Mount Ararat, Turkey
"Professor Hanley! Professor!" Omar ben Avram ran up the hillside to the professor's tent and unzipped the flap, bursting through without notice. The young Arab archaeologist immediately saw Hanley was still asleep and began shaking him fiercely. "Professor! Wake up!"
"Wha... what? What time is it?" Kevin Hanley opened his eyes and immediately regretted it.
"Early, very early. Professor, we found something. You must come quickly." Omar threw Hanley a shirt and jeans from the neatly packed suitcase at the foot of the cot.
"What? It's... barely seven in the morning, dammit!" Hanley shoved his arms into the sleeves and pulled on the blue t-shirt. "What in the hell is so important?"
"Yesterday afternoon we had four teams on the east face; only three came back by dusk. The fourth dislodged a great slab of granite by accident. They thought that half the mountain was going to end up in the valley, but after just a few meters it came to rest. Here, look at this." Omar pulled a portable flatscreen from his pocket and began playing a video file taken just a few hours before.
The image was grainy, the result of obsolete digital recording equipment, but the details were clear enough: a gargantuan granite slab, easily twenty feet on a side, had slid a short distance. The slab was easily two meters thick, must have weighed hundreds of tons. But the edges were what immediately drew Hanley's eye.
The slab was a perfect square. "Good God," he breathed.
"They found a seam in the stone, thought it might have been a sealed tomb of some sort. Imagine their surprise to discover this," Omar said as Hanley quickly dressed. "The soil downslope was mostly sand, easily pushed out of the way by the slab's mass. They still haven't determined what mechanism caused it to move - nothing so massive could be shifted by men with pry bars."
"What about the stone? Is it local?"
"Look at the striations around the edge, the mica layers in the strata." Omar ran his finger along the areas he meant, then ran the image forward to footage taken of the walls of the hole the slab had left behind it. "These strata are identical as far as I can tell. Brooks is already on his way up there to confirm it, but I'm pretty sure that the layers match. Not only is it local, the slab was cut right from the mountain and then replaced once the work was complete."
Hanley looked up as he laced his boots, shock clear on his face. "That's not possible. The grade is over fifteen percent, it's halfway up the mountain, and it's a hundred-ton slab. Not even the Egyptians - with all their experience and manpower - could move that."
"I know; so does the team. That's why they stayed there all night, trying to get some idea on when it might have been made." Omar went quiet; his silence disturbed Hanley more than what he had said. After a moment he said, "They found something."
"Rodrigo called me, said that they managed to do a quick carbon-date on some soil they found in a hole underneath the slab. His estimates put it as being made sometime around 13,000 B.C."
Hanley slapped his hat on his balding scalp and strode outside, running down the slope to one of the aging Hum-Vees the crews used to get to the various dig sites. Omar ran just behind, yelling "But professor, this doesn't prove anything alone. It's just a stone slab -"
"An impossible stone slab, or at least highly improbable. Fifteen thousand years ago, mankind was barely a tribal society; we both know there's no way that hunter-gatherers could accomplish this. No, there's something more." The men climbed into the faded black Hummer and Hanley started the vehicle.
"What do you expect to find?"
An hour later the Hummer pulled to a stop a short distance from what had already become a major site, with dozens of people running around the gaping hole in the mountainside. "Brooks!" Hanley yelled as he trotted over to the one completed tent. "Get out here!"
Alvin Brooks appeared in the tent opening even before Hanley had finished. "Glad you made it, boss. Prelim geolological study says that the rock was cut -"
"Fifteen thousand years ago; Omar told me. Tell me something I want to hear. Tell me you found something."
"Boss, we found something. The slab was placed over a square pit cut into the mountain, three feet on a side, ten feet deep, filled with soil. Radar tests show there's something at the bottom." Brooks' chest heaved with each breath, his excitement palpable in the cold morning air. "The diggers are close, but protocol says now's the time to slow down, preserve the area where the item is -"
"I want it, Brooks. Now. There's a ton of soil to study from the pit, soil that hasn't seen the light of day in fifteen milennia; I want the prize at the bottom of the box." Hanley stood at the edge of the larger hole, looking at the workers carefully photograph the area. Brooks spoke quickly in Turkish to the workers, and they quickened their pace. The buckets of soil started coming more quickly, and in a matter of minutes an excited murmur came from the men in the pit.
Hanley knelt by the pit as the workers exchanged the bucket for a larger wire cage. It was too crowded to get any kind of look at the item, and it was difficult to even see its outline once it was placed in the cage. The journey to the surface was agonizingly prolonged for Hanley; his lips moved in prayer with no sound, without him even realizing it.
