The man they all called the Dark Brother sat in his room above the town diner. His town, Brother Dark had long ago decided. The windows were covered in aluminum foil to keep the sun out. He hated the unnaturally bright sun here, it made his head ache. He wore the only proper clothes, a black hat and suit. So the name of Dark was as good as anything else but he’d almost lashed out at the first one to call him “Brother.” As if he was remotely related to the filth surrounding him!
When he realized it was a title, he’d quickly adopted it. Being thought of as a religious authority was very convenient. It even allowed a certain…latitude of behavior that would have stood out elsewhere.
He was looking through his private notes when there was a tap at the door.
The door opened slightly and his current assistant looked in apologetically.
“I said no interruptions.”
“But there’s some folk here to see you , Brother.”
Dark cocked his head. “Are you unaware of what the word ‘interruption’ means? Send them away and we will later review the importance of obedience.”
The man swallowed, looked behind him, but still didn’t close the door. Dark’s continual curiosity overtook his anger. The man should be scuttling off in fear but something held him there.
“Brother Dark, sir, I believe you’ll want to meet these visitors.”
Dark stood up and the man flinched. The curiosity was burning now, this insect would never disobey unless it were truly interesting. He ignored the fool as he stalked over to the door and threw it open. There were two men waiting for him. They had the same pale skin as Dark, the same black suits and hats. They stared at him.
“Leave,” Dark said to the assistant and he scuttled out of the room, glad to be away from Brother Dark and whoever these new relatives of his were.
Dark turned around and went back to his office without saying anything. The other two followed him inside. One of them closed the door firmly.
“I am Gnik,” the slightly taller one said, speaking first to assert his authority. “That is Szep. We are to Audit.”
Dark sat down without offering either of them a seat. He broke the protocol to establish his own authority, to show them that he didn’t care. He was the master here, not them.
“You say you are auditors but no reports are due and my experiment thrives.”
“So we have seen. It has grown, yes?”
Dark leaned back in the chair and steepled his fingers. “By twenty-six point four nine percent. Nine points over the predicted median. These fools prattle on about their freedom and rights but they’re so eager to surrender themselves to a perceived authority.”
“Yes, yes, you are most talented administrator. However our interest is not in growth. Just a single individual.”
Dark’s hand flashed toward his desk drawer but as quick as he was, Gnik’s stun dart hit his chest before he’d moved more than a few centimeters. A carefully modulated pulse of electricity flashed through his chest, neck, and head. Dark slumped slightly as his muscles loosened. He was completely paralyzed.
“My colleague misled you,” Szep said, coming around the desk. “While we are here to audit, we are not the Audit.”
Gnik’s mouth twisted in a parody of a smile. “Forgive my clumsy speech, I am still learning this new method of grunts. We are the Question.”
Dark’s stomach clenched with unfamiliar fear. The Question, here!
“We are advancing to the next stage of our effort,” Szep said, wrapping a wire around Dark’s wrist. “So all must be as it was ordered. Perhaps you remember the traitor Jenkins? She was silenced.”
Dark strained to move but the shot had been perfect. It would take a while to get his muscles to move, probably far too late to do any good.
“Now we are come to your fascinating experiment,” Gnik said, pulling a small box out of his coat. “The Question was certain that you had complied with all the directives you had been given. My brother here was surprised I guessed you had not. The Curiosity is a filthy growth and I remember your arrogance. But you impress me, my wayward brother. Outright treason, my brother? Naked disobedience to the Sacred Protocols? Your outrages go beyond even my imagination.”
Dark put all of his will into making his finger move. There was a slight twitch, hardly noticeable. He could get out of this and he had to do something quickly before…
White light burst behind his eyes and Dark’s body arched. After a few seconds they let him fall back into the chair. He tried to catch his breath but convulsions shook his body. The wires wrapped around him induced an answering current in his nerves. They could deliver any sensation directly into his brain. There was no defense.
“Just a test,” Gnik said. “Have you never been under an inducer? You might be surprised to know I have my own experiments as well. Of course, mine are sanctioned by my betters. Allow me to explain, I’ve created a nerve induction protocol of my very own. Have you seen a Question Bringer work? A talented Bringer can vivisect a subject while they are conscious of course. But it takes a master to completely remove the skin without killing the subject. Of course the subject is quite insane by the end of the process. My humble contribution removes any worry that a subject will die from shock, leaving them untouched although they feel their flesh peel away. The pain has driven several to madness, but you must remember the Fifth Protocol, ‘The Future Comes in Tiny Steps.’ Let him move a bit, Szep. I want him to answer me.”
The iron bands wrapped around Dark eased a bit and he leaned his head back, gasping.
“Now, why did you let it live?” Gnik asked. “A little filthy curiosity of my own.”
“The directive was faulty,” Dark said, swallowing against the nausea brought on by fear. “I wanted to study it, see why it was so critical to remove and destroy. What if it is a weapon against us?”
Gnik clucked his tongue. “Third Protocol, Brother. ‘Obey without comment or question.’ But since you’ve gone to all this trouble, I will have it brought here. I will take it apart piece by piece and it will be nothing special. You have paid a fool’s price and all you’ve gained is a lesson on curiosity. On individuality. Before I disassemble your pet, I will remove your consciousness. You will never know the truth.”
“The Clamor, brother,” Szep hissed. “A fitting reward for a fool’s willful curiosity!”
Dark gritted his teeth. “You are fools who cannot see your hands in front of you.”
Gnik regarded him dispassionately. “Yet you are in my power. Szek, begin the special protocol.”
At first there was nothing. Then a strange pulling sensation on his wrist began. Dark gasped as he felt his skin pulled away from the flesh, a narrow strip of agony crawling up his arm. It began on his other arm as well. He bit his lip bloody, refusing to give this animal the pleasure. There was another bright streak of agony across his forehead and Dark screamed as he felt a strip of scalp slowly pulled off.
There were a few men nervously waiting outside of the door. The walls weren’t very thick and they looked at each other when Dark shrieked.
