger on it once more.
       On the altar before her, which faced north and which consisted of a low, polished and circular table of redwood some three feet in diameter, there now rested three knives with black hilts and gleaming steel blades, three wands, and a pair of brass candle holders which held long, white candles that burned at the left and right edges. In the center there lay a hand-sized pentacle made of red, blue and yellow stained glass, and on it there rested a small dish of salt. To the left there stood a fire-glazed clay chalice of water, and to the right there sat a matching bowl half-filled with sand that served as a censer, from which white clouds of fragrant smoke were rising, and near the far edge there stood a small, white statue of Artemis, the ancient Greek goddess of the moon and patron goddess of the Amazons. Naked and defiant against all enemies, she stood surrounded by a trio of wolves and with a drawn bow in her hands, and wore a quiver of arrows slung across her back.
       All was silent for a few moments. And then Valerie reached toward the altar and picked up her own athame, the one with a gleaming red stone set into the end of its hilt. She rose slowly to her feet, holding it in both hands, and then raised its tip toward the ceiling. She stood like this for several moments, and then Sierra saw the tip of the knife begin to glow. She smiled widely as the blue-white glow began to spread and engulf the entire knife; raising power was always so cool. It continued to spread down her arms and into her torso, and until Valerie was completely enveloped in the light.
       "Lady of the Fields and Lord of the Forest!" she called out. "Mother Earth and Father Sky! Great Spirit--Creator of the Universe and Destroyer of Worlds! In your names, I cast this Circle to provide us with a sacred space so that we may conduct this rite in peace, in safety, and with your blessings." She brought the blade down, and the blue-white light suddenly shot from the tip of the athame and left its trail on the floor, blasting and sparkling like an acetylene torch that gave off no heat, as Valerie slowly turned, casting the Circle.
       Sierra's smile broadened into a grin as the electrical, blue-white line encircled them.
       "So mote it be," Jasmine and Sierra said together.
       Jasmine turned to Sierra. "You want to invoke the Guardians of the East?"
       Sierra was caught totally by surprise. "Sure!" she said enthusiastically. This was the first time she had ever been asked to invoke one of the Spirits. Eagerly, she reached forward and picked up the smoking censer of dragon's blood incense. She rose to her feet, turned to face east, and raised it high as she stepped to the edge of the Circle. "Guardians of the East and all the powers of Air," she intoned, "I welcome you to attend and protect this rite. And by your power"--she began to walk slowly around the Circle clockwise, leaving a trail of smoke behind as her parents watched and smiled proudly--"I seal this Circle."
       "So mote it be," Valerie and Jasmine chorused. As they did, a soft, warm gust of wind came in through the open windows. All three smiles broadened into grins as the powers of air answered Sierra's call.
       As their daughter knelt before the altar to replace the censer, Valerie turned and lifted the fat red candle that burned at the southern edge of the Circle. Facing south, she called out, "Cougar Spirit! Guardian of the South, and all the powers of Fire! I welcome you to attend and protect this rite." And even though Sierra knew what was going to happen, she still jumped slightly with a racing heart as the candle's flame flared brilliantly for a moment, shooting almost a meter high. "And by your power," she continued as she carried the candle around the Circle, "I seal this Circle."
       "So mote it be," they said as Valerie replaced the candle. Jasmine lifted the chalice of water and went to stand at the western edge of the Circle. "Guardians of the West and all the powers of Water, I invite and welcome you to attend and protect this rite. And by your power I seal this Circle." She carried the chalice around the Circle and replaced it on the altar.
       "So mote it be," said the other two Witches, and suddenly the moonlight dimmed as a cloud passed across the sky. A moment later, the sounds of distant thunder and gentle rain could be heard, just beginning to fall.
       Valerie lifted the stained glass pentacle high, stood at the northern edge of the Circle and intoned, "Wolf Spirit! Guardian of the North, and all the Powers of Earth! I welcome you to attend and protect this rite. And by your power I seal this Circle."
       "So mote it be," they said, and somewhere outside one of Valerie's wolves howled. The invocations of the Guardians of the Four Directions through animal spirits was something new to Jasmine, and she told herself to ask her about it later.
       Sierra sat between them, watching silently and absorbing everything she could. Once again, she was very mindful of the fact that real magicwas being worked here, and she was thrilled and delighted with the idea that she had just helped to cast the Circle and raise some of this power herself.
       "You think Sierra's ready for her present?" Valerie asked.
       She looked at her in surprise.
       Jasmine grinned. "We've got a little something here for you," she said. She reached for a small white box that lay on the altar and picked it up, and Sierra's wide amber eyes followed her every movement. She removed the lid and handed the box to Valerie, who removed from it the silver pentacle that Jasmine had made. The talisman was nearly identical to the ones that the two adults wore; while all three contained a gemstone in the center that was topped by the upward curving horns of a crescent silver moon, Valerie's contained a round piece of sparkling, buffed obsidian and Jasmine's contained a rounded emerald; the one in the box had a round, buffed piece of amber. And while each pentacle was identical in size and style, symbolizing their unity, each talisman also had a different stone in the center to reflect the individuality of its owner.
       "This, dear daughter," she said with all sincerity, "is for you, from the both of us."
       Sierra spoke with soft, quiet awe. "Wow!"
       Valerie handed it to her for her inspection. She held it in one hand by its curving edge between thumb and forefinger, like a rare coin, and tilted it back and forth, letting it catch the flickering candlelight as she watched it sparkle. Dangling from the tiny loop at the top, and again like the jewelry of the adults, was a thin, rope-styled silver chain.
       "Wow," she said again in quiet amazement.
       "But it's not quite ready." She held out her open hand and Sierra dropped it into her palm. "In order for this to be really yours, it needs to be consecrated."
       Holding it by the loop through which the chain was passed, and holding the chain in the palm of her other hand like a tiny pool of silver, Valerie passed the pentacle through the smoke of the burning incense three times in a circular, clockwise motion. "By the power of Air, I consecrate this talisman. By the spirit of the eagle shall this pentacle protect you, Sierra, the Daughter of Valerie and Jasmine, and Granddaughter of Alexandra and Kimiko." As she handed it to Jasmine, the youngster noticed that the light inside of the Circle was growing stronger and brighter and denser as it attracted and concentrated the same, blue-white lunar energy that had been captured by and then had erupted from the point of the athame during the casting of the Circle.
       The Hawaiian woman also held the talisman in both hands as she passed it through the flame of one of the altar candles, as Valerie had passed it through the smoke. Remembering the animal spirits that Valerie had invoked a few minutes ago, she said, "By the power of Fire, I consecrate this talisman, and by the spirit of the cougar shall this pentacle protect you, Sierra." She then handed it back to Valerie, and the light inside the Circle grew even brighter as it continued to draw down power from the moon.
       Valerie passed it over the chalice of water. "By the power of Water I consecrate this talisman. By the spirit of the whale shall this pentacle protect you, Sierra." Again, she handed it back to Jasmine as the swirling vortex of light grew even brighter as more power was raised. It was getting harder to see anything outside of the Circle besides the full moon itself, high above them.
       "By the power of Earth," she said, passing it over the stained glass pentacle, "I consecrate this talisman. By the spirit of the wolf shall this pentacle protect you, Sierra."
       The light inside the Circle was opaque now; connecting them to the moon, it was dazzlingly bright and strong, and it completely obscured everything outside of the Circle, yet didn't hurt the eyes. Sitting inside this cone of power, with their legs folded beneath them and with the full moon above, visible through the dark and heavy rain clouds and bathing them in its glow, the three of them had created their own sacred space and their own place of Power. It was their private, secret dimension that was not part of the mundane, earthly realm.
       Sierra took the pentacle in her hands and admired it again.
