Refuge

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CHAPTER 15 – Allies

MUIR BEACH

THURSDAY

A calm, reassuring voice penetrated the turbulence of Erin’s mind.

She opened her eyes.

With the diminishment and eventual cessation of Vic’s struggles, her body began to relax, and her tension bled away. But then she became aware of fiery pain, distant but demanding, even beginning to eclipse the burning kisses of the belt that crisscrossed her body. She stared down at the blood-covered fists grasping the chain still looped about Vic’s neck, hardly recognizing them as her own. She began to ease her grip, and the pain spiked. At her gasp, the stranger reached up and supported Vic’s weight until she could unwind the chain from her hands. Air hissed through clenched teeth as, grimacing at the pain, she worked each hand open, and the man let the body topple sideways.

Then the impact of her actions hit her.

She had killed him. She had killed the son-of-a-bitch. She had won! She had beaten him! He was dead, and she still lived—and she had done it with her own hand! She was free! She sagged to her knees, covered her face with her bleeding hands and sobbed.

When, after some moments, she opened her eyes and began to lower her splayed fingers from in front of them, she saw the stranger’s hand reach toward her. It was as though Vic’s death was a sham. She was not free—and he was coming back for her. When the fingertips touched her elbow, she jerked her hands away and lurched back away from him.

Her sharp gasping intake of air fueled an insisting, “No!”


The iron sights with flakes of red rust rested solidly on the square centimeter of skin just above the bridge of Jason’s nose. The finger on the trigger took up the slack.


Wary, Erin watched the stranger pull his hand back. “Please... I’m sorry if I startled you,” he said. “I won’t hurt you, honest. Look...this guy…he’s dead. No one is going to hurt you now.”

She looked at Vic’s twisted, unmoving form and his twisted, unmoving face with the chain still wrapped about the bloated, bloody tissue of his neck. She couldn’t stop the grin working its way onto her strained features. Another hard sob shook her. She peered, then, at the stranger propped up on his elbows beneath her. Though his face showed the wear and tear of life, it was a good face. Beads of blood made trails down his chin from both corners of his mouth and hung there. She looked back at Vic’s face; it stared lifelessly at the blades of grass on which it rested.

She stammered, “I...you...he’s really... He’s dead...isn’t he?”

With a hesitant smile, the stranger said, “Yes, he’s really dead.” He started to reach out again to her, but his words and his hand froze as a harsh voice spoke from the bushes at the edge of the lagoon.

“Stop! Touch her again and I’ll put a bullet in your brain. Move away from him, Erin.”


Jason watched a little, old man stand up from a thicket of lagoon-side brush and walk out onto the grass. He was dressed in dull browns and greens that did well in camouflaging him among the growth along the creek—except for a bright, emerald green scarf about his neck. He held a small, vintage rifle to his shoulder and glared at Jason across the open sight. Jason recognized the small bore of a .22 caliber, a small bullet but deadly enough. His mind spun as he tried to figure how he was going to get out of this new mess. With the naked, beautiful woman still straddling him, he eased back against the grass. At this point, he would almost be satisfied to just understand what the mess was.

Erin turned to the voice behind her. When she saw the familiar face peering over the top of the rifle, she beamed. “Nate! Nate, you’re alive!”

She sprang to her feet and started to run to him, but the chain attached to her neck lay beneath Vic’s body where Jason had deposited it and nearly jerked her off her feet after just a couple of steps. Keeping the rifle aimed at Jason, he walked to her. By the time he got to her, she was unhooking the chain from the collar. Brushing the rifle aside, then, she threw her arms around his head and hugged his slight frame.

“Careful,” he cautioned as he swung the muzzle back to center on Jason.

“No!” she said, shaking her head and grinning. “Nate, you don’t understand. He fought Vic! And, Nate, look! Vic’s dead, Nate! He’s dead...see? He can’t hurt me anymore!” The grin twisted into a grimace as she spoke, and she buried her face in her hands and broke into fresh sobs.

Nate hooked his left arm around her shoulders while he kept his gun trained on Jason with his right.

