Amazing Wonder Stories
First three chapters of Search For The Hercules
Published by Marlin Williams All Rights Reserved
Text Copyright © 2016 Marlin Williams
About the author
Marlin Williams creates unique characters that are eccentrically engaging. Influenced at a young age by old science fiction and horror flicks, his imagination is a bottomless well of creepy crawlies trying to get out, bizarre situations, and downright weird tales. In the real world, he lives a relatively normal life in Texas with his wife, two cats, and a dog. Marlin is currently getting ready to release his short story collection, Boucherie and Other Weird Tales and Novella New Flesh on Old Bones.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the written permission of the author.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination. Any resemblance to actual person, living or dead, business establishments, event, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Chapter 1 Riders on the Storm
As the storm raged around her, Stephanie Richardson plowed through the pools of water on the feeder off I-10 as she sped toward Houston. She was on the run. Again. Until tonight, Ida March had been no more than a raspy smoker's voice at the other end of the phone demanding that Stephanie deliver what was promised. She glanced down at the loaded revolver in the seat next to her and wondered if she would be forced to use it.
A long blast of a horn drew her eyes back to the windshield to a bright pair of headlights from a car coming the wrong way. She jerked the steering wheel hard to the right and whipped her black Mercedes onto the shoulder of the road before they could collide.
Her car fishtailed off the pavement and into the grass where it bucked across the uneven terrain like an untamed bronco as it traveled down the graded slope. Everything lying on the dashboard began a madcap journey of tumbles and bounces as she stared wild-eyed at the approaching barbed-wire fence. She slammed on the brakes sliding to a stop inches from the steel strands. The airborne objects settled and became lifeless again. Unable to breathe, she sat rigid as a corpse behind her seat belt as a soft tune from the radio ended and the meteorologist began babbling something about the freakish lightning storm, a cold front sweeping in from the west, and more rain to come.
She caught her breath, reached down, and turned off the radio, leaving only the sound of the reciprocating wiper blades raking the water from the windshield. She pulled the shifter into reverse and pressed the sole of her expensive Hockley's down on the accelerator. The spinning tires churned up mud along with stalks of long grass and slung the goop inside the fender-well until it was caked on thick. She felt the car sinking and remembered that when rain mixed with Southeast Texas' thick gumbo mud, it produced quicksand. She let off the gas, opened the door and peered back over her shoulder at the rear bumper that had settled a few inches from the ground. "Damn it." The pouring rain forced her to close the door. In the rearview mirror, she caught a glimpse of her face lit by the eerie green glow from the dash-lights. Damp cords of dark hair hung in front of her blue eyes. She scowled at her reflection, tucked her wet hair behind her ears and scanned the area for the displaced things.
She bent down to pick up an object from the passenger-side floorboard. It was covered with a handkerchief which was gathered by the corners and tied in a knot. She used a long fingernail to pry up one of the folds and examine the contents. She felt relieved that is wasn't damaged; after all, it was buying her freedom. She returned it to the dash and resumed her search. She found her Smart-Phone only to discover that she had no service. Another flash of lightning ripped through the darkness and thunder exploded in the heavens. She guessed the storm must have taken out one of the towers. Stephanie huffed, tossed it to the seat next to her and settled back into the leather. Time was running out and she was stranded. "Now what am I going to do?"
She heard the rumble of an approaching vehicle and unlike the ones screaming along the highway the engine was close to an idle. She looked to the rearview mirror. A pair of headlights crested the peak of the embankment. She squinted against the searing high-beams coming through the back window and watched as a silhouetted figure approached her car. She reached down, locked her door, pulled the revolver closer to her, and laid her purse over it.
A set of knuckles gently rapped against the glass.
She slipped her hand beneath the purse and curled her finger around the trigger before rolling the window down a few inches. Rogue drops of water found their way through the opening and spackled her face with cold rain.
A man stooped and peered through the crack. He tugged the bill of his soiled John-Deere cap down to shield the square features of his face from the downpour. "Are you okay?" His words were torn from his lips and carried away on the stiff wind.
"Yeah." She gave him a threadbare smile that allowed her uncertainty to peek through. "But I can't call a wrecker; my phone is on the fritz."
"Mine too." He glanced down at the rear wheel buried up to its Mercedes emblem. "I have a chain and a four-wheel drive. I think I can pull you out of here."
She nodded. "I can pay you."
"That's not necessary." He rose. The light from the truck's headlamps washed away the color of his skin and he appeared to be a tall, porcelain figurine draped in denim and topped with an iconic cap that symbolized a working man. He surveyed the overflowing ditch. Water was quickly rising to the front bumper. "We'd better hurry." He grabbed the collar on his Yahet and gathered the rain-soaked material around his neck. "Sit tight while I hook the chain to your car." He turned around and sloshed back up the slope.
With eyes turned to the side view mirror she watched him struggle back up the slippery incline losing his footing a few times. When he was far enough away, she eased her finger off the trigger and pulled her hand from beneath the purse. She settled back into the seat wondering if the man was an angel sent to watch over her. She wasn't particularly religious, but when she forced herself out of bed on any given Sunday to occupy a back row seat she learned that God loved everyone, no matter what. She thought it plausible that He had sent someone to watch over her.
The guy pulled a heavy chain from the bed of his truck, let one end fall to the pavement with a metallic clank, and walked the other end of the chain down to the Mercedes. He disappeared below the horizon of the vehicle's trunk as he sank to his knees and she felt a tremble as he hooked the chain to the frame of her car.
He returned to her window with water streaming down his face and said, "Put it in reverse. You can gas it a little, but let me do the pulling, or you're going to sink it deeper. Got it?"
"Okay." Again challenged by the slippery slope, the man returned to his truck much in the same manner as he had before. After climbing into the cab, he turned the truck around so his rear bumper faced hers.
The driver's door popped open. Looking back over his shoulder, he eyed the back tires as the four-wheel drive backed to the edge of the pavement. The reverse lights winked out. He got out and hooked the chain to the rear of the truck's frame, then let out a sharp whistle that pierced the night and gave a thumbs up before returning to the cab. A few seconds later the Mercedes jerked as the truck eased forward and the chain grew taut. A plume of black smoke regurgitated from the truck's tailpipe as the engine labored against the mud straining to hold on to its prize.
Finally, the car began to rise from muck and mire, and within moments, the Mercedes' tires rested on the shoulder of the road.
After he unhitched the chain from the vehicles, tossed it in the bed of his truck, he did a quick inspection before returning to the driver's side of her car.
She rolled the window halfway down.