       "Okay," Valerie said. "Now hold it in both hands and breathe gently into it so that it takes in some of your energy."
       She brought her cupped hands to her lips and breathed into them, as though she were warming them on a cold winter day. And then, for an extra measure, in three small circles she passed the pentacle through the smoke of the incense once more, through the flame of the nearest candle, over the chalice of water, and then over the glass pentacle. "By the powers of Air, by the powers of Fire, by the powers of Water and by the powers of Earth," she softly invoked as she passed the talisman through each element, "I consecrate this pentacle." And then she did something that the adults hadn't considered; she touched it to the white ceramic statue. "And in the name of our protector Artemis, goddess of the Amazons and of the Moon, I charge this talisman." She quickly rose to her feet and raised the pentacle high in both hands to let it dangle from its chain in both offering and supplication, and saturating it in the lunar glow before returning to her place before the altar. She then cupped her hands around it and breathed into it once more, and then she squeezed it tightly in both hands, forcing her energy into it.
       Valerie and Jasmine exchanged a quick glance and a dazzling grin of delight.
       The power they had raised suddenly flared brilliantly, like a sun going supernova. For a moment, they couldn't even see each other; and then it was gone, revealing the rest of the room to them once more. Sierra flinched only slightly--she had seen this happen numerous times, but it still occasionally caught her off-guard--and reflexively her fingers curled around the pentacle.
       "Open your hands and take a look," Valerie suggested.
       She did, and was delightfully surprised once more to find the pentacle, lying atop the thin silver coils, glowing brilliantly with the energy they had raised and pulsating in rhythm to her own heartbeat. She could not be more fascinated. "Wow!"
       "I think that pretty well sums it up," Jasmine said with a chuckle. "You ready to try it on?"
       She was still awe-struck as she admired the pentacle. "You bet your--" she began softly. And then she remembered her manners. "I mean, you bet!"
       Sitting cross-legged before Sierra, Jasmine held the pentacle in place with the fingertips of both hands while Valerie, sitting behind her with her legs tucked beneath her, securely fixed the clasp at the back of Sierra's neck. "So what do you think?" Jasmine asked.
       "This is great!" the girl replied as she continued to admire the charm. Suddenly, she let it drop against her chest as she threw an arm around her parents' necks to give them each a tight hug and a quick, smacking loud kiss. "Thank you!" Excited, she went back to admiring the pentacle with both hands, and wide eyes.
       "There's something important that you have to remember, though," Valerie cautioned her before she let her go, while Jasmine moved in close so the small family could comfortably lean against each other in front of the altar and share their energy. "Wearing this doesn't mean you can go swimming in the river after a storm, or jumping from high places; it won't protect you from that sort of thing. But it willprotect you from negative energy and emotions."
       "Like if someone is sending you malicious or harmful thoughts," Jasmine added. Fondly, she gently brushed a few errant strands of Sierra's hair back behind one ear.
       "You mean like curses and the evil eye, and stuff like that?"
       "Right," Valerie said. Then she arched an eyebrow in mild surprise. "Where'd you ever hear about the 'evil eye?'"
       "From Karen." She was most definitely not one of Sierra's friends, not the way she treated her and made fun of her. Karen had once referred to her parents as a couple of fairy-dykes, and Sierra had responded by punching her in the eye. She had never told them about this.
       "Well, you won't have to worry about that sort of thing anymore," Jasmine said.
       "Yeah," Valerie agreed. "What this'll do, see, is reflect negative energy away from you and send it right back to the person who's sending it."
       "That's how the law of cause and effect works," Jasmine explained. "If you send out good vibes to people, you'll get them right back."
       "Cool!"
       "But the same happens if you send out harmfulthoughts," she added.
       Not so cool, Sierra thought.
       "So you remember the Law of Three, right?" Valerie asked her.
       She counted them off on her fingers. "1: Do no harm, 2: All acts of love, compassion and pleasure gain favor with the Goddess, and 3: What goes around comes around."
       "Absolutely."
       What goes around comes around... Suddenly, Sierra regretted having punched Karen in the eye. Sort of.
       Distant thunder rumbled gently across the sky once more, and the rain started to come down a little harder.
       "What do you say we banish the Circle?" Jasmine suggested. "Then we can do something about all that carrot cake and ice cream that's sitting in the freezer. There's so muchof it in there, I'm afraid it might spoil..."
       Sierra grinned at her. "It won't be there for long," she said.
       "I kind of thought so," Jasmine said wryly.
       As soon as the Circle was banished, Sierra dashed toward the refrigerator with visions in her head of an extra-large serving for herself while yet another episode of "Xena" played on the DVD player.
       "What's with the animal spirits, hon?" Jasmine asked as she slid into her own gown.
       "What, you didn't like it?"
       "Sure I liked it; I thought it was a nice touch. I was just a little surprised."
       She began putting away their ritual tools. "A lot of Native American shamans talk about the spirits of the animals, and sometimes how certain animal spirits rule the elements. And they go into how one could appeal to them, like the hunter who asks the deer for permission to kill it before doing so, so the family will have meat and clothing from it. If the deer doesn't consent, then the hunter misses his target and all concerned go hungry.
       "I was also thinking that since this is the North American continent, it's a little out of place to invoke Scandinavian or Celtic or Greek spirits. Wicca originated in Europe; you won't find Odin or Freyja stomping around here in the Pacific Northwest."
       "Nor will you find cougars and coyotes in Norway or France," Jasmine said, beginning to understand. "But you're of European descent, so you can get away with it. What brought all this on?"
       Valerie thought it over for a moment. "I'm really not sure; it just kind of occurred to me last night. I kind of feel that for me air and the east, which represent the conscious mind, are ruled by the Eagle spirit; that the south and fire, which represent the power of one's will, determination and passion, are ruled by the Cougar spirit. I've just kind of decided to give each element an animal spirit, that's all."
       Jasmine smiled a little as she thought it over. "It iskind of poetic. And it provides a strong representation of the natural world. The subconscious, being as powerful as it is, can be represented by the power of the whale, and the physical body can be represented by something strong and ground-based... I would have figured a grizzly bear, or maybe a mountain. But a wolf?"
       Valerie shrugged into her black satin gown and smiled. "I like wolves," she said as she tied the cord. "They're my buds."
       "I think we ought to start a new tradition," Jasmine suddenly declared. "A tradition of not sticking so unswervingly to tradition. Go with the flow, sway with the music; after all, we aresupposed to be flexible."
       Valerie shrugged and smiled. "Works for me."
       "You guys better hurry up and get some ice cream before it all turns to mush," Sierra called out. She came over with a soup bowl filled with enough cake and ice cream for three.
       The two women glanced at her, then did a double take. "Sierra, you can't be serious!" Valerie said as she took notice of the size of the serving. A craggy mountain of cake, topped by a veritable fortress of rich, dark, rocky road ice cream, was surrounded by a moat of chocolate syrup.
       Sierra looked at it and wondered if something might be wrong with it. Maybe there wasn't quite enough syrup poured all over it?
       "Sweetheart, you're going to get sickif you eat all that!" Jasmine said.
       "No I won't," Sierra said. She spooned more of it into her mouth and spoke around it. "I never get sick of cake and ice cream. Besides," she added as she stuck the spoon into the bowl, then grasped her chain between thumb and forefinger, letting the pentacle hang, "you guys just gave me this protection." She just couldn't fight the urge to smile a playfully smug smile. She let the pentacle drop against her chest where it shined against her tanned skin, and reached for the spoon again.
       "She's got you there, babe," Valerie said.
       "We'd better get in there while there's still some left. Better yet, I think I'll just get a couple of extra spoons, and we can dig into Sierra's bowl."
       "I'm going to put all this stuff away," Valerie said. "Save me some of Sierra's ice cream, okay?"
       With a playful look in her eyes, Jasmine replied, "I might."
 
