Authors: Frank Peretti
Lucy bent and gave her a hug. “Go get your coat, honey, and your lunchbox.”
Those were the first words Tom heard from her today.
As soon as Amber was ready, Tom saw them to the door, opening
it widely for them to pass through. The reporters were still waiting outside, of course, and Tom could almost feel the one-eyed stare of that television camera.
“Say, listen,” he said to the reporters, “you people are on private property, and I think it would be best if you just move on, all right?”
“Oh, Mr. Harris,” said Claire, turning back and joining him in the doorway. The camera caught a perfect two-shot. “I’m also here to serve you this.”
She took an envelope from her suitcoat pocket and placed it in his hand. The camera zoomed in for a close-up. Paula’s camera clicked and whirred off several shots.
“We’ll see you in court, sir. Good day.”
She went down the stairs and walked with Lucy and Amber back to her car.
Tom was frozen to the spot for a moment, which was fine with Paula and Roberto. He stared down at the envelope, his stomach in a knot, his heart pounding so hard he could feel it. The envelope was starting to quiver in his hand. He looked at the newspeople. They got some more shots.
“Please leave,” he said, his voice hardly audible.
“Thank you, Mr. Harris,” said John Ziegler.
Tom swung the door shut and then leaned against it, all alone in the common room. He felt his legs would collapse under him and he would sink to the floor any moment.
“Oh, God,” he prayed in a whisper. “Oh, God, what’s happening?”
From the two classrooms the quiet puttering and studying continued. Suddenly that was such a precious sound to him. He looked around the common room and recognized the coats and lunchboxes of all the children, all this dear little tribe. Before long they would be having a prayer and going out for morning recess, filling the swings and playground like they always did. Such simple, day-to-day routines now seemed so priceless because of the envelope in his hand, this invader, this cancer, this vicious, imposing enemy! He wanted so fervently to tear it into a million pieces, but he knew he couldn’t.
Now everything was coming together. Now things were beginning to make sense. His eyes blurred with tears.
So this was why they took Ruth and Josiah!
TAL WAS THERE,
his sword drawn, staying close to the building, out of sight, watching the car and the news van pull away. Only a few dark spirits had accompanied the visitors, and there were no skirmishes, at least for now. The fact that Tom was well-guarded by two towering warriors helped keep things peaceful, plus the fact that Nathan and Armoth were atop the church in plain sight.
“No more harassments for the rest of the day,” Tal instructed Tom’s guards. “Let him heal up from this one first.”
Then he spread his wings and reached the roof of the church in one smooth leap.
“So they’ve decided to go ahead with it!” said Nathan.
“The Strongman can be inflexible,” said Tal. “I expect this will be a fight to the finish. It’s—”
A sudden explosion of wings! All three warriors immediately formed a close cluster, each facing outward, sword drawn, poised for battle.
“There!” shouted Tal, and they all faced the old bell tower.
It was Destroyer, standing tall and imposing, his expansive wings just settling, his glowing red sword drawn. A dozen warriors accompanied him, six on each side, almost as monstrous as he was. The hot yellow vapor from each demon’s nostrils was already collecting in a writhing ribbon that drifted out over the parking lot like a slow, inquisitive serpent.
“If I mistake not, you are Tal, the Captain of the Host!” the demon called.
Tal, Nathan, and Armoth were sizing up this bunch. A fight would best be avoided.
“I am,” said Tal.
The black, bristly lips pulled back in a mocking grin, unveiling long, amber fangs. “Then the rumors in the ranks were true!”
“And who might you be?”
“Call me Destroyer for now.” Then he proclaimed proudly, “I am the one assigned to the woman!”
Tal didn’t stir. Taunts never bothered him. He never fought until he was ready.
The demon continued, his sword ready. “I thought, before the battle begins, the two warlords should meet each other.
wanted to meet
to see if all the lofty words I’ve heard are true.” Destroyer eyed Tal carefully. “Perhaps not.” He waved his sword about. “But please look at this place, this little school! Is it really so much a prize as to be worth all your armies? Be assured, we want no more trouble in taking it as you desire in saving it. Captain of the Host, we could settle the matter sooner rather than later.”
Tal answered, “The school is ours. The saints are ours.”
Destroyer spread his arms with a flourish and made a pronouncement. “The Strongman has authorized me to give you the Christian schools in Westhaven, in Claytonville, in Toe Springs! You may have them! We will leave them alone!”
Tal remained stone-solid. “No.”
Destroyer only laughed. “Oh. It must be the woman. Perhaps you are still bolstered by your recent victory in saving her. Consider that a gift, captain, our last blunder. Yes, you did save her life, but she lives for us. Her soul is ours!”
Tal said nothing.
“And not only the woman, but also all the power, resources, people, minds, money . . .
we will ever need to trample you and your motley little flock of saints into the dust! You are too late, Captain of the Host! The time is past for you and your saints.
hold the power now! Surrender, cut your losses, and be content!”