"I don't see any damage and the rain should take care of the mud."
She grabbed her purse and began foraging through her wallet. "You should let me pay you something." She held up a one-hundred dollar bill.
He waved it off. "No thanks. I'm not out to make money off someone else's troubles."
She stuffed the money back into her purse and offered a faint smile. "Thank you."
He nodded and returned to his truck. A moment later he drove away.
In the rearview mirror, she watched his tail lights become two pinpricks of red in the distance. Her car pointed back the way she had come. Instead of letting out a sigh of relief, she thought perhaps it was an omen. She shook the feeling, made a U-turn, and continued on her journey.
Chapter 2 Beware of Ida March
The storm intensified and made it impossible for the wipers to keep up with the rain pelting the windshield. She glanced to her right at the overflowing ditch. Unwilling to risk another accident, she dropped her speed.
Four miles further on, she passed the Houston city limits sign and spotted the roadside cafe. She glanced at the time. Ida March wasn't due for another half hour. Stephanie believed in being prepared for any situation and was glad that she had made an early start. She turned off and rolled into a parking lot populated by knee-high clumps of weeds that had breached cracks in the concrete, drove past a pair of old-fashioned gas pumps along the right that might have been painted a vibrant red at one time, but the paint proved to be no match for the barrage of elements steadily at work over the years and now were a washed-out pink. She wondered if they still worked. She noticed the front of the diner sagged at the corners and made the bank of windows on each side of the entrance slope drastically downward, giving it the appearance of a grumpy old man that had been disturbed from his long winter nap. At the far edge of the parking lot a branchless, dead tree that poked up from the ground like a gnarly finger-bone pointing accusingly towards heaven. At its base, a large hand-painted sign promised hot coffee and home-cooked meals. She found some comfort in that.
Tethered to the hope that the establishment had remained open despite the storm, she pulled to a stop in a parking slot left of the entrance and shut off the engine. There would have only been the sound of the rain if not for the fizzle of electricity coming from the Charlie's Diner sign that was fixed to a tall, steel pole and dangling high above her head. A vine of Kudzu waged a slow and silent war against civilization by creeping up the pole and strangling the establishment's neon signature now shedding suppressed light on the anachronistic scene. She translated it into an analogy that summed up her own situation: She felt suffocated under her husband's stiff jurisdiction and the punishment of a swift backhand when she violated the social expectations of the clandestine society of ill-gotten money. The murderous greenery would soon be perishing in the freezing tempest conjured up by the forces of nature.
She could not wait for the intervening hand of God to solve her problems, so, she had fashioned her own method of liberation. She lightly ran the tips of her fingers across the object bound in white cotton. She was startled from her mental flirtations with escape as a police cruiser pulled into the parking lot with its lights flashing. Flickers of red and blue filled the compartment of the car. She stopped breathing and her heart pounded. The cruiser made a U-turn, blasting the siren as it sped away. She filled her lungs and let out a nervous little laugh in response to the assumption that she was already caught at doing something wrong. The wailing faded out and she stuffed the revolver along with the handkerchief-wrapped package into her handbag.
When Stephanie stepped out into the rain a mischievous gust of wind sprang up and rustled the hem of her skirt, leaving her decency to the mercy of the blustery weather. She reached down and smoothed the material against her thighs before she raced to the front entrance, grabbed the handle on the screen door, and opened it. The rusty spring attached to the jamb stretched out long and warbled a psychedelic, symphonic welcome. She was confronted by another door with a hand-written warning posted at eye level, but suddenly, an abrupt gust of wind tore the No Shoes—No Shirt—No Service sign from its mooring of freezer tape and sent it sailing off into the heavens. She fumbled the knob in one hand while shoving against the door with the other. The shifting frame of the old building had made it sticky, but on the third attempt she put her shoulder in to it and managed to open it. Stephanie stepped inside and slammed the door closed behind her. A rush of warm, climate-controlled air brushed against her face, bringing with it the scent of stale cigarette smoke and the strong odor of calorific, fatty, fried foods.
A young woman standing behind the counter greeted her with a mechanical smile and then returned to looking bored while sipping on a glass of soda and puffing on a cigarette.
Stephanie looked at the empty dining tables scattered throughout the middle of the room and decided to bypass them for the row of booths on her left that ran adjacent to the wall complete with a string of windows. She chose the booth at the back to give herself a view of the front door and the entire parking lot. Floorboards creaked under her feet as she made her way over to it. She arrived, removed her coat, and draped it across the back of the bench before sitting down next to the rain splattered panes and tried to look out, but the water cascading down the glass reduced the outside world into a blur.
The girl crushed her half-smoked Marlboro on the NO SMOKING sign hanging above her head before stepping out from behind the counter. She grabbed the mop leaning against the glass door of a freezer filled with ice cream cakes and novelty pops. Begrudgingly, she slopped up the trail of water and mopped her way to the hem of Stephanie's coat that was still dripping water onto the wood floor.
Stephanie offered an apologetic smile. "Sorry."
The girl showed no reaction to the peace offering. Instead, she asked in annoyance, "Are you going to order anything?"
Stephanie felt hungry. It had been almost twenty-four hours since her last meal. She picked up the clear laminated sheet from the table and quickly perused the menu. "I'll have a grilled ham and cheese."
The girl rolled her eyes. "The evening cook called in sick, but Charlie says no matter what I've got to keep this pigsty open." She delivered her question with a stern gaze and rigidity in her voice. "How about something else?"
Stephanie's response came out as a question. "A cup of coffee?"
The girl turned and walked away, dragging the mop behind her.
Stephanie rolled her shoulders in an effort to ease the tension that had worked its way up her spine and settled there. She retrieved the handkerchief from her purse, gently placed it onto the table, and delicately began picking at the knot with the tips of her manicured nails. The spring on the screen door repeated its madcap concerto. She ceased plucking and looked up. The front door pushed open.
The newcomer rushed in and opposed the gusting wind by putting his shoulder into the door and giving it a hard shove. The strong corporeal force that was wreaking havoc on anything that was light enough to become airborne suddenly lost its power and the objects fluttered down.
The waitress scowled at the paper-littered floor, ignited the wick of her lighter with the spin of the wheel, and lit another cigarette..
With the mud from the slippery slope still clinging to his boots, the guy strode past her, past the vacant tables, and headed straight over to Stephanie. His friendly, brown eyes locked on her and a smile planted on his face.
From the cloud of smoke hanging around her, the waitress glared at the man leaving a muddy trail of footprints across the wood floor.
His approach made Stephanie cringe and groan internally. She had thought that their business was done. She had to think of something fast to get rid of him.