The cage surfaced, and two workers carefully moved it away from the pit and opened it, then stepped away. Hanley licked his lips, his mouth dry, and knelt to remove the object.
It appeared to be some sort of tablet. It was heavy, and it was black; it reflected the sunlight almost like a mirror wherever light touched it. Probably made of volcanic glass, Hanley thought. And it was covered in ancient symbols that predated all known forms of the written word.
"Hallelujah," he said, a triumphant smile splitting his face.
New Orleans, Louisiana
2:14 pm CST
"When I think of the events of the past week, I feel that my own perspective must be presented to the Board of Regents - not as justification, but more as an explanation." Rachel Voss looked down at her carefully typed notes, then looked back up at the seven board members seated before her. Her hands gripped the podium as she continued: "The deaths of three students is a tragedy regardless of the circumstances, even more so given the facts we know. I am not aware of the particulars that led Simon Weiss and Annalee Morgan to cause the death of Maggie Hearn, nor do I know why they then took their own lives."
The auditorium was filled with concerned and angry parents, along with university faculty and reporters brandishing digicams who would no doubt sell their footage to the highest bidder. Clearing her throat, Voss said, "I knew all three students; all three attended my Comparative Religions course, and all were very vocal in their opinions. Simon was an intelligent young man, very objective when exposed to views different from his own. Annalee was a warm and caring girl who brought a more humanistic perspective to the discussion. And Maggie... she was-"
"What do you know about her?" came a loud cry from the audience. "What do you know about anything?" Voss turned around to see a man storming toward her, three days' growth of stubble darkening his face, his hair wild to match his eyes. She recognized him as Maggie's father, a dirt-poor farmer who had worked so hard to send his only child to college. "Did you know what they were planning? Did you do anything to stop this? Anything at all?"
"I had no idea-" Voss stammered, but the man shouted over her voice.
"Don't lie to me! Maggie knew about you, about what you and those kids were doing out in the bayou. She wrote it all down in her diary, every time for the past four months." The man held up a small worn book and threw it on the floor between them. "Witchcraft. Devil worship. Animal sacrifices. Did you tell them to kill her? Did you order them?"
"I - I don't know what the hell you're talking about." Security guards had moved close, and were almost upon the distraught man.
"Liar," he whispered, and reached under his coat. Before the guards reached him he had pulled out an antique, single-shot scattergun with a cut-down barrel and stock. At six feet away, there was no way he could miss.
There was a burning in her belly, a force like a gigantic fist in her gut, and then she was flying backward, the arched ceiling of the auditorium strangely bright in her vision. No pain, she thought in wonder.
Then she struck the floor. There were sounds now, cries and words blurred into low screeches. Her vision dimmed, sharpened, dimmed again. When it returned, she could see two uniformed men kneeling (standing?) over her, white bandaging in their hands and panic on their faces.
What...? she thought - and then nothing.
Open to me.
Rachel Voss opened her eyes. The voice was deep and cold and seemed to come from inside her head. She looked around, saw nothing but a single pinprick of light above her. It was freezing here; her clothes did not even touch the cold. She ran her hands down to her belly -
Still warm and wet with fresh blood.
Open to me.
"Who are you?"
I have no name, for I am older than names. I am the source of your deepest fear, the voice of darkness itself.
A figure stepped out of the darkness, a tall, elegant, utterly nude woman. She knelt next to Voss, brushing her hand across the frightened woman's cheek. Without moving her lips the woman said, You have but a single purpose, one which has been awaiting you for all eternity.
"And that is?" Voss whispered.
Quiet now. This will be over soon. The woman leaned down, took Voss' face in both hands, and leaned down as if to kiss her. Voss felt some unseen energy in ther air, sensed it brush past her lips and across her body, penetrating every pore and fiber of her being as the woman faded into nothingness. She struggled for a moment, but she could do nothing but accept it. The energy flowed through her, mastering her, conquering her.
And very far from where it began, her life ended.
"It's a miracle, it must be." She could hear voices, but they sounded strange, flat. Of course, they're corporeal. Sound created by flesh, she thought. There was a host of strange sensations, tactile stimulus filtered through that tangled mess of neurons humans called the brain. Smooth cloth, pinpricks in the arms, warmth in the belly, pain in the head, dozens more - all new, all easily assimilated and tolerable.
It had been so very long since she had possessed flesh.