 

Chapter Four

       The room was shrouded completely in black. Dusty velvet curtains of ebony covered the windows and walls, and with the wafting clouds of burning incense they helped to create an atmosphere of absolute malevolence. At every wall there was a large, inverted wooden crucifix, and hanging superimposed on each was an inverted pentagram. The floor was covered with black wall-to-wall carpeting that further helped to muffle footsteps and voices of those inside, and upon this there was another inverted pentagram, with the two points facing north, crudely drawn in white chalk. Thirteen burning black candles stood at the edge of a large chalk circle and surrounded the altar which stood in its center, casting their malevolently flickering shadows upon the heavy tapestries.
       At the north wall there hung another black tapestry, this one with the head of a goat superimposed on a massive inverted pentagram and an inverted cross embroidered on it in silver. Facing this was a low altar of stone covered with an altar cloth of black velvet, also decorated with the inverted silver pentagram/goat's head design, and at the left end of the altar there rested a yellowed human skull with the lower jaw missing. Burning on top of it was a thick black candle that dripped tendrils of wax, like the legs of a black widow spider, clutching at it and casting its flickering orange glow on the nude blonde woman who lay upon the altar. At her feet there rested a smoking brass censer of incense which had been stolen from a Catholic church on the other side of town, and a heavy silver chalice the size of a salad bowl that rested on the woman's abdomen; in it was a mixture of blood and semen, ingredients contributed by the men and women of this Satanist's coven.
       The woman was lying motionlessly atop the altar. More accurately, she was serving as the altar, with her arms and legs flung wide. Each of the men in the coven had taken his turn with her, but she had never been conscious of what was happening to her and around her; the heavy dose of heroin had seen to that, and it was only upon close examination that one could even tell that she was still alive. Her blue eyes were glazed over and only half-open, and her heartbeat and respiration were nearly nonexistent. She lay limp and unmoving, and completely unaware of the repeated raping.
       The last man removed himself from the woman, and the coven's priest--dressed in a black robe whose hood kept the top half of his face hidden in shadow--approached her. He reached toward the altar and picked up the black-handled dagger that lay there, and his sleeves fell back to his elbows and revealed pale arms as he raised it in both fists with the point high over the woman's heart. "Hail, Satan!" he intoned in a loud voice. "We call upon you to be with us now! Accept this gift of sacrifice, and bestow upon your followers gathered here the power we so richly deserve!" He raised the dagger an inch or two higher to gain a little more momentum, then slammed it downward and plunged it into her heart. Blood spurted from the wound, and an assistant brought the huge chalice to catch the flow; as he did, the high priest bent his face toward the wound and licked hungrily at the blood as it welled from between the corpse's breasts.
       The door behind them suddenly crashed open. "Police!" a loud voice announced. "Stay were you are--nobody move!" Half a dozen black-clad Foundation soldiers charged through the battered doorway, and tore at the curtains with their M-16s and Berettas, ready to fire.
       The Satanists screamed in panic. They rushed in all directions in a mad attempt at escape, but none could find the other door; it was covered with a heavy black curtain. That is, no one but the priest, in whose home this unholy ceremony was taking place, could find it. Three soldiers fired, indiscriminately spraying half of the room as an intended warning; four of the Satanists fell wounded, and the rest dropped into a crouch with their hands protectively covering their heads as though they could stop the bullets from striking them. They all moaned and cried in terror.
       Sergeant Ben Strickland saw the softly moving curtain where, only a moment before, the high priest had been standing. Damn! he thought. Son of a bitch! He lunged forward and yanked the curtain aside, tearing the material from its metal fastenings with a dull ripping and popping as the rest of his men began handcuffing the prisoners. He found a door standing slightly ajar. He kicked it open with a booted foot, lunged inside, and dropped immediately into a crouch to provide as small a target as possible in case the escaping priest had a gun and was waiting in ambush.
       It was dark inside the corridor, much darker than it had been in the altar room. Strickland held his breath for a moment and listened intently. He could barely hear the soft footsteps as they ran cautiously down the hall; he sprang from his crouch and followed, staying low and close to the wall. With his boots it was impossible for him to run silently, but he wasn't about to go charging down the middle of the corridor, either. If the priest had a firearm, Strickland could be hit by random fire; staying low and close to the wall, he minimized his chances of being shot. It turned out, however, that he need not have been so careful; the suspect was armed only with his ceremonial dagger, which was quite dangerous in close-quarter fighting but next to useless here. But he didn't want to start developing bad habits and get careless in his pursuit techniques if he intended to carry out his plan of quickly getting out of this line of work alive.
       What the hell am I doing here, anyway? he asked himself as all of these thoughts raced through his mind. Was it worth it to risk his life to catch some nutso devil worshiper who may or may not have a gun on him? Was it worthwhile to take the risk of maybe dying here in this darkened hallway so some useless, pencil-pushing administrator can have his satanic high priest for who knows what reason? He hoped he could justifiably kill the son of a bitch. (Which one? Both!) I cannot tell you how very sorry I am about the loss of your daughter, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, he could imagine himself telling the victim's family, but at least we got the bastards who did it.
       For some unknown reason, his commanding officer had specifically said that on this mission as many witches as possible were to be taken alive for interrogation.
       Interrogation? The word flitted briefly through Strickland's mind. They still call it that? Tortureis what it really is, but they don't use that word; too much of a negative connotation to it. It would be better to just blow the bastard away, Strickland thought, neat and quick and clean. Satanists may be the lowest of the low, but that's still no justification for using torture. Well, most of the time, anyway, he amended. As far as Strickland was concerned, the only life forms lower than a Satanist were politicians and child molesters, and those phony TV faith healers who promised miracles and made out like bandits.
       Well, maybe that isn't really true, Strickland decided after further reflection. Actually, the call was too close to make.
       Yeah, there's a lower form of life, he thought. Damn faith healers...fakers, all of them. And here I am, fighting for the same government that grants them--
       Stop that shit! Stop it right now! This is no time to be thinking about all this; concentrate on the job at hand, Ben, and when you're done here then you can kick back at home and write that anonymous article, and you can take all the time you want to think it over. Now is definitely not the time.
       A rectangle of light appeared at the end of the hall, and the robed figure was slipping through the door. Strickland raised his rifle and fired a short burst, and the echoing gunfire roared in his ears. "Halt!" he shouted. "Halt, goddamnitt!"
       The priest stumbled, fell through the door, and the light disappeared.
       Got 'im... I think.

