I see them in my dreams.
I see two men riding in a boxcar, crossing the Midwest on a moonlit night. One sleeps fitfully, wracked with dreams of death; one, ever-watchful - one that I know - holds a shotgun in his hand.
I see two women standing side-by-side. One has raven-black hair and holds a knife; the other is platinum blonde... but has only darkness for a face.
I see a woman with two faces - one her own, one that of a little girl. Her arms are bound in a blood-drenched straightjacket, and she screams as phantoms surround her. I can hear the voice that whispers to her, but I do not understand it.
I see two lovers, faded, almost transparent, holding each other as the flames close in upon them. I cannot see their faces... but I think I know them.
And then there are four more, somehow connected. One is a girl; I know her, but only later, after the horrors have come for her and made her a tool of fate. Her hands are covered in blood, blood freed by the ten inches of iron that impale her heart. There is a man standing behind her, his teeth dripping blood, smiling even as his own heart is pierced.
Standing in the middle of all this are two small boys, perhaps brothers, clutching each other as if the world is coming to an end. One I have never seen... but the other, the older one, I know that face, almost as well as I know my own. He looks up at me and the strangest expression surfaces, much like the one I must have. He opens his mouth to speak -
And then I awake, sweat covering my body and fear chilling my mind. And I know only one thing:
They are coming.
Douglas Orton was paging through the New York Times when his Vox chimed. "Yes?"
Simone's low, calm voice spoke. "They escaped."
Orton closed his eyes. "How?"
"They were with someone else. I was taken by surprise."
"Find her, Simone. If the information she possesses reaches her associates... all our work could be for nothing." Tiny beads of sweat had sprung up on his forehead; failure at this stage would be very unhealthy, both in this world and the one to come.
"We have the file and most of their possessions. If she tries to contact anyone, she'll be forced to use unsecured lines. Besides... I know where she's going."
"And that is?"
The words hung in the air as Orton's throat closed up and his eyes went wide. "You have two days, Simone. After that... it won't matter, one way or the other."
Simone understood the implied threat perfectly well. "I'll need a replacement team."
"Done." Orton disconnected and closed his eyes. If the girl knew about St. Louis, she knew far too much... as did anyone she was with. "Vox. Secure line. Beta Team."
"The targets left the hospital twenty minutes ago. Targets are a female, dark hair, mid-thirties, no identification as yet; another female, mid-sixties, white hair, identified as Joan Kelleigh of Chicago; and one male, also mid-sixties, gray hair and beard, identified as John Ventura. We have a tracer on their vehicle and are maintaining visual and satellite surveillance."
"Their destination is most likely St. Louis. Do not intercept; follow them only. Simone will meet you at the destination."
As Orton clicked off, Simone felt a hand touch her shoulder; she looked, but no one was there. In the middle of the hotel room lay the porcelain toilet tank lid that had been used as a club on her, stained dark with blood. More blood had soaked the carpet; the remaining members of her team, their guns empty and smoking, had been reduced to torn masses of flesh, as had the few police who had arrived at the motel. Sitting in a corner, calmly licking her blood-soaked fingers, sat the blonde woman who had revived her. "Mmmm..." she purred as she sucked each finger clean.
"Acceptable?" Simone asked, picking up one of her team's submachine guns.
The woman who had been Rachel Voss smiled, blood dripping from her lips. "For starters."
Simone inserted a fresh magazine and released the bolt, loading the first round. "I'll take you to the main course."
The memory was sharp in Ryan's mind, preserved in mental amber for almost fifty years, but also disjointed; smells, sounds, whispers and screams, all buzzing around like angry flies in his mind. Sometimes one came close enough to grasp for a matter of moments:
"Don't be such a fraidycat."
"I'm not a fraidycat!"
And then it was gone again, lost in the maelstrom of panic and confusion. Ryan reached out and touched another:
"Get out of here! Run!" The knife falls, faster than he could have ever imagined, and the girl's voice is suddenly cut off. Drops of blood land on his blue T-shirt as the girl falls to her knees, hands clamped around her throat as the blood streams between her fingers. He wants to run but his legs are frozen, even as the man with the knife steps past the girl's falling body and raises the knife again.
"Go ahead and run," the man with the knife says, and blood drips from his teeth when he smiles. "I'll find you both soon enough.
"I've got all the time in the world."
Ryan opened his eyes and was greeted by the hot midday sun shining through the cracked windshield. "Where are we?" he asked.
Nate never took his eyes off the road. "Somewhere in Kansas. Have a nice nap?"