Upon his arrival at her table, the man stopped and stuck out his hand. "I never got the chance to introduce myself. The names John Grinder."
Begrudgingly, she shook it. His skin was cold to the touch. As she withdrew her hand she thought it better if she only offer him her first name. "Stephanie."
"Mind if I sit?"
Her mind was still in a quick search mode for an excuse, any excuse but was pulling blanks.
From beneath the bill of the John-Deere cap, he was staring down waiting for an answer.
"Sure." She offered a faux smile and motioned to the seat across from her. After he sat, her mind did a replay of their departure and she became suspicious. "Weren't you in front of me?"
"Yeah. I got down the road and realized I needed gas. I remembered passing this one. I didn't want to chance that there wouldn't be another one down the road." Gusting wind slammed the rain against the panes. "The storm is really picking up. What are you doing out in such nasty weather?"
"Taking care of an errand," she replied.
His eyes shifted to the tabletop and they stalled on the handkerchief. "It must be pretty important to brave this storm."
She grabbed the cloth-covered lump, scooped it off the table, and shoved it into her handbag on top of the one-way airline ticket. She let her gaze stray through the window. A bolt of lightning flickered in the sky and lit the tumultuous black clouds. A peal of thunder shook the glass in the windows, and for a moment she thought they might shatter.
He waited for the rumbling to fade out. "Sorry," he said. "It's none of my business."
The waitress returned, set a cup of coffee down in front of Stephanie, and looked down at her with hollow eyes. "Anything else?"
"Another cup of coffee," John replied. "With cream and sugar,"
The young girl pouted her lips, did a one-eighty before making the short journey back to the counter like a spoiled brat that had been told to go and clean her room.
John looked back over his shoulder and watched her dig beneath the counter for another coffee cup. He turned back around. "She's not a happy camper."
The episode cajoled Stephanie's memory of working small jobs for little pay that barely covered rent. It was barely a step up from living on the streets. "I can remember being where she's at and desperately wanting out."
His eyes went to her wrist and fixed on the expensive watch. "It looks like you've succeeded."
She subconsciously raised her hand to her cheek and ran it across the length of a bruise that was barely hidden by a bad cover-up job and returned an empty smile. "My husband does well."
He looked at the vacancy on her ring finger.
She noticed him looking and withdrew her hand from her face placing it in her lap.
"What does your husband do?" he asked.
"Why do you want to know?"
She became guarded. Giving out too much information could mean trouble. "Haven't you heard?"
He cocked his head in a way that made him look like a curious puppy.
"Curiosity killed the cat."
"True." He returned a warm smile. "But satisfaction brought him back."
She sighed and summed it up quickly with, "He and his partners buy and sell rare artifacts." Asking a question of her own might take the ball out of her court and put it in his. She hoped. "So, what do you do?"
He broke eye contact and began nervously fidgeting with his silverware. "I'm in the same business."
She didn't pick up on his edgy mannerism; her mind was elsewhere. She rolled her wrist until she could see the hands on the Rolex. Almost eight. She was beginning to feel antsy herself; Ida would be here any minute.
The waitress returned to their table, stood next to John, balancing a cup of scalding coffee above his head. It rattled on the saucer while she fished packets of sugar and cream out of her apron's pocket with her free hand.
He reached up for the cup. "Maybe I should take that." He gently took it from her and eased it down in front of him with a look of relief on his face.
She placed the cream and sugar in front of John. "Anything else?"
He rummaged a crumpled twenty dollar bill from his pocket and handed it to her. "For the gas."
The girl returned to her station behind the counter and lit another cigarette.
John watched her blow a gray cloud of smoke into the air with no respect to the sign. "That girl needs a serious attitude adjustment." He turned back around, wrapped both hands around the cup. "That feels good." He lifted the cup to his lips and took a sip. More lightning filled the panes with a flickering light. He set the cup down when the rumbling to stop.
There was another flash of lightning followed by a loud pop. Stephanie looked out the window in time to see a shower of sparks raining down from the transformer. The lights inside the restaurant winked out.
A female voice called out of the darkness. "Thank God." A spark ignited the wick of a lighter and embezzled the darkness. The waitress held it above her head and stood in the dim glow of the flame. She looked at Stephanie and John. "Party's over, folks. I'm closing this dump and getting out of here."
"You can't," Stephanie protested.
The girl held the lighter out and chased the shadows further back into the corners. "Look, lady, there's no power." The words from her breath disturbed the flame and sent it into a fit of jitters that shifted the shadows across her angular features. "Go home," she said.
Stephanie slipped her hand into her purse, pulled out the revolver and pointed it at the girl.
The blood drained from the waitress' face and her eyes rounded out with terror. She quickly flipped the lid closed on the lighter and extinguished the flame. Everything went black. "Please don't shoot," she pleaded as she backpedaled deeper into the darkness and ducked behind the safety of the register.
A flicker of lightning illuminated John groping blindly across the table for the gun and Stephanie quickly jerked it back away from his hand.
He spoke from the gloom. "Are you crazy? Put that thing away."
"No," she responded. "Ten minutes, that's all I need." She turned and addressed the darkness. "Hey, Miss Cheerful, have you got a flashlight or something?"
The waitress responded with a flick of the lighter as she lit a candle and plunked it on the counter top, filling the room with a dim glow that left heavy shadows hanging out beneath the tables. She ducked back down behind the counter.
Stephanie waved the pistol at the bar. "Come out from behind there."
An anxious moment passed without a reply. A second later, a deafening bang and muzzle flash briefly eclipsed the cadence of the storm and the discharge from the pistol left a hole in the side of the counter the size of a nickel. A tendril of smoke hung in the air that drifted off like a ghostly apparition.
The girl slowly raised her head. Her eyes were large discs of terror. She stood fully erect and raised her hands above her head.
Stephanie waved the pistol again. "Come over here and sit down."
The girl took abbreviated steps towards them.
"Hurry up," Stephanie commanded.
The frightened girl picked up the pace and scuttled across the floor. She stopped at the booth and sat down next to John. All of the blood had drained from her face and she sat frozen like a statue at his side.
Stephanie's gun hand trembled.
He said, "I don't think that you really want to hurt anyone."
She responded with a shake of her head. "Of course not."
"Why don't you tell me what this is all about and maybe I can help you."
She shook her head again. "You can't help me. In a few minutes, someone is going to come through that door. I'll give them what they want and then we can all leave. No harm, no foul."
"Obviously you don't trust whoever you're supposed to be meeting," he pointed to the gun, "or you wouldn't have brought that along."
