Authors: Frank Peretti
“She is alive,” he mused bitterly. “We were rid of her, we thought for good, but then she popped up again. We sought to kill her, but now she is still alive and . . . under
The princes stood like statues, silently waiting for his next word.
The demonic ranks had to trim their lines again.
“Broken Birch . . .” he continued to muse. “Such a delightful group of people, so unabashed and forthright. So ready to kill. So . . . so CLUMSY!” He fumed, he drummed his huge fingers, he glared at nothing in particular. “These humans . . . these worshipers of our lord are marvelously evil, but sometimes . . . sometimes they stumble ahead of
! No subtlety, no caution.
“So now we have a blunder, and a slippery little soul has escaped from our fist, a worse threat to us now than ever she was!”
A prince stepped forward and bowed. “Will my lord consider aborting the Plan?”
The Strongman straightened, and his fists thundered down on the hearthstones. “NO!”
The prince stepped back into the ranks under the condemning stares of his fellows.
“No,” growled the Strongman, “not this Plan. Too much is at stake, too much has already been established and prepared. There is too much to be gained to let one little woman, one little pitiful soul, ruin it all!”
The loathsome spirit tried to relax, leaning his head back and letting his amber tongue roll across his lips.
“The town was so perfect,” he mused. “The saints of God so few, so penniless . . . and
people, oh, so strong, so numerous, so . . . so pioneering! We worked so hard to establish the foothold we have in that town. Ah . . . who knows how long it took . . . ?”
“Twenty-three years, Ba-al,” said a well-meaning aide.
The Strongman glared at him. “Thank you. I know.”
The aide bowed and retreated.
The Strongman continued his mental review. “And the petty little saints in the town were . . . obscure, don’t you see, far from help, far from the mainstream, alone amid the rolling farmlands . . . unknown. It was a perfect place to begin the process.” His beastly face grew tight and bitter. “Until they started praying. Until they ceased being so comfortable and started weeping before God! Until they began to reclaim the power of the . . .” The Strongman sealed his lips.
“The Cross?” the aide volunteered.
“YAAAAA!!” The Strongman’s sword sizzled through the air and missed the aide by inches. No matter. Several princes grabbed this foulmouthed vassal and ousted him.
The Strongman settled onto the hearth with a thud. “Destroyer!”
The princes looked toward the other end of the room. A mutter moved through their ranks. Some stepped back.
A shadow stepped forward, a silhouette. It was tall, shrouded in billowing wings. It moved so smoothly, so silently, that it seemed to float. The other demons dared not touch it. Some bowed slightly.
It moved across the room and then stood before the Strongman, its head lowered in obeisance. It remained absolutely still.
The Strongman studied this dark, silent shape for a moment. “You have been noticeably silent during these discussions.”
The thing raised its head and looked at its lord with narrow, calculating eyes. The face was not entirely hideous; it was almost human. But it was evil; it was cold and filled with hate.
“Speak, my Ba-al,” he said, “and I will answer.”
The Strongman’s eyes narrowed. “Your minions failed, Destroyer. She is alive and free. What do you say to that?”
Destroyer’s face was rock-hard, his spine straight. “Is she still mine?”
There was a strange, cutting tone in the Strongman’s voice. “Do you still deserve her, Destroyer?”
Destroyer didn’t seem to appreciate the question.
The Strongman spoke clearly, threateningly. “I want you to remove her, so that she will never reappear again.” There was a slight tinge of doubt in the Strongman’s voice as he asked, “
you do that?”
The thing didn’t move for a moment.
SLASH! Red flash! A sizzling sword cut through the air and divided space into burning segments. Black wings filled the room like smoke and rolled like thunder. The princes fell back against the walls; the Strongman actually flinched.
The thing stood there motionless again, the eyes burning with anger, the black wings slowly settling, the glowing red sword steady in his hand.
His low, sinister voice was seething with resentment. “Give me some real warriors, not Terga and his bungling, whining little imps of Bacon’s Corner! Turn over your best to my command and let them empower Broken Birch, and you will see what your servant can do!”
The Strongman studied Destroyer’s face and without the slightest smile asked, “What about the rumors I hear?”
Destroyer puffed a derisive laugh through his flaring nostrils. “They are rumors spread in fear by cowering spirits!
our opponent be this Tal, so much more the thrill of the challenge.”
“He is mighty.”
Destroyer countered, “He is
His strength is not in his own sword, but in the saints of God. The ranks have made a legend of his
victory over us in Ashton, but they pay him too much respect. It was the prayers of the saints that defeated us, not this wily Captain of the Host.” Destroyer waved his sword slowly through the air, admiring the burning after-image that trailed behind its razor-sharp edge. “And so it was in this recent, minor setback. But I now have an advantage, Ba-al: I have tasted the enemy’s wiles, I have tested his strength, and I know the source of his power.”
The Strongman was dubious. “And just how do you expect to thwart him where once you could not?”
“I will go to the saints first. Already there is plenty in Bacon’s Corner for them to be upset about, plenty to divide them. I will keep them busy censuring and smiting each other, and then their hearts will be far from praying.” He held the sword high; its red glow lit up the room and his yellow eyes reflected the glow in bloodshot crimson. “I will pull Tal’s strength right out from under him!”