"Her brain activity was nil - not a blip. Then it... reset, I guess. I can't explain it, but it reads as normal. It's -"
"A miracle," the being now called Rachel Voss said, opening her eyes for the first time in millennia.
4:13 pm CST
"Alex, can I talk to you?"
Alexandra Corman looked up from her newspaper to see Joe Lombardi standing over her, a sour expression on his face. "Uh, sure. What about?"
"Not here; my office." Joe quickly began walking, not even slowing down to let Alex catch up. She juggled her papers and cup of coffee as she followed Joe back down the hallway, nestled deep inside the Mutual Insurers building. When she got there, she was greeted with the sight of four sharply-dressed executives sharing expressions similar to that of her boss. Damn.
"Miss Corman, hello," one of them said. "Please sit down."
"Um, what's going on? Did I do something wrong?"
Another of the suits produced a dataflat from his briefcase and handed it to her; her job application was displayed. "In your application, you stated that you had never been convicted of a felony; you also claimed that you had no history of mental illness."
The flat's display changed; now it showed the criminal record of one Alexandra Talbott. A second window opened and a psychiatric file, also for Talbott, began to scroll. "One of our investigators found this information while performing a routine background check."
"This isn't me," Alex said with practiced ease. "There must be some kind of mistake -"
"Our inquiry was quite thorough, Miss Corman - Miss Talbott," he corrected. "According to our research you spent almost eight years, from ages nine to seventeen, at the Crittenden Institute for the Criminally Insane. You were sent there following the deaths of your parents which, according to court documents, you were the cause of." The suit leaned forward. "You burned them to death in their sleep."
"Alex, I can see why you changed your name," Joe said, his voice calmer than usual. "Hell, I'd probably do the same thing. And the lying - well, we might be able to get over that if the offense wasn't so serious."
"We're a family company; we have an image to maintain, especially in these troubled times. In short, Miss Talbott, company policy requires that you be terminated immediately. You have until closing to clean out your office," the suit finished, the matter obviously closed in their minds.
Alex took off her glasses and threw them on the floor, her heel grinding the old-fashioned glass lenses into powder. "Keep it," she said, leaving her papers and coffee and job behind without a second glance. She walked straight out of the building, across the parking lot, past her aging sedan and down the streets of Minneapolis until she reached a phone booth, one of the old, completely enclosed ones. She stepped inside, closed the door, lifted the hanset and began speaking - without dropping any coins or dialing a number. "They fired me," she said, her voice strained.
"It's okay, Alex," a voice responded, soft and comforting. "They can't hurt you anymore."
"I can't go through this again. You told me it would be over soon. When will you let me go?"
"Soon, child. The pieces are all in place now, and the first moves have already been made. Your service is critical, now more than ever."
Alex began to weep, the tears flowing as her chest heaved uncontrollably. "I d-don't want t-to do this a-again. I w-won't."
"Shhh...," the voice said, and Alex felt a hand brush against her head. "You've almost earned forgiveness, Alex. Don't doubt me now. Don't doubt yourself."
Etherial arms, unseen even by Alex, held her until the sobs trailed off and she opened her eyes again. The sun had set and the solid clouds overhead glowed a sickly pink, reflecting the glow of the streetlights. "You know what you must do, child. I have given you all I can; my end is near. All my knowledge, all my strength, is yours now."
"I don't want to be alone again." Her voice was sulky, like a child's.
"You won't be. Find him, child; find him and help him in his quest."
"I don't know who he is."
"But you know where to find him. When the time comes, you will know."
"When... when will I see you?"
"Soon enough. Go, now. Go to him."
"Are you there?" Alex whispered. "Are you there?" When no answer came she let the receiver drop and opened the door, stepping out into the cool night air. Raindrops fell sporadically as she wandered the dim streets, her mind roaming in its own far-off place. Every now and then someone would gaze at her a moment longer than necessary as they walked past her, as if they could sense something odd. Nobody said a word.
When her feet would no longer carry her, she fell against the nearest wall and slid to the ground, her eyes barely open. "Please..." she begged. "Are you there?"
"Let there be light," came the voice, and Alex opened her eyes to salvation: a Greyhound bus station was just across the street. She had just enough money in her pocket for a single ticket, money she gladly paid when she saw the destination.
New York City
8:07 pm EST
Mmmm... I like that one. Walking down the hallway on a Friday evening, high heels clacking on the tile floor, ready to party. She looks like a closet party girl. Naturally blonde (oh yes, I can tell just by looking), looking for brief, meaningless sensual pleasures of no particular variety. Just the kind I like.