The spring on the screen door suddenly squawked out one long, sour note that permeated the wooden door.
Stephanie swallowed hard and quickly tucked the gun beneath the table. She looked at both of them with pleading eyes. "Please, don't say a word."
Heavy thuds vibrated the cantankerous door, one after another. Stephanie envisioned the enemy at the gates with a battering ram. One last massive thump and it opened with a blast of cold, lilac-scented air. The paper napkins skittered along the wooden planks. At the entrance, a large, silhouetted figure filled the frame, leaving little room for the rain to enter between the gaps. The person stepped inside carrying a suitcase and gave the door a solid bump with their butt. It slammed closed with a loud bang and the gust ceased. The dark figure set the luggage down, struck a match, exposing her thick features, raised the sputtering flame to a cigarette dangling from her lips, lit it, and exhaled. She raised the match above her head giving a glow to the ethereal mane of thick, gray smoke surrounding her heavily made up face. She shook the match out, dropped it to the floor, and lit another one, holding it above her head. She picked up the suitcase, propelled herself forward on elephant-sized legs, and squinted through a pair of horned-rimmed glasses. "Stephanie?" The cigarette bobbed up and down with the movement of her lips.
Stephanie sheepishly raised her hand until it was at half-mast and then she quickly let it drop back down into her lap.
Ida stepped into the candlelight, shook the match out, and dropped it to the floor. Her eyes drifted back and forth from the waitress to John and then settled back on Stephanie. "You were supposed to meet me here alone."
"I didn't plan for it to happen this way." Stephanie reached down into her purse and frantically dug through its contents. She presented the package in the palm of her hand with a nervous smile. "We still have a deal, right?" The swaddling had become slightly undone during the shuffle and exposed a hint of the secret it held.
"Sure." Ida nodded. "But now the price is twenty-five-thousand."
"No. Two-hundred and fifty thousand, like we agreed."
"Twenty-five," Ida took a step backwards. "It's that, or nothing."
"I'm not going to let you cheat me. I need all of it." Stephanie drew the pistol and aimed it at Ida with a shaky hand.
John seized the opportunity to reach out and grab the gun. He snatched the handkerchief clad item, scooted across the bench seat, and bumped against the waitress. "Move."
She didn't budge, but sat there petrified.
John barked out his command again and this time the young waitress who had been silent up to this point suddenly found her tongue and exclaimed, "Don't rush me." She clambered from her seat, turned, and her eyes rested on the behemoth with curiosity.
Grinder shifted his legs from beneath the table, stood, and faced Ida with one sweeping motion. He took aim. "Give the lady her money."
A bolt of lightning flickered, briefly transforming the overdone makeup on her basketball-sized head into the face of, Ida, the mad-crack-clown. She grinned back through a cracked coat of red lipstick and plucked the cigarette from her mouth with sausage-sized fingers and dropped it to the floor where she squashed it with the square toe of her shoe. She stared at him defiantly. "The deal's off."
"She's bluffing," said Grinder. ""But I'm not." John fired off a shot. The bullet missed her by centimeters, struck the daily menu sign that was slightly off to the right behind her, and splintered the special of the day. "Next time, I won't miss."
Terror returned to the waitress's angular features. She cupped her hands over her ears and chanted, "Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod...."
The girl's involuntary mantra put too much of a strain on Stephanie's already overtaxed emotions, and it got the better of her, she erupted like a volcano. "SHUT UP AND SIT DOWN!"
The waitress quickly returned to a dormant state and obediently sank in a chair at one of the neighboring tables.
"Show me the money." John coerced her by whipping the barrel back and forth.
Ida set the luggage on the floor, stooped as far as her belly would allow. The carrying case wasn't like the newer, nylon with wheels and handle; it was more like circa 1960s: A hard shell, now spotted with age with a single latch. Her chunky fingers failed her as she clumsily fumbled with the brass fastener.
"Never mind, kick it over to me," Grinder commanded.
She straightened and gave it a shove with her foot.
Grinder picked it up by the handle, tossed it on the table, and told Stephanie to take a look.
She popped the latch, opened the lid, and peered inside. "It's here."
John pulled the gun's hammer back, aimed the open end of the barrel at Ida, and nodded at the door. "Get out."
She shot Stephanie a glance barbed with anger. "You swindled me."
"No!" She twisted around. "Give it to her."
"You heard the lady" Ida said. She turned the palm of her hand up and wiggled her fingers. "Give me what's mine."
Without taking his eyes off Ida or the gun, he shoved the cloth package into his Yahet pocket.
"You're going to regret this," Ida groused, and did a clunky about face. The screen door squawked out a final farewell to her as she shoved past it slamming the wooden door closed behind her.
Stephanie planted both hands on Grinder's shoulder and shoved him. "What do you think you're doing?"
"She got what she deserved. She was going to swindle you" he said. "Take the money and run."
The waitress jumped up out of the chair and rushed over to the wall phone behind the counter. The waitress whipped a phone out her apron pocket. "I'm calling 9-1-1." She grabbed the handset out of the cradle and began punching buttons. "You people are freaks!"
Grinder fired off a shot. The phone base exploded into shards of plastic exposing the damaged, electronic innards."
The severed cord dangled from the handset she clutched in her hand. Anguish washed across her face. Then she cried out, "You asshole! How am I going to explain all of this to Charlie?" She let the phone drop to the floor with a clatter.
"That's easy." Grinder walked across the room and grabbed the fire extinguisher hanging on the wall. He charged the cash register and delivered a hard blow to the machine. The cash drawer popped open. He gathered up what cash there was and handed it to her. "The place was robbed after you left."
She stared at the fistful of money.
"Consider it a big tip for forgetting what happened here tonight."
An overgrown smile exposed two rows of crooked teeth as the waitress grabbed the money and stuffed it into her apron pocket. "Sure, no problem." She reached down and rattled the set of keys bedded in the pocket of her jeans. "Like I said earlier, the party's over and I'm closing this dump and going home." She ushered them out the door, sat her purse down on the top step, and locked the door closed behind her. The torrential rains had reduced to a slow drizzle. Lightning flickered behind the closely gathered clouds, highlighting the less dense areas giving the vaporous formations the appearance of electrified marble.
The waitress hurried across the parking lot to a near extinct Eighties-style compact spackled with small, white patches of Bondo over various locations on the turd-brown body. It looked like a wild, spotted Yugo that had escaped from the junkyard.