The Strongman was impressed, at least for the moment. “I will commission my best to accompany you. Broken Birch is clumsy at times, but totally devoted to us. Use them at your pleasure. Now go!”
BEN SAT AT
his small desk in the front office of the police station and tried to get some paperwork cleared up before going out on patrol. It was a nice little office, with two small desks, a copy machine, some colorful traffic safety posters, and a low wood railing partition. Right now the morning sun was streaming in through the big windows, warming the place up. Under different circumstances he’d always enjoyed working here.
But Ben was far from cheery this morning, and his mind was far from his paperwork. He’d seen Mulligan’s final report on the so-called suicide, and found it unbelievable. He couldn’t be sure, but the photographs of the body and of the surrounding conditions simply did not match what he remembered seeing. Suddenly there was a rope around the woman’s neck—last night Ben saw no rope around her neck, and even Mrs. Potter said the woman had the rope in her hand. The spilled goat feed had mysteriously vanished, and the straw around the body seemed undisturbed, not at all in the trampled, kicked-around mess it was in last night.
Ben didn’t like the thought of it, but it was obvious that the scene—and the photographs of it—had been sanitized, as if Mulligan and Leonard had done away with all the evidence before taking the photographs and writing up the report.
As if that wasn’t enough to stew about, there was also Mulligan’s deriding and accusing of Tom Harris, and in front of reporters. And what in the world was the press doing in the station anyway? A lot of things were looking suspicious to Ben right now.
Hampton County Star
was lying on the corner of his desk. He had to go all through the paper before he could find even the slightest mention—and that’s all it was—of the death at the Potter farm. The article was more a space filler than any real news, as if the reporter dropped all the facts on the floor somewhere and forgot about them . . . or purposely ditched them there. The whole thing felt wrong, so wrong it turned Ben’s stomach.
I’ve got to get out of here, get out on patrol. I don’t want to talk to Mulligan, don’t even want to look at him.
But Mulligan was hard to ignore—he liked it that way. He came up to the front, belched loudly, and sat behind the desk across the room like a load of grain landing on a wharf. He had the investigation report in his hand, and started flipping through it for one last look.
“Well,” he said, his booming voice shattering the nerves, “that does it.”
“Any next of kin we can notify?” Ben asked.
Mulligan pulled a manila envelope out of a drawer. “There aren’t any. Roe was a nobody, a loner.” He slid the report, along with its accompanying sketches and photographs, into the envelope and folded it shut. “She pulled her own plug, and now it’s our job to plant her quietly and get on with business.”
“I don’t suppose there will be a coroner’s report?”
Ben knew he’d overstepped. Mulligan was getting steamed. “Of course there will. What about it?”
Ben wanted to back off, but now he had to answer Mulligan’s question. “Well . . . with all due respect . . . the coroner might find some evidence to suggest another cause of death.”
Mulligan didn’t have time for this. “Listen, Cole, if just being a plain, hard-working, clean-nosed cop isn’t enough for you . . . if you
just don’t feel you have enough responsibility . . . I’m sure I can find you some more important jobs, something you can really take pride in. The place could use some sweeping, and I know you’d be thorough; you’d get that broom into every corner, you’d catch every cobweb, huh?”
Ben knew he was glaring at Mulligan, but he made no effort to soften his expression. “I could be very thorough in checking the accuracy of last night’s investigation.”
Mulligan yanked a file drawer open and tossed the envelope in. “You just concentrate on doing your job, Cole. I’m not paying you to be my conscience.”
POSTMASTER LUCY BRANDON
couldn’t keep her mind on her work. Debbie, the postal clerk, had already asked her three questions—one about the Route 2 driver, one about the cracked mailing trays, and one about . . . now she couldn’t remember the third question. She couldn’t answer any of them; she couldn’t recall the information; she just couldn’t think.
“Hey,” Debbie said finally, “are you feeling okay?”
Lucy removed her glasses and rubbed her eyes. She was usually a strong person, tough enough. A tall brunette in her late thirties, she’d been through plenty of life’s little trials by this time: poverty, the early death of her parents, a wild and rebellious youth, a shaky marriage, picking up the pieces after a bitter divorce, and raising a young daughter alone—all in all, a well-rounded package of scrapes. So she’d learned to cope, usually; most troubles never really got her upset—as long as they didn’t touch her family.
She looked around the small Post Office, and fortunately it was quiet right now. The midday rush was still a few hours away, the drivers had all left for their routes, the stack of work on her desk was growing, but she could catch up.
She was determined to answer at least one question. “Well, no, not really.”
Debbie was young, pretty, and compassionate. Maybe she hadn’t
lived long enough to develop a tough exterior. She touched Lucy’s shoulder tenderly. “Anything I can do?”
“Well . . .” Lucy checked the clock on the wall. “I have an appointment coming up in just a few minutes. Think you and Tim can hold down the fort until I get back?”
A flash of reflected sunlight danced along the wall. A deep-blue fastback pulled up outside.
“Oh, there’s my ride.”
“You go ahead. Don’t worry about us.”