***

       The bullet passed through the flesh of his upper arm as though someone had taken a red-hot fireplace poker and jammed it through him. He fell through the open door and into an open courtyard, then rose to his feet and slammed it shut. He turned and headed for the stairs off to his right, and as his foot hit the fourth or fifth step that soldier suddenly appeared behind him, rifle ready. "Freeze, dammit!" he shouted. "You make one more move and by God I willkill you!"
       The priest froze where he was. With a sharp wince of pain, he slowly raised his hands and turned around. He took a deep sigh and thought to himself, They'll kill me anyway. Like their Bible says, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." Defeated, he slowly came down the stairs.
       "Okay," Strickland said, still fixing the sights of his M-16 at the hollow of the priest's throat. "Nice and slow now. Keep your hands raised, turn around, and get on your knees." He lowered the rifle a little, but he was still ready to bring it to his shoulder and fire. He kept his finger resting gently on the trigger. "Fine. Now walk backward toward me, real slow and easy. No rush, just take your time. Hold it--that's fine right there. Now I want you to slowly lie forward and keep your hands out where I can see them. Good. Now don't you fuckin' move." He set the safety and slung his rifle, and pulled the Beretta 92-D from its holster with one hand and trained the weapon on the priest while his other hand took out his handcuffs. He went over to the priest and clicked one of the bracelets hard around his left wrist, brought it behind his back, then holstered the pistol and grabbed his other wrist, brought it down, and manacled it to the left. He let out a sigh of relief. "There," he said. "See how easy that was?"
       "Why not just kill me, motherfucker?" the priest sneered. "That's what all you 'love-filled' Christians do, isn't it?" He moved his arm slightly. "Or are you just going to let me bleed to death?"
       Strickland took him by one arm (the wounded one-blinding agony!) and yanked him to his feet. He looked straight into the priest's eyes and snarled, "Don't tempt me, asshole. If it were up to me I'd snuff you right now...but my boss wants you alive."
       Alive? he thought. "What for? A public execution? Have to get your fill of witch-burnings?"
       Ben Strickland thought public executions, especially the way they were carried out these days, were worse than barbaric. Burnings were nothing but a deliberately vicious throwback to the days of the Inquisition, and those who supported them had disgusted him. His commanding officers, he thought, were no better than pond scum; moss and fish shit. He didn't care much for being a Holy Guard these days, and it was getting harder and harder to protect those who really needed protection. He had just about reached the point where he felt that he no longer made any difference.
       But he wasn't about to let this murderer know that.
       "Yeah, I missed one last week," he said. "But you see, in your case I get to throw in the first torch."
       The Satanist's eyes widened in shock and terror, and his jaw began to fall.
       He shoved him ahead a couple of steps. "Move your ass, shithead," he growled, "you're under arrest."