Stephanie checked the time and she began to feel antsy again. With the suitcase in hand she hurried to her car and dropped it at the bumper before searching her purse for the set of keys that would unlock the trunk. She located them, popped it, and stowed the case.
Grinder had backed his truck into the parking space to the left of Stephanie's car and he caught up with her as the sputtering compact zoomed past them. The suspension let out a loud metallic groan when the girl missed the graded outlet and the front wheels rolled over the curb. It sped away and the tinny whine of the engine faded out in the distance. The lull in the storm was short lived as the wind fired up again. A gust rocked the trees and ushered in another bank of clouds. "You better get out of here."
She responded with a faint smile and a nod of her head that was almost undetectable.
A second later he rounded the front bumper of his truck. A gust of wind rocked the trees and ushered in another bank of clouds. He stopped and issued a warning. "You'd better get out of here."
She caught something moving out of the corner of her eye. A shiver traveled up her spine as she watched him dig down into his pocket. Suddenly, a panic alarm went off inside her head.
A cluster of keys dangling from a ring jangled together when he pulled them out. A second later, he was gone and rounding the corner of the tailgate while fumbling for the ignition key.
The alarm registered in her blue eyes as she watched him open the driver's door and climb into the cab of the truck. "Wait—" Suddenly a loud peal of thunder cut her short, or at least she thought it was thunder until she saw the bullet hole magically appear in the front fender of the truck and report back a metallic ping that was immediately followed by the hiss of air escaping from the front tire. She heard the panic in John's muffled voice coming from inside the cab yelling for her to get down on the ground and then saw him beckoning her by wildly waving his hand from behind the glass and then he pointed behind her. She twisted around and saw a black car rolling into the parking lot with the heavily tinted driver's window slightly ajar and the smoking end of a gun poking through the gap aimed in her direction. A second shot rang out at the same moment the truck's engine turned over and rumbled to life. The second bullet pierced the metal skin of the hood and the truck's engine began to clank and clatter. It sputtered and died; a stream of motor oil crept out from beneath the truck and pooled on the wet concrete. The black car came to a stop a few feet from the truck's bumper and idled there.
The passenger door popped opened and a tall well dressed man stepped out if the car. Rumpled clothes, disheveled hair, and slack jaw suggested that he was on the tail end of some kind of high from alcohol or drugs. He aimed the pistol he clutched in his hand at her head.
Stephanie stared back wide eyed. With the cell towers and GPS still on the fritz, she had no idea how Gerald located her.
"Don't look so surprised," the man replied. "I have my ways of knowing where you're at—at all times." He called out to John. "If you have any kind of a weapon, toss it."
John reached inside his pocket. Removing the pistol from his coat, he rolled down the window. When he threw it, it landed against the curb and skidded along the line of concrete like a guttered bowling ball until it arrived at the grated opening and was escorted down the hollow by a steady stream of rainwater.
"Now get out of the truck and come stand next to her."
John obliged the man and joined Stephanie. He stood there silently starring down the open end of the barrel.
The man eyed John suspiciously. "So, what's your part in this?"
"He didn't have anything to do with it, Gerald," Stephanie piped in. "I skidded off the road and was stuck in the ditch until John stopped and pulled my car out of the mud. He wouldn't take money so I offered to buy him a cup of coffee for his help. That's all."
Gerald laughed and gently shook his head, "You know, my wife is not as defenseless as she leads you to believe. Did she tell you that she drugged me and stole something very important from me?" He shifted his eyes over to Stephanie and cocked the trigger back. "Now, I want it back."
A look of horror congealed on her face. A light drizzle of rain began to fall. Stephanie felt chilled as tiny drops collected on her face. The chills were attributed more to her fear than the cold water spreading across her breast. She felt sure that her life could end tonight once the man got what he came for.
"Don't hurt her." John stepped in front of Stephanie.
"Well, it looks like my wife finally found her knight in shining armor." Gerald cracked a crooked smile. "You can have her. As soon as I get back what's mine."
“I don’t have it."
Gerald looked panicked. "Where is it?"
"I sold it."
"I want a name and I want it now," Gerald ground out his words through gritted teeth.
"Ida March," Stephanie quickly replied.
"Fritz, get out here." Gerald yelled out. "Now!"
The driver's door on Gerald's car opened. A large black shoe touched down on the wet pavement. A second later the other joined it. He unfolded himself to full height. It was unconceivable that a man that large could contort himself enough to fit behind the steering wheel, much less left with enough dexterity to maneuver the pedals. The giant lumbered over to where they stood.
"Put them in the trunk." The truck that continued to leak oil onto the concrete. The pitted concrete that was still holding water from the rain like tiny sewing thimbles and a thin film of oil leaking from Grinder's truck glazed the parking lot with an array of swirling colors that worked its way up to the toes of Gerald's shoes. "Then I want you to get the tow truck and dispose of both of these vehicles."
The spotted Yugo seemed to come out of nowhere, whipped into the parking lot, and skidded to a stop. The waitress stared through the windshield wild-eyed at Gerald holding the gun on John and Stephanie and the giant. The engine revved and the reverse lamps came on casting a sheen of white light across the wet concrete.
“Shut the engine down and get out of the car,” Gerald commanded.
The tinny whine of the engine silenced and the door let out a loud groan when it opened. The waitress raised her hands above her head. "I just came back to get my purse." She lowered an arm and aimed one of her red, lacquered nails to where she'd left the leather bag sitting on the steps.
“Shut your mouth and go stand next to them,” Gerald prompted the waitress into action by pointing the gun at her.
“Oh my God, you people are crazy!" She hastily climbed out and shuttled over to them. She stood next to John shaking.
"Now what?" John asked.
"For starters let me take a look at what's inside the suitcase."
Gerald turned the gun on the waitress. "Bring it to me, Princess."
Without taking her eyes off the gun, the girl impetuously grabbed the handle of the suite case, jerked it off the ground, and walked it over to Gerald. He took it from her and popped the latch.
He turned it upside down. On any calm day the money would have tumbled to the ground, but a gust of wind scooped up the spilled contents and they all stared up in amazement as the lose bills fluttered away into the night like a flock of startled birds. "Oops." He signaled Fritz with a wave of his hand. "Put them all in the trunk. They can stay there until I get what belongs to me."
"The terrified waitress yelled out,' He has it." She pointed to Grinder. "In his Yahet pocket.
Fritz approached Grinder and with one sweeping blow to the head he knocked Grinder to the ground. His hand formed a huge lump that quickly became a squirming mass of blue jeaned cloaked fingers as he searched the pocket. A moment later the giant came up holding the prize in his hand.