“I know, hon,” he said. “I know. I was watching. You got him, all right; and no one ever had more right. But this one may be no better. Who is he? He’s not from around here. He come with Vic and the others?” Then louder after pointing with a flicked chin to Jason, “What do you want?”

Moving slowly, he rose up as far as his knees. “Look, we...I just walked up the coast from down by the Golden Gate. I found this guy beating up on the lady, so I got involved. Then, when he got the best of me, the lady stepped in and saved my life—for which I am most grateful. I don’t know what kind of screwy things are going on here, but in case you haven’t noticed, pretty much everywhere else has gone to hell.”

“Yeah,” Nate growled. “I noticed.”

“All right, look…the lady is okay now, and I’m no threat to either of you, so how about lowering that rifle and let me be on my way?”

Nate hesitated for a long moment while he stared thoughtfully at Jason. Finally, Erin spoke. “He’s not with the others.”

“You sure? He could—”

“I’m sure.” To Jason, she said, “I heard you say something about police. Are you? I mean, really? Or was that just to throw Vic off guard?”

The barrel of the rifle lowered, although it didn’t stray too far from Jason’s direction when he rose to his feet, ever watchful of the rifle and Nate’s control of it.

Nate shrugged out of his field jacket and handed it to Erin.

While she put it on, Jason replied, “I was a cop. I don’t think that matters now, though.”

“That’s okay,” Erin said. “You can still help us. There’s more like him in that house up there.” She nodded toward the hill and the unburned house with the big front porch.

“Look, I don’t have a gun, or anything else to go up against men barricaded in a house. Why don’t you just leave them there and go…leave the area?”

“He’s right,” Nate said with a nod. “I don’t like running out on the few people still alive around here, though. I’ve known some of them a long time.”

Erin shook her head. “They’ve still got Rachel locked up in a shed.” She turned to face Nate with pleading in her eyes and in her voice. “She’s only a child, Nate, barely out of high school. They just grabbed her off the street like they grabbed me. She’s lost family, and she’s completely alone back there. We can’t leave her. I won’t! Vic’s brother is insane. He’s even worse than Vic. There was another girl locked up with us that was Vince’s girlfriend until she tried to leave him. I don’t know how long he spent killing her, but she screamed a long time.”

The talk of others like Vic Morgan, with Vince apparently being among them, being up where a lookout would have a good view of the lagoon area gave Jason sudden chills. He motioned them into a space between two large willows where they would be out of view from searching eyes. After he retrieved Emmie from across the bridge, Erin and Nate gave him a brief rundown of how Muir Beach had been razed by the alien attacker, and by the bloody butchery that followed the arrival of the Morgans. Nate took both of her hands, still oozing blood in a couple of place, into his while she related John’s execution. With Emmie listening, she touched only lightly on Vic’s abuse of her after her capture.

After a long, thoughtful pause, she kissed Nate’s hands and peered into his eyes with a forced smile. She was reluctant to ask but knew she had to. She tried to keep her tone light but failed miserably when a soft sob punctuated her inquiry. “How’s your wife?”

After another long awkward pause, during which Nate fingered an emerald green scarf tied about his neck, he responded, “She was visiting at a friend’s house, sewing and stuff on a new outfit she was making. They shot Evelyn and her husband.” After his own deep sob, he added, “And they beat my Patty to death.”

Jason said nothing, just hugged Emmie who leaned into him. Erin’s breath sucked in loudly and her hands went to her mouth. She feared his answer would be something of the like, but until he said the words, she could still hope. With eyes welling fresh tears and her head slowly shaking, she muttered, “Oh, Nate, I’m so sorry.” Then rage began to flow with the tears. “Those bastards! Those slimy, filthy bastards! I swear I’ll—”

Nate took her tightly into his arms where she shook until her rage melted. Before he released her, his voice came in an icy tone that belied his image and with such certainty it gave Jason chills. “She will be avenged.”

Jason noted the granite-like hardness behind the old man’s streaming tears, and he suspected that vengeance, when exacted, would be harsh, indeed.

Less than a hundred yards away, the surf sighed across unmarked sand.