"Your lights went out right after dawn, man. I mean, out like a poleaxed mule."
Ryan looked across the barren landscape, a place that should have been thriving with wheat and corn but instead nurtured only weeds and dry soil. "We're in the Zone."
"Yeah, give the man a stuffed penguin. Crossed the line a couple hours ago."
The car crested a hill and Ryan saw something, then reached out his arm. "Pull over here."
Nate looked over to where Ryan was pointing. Off to the right, a lone farmhouse stood in a tiny cluster of dead trees about a quarter-mile from the highway. A long-neglected dirt track, overgrown with prairie grass and tumbleweeds, could just barely be made out. "No way. I've seen way too many horror flicks, man." He pressed down the accelerator and sped past the side road.
"Nate, go back. We need to stop, get some rest, get our heads together -"
"And get shot. Fuck that, man; this train don't stop for nobody, not 'til I feel safe." Nate checked the rearview mirror again; the asphalt behind them was barren, as it was in front. He saw half of Ryan's face in the mirror; the older man was sitting in the backseat beside a sleeping Gina (or whatever her name really was). "I don't feel safe yet."
"And you won't until we get answers." Ryan brushed a stray lock of hair from Gina's face. So young... so troubled..., he thought.
And so involved.
"Just stop here," Ryan said, the weariness he felt clear in his voice.
Nate took another quick look in the mirror, then slowed and cranked the wheel to the left, throwing up a cloud of dust as the Cadillac made a fast U-turn and headed back toward the house. The road was worse than it looked, deeply rutted by years of use before being forgotten; Nate took it at breakneck speed anyway, not caring if he drove over anything that could do damage to the car. He finally slowed as they reached the house, looking at a half-collapsed barn that had not been visible from the highway. He carefully pulled inside and killed the engine before resting his head on the steering wheel, the adrenaline that had been flowing through his body for hours finally expended.
After the events of the previous night - gunfire, knifeplay and one seriously psycho lady - Nate had ended up stealing the ancient Cadillac and driving off into the night with Ryan and Gina in the backseat. Gina had only woken up twice from whatever the psycho had done to her - once while still in Laramie as Nate was stealing the car, and once a few hours later to scream for several minutes before passing out again. They had stopped just once, only to siphon some gas so they could keep going. To Nate, the destination was not important... just as long as they were headed away from the psycho. "Last stop, dude. No stragglers," he muttered, then opened his door and got out, stretching his sore muscles.
Ryan was bent over on the other side of the car, his stomach spasming and threatening to unleash its contents. It had been so long - and far too recently - since his life had been so close to being snuffed out. What the hell is going on? Who are you, Gina? is all he could think. He chewed back the bile and breathed in deep, the smell of ancient motor oil and alfalfa helping to calm his stomach. "You okay, Nate?" he said, turning to look at his friend.
"Quit asking me that or one of us won't be," Nate said, looking out the barn door. "You know the answer."
"Yeah, I guess so. Help me get her into the house." Ryan leaned into the car and managed to pull Gina to her feet; with Nate on her left and Ryan on the right, they carried her to the back door of the farmhouse. Ryan could see the telltale dark patches of Blue on the barren trees, even from fifty feet away. Nate smashed in one of the panes of glass set in the door and turned the ancient deadbolt, then twisted the knob and pushed the door open. The hinges, rusted from decades of neglect, squealed in protest.
The back door opened into a small mud room, huge patches of fading yellow linoleum peeling up from the floor. Mounted along one side were several coathooks; three were still occupied, forever waiting for their owners to come back home one day. Ryan let Nate take Gina's full weight and cautiously moved forward, only a fraction of the midday sun making its way into the house to allow him a view of his surroundings.
The kitchen echoed, that same linoleum cracking under his feet with every step. Whoever had lived here long ago either left in a hurry or had simply never returned one day, judging by the items left behind; a tarnished silver picture frame held an almost blank photograph, with the outlines of four people - father, mother, two kids, maybe? - but no details whatsoever remained. A faint rotten odor wafted past him, probably whatever remained of the food left in the refrigerator. He ignored it and moved on to the next room, some kind of family room. A recliner covered by a threadbare quilt sat in the far corner with a TV tray set in front of it, the mummified remains of the farmer's dinner still sitting on a plate. Spiderwebs dangled between the tray legs, barren of both flies and spiders. The web, the house, the whole farm was like most everything else for hundreds of miles.
It was dead.