“He screams higher than a woman,” one whispered.
There was another long scream, so high pitched it hurt their ears. One of the men stumbled out of the room, hand over his mouth as he retched.
Vic drove the old pickup through downtown. Someone started to pull out in front of him but he held the horn down as he tore through the intersection. He was pissed, those two brothers of Brother Dark had sent him on an errand, like he was some green recruit. Him! He was practically Brother Dark’s lieutenant, not some kid. Although, if he was honest with himself, it was more like his brother was really the one who was Dark’s right hand man. But Vic was his brother! He’d burned the places where the abortionists worked, burned their houses, even shot the “doctors” when they could be found. He’d even snuck out with Obie one night and burned a few of them nigger churches. Vic grinned at the memory. They’d snuck out in the middle of the night like they had when they were kids and were back before sun-up. Too bad the churches were empty but Brother Dark loved his rules and Obie hadn’t wanted to get caught.
Vic turned up the driveway to Brother Greer’s place. There were a bunch of spics working in the field but he ignored them and drove up to the house on his errand. Brother Hiram’s daughter was writing on papers, keeping track of the work. Vic got out and watched her for a bit. She was a pretty little thing, just getting ripe. He would have liked to do a lot more than watch her but she was an Elder’s daughter. He’d seen what happened when you starting breaking rules. Once he’d even helped, breaking every bone in a man’s arm. Karl had raised his hand against a member of the Seraphim, by extension against Brother Dark himself. There were harsh consequences to that kind of sin.
Vic sneered at the memory. He didn’t know why Karl had fought so hard over his wife and daughter. Neither were much to look at. Maybe because Brother Dark didn’t trade him anything back when he’d ordered the wife and daughter married off to other men in the congregation. Plain looking as he was, maybe old Karl had realized he wouldn’t easily find a woman that Brother Dark wouldn’t just take.
Vic giggled out loud. He was going to find it even harder now. The hospital up in the city hadn’t been able to save his arm and no woman in her right mind wanted a one-armed cripple.
The pretty little blonde looked up at the sound.
“What do you want here, Victor Knox?” she demanded.
Vic realized he’d been standing there staring at her. Ole Hiram was an Elder and tight with Dark. If he thought Vic was messing around with his daughter….
“Blessed Day, Sister Julie,” he said in the sweetest voice possible. “Church sent me down to fetch young Theodore back to town.”
“He’s working right now. Why they want him?”
Vic spread his hands and looked pious. “I’m nothing but a humble messenger.”
Vic’s temper, never far away, began to simmer. Who did this blonde haired harlot think she was questioning him?
“If you’re lyin’ my daddy will find out. Theo’s around back,” she said and went back to her tallying, ignoring him.
Vic gritted his teeth. Why, he ought to go over there and take her by the hair and…But the memory of Karl’s screams lent him some sense. Petty revenge, even with a little fun thrown in wouldn’t be worth the price he’d pay. Vic stomped off to find the foundling. He found him, along with Elmer’s fat kid washing up next to the barn.
“Sent to fetch you,” Vic called.
The foundling and fat kid looked at each other.
“Which one?” Elmer’s kid asked.
Vic paused. He’d been so wrapped up in his vengeful thoughts he didn’t remember anymore.
“Both. Get your shirt and get moving, fatso,” Vic snarled.
“Ain’t fat,” he heard Junior mutter. Vic ignored it, Brother Elmer had a wicked temper and wouldn’t take kindly to Vic giving his brat a thrashing, back talk or no.
The three of them piled into the truck. Being the smallest, Theo was shoved into the middle.
“What’s going on?” Junior asked but Vic ignored him.
Jonesy watched the truck drive down the gravel driveway. He pulled out a phone and speed dialed a number.
“Go,” Marisol said from the other end.
“Tan Ford pickup just grabbed the kid. Rusty older model, white aluminum cap.”
He ended the call and put the phone away. A few feet away, one of the other workers was stooped over, pushing tobacco plants into the dirt. He was carefully ignoring Jonesy.
“Bad things will soon begin happening in the town,” Jonesy said in Spanish. “There will be a lot of police and federals poking around.”
The man straightened up and looked at Jonesy. “You’re a federal?”
Jonesy grinned. “Not even close, compadre. I’m getting gone myself.”
He began jogging toward the main road without waiting for an answer. There was a shout from behind him and he saw people dropping what they were doing and heading for the pair of reclaimed school buses that brought them to the job.
Marisol beeped the horn once and the three people sitting on the picnic table came running to the truck.
“Things just got moved up,” she said as they piled in. “He’s in a truck headed for town.”
They pulled on seatbelts as she floored the large black Dodge pickup out of the dilapidated roadside park they’d been waiting in.
Two of them began quickly sending messages to the rest of the team while the third studied a map.
“We’re going to end up in the town,” he said after a minute. “We’re too far out to do it any other way.”
Marisol nodded, concentrating on the road. “Pass it on. Tell Shep to take them off the road. And do it gently. Further from town the better. We’re going to have to play this as it comes.”
Brother Dark slumped in the chair as the device was turned off.
“You still refuse to answer,” Gnik said.
Dark spat out a mouthful of blood from biting his tongue. “Your protocol is novel perhaps. However, it needs input from a more talented mind. Shall I give you some clues?”
“Do you think the transitory nature of sensation lends him strength?” Szep asked the other Question.
“Possibly. We do not have to explore this, his little project must be disposed of,” Gnik said, opening another box that Dark hadn’t noticed. He pulled out another control box and a large vial of gray dust. “The Clamor awaits, traitor.”
Dark began to struggle in the chair. He had to escape this.
Szep took the top off the vial and stood beside him. Gnik entered commands on the device and nodded for Szep to proceed.
“You are breaking protocol…” Dark started to say. Szep shoved the vial in his mouth, dumping the dust in. Gnik held Dark paralyzed with the nerve inducer while Szep poured water in his mouth, forcing Dark to swallow.