With Erin’s overwhelmed emotions finally soothed, Nate worked on her jammed-on collar with a small sheath knife he carried while she related the information Carl got on his radio as Crissy had described it to her. That and Jason’s own observations of the destruction of the Bay Area cities, plus the apparent impotency of the military in repelling the attack, pretty much solidified the idea that help would not be coming, that they were refugees with little hope of refuge.

After taking Vic’s too-big shoes for Erin to wear in their trek, Nate led them upstream along the creekbank where the cover was thick. Then, after crossing under a low bridge where the road turned eastward to the highway, they made their way up through the blackened ruins of the forest on the east side of the hill.

Jason convinced them that, out-gunned as they were, a frontal assault on Vince’s stronghold was out of the question. So, after pointing Erin and Emmie to his house when it came into view beyond a field of devastation, Nate led Jason back downhill through ribbons of unburned brush and whatever cover they could find. Jason would have preferred to make their raid after dark, but when Erin impressed upon him the likelihood that Vince would come for Rachel soon, there was no argument.

After threading through a tangle of growth, they crouched amid thick foliage. Above and behind them grew a jumble of brush and trees that had been left in its natural state as a green belt between the boundaries of this yard and that of the neighbors a short distance away. A deeply shaded gully bordered the yard on the east side and ran beside the house so close part of the rear deck hung out over it. Jason studied the back of the house for any sign of a lookout, and he recalled Erin’s description of John’s murder at the deck railing. At the edge of a small clearing between the woods and the house was the shed Erin had described. The doors were closed and padlocked.

They made their way around to the shed and eased out to the door at its front. Jason took the .22 and kept watch, although he couldn’t see the backdoor, itself, which was around the corner. Nate leaned over to whisper through a slim space where the door didn’t quite overlap the wall.

“Rachel? Rachel, can you hear me? My name is Nate. Erin sent us to get you out. Rachel?”

A reply came from inside, the soft, shaky voice of a terrified young girl. “I hear you. I’m so scared—please, get me out.”

“We’re working on it, hon. Just be a minute.”

Using his sheath knife, he pried and picked at the lock and twisted the screws holding the hasp, but it appeared the nuts inside were also turning. After long, tense minutes, he was able to pry two screws of the hasp loose and was working on the two inner ones with Jason holding the lock up out of the way for him. But Jason’s intermittent watch on the back door swung back to the shed at just the wrong moment. The back door of the house slammed opened, and Vince limped out and stopped beside the cover of the house corner.

“Hey!” He roared. “Vic! Carl! Quick! Out back!”

Jason spun back to the threat with a quick, snap shot. It hit close enough for flying splinters of wood from the house corner to pepper Vince’s face. By the time Jason pumped another round in to fire, Vince had ducked back around to the door. He took a second shot, aiming at Vince’s shadowy figure just visible through the windows on both sides of the house corner, but the lightweight .22 caliber bullet couldn’t penetrate both panes without deflecting off target. Rather than wasting a third shot, he slipped around the shed and followed Nate into the brush.


By the time Carl got out to the deck, still fumbling with the top button of his pants, and dug his revolver out of a pocket, the raiders were long gone. He grinned sheepishly at Vince’s stern, silent rebuke.

“Where’s Vic?” Vince asked.

“I don’t know, man. I ain’t seen him since he took his new woman down to the beach.”

Vince gazed at the thick brush that closed in the back yard behind the shed and rubbed the knot beginning to form at the back of his neck. “Go find him. Take those three local fools with you.”

Cappy White was a jovial little man, fiftyish, with a considerable potbelly who carried a .22 caliber target pistol stuck in his waistband. Rat-faced Ed Logan was a bit younger, no taller than Cappy, and his eyes constantly flitted about as though he expected to be blind-sided at any moment. Mel Kirby was a meek, middle-aged and mild-mannered little man with a moderate limp from an old injury.

From the front porch Vince watched Carl herd the trio down toward the beach, then he hobbled on his cane back through the house to the back door. He took the deck steps slowly, wincing at the pain in his knee as he silently cursed the old man who had swung the log. He peered into the heavy growth surrounding the tiny, unfenced back yard and growing right up to the back of the shed, but he was fairly certain the intruders had fled. And, as unlikely as it was that they’d return, he wouldn’t risk it. He couldn’t risk losing Rachel.