The first decade of the twenty-first century had not been kind to the Great Plains. Following the Iraq War in 2003, worldwide demand for wheat and corn had been at an all-time high... but that was before Blue wiped out much of the United States' crops. Blue - kovensis cyanica, or blue rust - was a fungal disease that swept across much of the world by the close of 2003, eventually destroying almost a tenth of the world's total crop supply, not including less-resistant prairie grasses and hay for livestock and many species of flowers and trees. It was eventually found that Blue had developed from a number of pesticide-resistant fungal strains, culminating in a worldwide famine that caused hundreds of thousands of deaths. While Blue was bad, what it left behind was worse - millions of square miles of farmland contaminated with Blue spores, just waiting to infect whatever managed to take root in the soil. Only the hardiest plants - mostly weeds of various types - seemed immune to Blue's effects.
Reclamation of the land would involve removing the topsoil and processing it in a special heating chamber that not only killed the spores, but would break down all the worthwhile organic materials in the soil, making it essentially useless for farming. The U.S. government had approved funding to reclaim the land - if not for farming, for something else - but little headway had been made over the past two decades. Vast tracts of land - most of Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa, as well as parts of two dozen other states - remained useless and for the most part abandoned, except for towns that lined the Interstate highways, living off of the traffic that still rumbled across the country.
Ryan went back to Nate and took some of Gina's weight. "Place seems stable enough. I don't think it'll fall down on us."
"Thank God for small favors," Nate muttered as they dragged Gina to the family room couch and laid her down. Ryan pulled the quilt off the recliner and covered her up, then sat down on the dusty carpet and let his head fall forward. Nate sat right beside him, hands propped on his knees, hair tangled and knotted. "I could use a shower, dude."
"You and me both. I think I saw a pump out by the barn, probably for a cistern. Might be some water left in the tank if we're lucky."
"Not with our luck," Nate muttered. "Ryan, what the hell is going on? Your story... Gina... those nutcases with machine guns..."
"I don't know," Ryan said after a moment. "Uncle Lewis is dead and gone. We ended the curse. I don't think that he has anything to do with last night."
"But Gina does."
"Yeah... I think so." Ryan looked at Gina's still-unconscious form and an unexpected rush of anger passed through him. "I've been... seeing things, remembering things that, until a few days ago, I knew never happened. And I've been seeing her in those memories."
Ryan looked at the dusty carpet, the memories of his childhood coming back to him after being neglected for so long. "It was August of 1975... a month before Jimmy died."
East St. Louis, Illinois
The chamber was cool and dim, lit only by a single bank of fluorescent lights suspended high above. His footsteps echoed as he strode to the far end of the room, stopping only when he reached the massive capacitor that was the collection point for the energy collected by the numerous solar panels they had installed outside. It was far safer to store solar power than run an illegal tap into city power, possibly alerting the police... or worse. He pressed a button, lifted a cover, flipped a switch from off to on, and suddenly there was light in one corner of the room as fluorescent bulbs and halogen work lamps pulsed to life.
The harsh light revealed a collection of shelves and tables; computer equipment, topological maps, ancient leather-bound tomes, weapons and more laid claim to the available space, among hundreds of other, less definable objects. The man looked down at the round center table; a large map of St. Louis, accurate as of March 2025, dominated the space. Hundreds of push-pins in a dozen colors marked locations, as did dozens of handwritten notes. "So many possibilities..." he murmured, then picked up a Vox from the table and spoke into it. "Ellis."
A moment passed. "Ellis."
"Ivan. What's your status?"
"We're in Indiana. Should reach you by tomorrow night."
"Gina hasn't checked in; she may be compromised. Get back here by any means necessary." Ivan closed his eyes and swallowed, knowing just what might happen. He was not comforted by the thought.
"Understood," Ellis said without hesitation, and the connection was broken. Ivan's heart was heavy as he grasped the implications of what was happening: If they have her... they will be coming. For me.
He stared down at the map again. So many possibilities... he thought again. And no way to narrow the search in the time we have. The artifact was bound for St. Louis, of that he had no doubt. But it's exact destination could be any one of the pins on the map, hundreds of possibilities. If only I had more time, he thought bitterly. But in just over fifty hours, there would be no time at all.
Just east of Muncie, Indiana
"Understood." Ellis - the gunman - said "Off" into the Vox audio pickup and the device powered off, leaving he and the professor in near-total darkness.
"Who was that?" came Hanley's voice from the darkness a few feet away. The trembling fear of the first two days of their journey had faded, replaced by the flat tones of numbness. At least the professor could carry on a rational conversation now... not that Ellis talked much.