The halls of the building empty out quickly on Fridays. Everyone wants to get home, or at least away from this corporate nightmare. There aren't a dozen people in the building by seven at night, mostly janitorial staff and two or three workaholics who sacrifice their personal freedom for one slim chance at a promotion.
It's pathetic. It's disgusting. Packed like sardines in a can, these creatures live meaningless existences, scurrying back and forth with useless reams of paper and computer disks. They have no idea what it is to live, to be alive.
She's waiting at the elevator now. Her long legs are elegantly sculpted, shown off beautifully by the black hose she has on. That toned-down business suit, the glasses, the briefcase - it's all a cover for the magnificent creature that lurks underneath. I've never seen her before tonight, but I know I must have her. My tongue slides past my lips in anticipation of what's to come.
I begin walking down the hall toward my quarry, a leisurely pace concealing my excitement. Like the sheep she truly is she doesn't notice me until I'm just a few feet from her. She flashes a brief, distracted smile; something on her mind, maybe? Looking forward to fucking her brains out all weekend? His brains, maybe? I smile in return as the elevator doors part, the glass outside wall revealing a glorious view of the New York skyline.
Good... that's good. She doesn't suspect a thing.
I enter the elevator just behind her, managing a quick glance at her ass just before she turns around. The mirrored walls reveal and endless parade of me and her, her and me, standing side by side and lit by the setting sun as the elevator begins to descend. "Nice shoes," I say, trying to break the ice.
"Thanks," she replies. My eyes wander her body again, wondering what she looks like underneath that corporate uniform. Does she wear a bra? I decide she does; have to maintain decorum, don't we? A lacy black Victoria's Secret bra, just enough titillation to keep her smiling over the course of the day. She has her secrets, and she likes to keep them.
So do I. I lean back as we pass the thirtieth floor, knowing that it will happen soon. I compare us in the mirror; she's tall, Amazonian, while I'm more petite. She's blond; my own hair is black as midnight. I can smell her now in the confined space - perfume, salt, just a hint of... is that excitement I sense? Oh, yes. It is time.
The lights flicker and die. The elevator comes to a sudden stop as the power fails, leaving us dangling thirteen stories above the sidewalk. "What the hell?" she asks, but I say nothing in reply; I've got more pressing business to attend to. She presses buttons on the darkened keypad, intent on fixing the problem. She almost doesn't feel my arm encircle her waist. Her muscled belly is firm but yielding, tensing almost as soon as my fingers graze across it. "Hey, what the hell are you doing?" she cries in shock, pulling away and turning to face me.
I say nothing as a smile crosses my face. I love this part. She scrambles to pull out her Vox and call for help, but I'm so much more practiced at this. She's been a sheep all her life; now she's just the meat. I knock the Vox from her hand and set my foot down hard, shattering it into golden splinters. The sun reflects off her glasses as I press into her, our bodies fitting nicely as a new scent fills the chamber - fear. "Don't hurt me," she pleads as I slide the glasses down her nose. Hurt her? How could she even think that?
My hands begin at her belly again, this time travelling upward, underneath her jacket to her breasts. I caress her through the silk - to my surprise her nipples stand out proudly as I knead them in my hands - no Victoria's Secret here. "Shhh," I whisper as I move my right hand downward, past the hem of her skirt and between her thighs. She's never felt like this before - trapped, unwilling, but aroused nonetheless. I stroke her through her panties, feeling her jump at the sensation I'm bringing her. My gift to her.
Her hips start to move as I reach my left hand behind me, to my waistband, to the prize I keep hidden underneath my jacket. She doesn't even notice when I expose the tailor's shears. My right hand moves faster; the rhythm has her now, taking her mind, her will. I open the shears and slide the blades across her blouse, slicing up through the silk with ease, exposing her near-perfect stomach and pendulous breasts. A sheen of sweat glistens over her skin; her excitement has become palpable, her movements are more urgent now. She's close, whether she wants to or not.
"Ahhh..." she gasps as I graze her most sensitive area. Her lips peel back as a moan escapes her. I taste the cleft between her breasts, my tongue catching the salty dew as it runs down. I move the shears again, this time peeling away her skirt in one swift stroke. She's leaning there against the elevator doors clad only in her blazer, black panties and sheer hose, exposed to a the whole of downtown New York if they only looked up. But they're sheep.
Just like her.