“The protocol governing the mites doesn’t apply to traitors,” Gnik said as he watched the readout. “You should be grateful, if we had used the tools these brutes have, your consciousness might be damaged. But I wouldn’t want you to miss one moment of The Clamor.”
Dark’s pale skin writhed as the mites traveled to their targets. His eyes rolled back in his head as skin began to disappear from his scalp. A few seconds later his skull began to dissolve as well.
“Can you feel your mind being attacked?” Gnik said, almost lovingly. “Feel pieces of yourself falling away? Soon you will…”
Dark didn’t get to hear what was going to happen next. The door splintered and flew open. Both of the Question turned toward the threat but were immediately shot multiple times by several guns. A man yanked the induction device off the wires wrapped around Dark and he convulsed, flopping against the straps holding him down.
“In his hand,” he rasped. “Now!”
Jacob, the brightest of the insects grabbed the mite control and held it for him. Dark tried to push a button and missed but Jacob pushed it for him. Dark pointed to another part of the control panel.
“Twice,” he breathed.
Jacob did as he was told, not wanting to look at Dark’s head again. Had those been brains he’d glimpsed?
“All out,” Dark whispered, going limp in the chair. “You stay.”
“You heard the man,” Jacob said immediately. “Everyone out.”
He closed the door behind the last man and leaned against it. “What can I do, Brother?”
“We’re not gonna make it,” Rachel snapped as they roared into the little town.
“Chill out, kid,” Shep muttered, wrestling the truck through a corner.
“There!” Rachel yelled.
Ahead of them, a beat-up old Ford truck with a dented white cap was turning the corner.
“Ye of little faith,” Shep said, pushing the accelerator to the floor.
“Oh shit,” Rachel said, realizing what he was going to do. She braced herself in the seat as the big Dodge roared forward.
Theo tried to keep his leg from touching the legs on either side of him. It was already too hot in here already. At least they were almost there, Brother Vic was turning down the street the church was on.
Junior suddenly yelled. “Look out!”
Before Theo could turn his head to look, there was a huge bang. His breath was knocked out of him and he was thrown sideway against Junior. The truck spun and smashed to a stop against a phone pole. Theo saw the wires overhead swaying crazily all the way down the block. Brother Vic said a really bad swear. Theo had the crazy urge to laugh but knew better.
The older man looked out the window and suddenly shoved Theo back against Junior, opening the glovebox to get a large revolver out. Theo stared at him. Was he going to shoot the other driver? Theo had to get out of here, Brother Vic got fits and wasn’t safe to be around. He shoved Junior who was staring at the big silver gun in Vic’s hand.
“Open the door!”
There was a sudden harsh rattle. Like a magic trick, the windshield turned into maze of cracks and small holes. Something hot splashed over Theo and Junior. They looked at the gore covering each other’s face with wide eyes. Then Theo realized they were wearing most of Brother Vic’s head.
“Open the door!” Theo screamed, shoving Junior back at the door.
“Tryin’ to!” the other boy bellowed, yanking at the handle and throwing his shoulder against the jammed door.
But the door was pulled open from the outside. Junior fell out onto the pavement, getting the wind knocked out of him. Theo started to crawl out after him but froze. There were two masked figures pointing strange looking guns at them both.
“Get out of there,” one of them ordered. It was a woman’s voice. A very angry woman.
“You leave ‘im be!” Junior gasped from the ground.
Theo didn’t have time to be surprised by Junior. The woman didn’t wait for him to move. She dragged him out of the ruined truck. Theo stumbled as his feet hit the ground. Then he saw the other one had his gun on Junior.
“Okay, okay!” Theo yelled. “I’m coming, don’t shoot him! He didn’t do nothin’ to you.”
“It’s just that fat kid,” the woman said. “Leave him.”
“Ain’t fat,” Junior said automatically.
Theo had another insane urge to laugh. Both of the strangers ignored Junior but the smaller one grabbed Theo’s arm.
“You’re coming with me,” she said, pulling him.
There was a half second pause. “Because I said so!”
Another black truck stopped up the street and Theo jumped as a long stuttering roar punched air into his eardrums. He wanted to hide but the woman twisted his arm behind him and he felt his shoulder creak in its socket.
“You’re hurting me!” he said as she marched him away from the old Ford. The truck that hit them was new but the front end had been destroyed by the impact.
Ain’t going nowhere in that, Theo thought.
Shep made sure the other kid was staying down and glanced up the street toward the church. Against any kind of sense, people were starting to come out of the buildings. They should have been huddled inside after Willi’s burst of machinegun fire. Instead, they were all coming out of the buildings. And they were all looking toward him. And all of them were armed.
“Six, Charlie Two, uh, I got a developing situation here.”
“I see ’em.” Marisol’s driver had stopped in an block away from the intersection with the collision. “Where you at, Sierra One?”
Her SUV rocked on its suspension as another large black SUV blasted past it.
“Uh, that was us, Six,” someone radioed back.
“What the hell!” Ian, the driver, muttered as they watched the other truck screech around the corner.
Then it reappeared behind the growing crowd a few seconds later, horn blaring as it scattered the group. One man that wasn’t quite quick enough was clipped by a side mirror and knocked down.
“That kid is out of his mind,” Georges said from the back seat. He sounded impressed.
There was a boom from behind them and all four ducked as the back window exploded. There was a second shotgun blast but Ian already had the big SUV roaring down the side street.
“What that hell was that?” Marisol yelled over the noise from the missing back window.
“Little old lady with a double barrel. I think she came out of the diner behind us. More people coming out of that building we passed. Shit, they all got guns. Who are these people?”
“Looks like we kicked over a damn hornet’s nest,” Georges added.
Theo’s eyes were wide as another black SUV screeched to a stop in front of them after almost hitting the people in the street. People behind them were getting up and yelling but one of the back doors was already being thrown open and he found himself being pushed into the back seat as someone reached out and dragged him in. She wasn’t wearing a mask and he had a quick impression of long hair and dark eyes. The one who had taken him, pushed him over as she got in behind him.
“Two is out there,” she said loudly.