With a rattle and a bang, he opened the padlock, slid the door open and peered into the shadowed interior at Rachel scrunched into a back corner, wide-eyed and shivering while her hands clenched scraps of cloth before her with white knuckles. His voice was low, but there was nothing soft in it when he cocked his thumb over his shoulder and said, “Get in the house.”


“That you, Vic?” Vince asked after the latch clicked behind Carl when he closed the front door.

He had just returned from the task Vince had given him half an hour ago. Vince was sitting in the easy chair in the living room with his back to the door, sipping a beer and gazing fixedly at Rachel standing rigid in the center of the room and facing Vince with a defiant stare. She wore a dress Vince must have dug out of a trunk in the attic where it had been packed away for special occasions, possibly pulled out annually for Halloween costume parties or even Christmas pageants. Trimmed in gold and with a wide, gold colored belt, the otherwise all-white, flowing garment lacked only a halo of gold to encircle the head of its wearer and a set of white, feathery wings strapped to her back to be a suitable Christmas tree topping. A pair of flat, gold colored shoes looked almost too small on her feet. Standing there, she looked like she belonged inside a music box.

Carl recalled how, when they had all been sitting about earlier in the living room, just kicking back, Vince had mentioned that Rachel had a striking resemblance to his and Vic’s mother as he remembered her. In the past, he had spoken of his mother with fondness at times even though she had left them; at other times, like when he and Vince would go into the city for some whore-bashing, Vince occasionally made vague references to his mother, like he was comparing her with their prostitute victims. Carl hadn’t pressed the issue then, nor did Vince volunteer anything more specific as to just how he really felt about her. He sure as hell wasn’t about to press the issue now. He wasn’t sure if what he saw in the living room was Vince enshrining the memory of his mother—or if he was expressing his rage at her by making her appear ridiculous. If Vince was going to take out his rage on Rachel for his mother abandoning him, he pitied her. He was beginning to get an idea how depraved his old friend could be—especially after the way he killed Crissy.

He spotted Mandy through the door to the kitchen sitting at the table with three beer bottles, two empties and one still half full. She didn’t turn to look at him, though she must have heard his entrance.

Carl stared at the back of Vince’s head. What was the best way—the safest way—to tell him? “Uh...no, man. It’s me.”

Carl heard the quiver in his own voice, and he knew Vince must have noticed it, too. Vince turned and looked at him, saw he was alone, and said, “I told you to find Vic. Where is he?”

“It must have been the woman, Vince. It had to’ave been.”

“What was the girl? Where’s Vic? Carl, where’s my brother?”

Vince most likely suspected something was amiss when he found two guys trying to free Rachel. By now he was probably certain something was terribly wrong concerning his little brother. But he would have to hear it. He was going to make Carl put it into words.

Vince’s voice sounded hollow. “Tell me.”

Carl glanced at his feet, out the window, at a photograph of a stranger near one end of the fireplace mantle, at Rachel. Finally, he looked back at Vince who held his gaze from further straying, his focus unable to move from the bottomless, icy pools of Vince’s eyes.

“He’s dead, Vince. She killed him.”

To hear it blurted out in stark, clear words for all to hear must have been too much.

“No!” he screamed, scrambling to his feet. “You lying son-of-a-bitch! I’ll rip your guts out!”

Then, as terrifying as his short rampage was, it was a thousand times worse when he continued in his soft, unemotional voice. “Your little joke is not funny, my friend. Will you still laugh when I roast your guts over a low fire?”

“Honest, Vince! It’s true! Honest! Oh, Jeeze, believe me, please, Vince! It’s the truth, I swear it!” It was no idle threat that Vince had made. His prior friend and neighbor was fully capable of doing just what he said he would do. His voice choked off to a whisper as his throat muscles convulsed. “It’s the truth...not a joke.”

Perhaps it was the terror in Carl’s face that penetrated the denial girding Vince like chain mail. He eased back down and asked again, softly, but this time without the flat intonation that promised agonizing death, “What happened?”