My hand moves faster still, bringing her to just within reach of orgasm, and I reach around behind her head with my other hand, bringing her mouth closer to mine. The point of the shears presses against the base of her skull, the sensation of cold steel forcing her eyes open. "In nomine Satanus," I whisper, driving the instrument home as her climax comes. Our lips meet as the blades force their way into her brain, slicing through nerves and sinew, bone and cartilage. Her body spasms in ecstasy as her mind struggles to comprehend the conflicting sensations. Her orgasm seems to go on forever, and when at last it has ended, so has she.
I must work quickly now. I pull the shears from her skull with a wet sound and push her backward against the doors. She leaves a crimson trail as her body slides down the doors, her hair matted with blood, her final expression one of awe. She is lovely, magnificent, necessary. The incantation takes barely a minute to complete; seconds later, the lights flicker on and the car moves downward again. It stops at the second basement level; when the doors part three men stand ready to assist me. One lays down a plastic sheet and quickly rolls up the body, sealing the package with duct tape; the other two scrub the elevator's interior from top to bottom, removing all visible traces of blood. They take off the control panel and clean inside; they even replace the carpeting. After ten minutes there is no way to tell what happened inside the car short of a full forensic analysis... and since the body will never be found, I doubt that will ever happen. I lick my bloodsoaked fingers as I watch them work, savoring the taste of her.
8:55 pm EST
"Mister Embry, Mister Orton is here." The intercom went silent, giving John Embry a moment to ponder his options before the new majority shareholder - and therefore, his boss - walked into the office. One: Embry could hand over control of the whole company, the manufacturing empire built by his great grandfather almost a century before. Two: he could fight tooth and nail to keep control, a costly and utterly futile maneuver because Douglas Orton, Jr., was one of the richest men in Washington.
He didn't let himself think about the third option.
The door opened and Orton strode in, his tuxedo unwrinkled, his face unblemished, a wide smile on his face as if he were just paying a visit to an old friend. "John, good evening. How are we tonight?"
Embry remained silent as Orton sat down. A few seconds passed before Orton said, "What, no hello?"
"What do you want, Douglas?" Embry spat, his right hand twitching behind the desk.
"To welcome you into the Orton Conglomerate family. Informally, of course - at least until morning. Then I want you to stand beside me at the press conference and smile as we sign the papers." Orton's smile grew wider, revealing two rows of perfect white teeth. "But right now, we have other business to attend to."
Orton's smile faded and he rubbed his hands together. "You have to. You gave up any opportunity to back out long ago. Besides, what are you really losing? Your company? You're just a figurehead, a name; that's all you've been for twenty years. We've been in charge ever since you came to us to bail you out. All this buyout does is make it official." Orton stood, opening the briefcase and pulling out a single sheet of paper which he laid on the desk. "Why are you fighting me on this?"
"Because you lied to me, to all of us. You promised us that we'd still be in control, that you'd just be a silent partner."
"And I was silent. I never said one word about the illegal dumping by six of your plants, not a peep about the thousand or so illegals you had brought into this country, not a breath about the substandard materials you used in you steel mills that endangered a dozen cities across the United States. And let's be honest - you never wanted to keep control of that lumbering beast that bears your name." Orton tapped the paper with his index finger. "I gave you the chance to stay afloat. It's not my fault if you wasted it."
"It's the last time I will," Embry said as he raised his right hand, revealing the blue metal of the antique Smith and Wesson .38 revolver. "I won't sign."
"It won't matter, John. I'll get what I want; I always do."
"Not if I shoot you first." Embry thumbed the hammer back and pointed the gun at Orton's chest.
"You won't shoot me. You don't have the stones." Orton calmly turned and started walking toward the doors, pulling a Vox from his jacket pocket. "Vox. Nine-one-one."
"Don't walk away from me. Orton. I'll shoot you anyway," Embry shouted.
Ignoring him, Orton continued: "I have an emergency. I need the police and an ambulance at the Embry Building."
"Damn you!" Embry pressed the gun against Orton's back. "And damn me," he whispered just before he pulled the trigger.
There was a gunshot, thunderous in the confined office, then the thump of a body falling to the floor. Orton spared a glance behind him; Embry was lying there, head to the side where a bullet had slammed into his skull. A pool of blood slowly spread as Orton continued to speak. "John Embry shot himself." He slid the Vox back into his pocket and stepped over the body, reaching out to grasp the sheet of paper off the desk, then knelt beside Embry's body and placed the sheet on the floor. "John, you knew this is no way out. It just makes our task easier in the end."