"I told you where it was. You're going to let me go, right?" She emphasized her plea with a snaggletooth grin.
"Put all of them in the trunk."
Another gust rocked the Charlie’s Diner sign making it wobble.
Gerald and the Fritz both looked up at the same time.
Time became elastic as Grinder jumped up and launched himself forward like a missile. All three men were on the ground grappling. A moment after that, a loud bang accompanied by a muzzle flash erupted from the end of the barrel. Grinder came up victorious with the pistol in his hand and pointed it down at losers.
"Get on your knees," Grinder commanded.
Gerald managed to get up.
And what about him?" the waitress asked pointing to Fritz.
"Both of you."
After the giant got on his knees he was only a head shorter than Grinder.
A drop of blood dripped from the cuff of Gerald's Yahet and splattered on the concrete. "I need a doctor."
"First, take your Yahet off," exclaimed Grinder.
Gerald winced when he wiggled the coat from over his shoulders. It slipped down his arms and crumpled at his knees where the fine Italian silk sopped up oily rain water.
After handing the gun off to Stephanie, Grinder cautiously made his approach. When he was within reaching distance, he stopped, reached out, and picked it up.
"Stephanie, don't let him get it," Gerald called out.
"Don't listen," said Grinder. He dropped the coat and began unraveling the knots. He held the mystery in his open palm. At the nucleus of the gold amulet was a clear, marble sized stone surrounded by six rings with cryptic writing on them.
Gerald stood up. "For God's sake shoot him."
She felt confused as she bounced the end of the gun back and forth from Grinder to Gerald.
A harsh white light washed over them.
Stephanie unsuccessfully tried to shield her eyes with her hand.
"Put the gun down." An amplified, female voice called out. Flickers of red and blue light followed. The officer stepped out of the vehicle brandishing a pistol. She remained behind the safety of the open door. "Mam, put the gun down."
The passenger door on the cruiser opened. A male officer stepped out. He aimed his gun at Grinder. "Sir, put down whatever you are holding."
Grinder continued twisting the rings.
Still holding his handgun in a threatening manner, the male officer walked aggressively toward Grinder. "I said put it down."
In the distance, more sirens screamed.
Grinder frantically turned the bands lining up symbols.
The female officer shouted out sternly, "Put the gun down. NOW!" She emphasized her command by stiff arming her gun and looking down the barrel at Stephanie.
In desperation Stephanie turned to the waitress. "What do I do?"
The color in the waitress cheeks were gone leaving her sharp features ghostly white. The girl was staring up into the heavens with her jaw hanging open and her eyes fixed. Pivoting from the shoulder, she slowly raised her arm with her hand and fingers hanging limp like a wilted flower. The she straightened a crooked finger at the heavens.
Stephanie raised her head.
On the underbelly of one of the dark clouds, a swirling vortex of blue energy formed.
She felt the tingle of electricity crawl across her arms. Her hair stood on end. Before she could react and run, a ribbon of lightning jumped from the whirlpool. She saw the blinding flash of light. In an effort to mute the blinding light, she dropped the gun and clapped her hands over her eyes. She felt pain ripping through her body. Every cell in her body felt charged with electricity and then being ripped apart at the molecular level. The sensation of being yanked backwards like iron shavings being drawn to a magnet made her feel sick. She had the strange feeling that her physical being came to an abrupt halt, then the rest of her caught up and slammed back into her body. It took a few minutes for the nausea to subside, but when it did she opened her eyes. A warm glow bathed her skin and the bright light sifted through the cracks between her fingers. She felt certain that a bolt of lightning had struck her and she was dead, but when she let her hands slip from over her face, she felt panic welling up inside.
Chapter 3 Destination Unknown
She silenced the alarm going off in her head. Think, Stephanie, think. You've been in tough situations before. She looked around. To the left—sand. To the right—sand. Behind— more sand—miles of the stuff. Above—a cloudless blue sky and a fiery ball radiating down rays of unforgiving heat and blinding light.
How in the hell did she get here? It was impossible to instantly go from rain-drenched night to arid desert day. Wasn't it? She mentally scrambled to fit the pieces of the cosmic puzzle together, but all she came up with was more questions. Where was the restaurant? And John? And the others? Was she dead? The hissing wind at her back and airborne sand rushing past her like a swarm of angry bees felt real. Maybe her assumption that she was good enough to enter the kingdom of heaven was wrong and this was hell. It sure was hot enough.
She checked her watch for the time. Whatever had happened to her affected the Rolex. It didn't work. She realized her purse still hung from her arm and hurried to find her phone. Shielding the display screen from the overbearing light, she saw the no service bar and angrily tossed it back into her bag. Her only option was to walk out of here.
She looked across the rippled dunes, and the surroundings yielded no clue as to which direction she should take. But, it made sense to keep the wind at her back. With every step, gusts kicked up grit that nipped at her ankles, nested in her hair, and crawled down the open collar of her silk blouse. Finer particles embedded in the nylon weave of her hose, and it wouldn't be long before they were abrading the material and her skin.
The two inch spiked heels of her shoes hindered her pace. She should just take them off. Balanced on one leg, she removed a shoe with the intention of touching the surface with a toe to test the temperature, like a swimmer before diving into water. A burst of wind suddenly rocked her, and she clawed at the air to keep balance. The brief struggle ended with her exposed foot plunked down on what felt like a bed of fiery, hot coals. She let out a yelp of pain and jerked her foot out of the sand. Well, that wasn't going to work. She shoved the shoe back on. She would have to perfect her technique, that's all. Find a rhythm. She pressed further on into no man's land staring at the endless sea of dunes with the determination she was going to conquer them one at a time. She had faith that she'd make it to her destination. Wherever that was.
At one point the old guy in the sky teased her with a convoy of small, puffy clouds that crossed the sun and offered shade for a few fleeting moments.
The plodding trek left a lot of time for the nagging questions lodged in the back of her mind to break loose and surface. Who and what was John Grinder? She felt sure he was part of whatever madness this was and could find a way out of it. Wherever he was. She kicked up a clear stone with the toe of her shoe. She withdrew from trying to solve the frustrating riddles, stopped, and dredged it out of the sand with the tips of her fingers. Hot to the touch, she held it in the palm of her hand. The quartz crystal tossed back the rays of the sun, and the glistening stone reminded her of the heart-shaped diamond in Gerald's collection. Although imperfect, the stone had been appraised for over two-million dollars. It wasn't the carats or the facets that gave it its worth, it was the story behind it.