“It was the woman, Vince, but she probably had help. We found Vic down there in a little park. It looked like he was in a fight, and that chain he used on her was wrapped around his neck. She was gone, but her collar was on the ground nearby. It was cut through. Vic’s shotgun was on the bank of a pond, half in the water like it was dropped or tossed there.”

After he finished blurting out his report, Carl stood silent, head down, hardly breathing, and he waited.

Vince stared at the wall for two long minutes before speaking. “Then they came to free Rachel. I saw them. Not her, not Vic’s slut. She must have been hiding somewhere, but I saw the bastards that helped her kill him.”

His voice was thick, guttural, and a strong tic began in his left cheek. Steady, strong intakes of air rattled in his throat and created almost a purring sound. His eyes were like flakes of glacier ice.

He took a step toward Carl and commanded, “Find them! Take those three idiots with you up the hill from the shed; that’s where their trail starts. Find them! Bring them to me...alive. I want to look into their eyes when I rip their throats apart with my own hands.”

Carl tried to swallow, but his tongue rasped against the back of his throat, destroying any words forming there. After working up enough moisture in his mouth to lubricate his larynx, he managed to garble out, “Okay, Vince.”

Carl turned and went back out onto the front porch, eager to get on with his search for Vic’s killers. Not that he especially wanted vengeance, but it had become unwise to remain near Vince too long. Vince’s screams and ranting had been unnerving; but the icy calm, the softly spoken words of death and suffering, the silent rage of insanity that burned in the man’s eyes only hinted at the chaos his mind was becoming.

White and Logan laid Vic’s body on the patch of lawn where he had first attempted to rape Erin, but over on the edge away from Crissy’s blood. Then Carl quickly ushered his posse of three up the steps to the back yard and away from the house.

They had no difficulty in picking up the trail where Jason and Nate had run through soft dirt and ashes on the hillside above the shed. He followed the tracks up and down inclines and across stretches of grassy slopes, but then the trail ended at the edge of a paved road. Ashes still blanketed the road surface, but the tracks of his prey blended with enough others to obliterate the trail. Still, Carl knew better than to return to Vince so soon with nothing but a lame excuse. He pushed his guides to search in both directions, not in the hope they would find something, but just anything to occupy their time, anything that would delay having to report failure.


Vince limped out to stand at Vic’s head. After nearly a full minute of gazing at the still body, he lowered himself to his knees, then twisted around and sat touching his brother’s shoulder.

He hummed a tuneless melody that had song only in the memories that came in disconnected fragments with no framework of time. …A silly, cocked hat above Vic’s grinning face less than a month ago. ...A little girl with a ponytail and a plaid dress they had both fallen in love with at the playground swings before Vince was nine; she was from out of town, and they never saw her again. ...A beach party out north of Bodega Bay. Vic’s date was a new girl in his sophomore class. He got drunk and walked straight into the surf when she rebuffed him, claiming she wasn’t “that” kind of girl. The frigid water was almost to his waist before Vince reached him and dragged him back. Again, on dry sand, they had both rolled in laughter while the puzzled girl gazed on. Vic always claimed afterwards that she had become “that” kind later that night, the insatiable bastard. A soft smile played around his eyes and relaxed the muscles around his mouth.

He turned back to gaze upon Vic’s face. He reached out to finger the old, sickle-shaped scar above Vic’s left eye. He smiled as he remembered how with such a convincingly straight face Vic would tell people it was a dueling scar. But, by rights, it should be on Vince’s face. It was he that had come up with the stupid idea of skateboarding down from the top of La Cresta Drive. He had even called Vic chicken until he agreed to make the run. No ten-year-old boy would stand for being called chicken, no matter what the risk. They had started together and kept pace until Vince’s board hit a ridge in the pavement and spilled him into the gutter, sore, but uninjured. All he could do was watch Vic soar on down the winding hill and straight at the side of a contractor’s truck as it crossed at an intersection part way down the hill. Vic valiantly tried to swerve around the back end, but a length of pipe sticking out the rear got him. The skateboard went airborne, and Vic did a backward flip with blood spraying everywhere. From back up the hill where he sat watching, it looked like the top of Vic’s head had been lopped off. Vince screamed all the way to Vic’s still form. The plumber-driver—that son-of-a-bitch—was standing over him, just gawking with his mouth hanging open. Vince went after him with a claw hammer he snagged off the back of the truck as he ran by. Some man from a passing car stopped and held him off from the driver and took the hammer away. The ambulance took Vic, and he had to go with the cop to show where they lived and to tell Ned. God, did he get a beating that night. His back still bore two of the scars from Ned’s belt.