He waved his left hand over the blood, and the stone on his ring glowed equally red for a moment. Then a tendril of blood began to creep toward the paper, flowing like some obscene earthworm across the floorboards. It slithered onto the paper, to the appropriate space, then settled down into the loops and scrawls of John Embry's handwriting, a perfect signature. There was a flash of heat, a strange circular symbol appeared for just an instant underneath the printed text, and the signature cooled to black.
Orton picked up the paper and calmly retrieved his briefcase, sliding the paper inside with practiced ease. As he closed the case the trill of his Vox sounded. "Douglas Orton," he said.
"New York is complete."
"Excellent. How was she?"
"Mmmm... divine. Everything went according to plan."
"Wrap things up quickly, Simone. Time has grown short." Orton stepped over the body and swung the door open, revealing the sleeping form of Embry's secretary slumped over her desk; she would wake up soon with no memory of having slept. "We'll talk when I get back."
"I can't wait."
9:16 pm PST
"Can you help me? I'm looking for Professor MacKenzie's office."
Danny Alton looked up from his calculus notes to see two fine breasts aimed in his direction. "Uh, sure," he said to the young woman they belonged to, a blonde goddess - at least, she was this late at night in the Humanities building. He tuned her voice out as she bubbled on; even two straight days of studying for finals would never take away his appreciation for a fine woman.
"...but all these halls look the same. If you could just point me in the right direction, I'd be ever so thankful." She leaned over the desk, her breasts coming together enticingly in front of the college junior. The young man's eyes flickered between her face and her cleavage for just a moment before he pointed down the hallway at the far door. "Thanks!" she said and popped her chewing gum, bouncing off before the student could even form a sentence.
Down the hall and out of sight, she buttoned up her shirt and pulled off the blond wig she'd been wearing and shook the brown braid down from atop her head. She shoved it into her purse and pulled out a pair of glasses, then quickly wiped the cherry red lipstick from her mouth with a Kleenex. Catching a glimpse of herself in the chrome elevator door, she could be mistaken for a diffent person than just a minute ago.
"416... 414... 412," she muttered as she passed the rooms, their frosted glass doors as black as the night outside. She stopped at Room 405, looked either way down the hall, and removed a small gun-shaped object from her pocket. The metal prong at the tip slid easily into the lock, and four quick squeezes on the handle slid the tumblers into place. With a quick turn of the wrist, the lock was released and the door swung open.
Gina Herron stepped inside and closed the door gently behind her, then pulled a folded piece of black construction paper from her purse and secured it over the glass with strategically placed wads of her gum. Flicking on a tiny flashlight, she began to survey the office - ancient oak desk, faded green leather sofa with stuffing making its way past the seams, two file cabinets. Guess the professor never heard of personal computing, she thought as she methodically began going through the drawers, flicking past everything until the flashlight beam fell onto a folder labeled O / 13. It was pitifully thin compared to its companions, but it was her only goal. She grabbed it, shut the drawer, and pulled the paper off the window -
Exposing the outline of a man walking by. "What the -?" a voice stammered.
Shit, she thought, dropping the folder and reaching to the small of her back. A small .40-caliber pistol came up as the door was thrown open, revealing an overweight man dressed in the brown garb of campus security. She charged forward, shoving the muzzle against the man's forehead as he tried to pull his nightstick. "Stop," she said, thumbing back the hammer.
The man became motionless, the nightstick halfway freed from its loop. Gina flashed a look behind the man. Did anyone hear? she thought. When the hall remained silent, she reached her left hand into her purse and said, "Inside. Close the door." She backed up just enough for the man to comply. "Lock it."
When he turned around, Gina pulled a slim black tube from her pocket and pressed one end to the base of his neck. There was a blue spark, and then the guard collapsed to the floor, unconscious. She felt for a pulse - sometimes the stunner could disrupt a normal heartbeat - and was rewarded with a steady, strong beat. She grabbed the papers, stuffed them in her purse, then opened the door and quickly walked to the end of the hall, where the Seattle skyline greeted her. The window opened smoothly, and in under a minute she had descended the fire escape and vanished into the darkness between the campus buildings.
She dialed the Vox with one hand as she walked. Her eyes moved from one shadow to another, always expecting someone to be waiting there. "Ivan. I got it."
"Good. Any problems?"
"A guard. He'll be fine tomorrow."
"That's not what I meant," Ivan replied, his voice taking on a tone of anger.
"I know. No contact; I don't think they knew about his research."
"They do. They always know. The plane's not safe; find some other way out of Seattle. Rental car, bus, boat, I don't care. Just get back here."