The diamond's original owner had been Joseph Frankland, one of the most successful, young shipping magnates in Galveston in the late eighteen hundreds. He was worth over three million dollars. He and Charlotte were happily married in Eighteen-Ninety-nine. Joseph was in New York on business when the Nineteen Hundred storm hit, killing thousands of people. Upon returning to the island, he tried to locate his bride. After months of searching for her, he gave up. He’d lost the love of his life and most of his ships in the hurricane, and it quickly took a toll on his business. He took what was left of his fortune and bought a three-hundred carat diamond then had it cut into the shape of a heart. He sailed out into the Gulf with the intention of tossing it over to declare his never-ending love for Charlotte. But, fate had other plans, and the boiler exploded sinking the vessel, and only one crew member survived to tell the story. It wasn’t until some years later that divers located the wreck and recovered the diamond. It had been on its way to the museum when Gerald and his cohorts got their greedy hands on it.
She heard Gerald's voice inside her head say, "You see, it’s not just a diamond, it’s a love story."
"What would you know about love, Gerald?" Stephanie blurted out to an uncaring desert. "The only thing you ever loved was money and what it can buy." She dropped the quartz and resumed walking. She knew after he found the vault door wide open that he'd be out looking for her. Lots of luck on that one, buster. I don't even know where I'm at. But, knowing him, he was probably hot on her trail. The hairs on the nap of her neck stood up. She stopped and looked back over her shoulder. Nothing but wasteland. The only sign of anyone ever being there was from the heels of her own shoes that had punched holes in the sand leaving a string of dots across the of barren land. The strong air currents were already erasing the tracks she'd left behind. Satisfied that Gerald was nowhere near, she pivoted her head back around.
Stephanie noticed something. She stopped. During her mental meandering, the landscape had changed. Small clumps of grass spouted from the sand. They were few, but any sign of life was encouraging and lifted her spirit. Encouraging enough to continue laboring forward through the thick blanket of hot sand while taking short breaths stifled by the heat.
She looked down as a small spider scurried across the sand pursued by a scorpion. The scorpion captured its helpless victim and stung it before scurrying away beneath a rock with its prize to wait for its next prey to cross its path.
She made her way to a rock formation protruding from the dessert floor. It was about six feet tall, orange-ish-red in color, and shaped like a large ice cream cone planted upside down. She took shelter behind it to shield herself from the wind and constant pelting of the sand that had become a monotonous torture. The grains embedded in her hose had already rubbed her skin raw. She worked them down to her knees, planted one hand against the monolith for balance, removed a shoe, and pulled the offending garment from her leg. She repeated the process for the other leg and let the stockings drop to the ground where the stiff breeze caught them and they slithered away like a sidewinder in hasty retreat across the ever-shifting terrain. She sat with her back to the rock and dumped the accumulated contents from her shoes. It felt good to be out of the sun.
Without her watch, she had no way to confirm the time. But, going by the sun crawling across the sky, it was early afternoon, and going by her internal clock, she guessed it was around two. She was seldom off more than fifteen minutes. That was if this whole thing hadn't thrown her internal time mechanism out of whack. She closed her eyes. She did have an idea of how far she'd come though. Over the past ten years, she had developed a habit of counting her steps on the daily three-mile power walks in the park. The mental tally of the steps she'd taken today was ten-thousand and roughly translated into about five miles. She stretched her arms out, placed her palms flat against the rock, and noticed the stone was worn smooth by the tiny particles of sand bombarding it over millions of years. It could be the tip of a buried mountain; the rest of it concealed by the hellish grit piling up around it over the eons. She opened her eyes, turned to look at it, and wondered what gave it its red color. It reminded her of pictures she'd seen of Mars. Red, dusty, and dry. Like her throat felt. It was dry, but not parched. She figured it wouldn't be long before that would change and she would literally be dying of thirst. A cramp in her calf muscle validated her concern. She massaged the pain while embracing the thought that maybe in the not too far distance she would stumble upon a convenience store. They always seemed to be everywhere even in the middle of nowhere. The one she frequented in her neighborhood was one of those 24/7 places with outrageous gas prices and neon signs hanging in the plate glass windows advertising beer and cigarettes.
A constant fixture in the place was an attractive, young girl who manned the register. The tips of her red-streaked bangs framed baby blues outlined with heavy black eyeliner that drew attention to her bloodshot eyes. The girl's tired appearance didn't detract Stephanie's opinion there was enough youth left on her own face that she could indulge in shaving the side of her head and adding a few streaks of red to her dark hair.
The last time Stephanie was in there was after a grueling workout at the gym, She had glided over to the shelves overflowing with snack cakes and chips to the lo-cal snacks and snagged a power bar. Then squeezed down the narrow aisle between the coolers stocked with an assortment of drinks and grabbed a bottle of water. But, she needed something with a little more kick. At the far side of the store, two near empty coffeepots sat on the counter. She grabbed a Styrofoam cup off the stack and emptied one of the pots into it--dregs and all. By the color and smell, she was sure the coffee was at least ten hours old and would taste like a mouthful of warm, dirty dishwater. After stirring in a couple packets of fake sweetener and a three packets of powdered cream to mask the taste, she walked up to the counter to pay.
The girl offered Stephanie a weak smile. "Will that be all, Ma'am?"
Stephanie snapped back to reality and stopped rubbing the knot in her leg. She'd forgotten about the bottle of water and the uneaten power bar. She clumsily dug in her purse and found them both buried beneath the plane ticket, wallet, phone, and an unopened pack of cigarettes. Not hungry, she bypassed the bar and went for the water, uncapped the bottle, and drained it to the last drop. She shoved the empty container back into her purse knowing that she should have conserved it by taking a sip every few hours. The warm water did little to satisfy her thirst, but it did fill her bladder. Even though it was absurd, she looked around for prying eyes before she squatted and relieved herself. Her pee absorbed quickly without the sandy foundation expressing gratitude.
She stood and resumed walking. After a while, her legs felt heavy, and it became more of a trudge. The sun's vertical decline perched it in front of her eyes. She lowered her head to avoid the harsh light and took to watching the dye on the toes of her shoes being scuffed off. She tried to convince herself everything was going to be alright. Everything wasn't alright.
The wind rattled the sand. She looked up. In the distance, a dust devil scurried away from her. For all she knew, she might be on a planet in some distant corner of the galaxy and the dervish was an alien form of life. She watched it disappear over the top of a dune and wondered if it was on its way to tell the other inhabitants that some strange creature was afoot in the desert. Maybe her dehydrated brain was unraveling at the fringe. She told herself she was teetering on a filament thin line between madness and good sense and put her imagination to rest before it spiraled out of control.