***

       God, jail is such a bummer.
       High Priest Prince Moloch--otherwise known as Delbert Murphy--was sitting and stewing in the city slammer, and thinking over his life while he picked half-interestedly at the bandage on his arm. Why me, Lord Satan, why me? he asked again, perhaps for the hundredth time. He was filled with doubt now, and no longer expected an answer. He had expected one on his first day here, but this was the middle of his third day of incarceration-and when he appealed to his Lord and Master, no answer came. He was beginning to think that maybe, just maybe, all this devil-worshiping stuff was just a lot of crap.
       No, don't think that, he told himself. Never doubt; that'll weaken your power for sure.
       (power? asked a whispering little voice in the back of his mind. what power is that, delbert old son?)
       The power that Satan promises to those who follow him! The power that he'll give me!...if I can just figure out how.
       He read a book on the subject, once, and he desperately wanted it to be true. It just hadto be true. It described how to cast the circle, and how to prepare the "communion wine"; it was filled with all kinds of arcane and disgusting secrets. It even described how to invoke the Devil himself. But everything had to be done just right, otherwise Satan wouldn't appear to him. If things aren't done properly, it would dishonor him and he wouldn't show, let alone bestow any favors or grant any dark powers.
       But what he really liked about it was that it was so strongly anti-Christian. In Satanism, there was none of this bullshit about how the meek shall inherit the Earth; it promised power. Realpower. It promised power beyond his wildest dreams, and power was what he wanted. Power was what he deserved. The power to frighten and intimidate all those worthless parasites in his life that surrounded him, and to force them to do his bidding; to make them respecthim. He wanted to rule over their lives, and when he finally did, why, then he'd really show all those conniving leeches that screwed him over. He'd get them, and he'd get them good.
       It suddenly occurred to him that Satanism and Christianity really did seem to share several things in common. After all, Satanism was undeniably an offshoot of Christianity; without the latter, the former could not possibly exist. And that's what drove Murphy absolutely buggy--the idea that the very existence of his own religion, to which he clung so dearly, was totally dependent upon that which he loathed--and could not possibly survive without it.
       Both ideologies were power trips, and both fought for the same goal, he concluded; complete and total control of the individual through the use of fear and intimidation. But from here their similarities diverged; while fundamentalist Christianity went the psychological route, Satanism took the direct approach. In Christian belief, priests and ministers used the Bible ostensibly as a guide for their flocks to live a moral and decent life; in reality, this purported word of God was used to wield absolute power, and to coerce its followers into being meek and submissive to a patriarchal, oligarchic authority, with nothing more substantial in return than promises of posthumous rewards of eternal happiness for their obedience, or with the threats of eternal damnation for their disobedience. In Satanism, on the other hand, it was the Devil's servants themselveswho held the power, Murphy believed, and who controlled those outside of the faith in the guise of magical and supernatural superiority in exchange for their souls; and it promised rewards in thislife, without its followers having to die first. Satanism, Murphy concluded, was anti-weakness and anti-wimp, and considerably more democratic in its distribution of power.
       (so how come it hasn't done shit for you, delbert?) that little voice inside his head asked.
       It has!
       (yeah? like what?)
       Well, it's gotten me laid a lot...well, a couple of times...okay, once.
       (yeah, if you like unconscious women lying on a cold stone slab. you call that getting laid? so far, about all it's done for you is get you tossed in the slammer, hotshot. in a couple of hours, you'll be either roasting and sizzling on a spit over an open fire or swingin' by your neck in the breeze.)
       No! Lord Satan won't let that happen to me! He knows I worship him! He won't let me down!
       (so what're you doing here, del?)
       Lord Satan has plans for me. Lord Satan will provide. So he's never done anything for me so far, so what? That doesn't mean he won't... I just need to figure out the right ritual, the right invocation, and have the right kind of sacrifice, that's all. I know he'll help me, just you wait. He's testing me, that's what it is, he thought, ironically and unconsciously comparing himself to the Biblical character of Job. Satan was testing him to see if he was really worthy of him. Well, I am!he screamed inside of his mind. (oh jesus, i don't want to die!) I am! I am! I'll show him!
      A soldier approached the cell where Delbert Murphy sat, alone and confused, and scared shitless. "Murphy, Delbert," the soldier said. "On your feet."
       Murphy's heart raced in his chest, pounding like a sledgehammer. This is it, he thought. Satan has failed me. Please, Jesus, help me!
       The soldier' keys jingled as he unlocked the cell door. It slid back with a loud, echoing metallic clang and he stepped inside. "On your feet, I said," the soldier repeated as he withdrew his baton and tapped it menacingly against his other palm.
       Murphy slowly rose with trembling, unsteady legs. He knew he was about to die, and there wasn't one damn thing he could do about it. He slowly and reluctantly went toward the door, stopped and had his hands cuffed behind his back once more, and the soldier pushed him along the corridor. Murphy wanted to cry, but he didn't want to give the soldier the satisfaction of seeing him break down. He would try to be brave.
       They turned a corner and passed by a row of doors that were marked "Interrogation #1," "Interrogation #2," and so on. There were eight "interrogation" rooms, and they passed by all of them. It seemed that torture was out, and that they meant to just go ahead and kill him without bothering to get a confession out of him. I don't want to die, he said in his mind, again and again. I don't want to die...oh God, oh Jesus, God...
       Another soldier came from the opposite direction, saw the two of them, and smiled. "Going straight to the gallows with this one, Jake?"
       "Afraid not."
       Murphy's jaw nearly dropped. What!? he thought as his heart raced with sudden and new hope.
       "Seems that he's being held over for some kind of discussion or some damn thing. We gotta fly 'im to San Jose to talk to some 'important business types.'"
       "What do they want with a witch priest?"
       Jake sighed with disgust. "Beats the hell out of me; I'm just following orders." To Murphy he said, "Come on, scum."
       I'm not going to die after all! he rejoiced in his mind. Thank you, Satan! Thank you, my Dark Lord!