Theo jumped again as the other figure in black jumped onto the hood of the car. They started driving and there was a thwack as something hit the SUV. Then several more. On the hood, the other figure in black slid up and laid on the windshield. There was a repeat of rattling noise Theo had heard earlier. There was a tiny tinkling sound and he saw brass casings fall past the window as they rolled off the roof. The SUV slowly accelerated until the buildings downtown had disappeared. There, the SUV stopped long enough for the person on the hood to get to the back door. The woman that had grabbed Theo rolled over the seat into the third seat in the back. The man shoved against Theo as he took her place. The SUV was moving again before he got the door closed.
“We should be clear to the transfer point,” the woman in front said. “That was insane.”
“They do seem a little excited at the moment,” the driver said. “Could be Shep’s driving.”
The one beside Theo laughed and pulled off his mask and goggles. He had tousled blond hair, a sunburned face, and blue eyes. “Could be your willful of disregard of pedestrian right-of-way, Jack.”
The driver laughed and shook out his hands. Theo saw they were shaking. “New York rules, I warned ’em. They just didn’t move fast enough.”
A black truck pulled up beside the SUV and stopped. On the other side, another black SUV pulled up and the window rolled down. The woman in the front seat opened her window as well.
“Everything okay?” someone in the other vehicle asked.
“Little crowded but nobody’s leaking in here,” the woman said.
Then there was a shotgun boom somewhere from behind them. They rolled up their windows and the black vehicles started moving again.
He looked at his reflection in a mirror.
Those filth. My beautiful skull!
The nanotechnology that had been dissolving Brother Dark’s head had reversed the process as he’d ordered but too much damage had already been done. Instead of the smooth, aristocratic skull he’d been born with, he was left with a misshapen ruin. The left side looked like it had been deeply dented in, the top of his head had two smaller but similar indentations. Dark ran his hand over the back of his head. It felt wrong as well. He looked at himself again. His skin was patchy and blotched where the mites had created new substrate for his flesh to grow across.
“Filth! Filth! Filth! Filth!” he shrieked kicking Gnik in the face each time. His screams turned wordless as he destroyed Szep’s face as well.
“Brother Dark,” Jacob finally said.
Dark spun quickly and saw the wide eyed man. He couldn’t let him know that…something. What couldn’t the man know? How much of his brain had those rectum biters destroyed? And why couldn’t the fool know…whatever it was?
“What,” Dark finally said.
“Are you okay, sir?”
Exasperated, Dark waved a hand at his head. “Do I look okay?”
“Well, better than you did before, Brother Dark.”
He stared at the man. Better than before. He was better than before. Much better. All the rules were barely remembered now, just whispered suggestions where they had been unbreakable bonds before. He was better all right, now his curiosity was unbound. Now it could bury this planet.
“Stop calling me Brother Dark,” he said, after another glance in the mirror. “I am the rock I will build my church on. Yes, the rock.”
Jacob was nodding agreement.
Jacob nodded agreement to that as well.
“What is smaller than a rock?”
Yes! I am the pebble become man. The Pebbleman. The Pebbleman that will begin the avalanche that buries the world in…whatever. Why does the world now require burying?
He reached up and caressed his head. He loved this new head, so different and exciting.
“Brother Dark is dead and gone,” he suddenly blurted in a high pitched voice and clapped his hands over his mouth.
Jacob looked very worried now. “Are you sure you’re okay, Brother Dar…Brother?”
Dark cautiously dropped his hands. “I won’t mislead you Jacob, no sir. My eggs got scrambled but good. But now I have been healed by the Holy Spit! Can I get an almond!”
There was a pause as Jacob wrestled with that. “You mean amen?”
“Yes! That one!”
“Amen, brother,” Jacob said carefully.
Pebbleman could see the uncertainty on the man’s face.
Reassure him. Yes, reassurance. I will need onions to aid in my work. Minions? Grunions? No, it was onions, I’m certain. That’s what I need. I think I’ve been staring at this human for too long.
“Brother Jacob, as you probably noticed, I’ve had a fairly serious neurological…event,” Pebbleman said, concentrating on speaking clearly. “Can I count you among my flock? Will you grease my monkeys to reach the mountains?”
“Yes? Flock of monkeys?”
“No. The Good Book mentions flocks of sheep, Brother. No monkeys.”
“Yes of course,” Pebbleman said, gesturing vaguely at his raw scalp. “My event of course.”
“I better stay with you til you’re feeling better, Brother.”
“Hmm, yes,” Pebbleman said, trying to look wise. They don’t care for monkeys? How curious. Have they finally realized? Should I tell him…what? What am I supposed to tell him?
“No primates at all? You’re sure?”
Jacob sighed. “No, Brother. Just lambs, no monkeys.”
“But, a troop of lambs? Don’t be ridiculous. Lambs come in flocks, not troops.”
Jacob nodded. “Flock of lambs, I swear.”
“Those little shit-covered things.”
Jacob nodded, trying to ignore the bad word.
“Very well…what is that racket outside?”
“Guns. Something must have happened. There was a bang and they’ve been shooting.”
Jacob just nodded.
“You didn’t go and see why someone is outside shooting their buns?”
“You told me to stay with you, sir.”
A strange warmth filled Pebbleman. Affection? Right here was his beloved servant he needed. The rock he could build his avalanche on.
“You are my right hand, Jacob. Let us go and see what the fuss is all about.”
Pebbleman strode through the door. Jacob followed, grabbing Brother Dark’s…no. Pebbleman’s customary hat. “Brother, do you need this?”
Pebbleman stopped and regarded the hat. There was danger there, in that hat. He didn’t want that hat. Not right now, later. Then he could…
“Yes?” Pebbleman said with a start.
Jacob cleared his throat. “You were just staring at the hat, Brother.”
“For too long.”
Jacob nodded. Again, Pebbleman felt the warmth of friendship and brotherhood. He stepped closer to Jacob, their faces just inches apart. Jacob looked terrified but determined as Pebbleman leaned forward, almost like he was going to kiss Jacob. Thankfully, he turned his head and whispered in Jacob’s ear.