Vince fingered Vic’s scar again, so innocuous, now, after all these years.

The big bastard said I had led you astray and into harm’s way because I was so domineering. Did I domineer you, Vic? No. …I led. I guided. Shit, someone had to. The big bastard sure as hell didn’t know how. But, maybe it was my fault… No! It was that asshole driver’s fault! He should have looked and seen you coming before he pulled out. You were just a kid on a skateboard, for Chrissake! Everyone knows skateboards don’t have brakes. He should have seen you coming.

And, as far as leading you astray, even back then when you probably should have been too young to have really gotten into too much trouble, you just couldn’t keep it in your pants. You must have been the horniest little son-of-a-bitch on the coast. But, come on—charging a ten-year old kid with rape that first time? That probably did you more harm than what that girl suffered. I’ll bet the little bitch liked it, too, didn’t she? They all do. Vince smiled as he studied his brother’s profile, proud of Vic’s virility. If ever there was a man that could keep a harem happy….

After a while, with assistance from Rachel and Mandy, he wrestled the sofa out of the house and down the steps to the lawn. They helped him lay Vic on the sofa, then he sent them back inside for whatever wooden furniture and flammable scraps they could bring out. He gently crossed Vic’s arms at his breast and straightened his legs, smoothed wrinkled fabric and gently brushed a windblown lock of hair from his forehead. He had Mandy keep Rachel on the porch. It seemed only fitting that Vic’s mother should witness his cremation. Using the maul Vic had left nearby, he smashed up all the furniture he could handle and piled it around the sofa until he was satisfied the pyre was suitable. With slow, deliberate movements, as though he were anointing his brother, he doused him, the sofa and the pyre with the contents of two kerosene lamps.

Before he could strike a match to the kindling, a flash of memory jumped into his mind’s eye and distracted him. The puzzling occurrence in Carl’s apartment when Vic should have died with Rhoda still astonished him. If, as he suspected, someone present at the time had been the cause and not some unfathomable influence of the invaders, then he was the most likely one of those persons to have done it. Who could have wanted it more than him? So, was it he that had prevented the flying window glass from slashing Vic to death as it had shredded Rhoda? If he had, in fact, done it with a wave of his hand, which was no more than a focus of his will, then it was the power of his mind that had formed a shield strong enough to deflect every one of the thousands of shards flying at his brother with explosive force. Of those present, who, but he, had a mind capable of supporting such a capacity?

Could it be? Could he really exert such power with his mind? ESP? Or was it something else? But what else could it be? Magic? Or is it all the same thing? What is using willpower to move objects, or stopping or deflecting objects that are moving, if not magic? Maybe whether or not you are called a witch simply depended on which century you happen to be in.

But, was it really just the power of his mind, or was it something his father would be more apt to understand, or profess to—the power of God? Or, perhaps, more likely since it was him, the power of the Devil? Was that it? Was he the recipient of a power bestowed by none other than Satan himself? Did Satan empower his minions to do things they wouldn’t normally be able to do? He had been told often enough that he was evil. Maybe he was. Hell, he had done Satan’s bidding often enough.

Hey, Satan, old buddy, am I a minion?

And if he was, what difference did it make? He was what he was. If he could do these things only because he was evil, he welcomed it. It was a power he would readily sell his soul for.

But he had done it only once. Could he do it again? Or even something else? What else was there? Levitation? Or is that just another kind of telekinesis? Flying on a broom? Same thing. Pyrokinesis? Sure, why not? Telepathy? Other than Vic, he could think of no one in the world he would be willing to share thoughts with. And Vic was gone. He would never again be able to share thoughts with him, or ideas, or plans, or memories…memories told in whispers in the dark of night and beneath blankets.