In the far off yonder, the rolling sea of sand flattened, and a veil of shimmering heat distorted a speck of silver, flickering light. Her hopes soared again. Things were beginning to look up. It could be a cell tower. She took a quick glance down into her purse at the phone still showing no service. She jumped to another thought. Solar energy plants were starting to pop up in the desert. Even if unmanned, it might be on the grid and have a landline.
She hurried toward the mysterious light as the sun lowered a little closer to the horizon. The landscape continued to slowly metamorphose. The clumps of grass sprouted not from sand but from red dust and rock. Bouquets of weeds tipped with yellow flowers wavered in the desert wind. A few gnarly trees struggled beneath the sun. If there were plants, somewhere there had to be water. She pressed on toward a mountainous tower obscured by a hazy distance. Maybe it was a natural formation of rock, or man made. From this far away it was hard to tell.
Another mile into her trek brought her to the edge of a cliff. She stared down at what she estimated to be a fifty-foot plunge at a fluted wall of orange rock. She surveyed the arroyo; it snaked out of sight in both directions and stretched across a hundred feet. It may have been less, but for her, it might as well have been the Grand Canyon. A scrap of hope survived her verdict that things had just hit the skids when she stared across the chasm and decided she had the experience to cross the divide. She looked down. The water that had been there at one time had evaporated long ago and left a large crusty patch of land with cracks running through it. A large cluster of Joshua trees looked like a safe place to spend the night. A row of twisting vines, laden with thorns, corralled the small forest like a barbed wire fence. She felt being down in the crevice, behind the barrier and hidden in the trees, would help protect her from whatever critters roamed the desert after the sun set. She could rest, and in the morning feast on the power bar and start out fresh.
She walked the edge in search the best place for a freestyle descent. She stopped when she spotted it and calculated the risk involved. At the fitness center, she had the supervision of an experienced instructor, wore a safety harness and proper attire, and counted on thick mats on the floor in case she fell. Here, she had none of those things. She removed her purse from her arm and let it plummet over the edge. She tossed the expensive pair of Hockley shoes after it.
With her life at stake, she lay down on her belly and lowered herself over the rim. Searching for proper footholds proved to be a challenge. It was like reading Braille with the balls of her feet. Locating handholds was a bleak process of her clutching at smooth, round projections that were hard to grip, and once got, hard to hang on to. Already on the downside of exhaustion, she made it halfway and ran out of steam. She dropped and hit the remaining outcropping with a thud. The cushion of thick sand at the base softened her landing, but the slope in the terrain sent her tumbling into the brambles. Thorns tore at clothes and skin until enough of the prickly little bastards latched on to both and brought her to a halt. After a fierce struggle, she managed to free herself and got to her bare feet with a sharp pain shooting through her side and dripping blood from superficial wounds. The valley she was in was below the sun's dying rays and created a world of false dusk around her leaving no time to rest.
If she had a fuel gauge, she'd be running on fumes. She summoned what little strength she had and moved forward to close the gap between her and the trees. The parched ground had formed a thin crust that caved in with each step, thwarting her progress, but she continued to slog ahead, when suddenly, it was like someone had pulled the plug on her. Blackness clouded her vision, and she sank down to her knees. Her mind flashed a morbid scene of someone stumbling across her mummified remains thousands of years from now. And then she did a face plant in the sand.
She woke coughing dry heat and loose earth, spit grit from her mouth, and managed to roll onto her back. She was unable to focus, and her mind wandered as she watched the light fade from the patch of sky. Thousands of stars clogged the heavens. The full moon peeked over the jagged edge of the rift spilling its meager light down into the basin. The shadows from the grove of Joshua trees grew long and crept toward her like shy children. As the moon rose higher into the heavens, the shadows retreated back to the base of the trees.
The fluctuating play between lightness and darkness coupled with the passing clouds created the illusion of movement. From the corner of her eye, she thought a snake slithered toward her. When she shifted her head to look at the reptile, it magically transformed back into a crack in the dried ground. She trembled. The desert was cooling, and she hugged the warm soil hoping that it would hold its heat through the night.
The moon slowly sailed over the crack in the earth and graced her with enough light to make out shapes, that was until a few small clouds gathered around the celestial body and curdled in its light like soured milk. Eventually enough of them gathered to form one cloud leaving the canyon almost completely dark. The land came alive with sounds. They were distant but recognizable. A chorus of howls rose in the air. She knew little about Coyotes other than they were nocturnal hunters, but she felt relatively safe at the bottom of the arroyo. She slept.
A snarl brought her out of the land of dreams. She shivered wondering if one of the canine hunters had made its way down and was lurking somewhere in the shadows, or if the hellish creature's growl had been from a nightmare that had escaped from her id. Another growl from the grove of trees proved it to be real. Fear pumped adrenalin through her veins and her heart beat wildly, but her muscles were still on the blink, and she couldn't move.
Shapeless blobs shifted in the conclave of shadows. The wild beating of her heart turned into thunder that vibrated the sand beneath her chest. She was sure that it was sending out a distress signal to the predators. She homed in on the rustling sounds at the edge of the forest.
The underbelly of the dark cloud split open and spilled milky-white light of the crescent moon onto the bottom of the arroyo.
One of the canines stepped into the moonlight sniffing the air. More followed. A gust popped up and peppered her face with sand that found its way into both eyes. By the time she rubbed it away with the backs of her hands, the coyotes were gone, and the vague light revealed paw prints leading up to her from out of the darkness. But where did the beasts go?
A snarl came from behind. She readied herself to let out a yell hoping it would scare the creatures away, but a flash of light and the sharp blast of a gunshot cut her short. A bullet whizzed above her head followed by a yelp of pain, then the sound of retreating paws beating the sand.
A figure meandered out of the trees toward her with a cloven hoof animal plodding along behind. As the newcomer drew closer, she could tell by the walk that it was a man. The butt of his rifle broke through the crusted earth when he used it as a crutch to steady himself and he kneeled beside her. His body was cloaked by robes and a Ker covered his lower face. She watched him study her through the pair of goggles he wore. The camel let out a bray. Was this another figment of her overtaxed imagination? Maybe the man was a wealthy Sheik, and he would force her to become one of the concubines in his harem. She giggled, and the man cocked his head to one side as if trying to understand her amusement. New horrors flooded her musings, and she quickly sobered. Had she somehow ended up in the Middle East and was about to be captured by a terrorist? The surreal events unfolding before her swirled around in her mind and made her feel dizzy. She passed out.
Chapter 4 Lord of the Underworld