“I really need a…short sleep thing,” he breathed.
“Certainly, thank you. Let’s go get the fuckwits calmed down and we’ll have a nap. Then, just maybe, we’ll have a few bites of food.”
“A nap and then a snack,” Jacob said dutifully.
“Indeed. And you must tell me when I do something inappropriate. The coral of angles are trumpeting loudly.”
“That’s chorus and angels, sir.”
“Of chorus it is.”
Pebbleman looked at Jacob expectantly.
“Brother?” Jacob said after another long pause.
“I made a jest there, did you notice?”
Jacob nodded. “But that ain’t the way you act.”
“Yes, and what a shame it is. I’m well known for my humor at home.”
Jacob started to wonder what humor was in Brother… No, the Pebbleman’s home, but decided he didn’t want to think about it.
“Brother Rock, let’s go calm them down while some ammunition is left.”
The truck passed a man running down the side of the road.
“Was that Jonesy?” someone asked.
The driver slammed on the brakes and reversed hard. The back door opened again and Theo saw one of the migrant workers look in.
“Thanks, but y’all look cramped already. Still got my bag?”
“Open the back.”
The hatch opened and the woman jumped out and handed him a canvas bag. He unzipped it and began pulling things out.
“Jones, you just take your time, it’s not like there’s a bunch of pissed off people headed this way,” the woman in front said.
“Yeah, yeah. Keep your hair on,” the man outside said. He gave some things to the younger woman and they ran to opposite sides of the road and knelt down. They were doing something to the bottom of the trees but Theo couldn’t see what.
“Are y’all feds or meth runners?” he finally asked. “Jes’ curious, I ain’t got nothin’ against either.”
“Neither one,” the woman beside him said. She was wearing the same black clothes as the rest of them but no mask. She smiled at him and Theo found himself smiling back. “We’re here for you actually.”
The woman leaned forward, like she was going to whisper a secret. Theo found himself holding his breath, ready to hang on her every word.
“Can I tell you in a little while?” she murmured.
Looking into her eyes, Theo nodded. He wasn’t sure why but all he wanted to do was make her happy.
She kept her eyes on his until the migrant they called Jones yelled something. The SUV pulled away and there was a pair of cracks. The massive old oaks on either side of the road tilted over, one falling across the road and the other covering the rest of the valley floor and small stream beside the road. The trunks of both were shattered and splintered. The two that were outside ran to the truck in front of them and jumped in.
Theo figured they’d been driving about twenty minutes when the big SUV pulled off the road. There was a collection of old cars sitting there and people got out of the trucks and began moving their stuff to the cars. Theo was left with the long-haired woman and another man. They climbed into the backseat and out of the SUV, bringing Theo along. Once he was out of the SUV, he was surprised to see how beat up these other cars were, not to mention the ancient RV with the big W on its side. It even had a trailer with two beat up motorcycles on it.
Behind him, the man was using a rag an a bottle of cleaner to wipe down the interior. Theo watched him for a second and looked at the woman.
“We don’t like leaving our fingerprints,” she said. “My name is Kawehi and that’s Nate playing car wash in there.”
“You’re jes’ gonna leave them nice trucks? Someone’s probably gonna tear ’em up if they don’t jes’ steal ’em.”
She smiled at him. “We rented them, they’re not ours.”
“Oh. You better hope they don’t find you then.”
“No kidding,” Nate said, tossing the rag and bottle to another man. He stuck out his hand and Theo shook, more or less automatically. “I bet you’re wondering what’s going on with you.”
“No, I ain’t askin’ nothin’,” Theo said quickly. “Whoever y’all are, it don’t matter none to me. I gotta get home though, gonna get a beatin’ if I don’t get to work.”
“Let’s go sit down,” Kawehi said, taking his arm.
Lessons on manners had been pretty severe and Theo walked with her, trying to keep some distance between them but unwilling to pull his arm away. Nate walked along a couple of steps behind them. Theo figured even if he were to yank his arm back and run, the other man would keep him from going far. Kawehi led him to some large rocks that marked the edge of the parking area. She sat down on the biggest one, pulling him down beside her. Theo was uncomfortable sitting this close to a woman, especially when her boyfriend, or husband, sat on another one, a few feet away.
“There’s some good news and some better news,” Kawehi said. “The good news is that we’re taking you home right now. Your real home. You were kidnapped when you were three years old.”
Theo stared at her, checking her face carefully. “You’re not joshing me.”
“No, I’m serious. Someone found out where you were and we came to bring you home.”
Theo turned to Nate and studied his face just as closely. The man didn’t say anything, simply nodded.
“What about my mom and dad?”
“I’m sorry Theo, they died just before you were stolen,” Kawehi said. “Your aunt and your twin sister are waiting for you though.”
Theo was back to watching her face closely. “I got a twin sister? What’s her name?”
Theo saw that this woman was telling the truth. Still, it didn’t feel right, like his sister was named something else. That didn’t make any more sense than anything else in the last hour. He hadn’t known he had a twin when he woke up this morning, let alone what her name was.
“Everything okay?” Kawehi asked, smiling gently.
“Yeah, I guess. Where do they live?”
“I guess that’s the only bad news. We’ve got a few days of driving ahead of us but the camper there is pretty comfortable.”
Theo looked at her skeptically. “Are you sure that thing will run?”
Nate laughed. “You might be surprised. Ready to head out?”
Theo stood up and Kawehi got up with him, still holding his arm. As they walked over the RV, he wondered why she was so worried about him running off. He was completely lost out here. Where could he possibly go?
Inside, the camper was a strange mix of old and new. Around the driver there were more dials and readouts than he’d ever seen in one place. He even glimpsed small TV screens in the dashboard and the ceiling before Kawehi led him to one of the swiveling chairs. She had to help him figure out the seatbelts, even that was more complicated. But the floor was covered in grungy linoleum tiles and the walls had the same the same fake wood paneling the Crabtrees had in their living room. Further back, there were two doors. One was open and he could see a bed. The counter across from him looked as old as everything else, but there was another one of the strange televisions that someone had screwed to the top of it.