"An associate," Ellis replied, shifting his gaze back to the landscape rolling by. The nearly-full moon illuminated the green fields and trees well; there would be no ambush tonight. As much as he allowed himself (which wasn't much), Ellis was comforted by that fact as he decided their course of action.
"Get your gear together. We're getting off," Ellis said, pointing toward the lights of Muncie, maybe three or four miles away.
"No time for sightseeing; I need to get you back ASAP."
"Back where? And will your associate be there? Will he tell me what the fuck is going on?" Hanley said, the anger in his voice clear.
"Most likely he will. If we don't get back soon... then it won't matter anymore," Ellis said.
His voice chilled Hanley to the bone. "What won't matter anymore?" he squeaked, his mouth suddenly unwilling to help form the question.
Ellis looked at him; his eyes were as cold, as unfeeling, as stone. "Anything, professor. Anything at all."
"Ryan? You awake?"
Sometimes I wish you'd just die, Ryan Dallion thinks as he rolls over to look at his younger brother. "Yeah."
"It's dark out here."
His voice is trembling, scared, and Ryan is immediately ashamed of his own thoughts. "Yeah. You scared?" he says, his voice softer.
"No." The voice grows sulky, and Ryan can almost see Jimmy sticking out his bottom lip. "I'm cold. Why can't we go home?"
"Because Mom and Dad are fighting again. I told you, I'm not gonna let them hurt us anymore." Why don't you grow up? he wants to say. You're not a baby anymore.
"But I'm not hurt -"
Ryan sighs. "Jimmy, you just don't get it. Every time they fight it hurts us. They don't love us, not if they fight all the time."
"Shut up! Mom loves us!" Jimmy is yelling now, on the verge of tears.
"No," Ryan says firmly, his teeth clenched. "She doesn't. Not anymore." Jimmy's tears are clearly flowing now, his breath hitching as he tries not to break down completely.
After a while Jimmy's tears stop... but Ryan's own, silent and hidden in the darkness, continue streaming down his cheeks. "Where are we gonna go?" he finally says.
"Away. We're gonna go away," is Ryan's only reply.
"When it came down to it, I thought Jimmy was some kind of punishment. I mean, I loved him; he was my brother. But I always felt like I was the one who got saddled with taking care of him. I walked with him to school, I walked him home, I had to drag him along when I played with my friends. Sometimes he wasn't like a brother at all, just some ball and chain I had dumped on me. And then came that summer... Dad got laid off from the aerospace plant he'd worked at most of my life. Things between him and Mom got pretty bad; there was too much drinking, too many fights.
"One afternoon, that last week of August, I decided that enough was enough. If the fighting wasn't going to stop, then I sure as hell wasn't going to be stuck in the middle of it anymore... and neither was Jimmy. I thought that we'd just head out into the world, make it on our own..."
Ryan shook his head, a sad chuckle escaping his lips. "What the hell do you know when you're twelve, anyway? All I knew was that Mom and Dad didn't love us anymore. As it turned out, all I knew was wrong." Ryan closed his eyes, searching his memories again. "That night... something happened in a railyard a few miles from our house. We were there, we saw it... but I can't remember anything more than flashes. Blood. Screaming. Running. And then..."
Ryan's voice trailed off, his mind lost in the jumbled fragments. "I can't remember," he whispered through clenched teeth.
A long moment passed before Nate spoke. "In the last twelve hours or so I've been chased, shot at and then I killed a psychopath who was holding a butcher knife to your scrotum." Ryan waited for the smart-ass comment was sure was coming... but all Nate said was, "Everything you said... it wasn't bullshit. It was real."
Ryan nodded solemnly. "Son of a bitch," Nate muttered, picking at the desiccated husk of a beetle caught in the thick pile carpeting. "What do we do?"
Ryan looked at his wrinkled hands, suddenly feeling very old. "First we rest... then we talk to her," he said, hooking his thumb over his shoulder at Gina's unconscious form.
It is night and the moon is bright and full, occasionally obscured by wispy clouds as they trail past, blown by the mild breeze that carries the first fallen leaves of autumn. Most of the light reaching the ground, though, is orange, the product of the evenly-spaced sodium lamps that line the streets. Somewhere not too far away a train horn sounds once, then again, fading as the mass of steel on steel rumbles off into the night.
The boys are tired and hungry now. It has been hours since their last meal, but Ryan wants to save what little food they have left for breakfast. Home is a few miles behind them now, and the whole wide world lay ahead. It takes a good breakfast to start the day, at least that's what Mom always says.