***

       Sergeant Ben Strickland unbuckled his gun belt and tossed it onto the sofa as he kicked the door to his apartment shut with a loud bang. The helmet followed the belt a moment later as he snorted in disgust. I can't believe it, he thought. He went to the refrigerator and yanked the door open. Bottles of salad dressing, catsup, mustard, and beer rattled violently together, threatening to shatter and spill their contents and razor-edged shards of glass all over the shelf, the door, and the floor. He pulled out a long-necked bottle of dark brown glass, slammed the door shut with another alarming rattle of glass, and reached for the bottle opener, partially encased in plastic, that hung stuck by a magnet to the metal surface. He popped the top open and brought the bottle to his lips before the white foam had a chance to boil over and spill onto the floor, and replaced the opener with a slap. With bottle in hand, he went over to the sofa and sat heavily, and sighed.
       My God, it's worse than plea-bargaining, he thought. At least in a plea bargain the perp used to get taken to court and get thrown in jail for a littlewhile. Sure, they settle on a lesser charge, and then they grant an early release on that reduced charge... Yeah, that was a bitch as far as the crime victims--or their survivors--were concerned, and that was way back in the days before the Foundation had taken over; now, it seems, with all this rhetoric of law and order, that things have gotten even worse, and the innocent were stillsuffering while the guilty got a slap on the wrist and a warning not to do it again.
       He put his feet up on the coffee table and took another sip. Nowadays, if you steal a loaf of bread because you're hungry, or if you fail to pay a thirty-five dollar income-tax bill, he silently told himself, either of these crimes can get you a year in jail--which costs the city, the county, and the DA's office--in short, the taxpayers--a whole helluva lot more than a lousy thirty-five bucks to prosecute. And then the taxpayers also have to pay for the public defender's office and theirstaff, and...
       But Satanism and murder? As far as Strickland was concerned, the Satanism thing was a joke. But murder was something else. You kill somebody, he thought, you ought to suffer the same punishment. But the guy he busted got turned loose, for Christ's sake!
       He swallowed long and deep again.
       Where the hell are the priorities these days? he wondered. Has murder become such a minor thing in these days of Law and Order? If you're caught smoking reefer and growing a couple of little seedlings, you get all of your property confiscated under asset forfeiture, even before you're arraigned, and you do ten years in a prison camp or in a dungeon. But that murdering bastard Delbert Murphy, after committing what the Foundation considers to be the most serious charges on the books--witchcraft and murder--was cut loose practically before the ink was even dry on the booking sheets! What the hell for? They said they needed him for some special reason--but that "special reason" was never explained to Strickland, not even after he vociferously demanded of his superiors to know why. "Hey, sorry Ben," they had said, "it's out of our hands."
       Shee-yit.
       Time to get out of this line of work, he told himself as he sipped again. God, how he needed a change. The risk, the high blood pressure, the hassles from the commanders, the ulcers, the frustration...all for what? So some slime ball like Murphy can be released after doing what he did to that woman? It just didn't make any damn sense.
       Excuse me, he thought, but isn't something backwardshere?
 
 

Chapter Five

       Murphy slept on board the Boeing 757 as it flew him across the sky, carrying him from the Los Angeles International Airport to San Francisco International. And while he slept, he dreamed. He dreamed of horses and dust, and thundering hooves...and of murder.
       They had caught the enemy by surprise. Most of the warriors were gone, off on a hunting trip with the permission of one of the soldier chiefs and secure in the knowledge that these soldiers were at least tolerant, if not friendly, toward Indians. Otherwise, the bluecoats would not have permitted the hunt, and others of their nation certainly would not have given an American flag to Chief Motavato--the whites called him Black Kettle---as a symbol of friendship and good-will. As long as the flag flew from the lodge pole of Black Kettle's tepee, the chief was told, these Cheyenne who lived at Sand Creek would be known as friendly Indians, and would be protected by the Great Father in Washington and his bluecoat representatives.
       And now the Colorado Volunteers were taking advantage of that hunt. Soldiers that fired at them with rifles and pistols, and who slashed at them with razor-edged sabers were now viciously slaughtering the remaining villagers--the vast majority of whom were defenseless old people, women and children. Soldiers whooped and shouted with maniacal glee as they wallowed in this blood bath; teams of mounted soldiers lassoed the tops of tepees and used their horses to pull them down while soldiers on foot set fire to them with flaming torches. Others raced their horses between the decorated and beautifully painted buffalo-hide tepees and brutally trampled fleeing Indians to death as they frantically emerged from their lodges, and savagely butchered any and every woman and child within reach.
       He saw a woman kneeling at the flap of her tepee, holding it partially open and staring in horror with amber eyes at the grisly scene. Gonna git that knocked-up bitch, he thought as she quickly ducked back inside and pulled the flap shut. She may be pregnant, but damn she's a good lookin' one! And that little bitch or bastard that she's carryin' oughtta make for a nice trophy.
       He pulled his horse up outside of the tepee and quickly dismounted. Drawing his revolver, he reached forward and pulled the flap open to find two women inside, clutching at each other in terror and screaming in fright, and staring at this intruder with their faces twisted in wide-eyed horror. As the two women screamed in terror, he cocked the hammer back on his pistol and shot the slim woman in the face, spraying blood and brain matter and chips of bone from the back of her skull to stain the tepee's wall around the bullet hole. Her head snapped backward from the impact of the bullet, and she slumped lifeless in the other woman's arms.
       The other woman screamed. Go ahead, he told her, scream all you want. He liked to hear her scream. It made him feel that much more powerful. What he didn'tlike was when she fought back like a wildcat as he approached her. She lashed at him with both feet, screaming and kicking at him and lashing at him with her fingernails in a vain effort to fend him off, and he brushed her legs aside with little effort. Still holding the pistol in his other hand, he flipped it around with a casual toss and caught it by its barrel. He didn't want to kill her just yet; first, he wanted some fun. He raised the pistol high and swung, slamming the side of it against the side of the woman's head. With a yelp, she slumped, unconscious. He holstered his revolver, then knelt in front of her. He unbuckled his belt, opened his trousers, and slid them down to his knees. Yeah, he thought, this is what I call fun. He spread her legs wide, positioned himself between them, and then savagely raped her. With the sounds of panic and death all around him, and with the smell of the other woman's blood in his nostrils, he quickly reached a vicious climax.
       The amber-eyed woman groaned once and turned her head as he stood and pulled up his trousers. She opened her eyes as consciousness returned to her, but she was still stunned and unable to move as she saw him reaching for his bayonet. He held it in his fist, and her eyes widened again in shock and terror just an instant before he plunged its blade with an upward thrust into her vagina. She screamed in agony--God, the pain!--and he grinned a diabolical grin as he twisted the blade back and forth, then pulled it up and forward. He cut open her belly and slit her uterus, and pulled out the eight-month-old fetus that she had been carrying. He held it up in front of her and grinned again. "A trophy," he said with a hoarse, venomous voice. "A nice trophy, and a nice bounty." He turned the child slowly, examining it and showing it off proudly. "Should I keep it, or should I sell it? Hmm?" He cut the umbilical cord, and just before her eyesight faded and went to black she saw that the baby had been a girl--the soldier had stolen her daughter. Thankfully, she didn't live long enough to see what he did next.
       He awoke with a faint smile on his thin lips, barely remembering a fragment here and there of the dream, as the plane began to decelerate; they were preparing to land at San Francisco International Airport, and then from there he would be conveyed via a prison van to San Jose for the meeting with some business-type honcho. He didn't know much about this meeting, other than the fact that for some reason he was greatly needed, and that for the time being he was out of his jail cell and far away from any execution site. And these facts were enough to make his thin and pallid face twist into another sneer of a smile.
       His dark lord Satan surely was looking out for him today.