The woman who had grabbed him climbed in. She’d taken off her helmet and mask and he was surprised at how young she looked. She put a bag on the bed before taking the chair next to his. Theo quickly turned to the front before she caught him staring. Kawehi was sitting beside the driver and her husband sat down at the little booth across from the tiny kitchen.
Theo kept his eyes on the windshield. He was glad Kawehi was right there, he knew she’d never let anyone put a gun in his face or twist his arm. Behind him, Theo could hear someone else moving around. Finally, the sunburned blonde man climbed into the driver’s seat and put on his own belts before looking over his shoulder.
“Everyone ready?” he asked. “Tray tables and stewardesses in the upright position?”
“Does anyone ever think that’s funny?” the mean woman next to Theo asked.
“Not so far,” the driver said, glancing at the dials. “But hope springs eternal.”
Theo was expecting to hear the clattering cough of an old engine turning over. Instead, there was an odd whining sound and then a deep rumble shook the RV. The miniature televisions lit up along with all the dials. The RV slowly pulled onto the road, followed by several sedans. The rumble changed pitch and Theo felt a surge as the old camper accelerated.
“My name is Rachel,” the woman to his right said.
Theo turned to look at her. She had eyes that were nearly the same color blue as his own. Her hair was as black as his and was pulled tightly back in a braid. He didn’t see any hint of anger on her face. She looked friendly in fact.
“I’m Theo. You probably already knew that,” he said carefully.
She grinned, showing very white teeth. “Yeah, I’ve known your name for a long time. In fact, we were friends when you were very small. That’s one reason they brought me along.”
“Why were you so mean then?” Theo blurted without thinking.
She looked surprised and then a little ashamed. “I’m sorry about that. We didn’t know if you’d be willing to come with us or not. We wouldn’t have hurt you or your friend though.”
“My brother,” Theo said. “Well, foster brother anyway.”
“How about the man driving that truck?” Kawehi asked, looking back at them.
“Brother Vic? Oh no, he weren’t no kin or friend to me. Brother Elmer called him a mad dog behind his back, tole me and Junior to stay clear of him.”
“I’m curious about the place you grew up,” Kawehi said. “Maybe we can chat about it sometime?”
Theo happened to see the pretty woman’s face as she spoke. It was interesting, she wasn’t trying to deceive him but there was a lot more than idle interest behind her question. He couldn’t think of a reason why anyone would care about life in Watson’s Hole. If they’d been feds looking for meth runners it would make sense but she hadn’t lied about that. He’d have to watch her closer, watch all of them closer. Going to all this trouble over one kid, that didn’t make any sense either.
The RV slowed down a bit and turned onto another road, wider and smoother than anything Theo had ever seen. He was pushed back in his seat as they accelerated again. One of the cars passed them, going even faster. He understood driving, he’d been using the tractor and old pickup ever since he’d been tall enough to reach the pedals. Whatever this thing was, it didn’t make any sense to him. Other than that powerful rumbling, it was too quiet and too fast. Even with that trailer and motorbikes, it was faster and smoother than anything he’d ever ridden in.
After a few minutes, Kawehi got up and went into the bedroom at the back. When she came back wearing everyday clothes, it was Rachel’s turn. She came back, dressed much like Kawehi. She still looked plenty tough, but it was hidden more now.
“Ma’am, I don’t mean offense, but I noticed we look like we might be kin?”
She smiled. “Ma’am? I’m only four years older than you, Theo. We’re probably distant cousins, our families came from the same place.”
“Do you know my sister?”
She laughed. “Oh yes. See, as soon as you and Emma were born, my Dad came to help your parents out. Emma and I grew up together.”
There was more to it than that, it was pretty obvious. Theo filed it away for later.
“What’s she like?”
“Well, she looks a lot like you. She’s very smart and plays, uhm, sports. She teases a lot but only the people she cares about. From what I hear, you two were always getting into mischief together. She’s been my sister and best friend for a long time. I hope you and I can be friends as well.”
“If you promise not to twist my arm again. And thanks for not hurting my foster brother.”
“I know it all looked unhinged but we work really hard not to hurt anyone that doesn’t deserve it. You two grew up together?”
Theo nodded. “His parents took me in after…well, I’m not sure now. My parents died from too many drugs?”
She was shocked. “No! Not anything like that. They were both really brave people who died saving hundreds of people. They were heroes.”
“Oh. Brother Elmer and his wife said it was the meth. I guess they didn’t know.”
That wasn’t right though. Sister Mildred had told him several times about the social worker bringing him to the church because the orphanage in the city was full, how Sister Mildred had volunteered to take him in. Rachel wasn’t lying, or at least she thought she was telling the truth. He’d known better than to look too long at Brother Elmer or Sister Mildred, he’d gotten the back of both their hands for being prideful. He couldn’t imagine them out and out lying though.
“What were their names?” he finally asked.
“Oh geez, I should have started with that. Your dad’s name was Oliver but he went by Ollie. Your mother’s name was Claire. And you know that your last name is Cosineau?”
“No. That sounds French?”
“Yes, and the full name they gave you is Theophile Gautier Cosineau.”
He looked surprised. “Not Theodore?”
Rachel shook her head and Theo glanced at Kawehi to get confirmation.
She nodded. “But you can go by whatever name you’re most comfortable with though.”
“It’s fine by me, I hate being called Teddy. My kin are French then?”
“Your father was from a long way away,” Kawehi said. “But your mom was from Pennsylvania. Her last name was originally Hardy.”
Theo looked from one of them to the other. “Was it Elmer Crabtree that stole me?”
Kawehi shook her head. “It was a woman who worked at the same place as your parents. She took you to West Virginia but no one really knows the whole story. She may have lied to your foster parents as well.”
“They were pretty big in the church, it’d be hard to imagine them wrapped up with kidnapping. Now, you said you weren’t feds. You’re some other kind of police?”