The line went dead and Gina shoved the Vox back in her pocket, quickening her pace. "Goddammit," she muttered as she cut across a street and between two of the dorms. Sometimes Ivan could be a real bastard, giving orders, hanging up on people - Gina had done those things herself over the years, but it seemed very different to be treated that way. Ducking behind a row of dumpsters, she pulled off the glasses and quickly unbraided her hair, running her fingers through it to straighten it out a little.
A footstep fell near her, perhaps twenty feet away. Another footstep, quiet, deliberate - definitely not a typical college student at 10 pm. Gina pulled the pistol and thumbed off the safety, bending down to look beneath the dumpster.
There was no one there.
Gina began to stand up, but an arm encircled her throat and began to squeeze. She raised the pistol but another hand grabbed hers, forcing the gun down even as she yanked the trigger. The report echoed against the concrete and metal, enough noise to rouse even the most inebriated student. Her assailant flinched at the shot - just enough time for her to lean forward and bite down on the arm trying to choke her. A cry of pain came from behind her and the arm was pulled away.
Gina took two steps and spun around, holding the pistol with both hands. She looked up; nobody was actually looking out their windows to see what was happening yet. She had maybe twenty seconds to start running.
Just enough time.
The man pulled a knife and took a step toward her, but his progress stopped when three slugs struck him in the chest, spraying blood behind him as he fell to the asphalt. Even before the body fell she was in motion, sprinting across the campus, ducking behind cars and into bushes as campus security and then actual police cars began converging on the campus.
But she was good at what she did. Nobody would remember her - at least, not enough to produce a reliable sketch. The pistol was unregistered. She had used three different IDs while in Seattle, none of which had been real. Shedding her jacket, she pulled the blond wig back out of her purse and quickly tucked her real hair beneath the collar of her shirt. Her disguise would not pass a close inspection, but it would be enough to get her safely away.
Ten minutes later, she was gone.
Trivett County, Iowa
11:54 pm CST
Strange... I wonder why they never screamed, the man thought. They always used to.
The house was easily two miles from the closest neighbors; even if they had cried out, nobody could have heard them. The house, barn and equipment shed were clustered on the edge of a cornfield, a farm just like thousands of others across the state of Iowa. There was a tractor and a combine parked outside, two pickup trucks in the garage, various farming implements scattered close to the shed (not much had changed about farming in the past century, when you came down to it).
The man swept his arm across the last pantry shelf, knocking sugar and flour canisters crashing to the floor and sending up a cloud of white dust. Piles of uncooked pasta and canned green beans and baking chocolate were already there. The man stepped back from the mess, his face a mask of stone - unmoving, unfeeling. He began tossing plates and glassware from the kitchen cabinets, pots and pans next, all in a swift and thorough search of the house.
Halfway through the kitchen, his path was interrupted by the body of a middle-aged housewife named Lina Brewster. A large pool of blood had spread around her from the deep knife wound in her gut, and was just now becoming tacky. When he had first entered, after breaking through the front door, she had been getting a glass of water at the sink. She had watched him calmly the entire time as he raised the knife, had never even opened her mouth as he'd stabbed her. Strange, he thought again.
He finished in the kitchen and moved on to the living room. He threw books and pictures from their shelves, pulled the cushions from the couch and checked underneath, turned over the easy chair and coffee table and checked for anything that might have been underneath. Nothing.
The stairs creaked as the man moved upstairs, once again moving swiftly from room to room. Most were empty now; the two children raised here had long ago moved on to their own lives, hopefully quite different from what their parents had chosen. One had boxes stacked high, a thick layer of dust coating them; he ransacked them anyway. At the end of the hallway was the bathroom, the door partly open and steam still rolling out. He stepped inside and opened the cabinet under the sink, tossing out drain cleaner and a plunger and other seldom-used items. The shower was still running, filling the room with fresh steam and rinsing what was left of Gerald Brewster's blood down the drain and into the septic tank.
Mr. Brewster hadn't heard the man's approach, not with the water running. He had hummed tunelessly until the knife had slashed across his back; he had stayed silent as the twenty-two other cuts had been made in a fruitless attempt to get information. No pleading, no gloating, only the quiet acceptance of the inevitable. In some other life, the man would have been quite impressed by the Brewsters' resolve.
But not in this life, he thought as he left the bathroom. The bedroom was the last room to search in the house; the man looked through every drawer, every article of clothing, right to the back of the closet and under the mattress. Nothing.
