The girl laid her hand on the table, palm up. Madame Vorchka grasped the delicate fingers. Dark, vile images assaulted her. Cold evil wound itself around her spine. Blood, insatiable longing, dark laughter. She dropped the hand, pictured it dripping with gore for a moment.
She wheezed. Her skin crawled with a thousand invisible insects. "I'm sorry, but I can't get a reading. I'm feeling ill."
As she edged toward her quarters in the back of the tent, Madame Vorchka locked eyes with the girl. The terror built, robbing her of breath. She ducked behind the curtain and hoped the girl never came back.
Jonathon Brier sat in Jeff’s Restaurant, enjoying his bacon and eggs. It was a daily ritual for him in this peaceful town of Wood Park, a chance for him to take a break from the headaches of filling out reports and forms. Not that anything more stressful ever erupted in this sleepy area but, as Chief of Police, he knew it could at a moment's notice.
“You want more coffee?” Marlene poured it without waiting for a reply. The answer was always yes.
“You’re too good to me.”
“Well, just don’t tell your wife I’m enabling your bacon addiction.”
Jonathon winked at her. “Never.”
He took one last gulp of liquid caffeine and got up. “I’ve got to run over to the florist. Today’s Nora’s birthday. I’m going to sneak a dozen red roses into the house while she’s out shopping. That’s her addiction.”
“Which, the roses or the shopping?”
Jonathon laughed. “Both, I’d say.”
“Wish her a happy one for me.”
Nora’s car was in the driveway when Jonathon pulled up. Even better. He could present the flowers to her in person. Their own hedge of rosebushes, her pride and joy, had already seen their last blooms for the year.
She wasn’t downstairs when Jonathon let himself into the kitchen through the back door. He found a vase for the buds and set them on the table next to the piano in the family room, then went upstairs.
He found her on the balcony off the master bedroom, gazing into the stand of trees in their backyard. Jonathon snuck up behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist, giving Nora a kiss on the neck.
“If you’re trying to surprise me, you’ll have to do a better job of being quiet or fix the third stair step that creaks.” She smiled and leaned back into his arms.
“Happy birthday. You’re back early from shopping.”
“I couldn’t carry any more bags.”
She pointed to her purchases lying on the bed. Two small bags rested there. Jonathon chuckled. Always practical, Nora didn’t like spending money on herself.
“What are you doing out here?” he asked.
“I was watching our industrious squirrel population preparing for winter.”
Jonathon could see the small creatures running back and forth amidst the backdrop of trees brilliant in their fall colors.
“It won’t be long now,” she said. “Have you checked the deer feeder lately? I think it might need shoring up. Remember that buck last spring? The one who kept ramming it?”
“I remember. I haven’t had a chance to look at it yet. I’ve been buried in paperwork lately. It seems like my job gets more complicated with each passing week. Maybe I should retire, leave it to the younger generation.”
“Nonsense.” Nora spun around in his arms to face him.
“You love your job. Besides, if you were home every day, you’d be nagging me to fix you unhealthy breakfasts instead of sneaking off to eat them at Jeff’s.” She pointed to a small grease stain on his sleeve. He changed the subject quickly.
“Come downstairs. I have something for you.”
Nora gave him an easy smile. "I have a better idea. Why don't we stay up here for a while?"
"Anything for the birthday girl," Jonathon whispered. The flowers could wait. So could the office.
***Mr. Atkins, the teacher coordinating the yearbook, stopped Abbie in the hallway between classes.
“Do you think you could get me some shots of Rob by next week? I’m trying to get the football team layout done by then.”
“No problem," Abbie replied. "I’ll get them done this afternoon if Rob’s free after practice.”
“It’s a pleasure working with you, Abbie. If you only knew…” He stopped, looking embarrassed. “Well, it’s like pulling teeth.”
Abbie laughed, her bubbly personality bringing a smile to his face. “Don’t worry. It will be great. I’d better get to class though.”
She hurried through the corridor as the warning bell rang, feeling sorry for Mr. Atkins. Most of the students lacked any motivation. She wondered if the yearbook would come out on time.
After the final class for the day, Abbie photographed the team while they practiced then Rob and she headed up to the field at the top of the mountain. The plateau was on the edge of the reservation, but the tribe avoided the area. Their legends spoke of a great evil that killed any livestock left there to graze. That left it as a pristine site with a wonderful view of the valley spread out below—a perfect backdrop for photos.
“This is the last time I’ll ever agree to do a photo shoot with you.” Abbie erased the last photo. It was a perfect shot, but Rob had moved at the last moment. Again. “You’ve got to hold still or we’ll be shooting in the dark.”
“I’m trying, but these rocks are uncomfortable.” Rob shifted once more, attempting to find a better position. The booming bass notes of thunder off in the distance diverted his attention.
Clouds were building over the valley. Abby thought they might have to pack up soon to beat the rain. Fall thunderstorms here in the mountains were infrequent, but powerful, often exhibiting brilliant lightning displays. When they hit, driving down the winding curves of this mountain was dangerous.
She focused on Rob in the viewfinder once more, centering on his red jersey. The bright color of his shirt popped against the background.
Another flash stuttered against the hills and Abbie looked up. Ominous clouds painted the sky in dangerous slashes, rippling displays of energy pulsating through them. Lightning spooked her, always had. She didn’t want to be up on this plateau in a storm. There wasn’t any shelter here and too many tall trees.