They are huddled in an alley between two long brick buildings, warehouses of some sort. Jimmy has wiped his tears away and is trying to read Ryan's battered Spider-Man comic book in the poor light, his jacket buttoned up to the top on this unusually cold night for August. Ryan is lying on his back, looking up at the few visible stars and the moon, his own jacket crumpled in a ball under his head. "Do you think there are really aliens?" Jimmy suddenly says, looking up from the comic.
"I dunno." A gust of wind blows down the alley, and the boys close their eyes until it passes. "Jimmy, we gotta find somewhere inside. Get your stuff."
Jimmy picks up his backpack and pulls the straps over his arms. "How do we get in?" he says, looking up at the high windows on every building.
"Some of these places have broken windows. Maybe we can climb on top of some boxes and get in that way, that way we can say we didn't break in." Ryan looks around at the red brick buildings, their green paint peeling with age. A distant flash of lightning lights up the area for a moment. "Maybe over there," Ryan says, pointing at random to one of the buildings across the cobblestone street.
They cross over and look at the high windows. "C'mon, let's check the alley," Ryan says as he steps into the shadows. The alley is quieter, the wind blocked somewhat by the tall buildings on either side. As they walk a few steps, Ryan notices something gleaming in the darkness. He reaches out, touches it, feels metal - a car. A big car, with a round hood ornament. He doesn't know why, but he finds himself pulling on it until it comes loose in his hand. Might need this later, he thinks as he shoves it into his pocket.
Jimmy is looking at him in shock. "Ryan, that's stealing -" he says, but stops as another sound rises above the wind and rustling of the wind and trash. "What is that?" Ryan says. It is a high, keening sound, like a bird screeching behind a door.
Or a woman screaming.
Nate awoke when he heard the scream, high-pitched, like something out of a bad horror movie. He sat bolt upright, his hand curled around the handle of a steak knife he'd managed to find in the kitchen before finally falling asleep. "Back off -" he shouted, waving the knife randomly with his right hand while holding his left arm up to shield his face. Then he noticed the light.
He lowered his arm and saw Ryan kneeling on the floor, his hand locked around her forearm and her hand on his. Gina was screaming, but her voice was unlike anything Nate had ever heard. Their eyes were wide open, lit from within like some ghoulish puppet as Ryan said, "What is that?" in a small voice, as though he were a child.
"Ryan? Oh, shit - Ryan! Goddammit, wake up!" Nate grabbed his hand and tried to pry it from Gina's grasp, but the instant he touched it a wave of nausea passed over him and he sank to his knees on the cold stone ground. What the fuck? he thought as he looked at the darkened alley that surrounded him, the wind blowing his hair every which way. Ryan was standing there... but he wasn't Ryan at all; this was a boy with the eyes of an old man. He was standing at the rickety wooden door that led into the building, a young, dark-haired boy holding his left hand tightly. Ryan was turning the handle and pulling the door open when the younger boy spoke: "Ryan, we're gonna get in trouble."
"Don't be such a fraidycat," Ryan said, and turned the handle.
"I'm not a fraidycat!" the boy said, the tremble in his voice quite clear. As Ryan pushed the door open a crack, Nate could see flickering light within. He saw shadows moving, heard voices, heard screaming but no words. There were footsteps as someone started walking toward the door and Nate saw Ryan go white as his legs tensed. There was a hard clap, flesh on flesh, and the scream was cut off in mid-breath.
"Quiet. You knew this was necessary," a man's voice said, a soft, smooth voice. "You two, help me with this. Karen, get the door." The footsteps grew louder and the shadows approached the door. Ryan backed away, grabbing Jimmy's jacket as he tried to find a place to hide. A light clicked on, a single bulb in a metal outdoor fixture, small but enough light to make that impossible. The door swung open and Nate found himself staring at a dead ringer for Gina, dressed in a jean jacket and denim knickers, golden blond hair cascading down past her waist. Tiny dots of fresh blood dotted her blue T-shirt. She looked right through Nate, saw Ryan and the other boy, and froze.
"What is it?" the man's voice said, coming up behind Gina. There is a flash of metal, a knife in his hand.