He caressed Vic’s cheek and forehead and ran his hand lightly over his hair. The ache in his heart threatened to rip that vital organ asunder. Even when he and Vic had been apart in the past, there had still always been a feeling of wholeness. After Ned had run him off after his eighteenth birthday, Vic was always there to make him feel whole, even if they were miles apart.

At times, Vince had come out of dreams shaking with terror from some nightmare in which Vic had met some horrible fate. It always sent him down the same waking nightmare of pondering what if something really did happen to Vic? But he never allowed himself to dwell at length on the possibility. He never allowed himself to prepare for the unthinkable. And even if he had contemplated it, no amount of steeling himself, of even facing the reality of the possibility, could ever prepare him for this agony—this feeling of loss at such depth. He was certain that only his own death could create the total emptiness, the sense of pending nothingness, that now gripped him.

Since the abandonment by their mother had sent his world into a vertiginous spiral into chaos, except for Ellie, and occasionally Eric, the only person in the world that could evoke anything in him but hatred and contempt lay dead beside him.

Tears rolled down Vince’s cheeks while he hummed.

What if…what if he could have him back? Now, there was something he would sell his soul for...if Vic could just come back.

Suddenly, it was as if a bolt of lightning ripped through Vince’s mind, and the wish kept repeating. If only he could have him back. Why not have him back? He could do magic, couldn’t he? He had been empowered by Old Nick to do the impossible, hadn’t he?

“Yes!” he screamed into looming night. “Bring him back! You hear me, Satan? Bring him back to me, and I’ll truly be your minion. Bring him back, and I’ll burn a hundred screaming virgins a day on your altar. Bring him back, and I’ll bring fire and death and suffering to whatever hasn’t already burned.”

He glared into the pile of broken furniture beneath his brother’s body and remembered what Muir Beach had looked like when he arrived. All the houses among the trees and the trees, too, had blazed with hellish ferocity. He pictured that scene magnified a thousand-fold set upon one side of a scale; Vic sat upright on the other side, smiling his crooked smile.

“I’ll bring fire to every living soul you haven’t already claimed. This world will know your hellfire for what it is, suffering with no end.”

Darkness ate at his mind. He pictured darkness enveloping a world whose only light came from endless fires, set by his hand with Vic laughing at his side. Images of flames danced in his imagination as he yearned with aching heart for his brother to rise and join him. His mind followed the focus of his eyes to the pile of kindling beneath his brother as flames consumed his thoughts.

“Your fires will devour—uhn!”

Vince sprang back from sudden heat as Vic’s pyre burst into total conflagration.

“NO!” He looked from the flames dancing in the ocean breeze and reaching to the sky above. With anguish eating his soul, he cried out, “No, you promised! Don’t take him! Give him back!”

His beseeching hands outstretched above his head clenched into fists that he drew down to press into his temples. He closed his eyes and slumped to his knees on the ground. Even Satan betrayed and mocked him.

As darkness shrouded the black hill above, and as the seaward fog bank sent reaching tendrils creeping up over the land like ghostly fingers, Vince mutely watched the flames take the remains of his brother. His mind refused to form thoughts from which words might spring. The pyre blazed with fury—crackling, popping, and roaring into silence that was the beginning of night.

Carl returned an hour later, accompanied only by the three locals.

“It’s just too thick up there to see anything, Vince. We torched a few places, but it got so we couldn’t even see if anyone ran out of ’em. You can’t see ten feet up there in that fog. If it wasn’t for your signal fire, we never would have even found our way back down here.”

Vince scowled and growled, “It’s not a signal fire.”

Carl then spotted the vague shape at the heart of the flames and realized his error. Hoping to prevent it from becoming a fatal one, he quickly said with what he hoped would be taken for great feeling, “Oh, Vince, I wish I could have been here for the ceremony. In the short time I knew your brother, I got to really like him. He was—.” Before he could say more, possibly enough to head off a response from Vince he really, really did not want, he saw the arctic glare focused on him from Vince’s eyes and ended his desperate elegy.

Vince’s mood was blacker than the shadows that ate at the edge of the fire-lighted yard. “I know what he was. Drop it. Just be ready to go back up there in the morning.” Vince’s mouth twisted into a mirthless grin. “Maybe they’ll even come back tonight.”

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