Of course not; they've been doing this for too long. The man quickly walked downstairs, past the body of Mrs. Brewster, down into the cellar where the ancient furnace was humming quietly in a far corner. The cellar was unfinished, its bare concrete walls concealed by only aging cardboard boxes, stacks of newspapers, and a small workbench and tool rack. He quickly pulled the drawers from the bench and threw the tools from their wall-mounted hooks, uncaring about the noise he was making. Then he grasped the bottom of the pegboard rack and pulled, easily removing it from the wall.
Hidden behind the tool rack was a recess in the concrete foundation wall, invisible unless it was actively searched for. Crude shelves had been fashioned, upon which sat the remnants of candles and various icons and talismans - an altar. In the center of the space lay the charred remains of some unidentifiable object, nothing but fresh ash.
For the first time in what felt like eternity the man felt fear. Too late, he thought as he scooped up the ash in his hands. No fragments, absolutely nothing to identify what the object might have been - maybe wood, maybe paper, maybe fabric.
He scooped the ash quickly into a plastic baggie he took from his pocket, then took all the items from the altar and stuffed them into similar bags. As he picked up one of the wooden icons, he displaced a slip of paper that had been affixed to its back sometime long before. It read:
It was beginning.
"I still don't see why we can't get a burger once in a while," Nate Ackley grumbled as the Cadillac rolled up the highway, the setting sun throwing his and Ryan's shadows far to their right. "You think the cow union's gonna get pissed at us?"
"I know what you're like when you eat onions, and I refuse to spend two days cooped up in here with you until your system clears," Ryan Dallion shot back, a grin splitting his face. They had spent four days meandering up the coast of California and Oregon, casually stopping to browse through fruit stands and flea markets. Ryan often spent time looking at antiques; he could spend hours looking at a single item, although he never purchased anything.
Nate flashed a look over at Ryan as they rounded a curve; the older man was looking out the passenger window, a half-frown clouding his face. Nate knew that look well from the afternoons they had spent together, especially after Micki had fallen ill.
But he knew better than to pry. Instead, he said, "So where do you want to crash tonight? I'm starting to get tired, man."
"Morningside's got good hotels; it's only thirty miles or so, right over the state line. Want me to drive?"
"Naah, I got it. So what's on the agenda for tomorrow?"
"More of the same - no plans. Why, do you have something specific in mind?"
Nate grinned - always a sign of trouble, in Ryan's view. "I was hoping to take a day off from the road, maybe just hang out on the beach, catch some rays -"
"Check out the girls?" Ryan laughed. "I don't see why not. This old man will find something to do while you're getting friendly."
"Oh, no; no guilt trips, man. I got enough of that back at home." The car crested a hill and nate let out a low whistle. "Speaking of scenery, check that out."
Ryan looked forward and saw the figure of a woman standing at the roadside, one thumb raised in the timeless hitchhiker's salute. She was wearing a dark denim jacket over a blue t-shirt, faded jeans, and cowboy boots; wraparound sunglasses hid her eyes. Her curves were in all the right places, Ryan decided, then immediately chastized himself for thinking it. Too old, old man. "Keep going," he said.
"Why, man? You think she's trouble?"
"No, I think you're trouble, especially if she comes along for the ride."
"Oh, come on! I could use the good karma. So could you."
The car rolled past the woman and began to leave her behind. She looked innocent enough, Ryan thought as he looked at her in the side mirror. She turned away, looked back down the empty road, waiting for someone else to pick her up.
"Okay," Ryan finally said, and Nate slammed on the brakes. He shifted into reverse, hit the gas and sped backward, coming to a stop just a few feet behind her. "Nate -"
"I know, no driving like a maniac. Couldn't help myself." Nate was grinning like a fool as she trotted over to the car, her duffel bag hanging from a strap over her right shoulder. She opened the rear passenger door and tossed the bag inside, then settled into the seat. Ryan could see now that she was quite attractive, perhaps thirty years old, with brown hair that fell over her shoulders. "Hey there. Where are you headed?" Nate chirped, that silly grin still shining.
"Uh, mainly somewhere with a shower. Past that... anywhere east." She pulled off her jacket and rubbed her left shoulder, wincing at the movement. "You gonna drive?" she said pointedly after several seconds of Nate's gaze, obviously annoyed at him.
Ryan grinned; this would be entertaining at the very least. "Hi. I'm Ryan, and this is Nate." He turned and extended his hand.
"Gina," she said, shaking his hand firmly.
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This page was created on September 16, 2002.
Last modified on February 10, 2005.