Kawehi and Rachel looked at each other.
“No,” Kawehi said after a few seconds. “It’s complicated but we’re closer to military than police officers.”
Theo looked around. “Are y’all really though? It seems like you’re keeping a low profile here.”
“We are,” Kawehi said. “Since we’re not the police, taking you the way we did wasn’t completely legal. But your aunt didn’t thinking waiting to do it legally was a good idea. She was afraid they’d make you disappear before the real police could get there.”
“Yeah, Brother Dark doesn’t much care for the law, even if they ain’t after him.”
“Brother Dark?” Rachel asked.
Theo looked uncomfortable. “Yeah, he’s in charge of the church and town. You’re lucky he wasn’t around when you grabbed me. He ain’t too understanding about much.”
“Doesn’t sound much like other preachers,” Kawehi said.
“Them church folk ain’t much into the New Testament,” Theo said. “Brother Dark is like one of them old time prophets more than one of the Apostles. He says the New Testament is for the lazy and weak, that the Lord Jesus Christ came bearing a sword.”
“Pretty intense,” Rachel said. “What do you think?”
Theo’s stomach was full of butterflies, the conversation was starting to make him nervous. He wasn’t supposed to talk about Brother Dark to outsiders. “I’d prefer not to talk on that if you don’t mind.”
“That’s no problem at all,” Kawehi said. “If you’re getting sleepy, you can take a nap. Your seat is comfortable?”
Theo was suddenly aware of how tired he felt. He looked at the woman in front of him, wondering how she’d done that. She smiled back, understanding.
“You worked all day, right? And then a car accident followed by a lot of stress. It’s enough to make anyone tired. I’m not tricking you, promise.”
Theo watched her face and knew that he could trust her. It had been a long and very strange day, of course he was tired. Beside him, Rachel was explaining how he could put his seat back but Theo’s eyes drifted shut as she was talking.
The Pebbleman muttered something and his acolyte Jacob glanced at him from the driver’s seat. It looked like the dark man was asleep but Jacob wasn’t sure. He wasn’t sure about anything anymore. He didn’t like that feeling, not one little bit. Like when they were leaving, Pebbleman had put on his old hat but it took it right back off. Then he’d pointed to a spot on a map and told Jacob to take him there, as fast as possible. Then he’d made the whole thing even more uncanny by tossing the hat on the ground and stomping on it several times.
So here they were in the dark, tearing down winding backroads, headed west, more or less. Behind him, mostly keeping up, was a beat up old church van and a pickup, both full of Brothers. It didn’t make a whole lot of sense to Jacob but he’d followed those who were better at the hard thinking.
But now he had to do his own hard thinking. He didn’t like that feeling either, how was he supposed to know what to do next? Had he really witnessed a miracle? He’d broken a few heads himself, so Jacob was sure that he’d seen Brother…Pebbleman’s exposed brains. It had to be a miracle, a man couldn’t recover from something that bad, not that fast. But if it was a miracle, if Pebbleman had been healed by the hand of the Almighty, why wasn’t he just as good as before?
Because, for better or worse, the person riding beside him wasn’t the same as the one Jacob had seen preaching every Sunday. He was still mean as a snake with a toothache for sure. When they’d gone out to quiet folks down, Sheldon McIntyre had decided to fire his revolver one more time. Without a word, Pebbleman had taken a shotgun from someone and removed pretty much all of Sheldon’s head with it. Then he acted like it hadn’t happened at all, encouraging his flock to gather around him while smoke still oozed from the double-barrel. He’d preached to them about vengeance, right there in the street, called for volunteers to bring the Crabtree kid back home. All the while, Sheldon’s new widow made weird noises as someone muffled her screams and sobs.
People had all stared at his exposed head but none of them said word. Jacob figured that none of them had ever seen the Pebbleman without the usual broad brimmed hat before. Which brought up another worrying thing.
Pebble had him and a couple of others strip the clothes off the two that had attacked. They’d bundled it all together and wrapped every bit of tinfoil they could find around the bundle. That was bad enough, but those bodies weren’t right, didn’t look natural at all. They’d dragged them outside and burned them, as Pebbleman had ordered, although a shallow grave back in the woods was usually good enough nosy strangers or the occasional unrepentant sinner. When they’d been doused with gas and lit, the smell of it was all wrong. Jacob had smelled more than few roasting bodies when the Army had sent him off to fight ragheads. The smell of those two though…. Jacob had to clench his teeth tight, fighting back the urge to empty his stomach. What were those things? Were they really relatives of Pebbleman? They seemed more like demons than men.
Then Jacob made the connection, like a camera going off behind his eyes. Demons and angels were all related, the Almighty had made them together. Suddenly, it all made sense, a pair of demons had come and attacked the Dark Brother! They wouldn’t attack one of their own. Nossir, they’d attack an enemy. They’d all look alike to humans, but didn’t the Good Book say that men didn’t have the proper eyes to really see? Or something like that. He glanced at his passenger in growing awe. No wonder he’d always seemed different. He was an angel!
Jacob realized the truth of it then. He wanted to stop the car, to fall to his knees and thank the Almighty Lord that he’d been chosen to serve one of His own chosen warriors. Jacob decided there and then that he’d follow Pebbleman to the end, whatever he called himself. And woe to any man who turned his face from their holy and ordained path. He pushed the gas pedal down a little more. They couldn’t possibly wreck, not with the Hand of the Almighty guiding their way!
It was dark outside when Theo opened his eyes. He started to panic, not knowing where he was at first. As he struggled to get up, someone put their hand on his leg. A small light went on and he saw the blue-eyed woman, Rachel, was in the passenger seat now. She’d turned around, it was her hand on his shin. After a second Theo remembered and let his breath out. Rachel raised an eyebrow and Theo nodded that he was okay. Beside him, the blonde man who’d been driving was sitting in Rachel’s seat. When Theo looked over, the man stuck out a hand.
“Hey cousin,” he said as they shook hands. “I’m Jim Sheppard, everyone calls me Shep.”