She looks Ryan in the eye; she knows what is coming for them both if she does nothing. Then she shouts: "Get out of here! Run!" at the top of her voice. The reaction of the man behind her is fast, faster than Nate would have thought possible. The knife moves across her throat; with a single stroke a spray of blood is set loose, spattering the concrete, the car, Ryan and the boy. Gina falls to her knees, hands clasped uselessly over her throat, and the man steps past her and outside as she collapses. Ryan and the boy are frozen in place as the man takes another leisurely step toward them and raises the blade again, slowly this time. "Go ahead and run," the man with the knife says, and blood drips from his teeth when he smiles. "I'll find you both soon enough.
"I've got all the time in the world."
The boy screamed and bolted; Ryan was barely able to keep up with him as they fled the alley, the buildings, the whole idea of running away from home fading, wanting nothing but to go home, hide from the bad man behind them, hug Mom and Dad, go to sleep - "Leave them be, Douglas. They won't tell anyone," says another voice from inside. A older man steps into the doorway, balding, wearing a white button-up shirt with some kind of bandanna tied around his neck. His voice has a touch of southern gentleman to it, a touch of class... and more than a touch of cold-blooded killer. "I'm sure of it." He smiles, his own teeth stained red with blood. "The ritual is complete. Are you prepared?"
"I am." Douglas lowers the knife and falls to his knees, his body trembling as the older man lifted his left hand and made the sign of the devil, blood dripping from his fingers as he made a mark on Douglas' forehead and chanted in some indescribable tongue. He looked up, and Nate found himself looking right into the old man's eyes.
"Go forth," the man said, and Nate felt the darkness crash down around him. He screamed, threw himself backward -
And knocked over the TV tray, sending the dishes and silverware crashing to the floor. He looked around, his heart trying to claw its way out of his chest, and saw that they were - back? again? still? - in the farmhouse. Gina was clawing at her throat, desperately trying to staunch the nonexistent blood spraying from an equally nonexistent wound; Ryan was curled in a corner, his eyes wide, utterly still. Nate's cries trailed off, his body covered in sweat as he realized that whatever the hell it was he had seen was not actually here in the room, had been somewhere else entirely. "Jesus... Jesus..." was all he could manage.
It was almost an hour later before anyone spoke.
"You... you knew Uncle Lewis. Lewis Vendredi." Ryan said, his hands still trembling as he sat on the far end of the couch from Gina. She kept rubbing her throat along the line of the killing wound, although there was no hint of a scar.
"Yes," she said softly, looking at the floor.
"You were there that night. You died that night. Fifty years ago, you were killed not ten feet from me." Ryan tried to look at her face, but she kept turning away. "You were part of his coven."
"You know about the curse; Jesus, you helped him with it, didn't you?"
"Yes, I was there... but I was weak. I was young and stupid and... and weak." She managed to look Ryan in the eye, tired but resolute. "I'm strong now. I have a mission, a purpose -"
"You were with him," Ryan hissed, and for an instant Nate thought he was going to attack Gina. "Do you know the damage he did, that all of you did? Have you any idea of the lives that Lewis' deal cost? And not just the dead; the living paid a high price. We paid the price for his sins... and some of us died for them."
"I died for them. I know the price."
"Then why are you here?" Ryan said, rising to his feet and pacing across the dusty living room, kicking aside a coffee cup, a butter knife, Nate, whatever he found in his way. "The curse is over, goddammit! We ended it over thirty years ago! It's over!"
"This has nothing to do with the curse; that was Vendredi's work alone. What I'm trying to stop is far worse."
Ryan froze as her words sank in. "Worse..." he whispered. "Nothing is worse than that, not in my lifetime or both of yours."
Gina looked away from him, tears in her eyes. "You'd be surprised. Vendredi's curse... that was just the beginning, a trickle of Satan's power into the world. Lewis Vendredi made a deal with the Devil... but he got shafted because he was a greedy, short-sighted little man." She looked at him again, and her gaze sent a chill through him. "His curse was nothing compared to what's coming."
And then it hit him. Ryan sank to the couch, his legs rubbery, unable to breathe as he broke into a cold sweat. "Oh my God..." he breathed. "What... what do you mean?" Nate asked from where he was curled up on the floor. "What's coming?"
Ryan's response was quite clear. "Hell on Earth."
"My name is Gina Herron and I was born in 2002. Actually, it's more accurate to say that's when I was reborn; in 1958, I was born as Karen Matthews." Gina was sitting with the afghan draped around her shoulders; Nate was still sprawled on the floor; Ryan sat in the easy chair as Gina told her tale in the dying evening light.
"As Karen, I wasn't anywhere near what you'd call a good kid. I stole, I fought, I stayed out too late, I got bad grades. Everyone just knew I was trouble... and I always lived up to their expectations. When I was fifteen I split, ran off with a couple friends who were hooked up with some older kids, maybe eighteen or nineteen. We all moved in together in a loft on the same street as Vendredi's shop.