“We will see you in battle,” said Tal.
Destroyer looked at Tal for a long moment, shaking his head slowly, marveling at this angelic warrior’s stubbornness. Finally he nodded.
“In battle then.”
With another explosion of rushing, leathery wings, the demons rose into the sky, whooping and wailing, mocking and spitting until they were gone.
Only then did Tal put away his sword.
“Was that an attempt to frighten us?” asked Armoth.
“A strategic move,” said Tal. “He was trying to steal our courage at the beginning.”
“So now what do you think of our chances?” asked Nathan.
“Even,” said Tal. “Maybe just even.”
CHIMON AND SCION
remained hidden on either side of Room 12 at the Rest Easy Motel in Claytonville. There were dark spirits about, apparently Destroyer’s scouts—slimy, cowardly harassers, swooping down through the trees and power lines, zipping up and down the streets, looking into houses, through windows, down chimneys for the poor, bedraggled fugitive. The two angels were working hard to maintain a hedge about the woman, to screen her from their sight, and thus far they were able to keep her hiding-place a secret from any spirits sent to torment her.
But four spirits still followed Sally Roe wherever she went, and had been her close companions for so long that they could not be separated for the present. Chimon and Scion were just itching to stand in their way, to hack Despair, Fear, Death, and Insanity out of this world, to lessen the pain for that frightened, battered soul. But her life was such that they were there by right; and besides, the pain was necessary. The two warriors had to withhold their power.
SALLY GAVE HER
head a good rub with a towel, and then straightened up for a look in the bathroom mirror. Her once-red hair now cascaded over her shoulders and down her back in wet, black strands. Well, maybe it would work—if they were only looking for red hair. But
her face was still too distinctive; even with her hair dyed black and all pinned up, she still looked like Sally Roe. If she could hide all those freckles it would help. Maybe she could conceal her brown eyes with a pair of glasses, those stylish, tinted kind. Maybe she could wear a lot of makeup.
Her heart sank. This was all so futile, so childish. She was dreaming, groping for hope, and she knew it. If they ever spotted her, they would recognize her. She was finished, through, as good as dead.
She leaned on the sink, let her head droop, and just stayed there for the longest time, her mind failing her miserably; it just wouldn’t function. It was tired, burned out, discouraged. All she could do was stand there, breathing one breath at a time. At least she could breathe; at least
was still functioning.
But why was she so glad about it? That bothered her.
Sally, you’re too tired to think about it. Let it go.
But then her mind clicked on, just a little, and again, for the millionth time, she tackled the same vexing question: If life was so pointless, so futile, so meaningless, so empty, why was she trying so hard to hang on to it? Why did she want to keep going? Maybe it had something to do with how life evolved; nothing poetic or lofty, to be sure, just that mysterious, unexplained self-preservation instinct, the only reason we hung on long enough to beat the odds so we could walk upright and kill each other . . .
She snapped out of it. It was a waste of time trying to figure it out. It was a merry-go-round, an endless maze.
Keep it simple, Sally: somebody wants to kill you, but you want to stay alive. Those two propositions are enough for now.
She leaned forward to check the cut in her shoulder. No infection, at least; that was good. For now the bleeding was stopped and the wound was closed, but just barely. She carefully bound it up with adhesive tape and gauze—a nice manual task, no heavy brainwork—then slipped carefully into her shirt.
She came out of the bathroom, sat on the bed, and started tinkering with the clasp on an inexpensive neck chain. It was a good buy down at the local variety store—provided it didn’t turn her neck blue—and should do the trick.
She’d been shopping that morning, as quickly and quietly as possible,
constantly hoping she would not be seen by anyone who might know who she was, or care. But she had to get that tape and gauze, the hair rinse, this chain, some clean clothes . . . and the morning paper.
Hampton County Star
was still spread out on the bed. She’d paged through it the moment she got back to the room. The front page carried some stories about a sewage plant, a local political scandal, and a county commissioner’s thirtieth year in office, but no news from Bacon’s Corner. The second and third pages didn’t say anything either. She didn’t find what she was after until the bottom of the last page of the news section. It was a tiny headline and about one and a half inches of story:
LOCAL WOMAN FOUND DEAD
Bacon’s Corner—The body of a local woman was discovered last night in her home, an apparent suicide. The victim is identified as Sally Beth Rough, 36, an employee at the Bergen Door Company.
Her landlady, Mrs. Fred Potter of Bacon’s Corner, made the discovery after noticing some of Rough’s goats were loose.
“It’s a real tragedy,” she said.
It was a ridiculous piece of reporting. A run-over chicken would have gotten more copy, maybe even had its name spelled correctly. But that didn’t bother Sally. That wasn’t the point.
The story was not just wrong—it was incredibly, shockingly wrong.
They think the dead woman is
The woman who tried to
me? They think she’s
She’d brooded about that all through her shower. It bothered her so much she had to read the instructions on the bottle of rinse three times.
At first she thought it could be good news.
They’ll think I’m dead!