Sermon on the Mound
Elias and Sam spent hours wandering the streets, drifting along with the herds of homeless wanderers. It took a while, but eventually Elias found a woman he had spoken to before—it was she who had told him that Kronin and Nina had argued.
She had thin, stringy black hair which was falling out, leaving a bald patch on the top of her head. One of her eyes was noticeably larger than the other, and that eye kept a keen watch on Sam, who stood roughly twenty feet away, as the woman spoke in hushed whispers to Elias.
They were in a camp at the outskirts of Blackrock, not far from the main highway. Here, decrepit buildings sat atop large, open, thickly weeded lots. Just a few miles away, a freight train rumbled heavily over unseen tracks.
Elias motioned for Sam to join them. When she approached, Elias leaned in and said “there’s a gathering. She agreed to take us.”
The woman led Elias, Sam and a small knot of vagrants toward the highway. There, barrel fires burned and a larger crowd had gathered before the highway overpass. Grassy earth sloped upward to meet the concrete abutment that anchored the overpass’s south side.
From the top of this mound a man with long blond dreadlocks, wearing a patched trench coat and turtleneck sweater, called out:
“Each of you is worthy of the gift. Each of you stands ready to be counted among the chosen few; to experience true freedom; to sever the bonds of mortal confinement. There are those among you who have already been anointed. By the light of the next full moon they will know what it is to embrace their true form. Who among you will join them?”
The woman led Elias and Sam to the center of the throng. Voices all around them responded. Looking to Trench Coat Man, Sam saw that his right hand was deformed… the flesh of the first two fingers and the last two fingers were fused together, like a lobster claw.
She looked all around. The mass was enthralled by the words of the man on the mound.
Then, eyes began to widen. A few of the gathered pointed. Sam turned to see…
Raggedy Man. Kronin. He emerged from the darkness beneath the underpass to stand next to Trench Coat Man. Kronin’s face was hidden by the hood and scarf… and the sleeves of his coat were still darkly stained with the blood of the man from the church… and, who knew? Perhaps the blood of others as well.
Sam resisted the urge to draw her gun right then. But only barely.
Here and there among the crowd, hands were raised. Sam looked around, glanced behind her. A tall man with a long gray beard and a pea coat had raised his right hand, arm straight like some kind of salute. On the man’s right palm was a mark, as if carved into his hand—crisscrossed lines like the spokes of a wheel. Also, underneath the sleeve of his coat, Sam could make out wrappings. Like a bandaged wound.
“They bear the mark of the beast,” Elias whispered in her ear. Sam looked to see how many hands were raised. Fifteen? More? Including the woman who had led them here.
Sam turned back to watch Kronin. He leaned and spoke into Trench Coat Man’s ear. The man nodded. Kronin then faced the crowd once more, his head rotating as he scanned the gathering.
Sam’s heart froze as he stopped. Though she couldn’t see his eyes, she could feel his gaze on her, chilling the blood in her veins.
Just as silently as he had arrived, Kronin turned and disappeared back into the depths of the underpass.
Elias and Sam shared a look. Elias nodded, and the two of them worked their way through the crowd as the speaker continued his sermon.
Once they reached the head of the gathering, they proceeded under the overpass and out the other side. There, they could see the distant figure of Kronin approaching a chain link fence. Beyond it sat two rows of dreary tenements, four in total.
With the speech of Trench Coat Man fading behind them, Elias and Sam made their way across the open lot. Kronin ducked through a hole in the fence. Moments later, Elias and Sam did the same.
The four-story dwellings rose up on either side, metal fire escapes crisscrossing their stony back sides. Clotheslines hung across the gap between the buildings in several places, sheets and garments hanging limp in the nonexistent breeze.
Kronin was nowhere to be seen. Sam withdrew the Desert Eagle from behind her back. Elias retrieved his own weapon, a Smith and Wesson.
Sam moved ahead as a noise broke the silence from somewhere behind them. Elias had stopped and turned. He held up a hand for Sam to wait as he walked back, gun held in the ready position. A raccoon ran from behind a pile of trash and across the alley. Elias turned back to Sam…
And that’s when she saw the figure drop behind him, landing smoothly, almost silently. Elias spun. Sam raised her gun but Elias was blocking her shot. The gun went off; a bullet struck the pavement and ricocheted. An instant later Sam saw the gun go flying into the back wall of the building on her right. Elias threw a flurry of punches, moving with blinding speed, but Raggedy Man was faster, parrying each blow with ease. Elias hopped back to gain some distance and fired off a roundhouse kick aimed at Kronin’s head. The other man caught the foot with both hands and twisted. Loud popping noises, like the amplified sound of knuckles cracking, bounced off the walls and were joined by a pained outcry from Elias.
Though this all happened in the space of a few seconds, it had been long enough for Sam to reposition herself so that she might get a bead on Raggedy Man. He saw her, however and reacted immediately, letting go of Elias’ leg and smashing through a back door just a few feet away.
Sam ran and stopped to look at Elias, who was holding his ankle and wincing. He managed to say through clenched teeth. “I’m okay, I’ll be okay.”
Without waiting to hear more, Sam ran through the doorway…
“Sam, no!” Came Elias’s voice from outside. He wanted to protect her; she understood that. The thing was, she wasn’t comfortable with the thought of needing protection.
Taking the steps two at a time she raced up a narrow flight of stairs that smelled of urine and rat droppings. Above, she could hear Kronin’s footfalls. She continued up one story to another, and another, to the fourth floor. She could see her target halfway down the hall; he turned toward her…
Then picked a door seemingly at random and kicked it in.
When Sam reached the doorway, Kronin was standing in front of a window at the far end of the cramped room, holding a woman in a dirty tank top and pajama pants by her long, ratty hair, his fist curled at the top of her head. The woman was blubbering, hands held to her face, elbows tight to her body.
Sam stepped in. There was a tiny kitchen to her right, a small tattered couch just ahead with a coffee table before it, and on the coffee table a cheap bottle of wine, a spoon and a syringe.
“Let her go,” Sam said.
Silence was the only answer. Stepping forward, angling around the coffee table, Sam held the muzzle of her gun steady at the dead-center of Raggedy Man’s chest. The woman cried.
Kronin opened his right hand wide. Sam thought back to the man in the church, with his missing throat; she thought of what Barnes had said, what the M.E. thought had happened to the John Doe:
“She thinks the killer ripped out the victim’s throat with his bare hands.”
Without hesitation Sam fired three shots in succession, directly into Raggedy Man’s chest. She had raised the gun for a head shot when Kronin let go of the woman’s hair and stumbled backward through the window.
The woman collapsed to the floor as Sam rushed to the shattered window. Raggedy Man had either toppled or thrown himself over the fire escape. With the ledge blocking her view, she couldn’t see the ground below.
There was a wail of sirens, coming closer. She couldn’t be found here like this. Elias couldn’t either.
“You’re okay?” she asked the woman. Barely looking up, the female nodded.
Sam ran back out into the hall.