The next crack of thunder set Abbie’s teeth on edge. Too close. She glanced over at Rob and thought he looked nervous too.
"Maybe we ought to go," Rob said. "I'm not ready to trust your driving skills in a downpour."
Abbie knew he was trying to make a joke but his smile seemed at odds with the rigid tension in his body as he stared at the sky. She started packing her camera equipment in a rush. Rob hopped off the boulder and ran over to help her.
The air sizzled with electricity moments before a blinding flash hit a tree on the far end. The crescendo of noise reverberated not a second later. Abbie shrieked in spite of herself.
“Come on. The boulders will protect us.” Rob yelled to be heard, the sky now throwing bolts with abandon.
They were much too far away from the car to risk making a run for it. After a moment’s hesitation, Abbie grabbed her bags and followed him. At least they’d be away from the trees.
Abbie leaned into Rob’s embrace amongst the dubious shelter of the rocks and tried not to think too much about dying here.
“Have you always been afraid of lightning?” Rob’s effort at a gentle tone was somewhat lost by having to shout above the noise.
She nodded. “That’s how my dad died. He was up on a pole repairing an electrical line when lightning struck it. I guess I’ve always felt like it was aiming at me after that.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll be fine right here. It should move off as soon as the rain cools the air down.”
Abbie didn’t think that Rob sounded very confident, but she would take all of the encouragement she could get.
She noticed carvings on the rock in front of her. It reminded her of primitive symbols found in caves. “What do you think this writing means?”
Rob studied the rock face for a moment before shrugging his shoulders.
“It might have something to do with the tribe avoiding this area. Maybe it’s a warning or something. There’s more over here.”
He moved over a few feet to examine the new find, but Abbie stayed where she was, trying to make herself as small a target as possible.
A sudden light split one of the large boulders, knocking Abbie and Rob backwards while showering them with dust and debris. The two bodies lay motionless under the angry sky while lightning continued to ravage the plateau.
***A torrential downpour hit the valley below, taking commuters by surprise. Minor traffic accidents began to accumulate, fender-benders for the most part. While the small police force kept busy clearing those off the street, two cars collided at the corner of Fifth and Main, sending a blue Cadillac into the plate glass window of Fremont’s Grocery store.
Stunned shoppers froze at the sound of shattering glass. The roar of the engine rushed toward them, locking limbs into place with no hope of avoiding the bloodbath. Others ran, adding their screams to the general bedlam and colliding with each other in an effort to escape.
Police units dropped what they were doing and rushed to the scene, finding mayhem as they arrived. The crowded store had victims strewn about, as the heavy car had managed to keep traveling until an end cap finally stopped it. The driver was dead. Some of the casualties had severe trauma, others mostly confined to cuts and bruises.
The store itself was a mess. In addition to broken glass, shopping carts had been scattered and overturned. The broken packages of chips and salsa, catsup and bottles of wine, mixed together in streams to create a food fight scene worthy of a horror movie.
Rescue workers slogged through the food, often slipping on their way to help others, adding themselves to the growing list of victims in the carnage. Ambulances dumped passengers into the hospital’s hallway as fast as they could, running back for another load. Able-bodied wounded who wished to be treated resorted to walking the two blocks under their own power.
***Carla tried Abbie’s cell phone again. No answer. That wasn’t like her daughter at all. She looked out the window. The bright stabs of light through sheeting rain made her turn her head away. Something was wrong; Carla could feel it. She called the police.
“Dad, I can’t get though to Abbie on her phone. She went on a photo shoot with Rob and was supposed to be home an hour ago.”
“Carla, I’m sure she’s fine. She’s probably holed up somewhere until the rain slacks off. Maybe she can’t get a signal to call, with all this lightning. I have to go, honey. We have some bad accidents happening right now. If I hear anything, I’ll give you a call right away.”
Seventeen-year-olds being late for dinner weren’t a high priority at the moment but Jonathon felt guilty about the brush-off he’d given Carla. Abbie wasn’t the type to change her plans without calling. Sighing, Chief Brier radioed the units to be on the lookout for Abbie's vehicle. He was glad he'd gone home earlier. It was going to be a long night.
***As quickly as it came, the rain dropped off, leaving the streets looking like small rivers. One of the patrol units started cruising the teen hangouts, asking about Abbie and Rob. Someone mentioned the photo shoot at the top of the hill to the young patrol officer. He quickly headed up the mountain.
Abbie's car came into view as Jerry reached the top. Stopping to pull a large flashlight from the trunk, he shouted the teens’ names but got no answer. Smoking trees and shattered rocks leapt in a crazy kaleidoscope through the light’s beam. It looks like the aftermath of a war zone up here, Jerry thought, running his hand through his cropped blonde hair. Something didn’t feel right. He called for backup before moving in.
Picking his way through the jumble of debris, Jerry scouted the area for some time before finding the kids lying under a mass of shattered rock. The beam sparkled against a quartz-like stream of pebbles as he reached for Abbie.
Her pulse was strong, reassuring considering the fact that she was still unconscious. Jerry didn’t dare move her, not knowing the extent of her injuries. He checked on Rob next. The still, cold body confirmed what he already feared. Rob was dead.