***

       The wide, dual-pane windows that framed the south end of the San Francisco Bay would have let in warm, brilliant sunshine had the vinyl blinds not been drawn across them. In some ways, the darkened and foreboding conference room was not much of a change from that dark, steel and cement jail cell with its single stainless steel toilet and sink, and the single fifty-watt incandescent bulb that burned overhead; in others it was absolutely incomparable. This place had polished floors of expensive Italian tiles, a polished oak conference table long enough to hold a banquet for nearly a hundred, a score of comfy swivel chairs all upholstered in soft, rich, luxurious leather, and soft-white overhead fluorescent lights--but the overheads were out, plunging the entire room into a prison-like darkness that was broken only by the pair of fluorescent desk lamps that spilled pools of soft white light on the table. And there was air conditioning! No jailhouse smell of stale tobacco, mildew, urine and feces here, boy. And off in a far corner, opposite from the entrance door and next to a door that could lead only to an executive washroom, was a fully stocked bar that was illuminated by another fluorescent lamp.
       And then something else struck Murphy. Not only was this place as dark as his jail cell, but in a way it also reminded him of the oppressive quiet and sinister darkness of his basement temple room. For a brief moment, he felt right at home.
       FLM President Ronald M. Slogan and his right-hand man, Kreuger--with his ever-present expensive leather briefcase--sat in the shadows at one side of the wide table, next to the covered window. They were backed by a pair of Sacred Service guards, who were dressed in dark business suits and dark aviator-style sunglasses, and wearing tiny radio-receiver earpieces with equally tiny wireless microphones pinned to their cuffs. All SS guards dressed the same; the dark suits and black ties and starched white shirts were their own kind of uniform.
       The Sacred Service Guards were publicly recognized as personal plainclothes guards of the President and other high-ranking officials, hence their name; it was their sacred duty to protect the leaders of the free Christian world, as the State press called them. They were differentiated from the uniformed soldiers of the Holy Guard by the fact that they were even more fanatically devoted to the protection of the President and his cohorts, and to the service of the United Christian States of America. They were true believers and true professionals, and they followed their orders without a moment's hesitation. With their skill and combat training they could have qualified as Delta Force or Navy SEALs--the best damned anti-terrorist teams in the world. Unfortunately, they chose to serve the government rather than their country.
       What was notpublicized was the fact that the function of these plainclothes operatives was not limited to the protection of various politicians and businessmen; they also served as the nation's secret police force. Citizens who had been arrested by these agents and then later released--and consequently kept under periodic surveillance--were quick to spread the word, but even when these citizens reported this to the press, it was never mentioned in any of the news media.
       Two SS Guards stood behind Slogan and Kreuger. Two more stood against the opposite wall. Three agents had escorted Murphy into this room, and one of them guided him to one of the chairs opposite Slogan and pulled it out for him without expression, holding it without comment as Murphy sat. He continued to stand behind him with one of his partners, with his hands clasped loosely before him, while the third went to stand near the door to the washroom. Where Murphy sat looking around, bewildered and taking it all in, he was completely surrounded by athletic, highly trained killers who were armed with the latest high-caliber hardware. Should it become necessary, he could be shot dead in a heartbeat by any one of them. He suddenly felt as though he were wearing a bull's-eye target on his chest and back. But he was sitting here with the president--the President of the Foundation for Law and Morality! it finally dawned on him--surely they wouldn't open fire and risk hitting one of the leaders of the Christian world, would they?
       He looked at the SS Guards again, took note of their size, and concluded that if they wanted to take him out they wouldn't need any firearms. Actually, they looked as though they would rather use a garrote.
       Another small light flickered to life and shined in his face. Murphy squinted against its sudden brightness, but he could see nothing beyond it.
       Kreuger opened the briefcase that lay before him and took out a file folder. He closed the case, opened the folder, and scanned its pages with a mild snort of disgust. "Murphy, Delbert," he said a moment later, his quiet yet firm voice breaking through the soft, gentle hum of the air conditioner. "Also known as Prince Moloch, High Priest of the First Coven of Satan. Arrested for witchcraft and Satanism, possession of narcotics, possession of contraband literature, attempted evasion of arrest, first-degree murder...and separate conspiracy charges to commit each of these aforementioned crimes." He read them in descending order of importance, and then looked up at him from the list of crimes. "You could be executed for any one of these crimes. You do realize that, don't you?"
       Murphy swallowed nervously, and said nothing.
       "You know quite a bit about the occult, don't you?"
       Murphy didn't want to answer. Ever since the Fifth Amendment and the Miranda/Escobedo laws had been overturned, no suspect had any protection against self-incrimination; anything he said could and wouldbe used against him. And should he refuse to answer, he could always be put to The Question, which was an euphemism for what many repressive African, Middle Eastern, Central American and Southeast Asian governments called "physical interrogation."
       Then Slogan spoke. "You can go ahead and answer," he said. "You're already looking at several consecutive death sentences. If you cooperate with us, not only will those sentences be commuted, but you will be set free. If you refuse to cooperate, you won't leave this room alive. Do you understand?"
       Set free?? Murphy nodded, suddenly quite eager to accommodate while a corner of his mind wondered how "several consecutive death sentences" could be carried out. In the old days of the Spanish Inquisition, on whose policies the Foundation for Law and Morality seemed to have based many of its own, people could be tortured to death or executed outright, and then their bodies would be drawn and quartered (the less fortunate were drawn and quartered while still alive), and then their torn and bloody corpses would be burned at the stake. But with today's technology--with modern life-support systems, surgical techniques, mind-altering drugs to induce torturous hallucinatory visions of burning Hell and eternal damnation, and other high-tech goodies--the Foundation could certainly make him feelas though he were suffering several death sentences.
       But now there was a way out. Like a trapped and desperate coal miner, he saw light at the end of the tunnel. And with nervous excitement and ardent hope swelling inside of him like a balloon that could carry him away to freedom, he was determined to reach it.