“Theo. You were driving the truck that hit us?”
He sort of expected the man to apologize like Rachel had but Shep grinned at him.
“That was pretty cool, huh?”
Theo couldn’t help but grin back at him. “Definitely surprised everyone. You’re kin of mine too?”
“Probably not by blood, but I grew up farming and can always spot another brother of the soil.”
“No kidding? Where at?”
“A little ways south of Atlanta, Georgia. Mostly corn and beans, a few chickens and hogs. Daddy tried peanuts and cotton too. Didn’t care much for cotton.”
Theo laughed. “Yeah, never heard a single good thing about cotton. I liked taking care of pigs though…”
Sitting behind them in the dark, Kawehi frowned as she watched the two of them talk. She’d assumed this kid was just shy of outsiders but Marisol’s demolitions sergeant had him smiling and chatting away with hardly any effort at all. It might have been that he related to men better than women but she hadn’t seen any sign of that so far. It was more like Theo hadn’t wanted to reveal very much. She wondered how he’d answer if she suddenly sat up and asked about this “Brother Dark” or that little town.
Most likely, he’d just shut back down. It would be a cruel experiment. At best. In fact, she felt bad even considering it. Theo was her responsibility and she cared about him.
That realization snapped her eyes open and Kawehi sat up. That feeling shouldn’t have been there. Yes, he was some of the last family a VIP had, and yes, she was technically in charge of this op making Theo her responsibility. The feeling went beyond that though. She was tempted to wake Nate up to talk about this weirdness but let him sleep. He usually erred toward overreaction and something was telling her they needed to be careful here. Hopefully that was based on logic, not whatever this weird feeling was.
The roads were paved now, more or less, but they were just as twisted and treacherous in the dark. Jacob peered out of the windshield, trying to see what was beyond his headlights as he skidded and fishtailed the old Cadillac through the hills.
“Brother Rock, I note that some of our followers lack true faith and fellowship.”
“Uhm, how do you mean?”
“You and I share a bond, yes? The others, I don’t feel the same bond of fellowship.”
Jacob slammed on the brakes for hairpin curve that had suddenly appeared. “Sir, this moment here ain’t really a time for that kinda talk. They jes’ gotta get used to you is all.”
Pebbleman nodded and they stared out the windows in silence.
“Because I shot that shit heel?”
Brother Jacob really wanted to punch something but he managed to keep his voice calm. “Could be part of it, sure. Let’s worry on this a bit later, yeah?”
The gaunt man looked over, a manic rictus twisting his thin lips into a parody of a grin. “Later, yes! Once we drive that unholy vermin back to hell!”
Jacob just nodded, concentrating on the road.
“Yes,” the Pebbleman said, looking back out the window. “Once we find our little lost lamb.”
Jacob nodded, only half-paying attention.
“Once that shit covered lamb is in my abbatoir!” Pebbleman suddenly shrieked.
Startled, Jacob slammed on the brakes and the old sedan shuddered and groaned as it slid sideways in the road.
“We’ve arrived?” Pebbleman asked, looking from window to window.
Jacob resisted a powerful urge to find out what would happen if he punched this angel into next week.
“No,” he said through gritted teeth. “You scared the shit out of me with that screaming.”
When Jacob had gotten the car moving again, he became aware that Pebbleman had his arms clutched around his thin chest and he was rocking back and forth while he laughed. It was disturbing, a hissing snicker.
“Somethin’ funny?” Jacob asked, in a low, dangerous voice.
“You’re scared of a sound!” Pebbleman gasped.
Jacob shook his head and pushed the accelerator harder.
“That shit covered monkey…no, lamb. The shit smeared lamb has a secret somewhere, my fine Rock. We’re going to find it, I’ll tear out his stinking guts to find out what it is.”
“What kind of secret do you mean?”
“That little…fuckling! If you knew the trouble to get one of those…. But not to rudely break it open with a rock! To appreciate the subtle twisting coils of its truth, to taste its wet electricity. Then we will know. They will weep, Questioning me with those rectum biters…” Pebbleman’s voice faded into a hissing whisper.
Jacob was happy not to hear what he was saying. The accelerator pedal went a little further down. The sooner this chase was finished, the better.
A few hours later, Shep had fallen asleep but Theo felt wide awake. It seemed like him and the woman who had taken over the driving were the only ones awake in the RV. He amused himself by watching the little TV sets in the dashboard. Some were of a road, taken from different angles. As another car passed them, Theo realized that the cameras must be on the outside of the RV. Others had incomprehensible words and numbers on them. He was slowly falling asleep, lulled by the sound of the engine, when one of the little screens flashed twice. He could hear a voice that sounded like it was on the radio. The woman said something back, clearly responding although she hadn’t picked up anything to talk into. Then she made the lights inside of the RV come on. It was dim at first but quickly brightened into a strange blue-white light. Beside him, Theo noticed that Shep had already woken up and was looking out the windows. Rachel was doing the same thing.
“Fuel stop,” the driver announced. “Number two is about bingo.”
Around him, Theo heard people sitting up. Disturbingly there were a couple of metallic noises that probably were guns of some sort. He wasn’t sure if they were because of him or something outside, but it made him jumpy. Further up the road, he could see an island of light in the surrounding darkness. As they slowed down, he could see it was a gas station. Bigger than the filling station at home, but familiar at least.
The RV pulled under a huge canopy and stopped beside a gas pump. He recognized one of the cars that was already getting gas, the man he thought was a migrant worker was working the pump. It was strange, he didn’t even look over at the RV but he knew they were there.
Shep got out of his chair and stretched. “Man, I gotta hit the can. How about you?”
Theo nodded, unbuckled and got up. Shep unlocked the side door and Theo followed him into the cool night air. Another one of their cars pulled in but used a gas pump that was on the other side of the canopy. Again, the passengers acted like they didn’t know anyone in the camper. Nate hopped down from the camper and the three of them walked over the brightly lit building.
None of them noticed the rusted out Cadillac half-hidden behind a dumpster.