"We hung out at the shop all the time, mostly in the basement, smoking reefer, making out, things like that. Lewis had the coolest stuff in there, and he seemed pretty cool for an old guy, I guess. He and Douglas - Doug was sort of our group leader - they spent a lot of time together, back in the Vault. Then, maybe six months after I moved in, they showed me what they were doing...
"I was barely sixteen, and suddenly I could change the world and make it what I wanted. That kind of power was incredible; the control I had over my fate was like a drug." She hung her head in shame. "Part of me wants that feeling back."
"But the stronger I got, the more I changed. I could feel my body changing, could feel... things... moving under my skin. I had thoughts that weren't mine, desires I knew I never wanted to feel. The night I died, I performed the sacrifice for the first time. By that point I'd helped kill six people, but when I had the knife in my hand, when I felt it slide into the woman's flesh... I knew that I couldn't go any further.
"They knew it, too. Douglas could always sense weakness in others, and I knew that he could see mine as plain as day. If I stayed, they - he - would kill me, so when I opened the door that night, I was going to run. Then I saw you and him, and I knew that they'd kill you too... so I made my choice."
"It still got you killed," Ryan said.
"I was already dead, Ryan. By that point, there was nothing left worth saving. It was just a matter of time."
Nate spoke up, some of his usual sarcasm creeping back into his voice. "What about now? Were you born knowing your destiny was to be a mean motherfuckin' servant of God, or was it just a lucky guess?"
"Actually, I got a phone call," Gina replied. "When I was growing up - again - I always felt different than other kids. It was like there was something I had to do... but I could never remember what it was. This time around I was a pretty good kid; decent grades, played trumpet in the band, stayed out of trouble. After I turned sixteen I started having this nightmare, the same awful nightmare every night. I was somewhere dark, and there was blood on my hands, and I had a knife, and everyone was dying. It took exactly seventeen days for me to fall apart completely; I stood up in the cafeteria one day and started screaming because my lunch was soaked with blood. When my friends tried to calm me down, I freaked out and ran off.
"I was four blocks away when I heard my Vox ringing. When I answered, all I heard was a voice saying, 'I know who holds the knife in your dreams.' And that's when I knew that I would never be the same again. He told me a time and a place; we met, and he told me who I had been. I didn't believe him, of course; I thought he was crazy.
"Then he touched my arm... and he showed me, just like I showed you."
She pulled the afghan tighter; the evening was pulling the remaining warmth from the house. "I couldn't go back to my family. They weren't responsible for my sins, and where I was going I'd only put them in danger. I vanished that day; I've never called, never written, never let them know that I'm okay. I can't, not until it's over and we've won. If we lose..."
"I went with Ivan that day, and he brought me to St. Louis. He showed me exactly what I'd helped to create; he taught me what I needed to find them, to kill them when I could and hide from them when I couldn't."
"So who the hell are they?" Nate asked. "Who are they..." Gina paused. "They could be anyone you pass on the street. They look just like you or me or him, but on the inside they're different. They don't think like we do, they don't have feelings like we do... on the inside, some of them don't even look like we do. They've given themselves over to their master, mind, body and soul, for one purpose: to create Hell on Earth, and take everyone with them. That's who they are." She slipped her feet into her sneakers. "Where's my Vox?"
"With the psycho, six hundred miles back. We had to leave in a hurry," Nate said defensively.
"No money, no Vox, no dataflat; all we've got is a stolen Cadillac sitting on a quarter-tank," Ryan chimed in. "She had help."
"I don't doubt it. She's very thorough, and has a long memory, too. All we've done is piss her off." Gina stood and walked into the kitchen, opening cabinets and tipping over jars, looking through everything. "We can't trust the net or the phones; we have to get back to Ivan."
"Ivan?" asked Ryan, picking up on the idea of what Gina was searching for and opening the flour tin.
"You could call him my boss; he's the one who found me, who told me who I really was."
"What the hell are we looking for?" Nate asked, staring at a dusty stack of plates.
"Got it," Ryan said, pulling a plastic bag from the bottom of the flour tin. He opened it and pulled out a wad of carefully folded bills, twenties, tens and fives. "My mother used to keep her rainy day money here. I wasn't supposed to know, but..." He stuffed the bills in a pocket and kept looking. They managed to find a jar filled with change (mostly pennies) and a few rings, but nothing worth much.