       His mouth was suddenly as dry as dust, and for a moment he was unable to speak. He tried to swallow, and at last he meekly said, "Um, could I have a glass of water, please?"
       Without looking at him, Slogan motioned slightly to one of the SS Guards who stood behind Murphy. The Guard immediately went to the bar and opened a bottle of mineral water, poured it over ice into a clear cut-glass tumbler, and brought it back to Murphy. He set it down on the table in front of him, not wanting to hand it directly to him. If he had done that, the SS Guard might have soiled his hand by touching this devil-worshiper. He stepped back and resumed his post behind the Satanist.
       Murphy sipped nervously as Kreuger spoke. "Obviously, you are familiar with witchcraft. You know how to put curses on people, don't you...Mr. Murphy?" For the sake of appearances only, he forced himself to be civil toward this repugnant excuse for a human being; personally, he was loathe to call him by the respectful title of mister.
       Murphy nodded. "I know the general aspects," he replied, still holding the tumbler. "Each one is different, with it's own requirements and desired results." He hoped he sounded to these people like an expert.
       Kreuger cast a quick glance at Slogan, and his boss looked back at him in confirmation. They seemed to have the right man for the job.
       "How long have you been a witch, Mr. Murphy?" Kreuger asked.
       In spite of the light glaring in his face, Murphy couldn't help but smile a little bit.
       "Something funny, Mr. Murphy?" Slogan asked, scowling dangerously from the shadows.
       He shook his head slightly. "I don't consider myself to be a 'witch,'" he said. "I'm a warlock."
       Slogan and Kreuger looked at him sharply, and suddenly they wondered if they had the right man for the job after all. Murphy could almost hear the thoughts that would soon become orders to kill him. "What I mean is," he went on quickly, "is that witches--true witches--are notthe same as Satanists. Witches are candy-assed peace freaks; they're throwbacks to the Sixties 'flower power' air heads, wearing open-toed sandals and little flowered wreaths in their hair, and smoking grass and dancing in circles. They're into healing and ecology, and worshiping 'Mother Earth.'" He spoke the last two words with a sneer of contempt. "They know nothingof seeking power."
       "So a witch wouldn't have cursed...anyone?" Slogan asked.
       "Not likely. Witches are afraid of curses and sh...I mean, stuff like that. They're into protection and defense, not offense and attacking enemies."
       "But regardless of who put a curse on...someone...you can remove it?"
       "Remove a curse?" Murphy asked. Now he had a better idea of why he was here. He didn't know if he could do it or not; but he was damn well gonna let these jerk-offs believehe could. All he had to do was fool them for a while, and then once he was out on his own he could take off and they'd never see him again. And if he was actually successful in removing it, it would show him that Satan was really on his side; not only would it be a good demonstration of the Dark Lord's power, but by removing this curse, he would absorb its power as his own.
       For the first time since his arrest, his razor-like smile contained just a hint of arrogance. "Yeah," he said at last. "Yeah, I can remove your curse." He sipped his water again, only not so nervously this time. "Tell me about it."
       Kreuger removed another file folder from his briefcase and flipped through it. "Seven years ago," he began, "there used to be a witch who lived in the area, until she disappeared. No one knows what happened to her. It is believed, however, that before she left she cursed the Betatron Nuclear Power Station as a final act of defiance. Some people have been injured and others have seen ghosts or demons walking the corridors; either way, everyone is afraid to work there." He smiled inwardly in spite of himself.
       "And we need to bring it back on line," Slogan added, and Kreuger cast him a cool, subtle look. "We need it as a shining example of God's technology if America is ever going to prosper! We want you to remove this curse."
       Murphy nodded slowly to himself. "And in return for removing this curse I get to go free?"
       Slogan fixed him with a cold look as he removed his glistening wet cigar from his thin lips. "That's correct."
       They must be really desperate, he thought. Someone must have put a super-whammy on that place, and their own exorcists can't handle it. Imagine all that power...mine for the mere taking.
       He grinned a sickly grin. "You've most definitely got yourself a deal," he said as he offered a handshake in partnership. When no one moved to accept it, his smile faltered, and he sat back uneasily.
       "You will be released in San Francisco, and you will make your own way up to the Mendocino area," Slogan said. "Thanks to all the terrorist bombings of major roads there, we can't get any vehicles in." The only vehicles that could get in or out were helicopters; but every chopper that the FLM had flown into the area had been shot down by resisters armed with stinger missiles that had been stolen from Foundation military posts. Apparently, the Rebels had pretty good intelligence; they could always recognize their own 'copters, which-thanks to the high numbers of Lakota, Cheyenne, Apache and Navajo members of the Resistance who still remembered their native languages-used secret codes that were still unbroken by the FLM, to establish identifications and communications. "And while you're in San Francisco, Mr. Murphy, don't do anything stupid. Mr. Vance, here"--he indicated the SS Guard who had gone to get the water for Murphy with a gesture of one pale hand, momentarily illuminated by the fluorescent light--"will be your contact, and he will be keeping a veryclose eye on you." Murphy glanced up at him. The SS Guard's expression was unreadable behind the aviator-style sunglasses as he silently returned his gaze. He reminded Murphy of a trained rottweiler. "You will be making your reports to him, and he, in turn, will be reporting to Mr. Kreuger. And Mr. Kreuger reports to me. Do you understand?"
       "Yeah," Murphy replied, his hopes for escape already dimming. He turned back to Slogan. "Yeah, sure..."
       "Very good. Wait outside. Mr. Vance--" Slogan added quickly, catching his attention just as he turned to accompany the Satanist. "--a word, please."
       "Of course, sir." He resumed his quasi-military posture, standing with feet slightly apart and hands clasped before him.
       God, Murphy thought as he was escorted toward the door, he even soundslike a rottweiler!
       Slogan waited until the door was shut before he spoke again. "When Mr. Murphy completes his exorcism of Betatron, I want you to kill him."
       Vance nodded once in acknowledgment. "Of course, sir." He turned and left.
       Slogan sighed with satisfaction, and then noticed the way in which his aide was watching him. "Oh, come on, Kreuger, you didn't reallythink I was going to let him live, did you?" Then, with a cold, reptilian smile he added, "'Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,' right?"
       For the sake of appearances, Kreuger shrugged in acceptance and without comment. If Slogan could renege on his deal with Murphy, what was there to stop him from reneging on any agreements with anyone else?
       In the back of his mind, Kreuger decided that maybe it would be wise of him to start watching his own back.

To Be Continued...



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