Nate was looking under the bed when he saw something wrapped in an oil-soaked rag sitting in a cardboard box. He pulled it out, saw what it was, and took it out to Gina. "We might need this."
Gina took it and unwrapped the cloth, revealing an ancient government-issue .45 pistol and two empty magazines. "Any ammo?"
She ejected the clip and pulled the slide back. "Seems in good enough shape." She reached behind her back and stuffed it in her waistband, then pulled her shirt down over it. She spoke quickly as she walked toward the back door. "We need another car. The Cadillac will be in the system by now; we can have something new in an hour. From here, St. Louis is around fifteen hours away. We can make it."
"But what if we don't? What if these guys catch up to us before that?" Nate asked, slamming the screen door as he exited the house behind Ryan and Gina.
"If we're lucky, I kill us all. If we're not... there are things far worse than death, and she can do most of them."
"She?" asked Ryan.
"You met her back at the hotel. Her name is Simone."
Nate went chalk white. "You mean the psycho? I killed her, man, no way is she coming after us."
"She's not dead. I've shot her, stabbed her, electrocuted her; once I ran her over with a garbage truck at fifty miles an hour. However you think you killed her, it didn't work. She's Orton's left hand, and he won't let her die because she's too goddamned good at what she does. She doesn't exist in any database; no dental records, no fingerprints, no DNA map, nothing. If something needs done, she does it, without question, without mercy. And she so loves her work." Gina opened the door and slid behind the wheel. "Come on. Ivan has the answers you want. We need to go."
Ryan looked at the farmhouse again, at the dead trees, at the fields of weeds and abandoned dreams. "Why?" he asked nobody in particular. "Why me? Why again?" His voice trembled with anger and fear as the first tears fell.
"I don't know, Ryan, but that's how it is," she said, leaning over to open the passenger door. "All I can do is help you find the answer... and that means getting to Ivan."
East St. Louis, Illinois
"Man, this place is a dump."
They were slowly driving past an abandoned factory, the guardhouse empty and crumbling, the parking lot spiderwebbed with cracks but devoid of the weeds one might expect. Gina drove the Chevy sedan to the far end of the block and turned, driving toward the rear of the massive structure. "It's good cover. Nobody wants to poke around out here; too many toxic by-products left lying around." When Nate and Ryan looked at her in alarm, she chuckled. "Don't worry, there's not enough contamination to kill you. Not for a while."
"That's reassuring," Nate muttered, looking out the window at the featureless gray clouds that hung over St. Louis. The metropolis had suffered tremendously from the effects of Blue; contaminated plants and soil had choked the Mississippi, releasing enough toxins to kill everything along the river, plant and animal alike. The mighty river had eventually been cleaned up, but the process took almost a decade; in the meantime the city's population had dwindled to barely a third of its pre-Blue level. The city had never recovered and now sat half-dark, a dying remnant of its former self.
Gina pulled up to the loading docks and killed the engine. "We're here." As they got out of the car Gina checked the pistol again (loaded now; she had managed to pick up a box of ammunition in Kansas City) and walked up to one of the overhead-track doors. "Follow me," she said as she turned the handle and rolled the door smoothly upward.
The shipping area was silent and dim, illuminated only by the light from the open door and a few dirty or broken windows. Gina led them across the dirty concrete floor, past rows and rows of empty storage racks three stories high and stack of rotting wood pallets. They passed machine after machine, silent and unmoving, covered in a thick layer of dust, until they finally reached a large, heavy sliding steel door with a keypad and audio pickup mounted to one side. She punched in a long number and said, "Access Gina."
The sound of metal on metal echoed through the factory as the door slid aside, revealing a chamber lit a little better than than the rest of the factory - mostly because of the ring of dual halogen work lights at the far end of the room. A silhouette walked quickly toward them, its features impossible to make out. Gina opened her mouth to speak, but the figure brushed past her and stopped right in front of Ryan. He was a young man, maybe in his mid-thirties, curly brown hair, dark eyes... and when the face became clear, Ryan's breath caught in his chest as a memory rushed back: Curious Goods, maybe a year after they began recovering the antiques. He was looking through a battered shoebox of old photographs he'd found in the basement. There was a black-and-white photo, maybe taken in the fifties; a man dressed in a tuxedo, holding a top hat in his white-gloved hand. He turned the photo over and chucked at what was scrawled on the back: The Mad Marshak...
"Jack?" he whispered, and the man spoke in a familiar voice.
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This page was created on August 17, 2003.
Last modified on February 10, 2005.