Raven

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CHAPTER 22 – Trust

The mass of foliage cascading from the top of the fence behind Matti suddenly shook and swayed.

Danger. Bad strangers. Danger. Although she agreed with them as they rumbled through her mind, they weren’t her thoughts

A moment later, something struck the fence from the other side with a heavy thud, and the foliage shook even more violently.

Danger. Bad strangers. Danger. Again, the feelings that were almost thoughts poured over Matti’s consciousness, adding another layer of fear and warning over that which already numbed her mind.

Then recognition hit her. It energized her, and her voice rang out, “Satan! Satan, here!” At the same time, hope flooded her mind while pleading, Oh, Satan, please come, Satan, please come and save me, Satan, please –

The fence beneath its cap of untrimmed honeysuckle exploded in a hail of splintered, weathered wood. And from out of the cloud of flying debris, it was as though Cerberus, the monstrous, three-headed dog guarding at the gates of Hades, burst forth.

Before anyone could move a step, Satan charged out between Matti and her little old man and tore into the human dog-pack.

Joey was the first to go down, his tattered throat half ripped out and his half-swung bat landing several feet away. He was still squirming when Satan rebounded and bowled Nick over as he charged against Matt. With him gripping one end of the door, the force of Satan’s impact also sent Mike tumbling.

Then Danny died beneath rending fangs. He still clutched the rope.

Nick didn’t stick around for his turn, although he left a donation of blood and hide on the top of the side fence when he went over it, and his screams ascended in ever-rising pitch from the mass of cactuses on the other side.

Angie made it back through the gate, even taking care to firmly close it behind him as he fled for his life. Unfortunately, Mike had also intended to make his escape by that route. When he slammed against the suddenly shut gate, Satan was there to drag him back, kicking and screaming – although not for long.

While Mike occupied Satan, Matt recovered and followed Nick over the east fence. But warned by Nicks screams, he took the time to balance atop the fence and jump beyond Nick’s impaled, quivering body.

Matti and the old man still stood where they had been when Satan charged between them, and, in all the chaos, neither one noticed when Mickey slipped through a window on the side of the house. Then, as the huge dog came back from the area of the gate where Mike sprawled unmoving, he zeroed in on the old man.

Bad stranger. Danger. Kill.

Matti lurched forward. Down on one knee to be on eye-level with him and with arms and splayed hands extended against the onrushing beast, she cried out, “No, Satan! No!”

Don’t attack – this man good – this man friend – don’t attack – this man helps – don’t –. Her mind screamed even louder than her voice. How could she possibly stop such an animal seized in a killing frenzy? Would he even know her?

But Satan did stop.

Matti looked into the eyes of the dog that had just killed three men, and she wondered. Do you remember me? Did you really come at my call, or are you just on a killing spree because of Kathy’s death?

Matti was aware that the old man stood very still while he watched the nearly silent interplay between her and the dog. Although, most likely, all he could perceive was the huge dog standing just a few feet in front of her as she knelt helplessly before it. From his position mostly behind her, he could not see the intensity of the contact between her eyes and those fiery, amber orbs of the beast. He could hear the brief words she spoke to Satan, but he couldn’t know that the vocal words were merely an echo of the true communication.

Stranger bad. Danger.

No. This stranger good. “He’s a friend.” He’s actually projecting words. Or is it me now perceiving his thoughts as words?

Stranger has hurting thing.

Hurting thing hurt bad strangers. Hurting thing helped this person. “He didn’t hurt me.”

Other strangers had hurting things. Destroy.

This stranger is good. This stranger helped this person. “He helped me fight the bad men.”

Stranger good? Not danger?

This stranger is good. Not danger. “He’s good, Satan. He’s good.”

Matti rose slowly to her feet, constantly holding her gaze steady on the eyes of the beast.

This person friend to Satan. Satan and this person share safe place-home. Matti still wasn’t sure just how safe she was around the huge animal. She and the dog had stayed in the house together, and she had provided food and water for him, but they had never really built, or even started, a friendship. This person and Satan share safe place-home again? This person safe with Satan? Satan hurt this person? Danger?

Satan took a step forward, tentatively, then another one that brought him right up to her. Then the dog extended his tongue and licked her hand where she held it stiffly at her side.

Not danger. This person/Matti good. This person/Matti and Satan good. He sat back on his haunches and gazed up at her.

Yes. Matti and Satan good. “We are good for each other.”

She kneeled again, putting her own face back on a level with Satan’s, within inches of the powerful jaws that could crush her throat with one, quick snap. She peered into those amber windows that supposedly opened upon his soul, and he gazed back.

Satan remembers Matti’s name. Along with the words, she projected a feeling of pleased surprise. The only time she could think of that he would have heard her name was when she had introduced herself after she had found the AKC papers. She had casually mentioned her name in response to his raised head reaction to her calling his name.

The muscles of his face seemed to loosen, to relax. She smiled back at him.

Then, taking the biggest chance, yet, she reached out to encircle his huge head and powerful neck with both of her arms. Slowly, gradually and gently, she gave him a hug. When her arms were as tight as she intended to make them, and he responded by lowering his muzzle to rest upon her shoulder and back, she knew they were more than just house-mates. She had a friend.

“I’ve got a feeling a lot more was just said between you two than only what I could hear.”

The old man’s voice was calm and even, not what Matti would expect from someone who had just witnessed some form of witchcraft after having fought off a mob of cutthroats, killing at least two for sure, and probably another. And that’s not counting the one Matti killed or Satan’s three. Pivoting on her knee to face him while leaving one arm around Satan, she observed blood no longer dripped from the hoe in his hand, and that deadly instrument now rested with the butt-end on the ground.

Matti recalled the insanity among Ned Morgan’s group and the accusations. She knew nothing about this man, and almost as little about this ability she had so recently come by. What could she tell him that would make sense? How could she expect him to believe it when she hardly did, herself? Caution was very much in order here.

“Gee, no,” she said. “I don’t know what you mean. Did you hear something you didn’t understand … or something?”

He took a moment to respond, and then it was with a knowing smile. “Or something. I take it your friend isn’t going to eat me?”

He suspects something, all right. “Yeah, I think you’re okay. With him, I mean. If he was going to go after you, I think he already would have.”

“I think he already did. But I think you’re right; he’s not going to. Not now.”

“Yeah, I think he’s calmed down now. Should be okay. But, I’ll tell you what. Why don’t you let him get your smell – you know, your scent? That’s how dogs tell people apart, mostly. Their noses are lots better than their eyes.”

“You don’t think the smell of all this blood around here may confuse him? I wouldn’t want him to start thinking of me as a meal.”

Matti looked up into the old man’s eyes. How much of what he was saying was in jest? She could easily understand a person fearing a dog the size of Satan.

“I think he can tell the difference. He’s got a pretty good nose.”

She arose and stepped back so there was open space between Satan and the old man, nothing to stop a sudden, killing charge but – What? Nothing, is what. Satan? Satan.

The dog remained sitting, and his gaze that had settled on the old man swung back to Matti’s face.

Satan, this man good. This man friend. “Satan, this is a friend.”

Matti and this man friends?

Yes, Matti and this man are friends. Matti and Satan are friends. Are Satan and this man friends?

Satan arose to all fours. It was an easy, fluid move with no urgency or tensing of muscles, nothing to indicate it was a precursor of an attack. But when he took a step forward, the old man’s hand tensed on the hoe handle; not aggressively, but apparently enough to spook Satan. However, he did nothing except look up at Matti.

Man danger? Man hurt Satan with hurting thing? Man bad? Man friend?

Matti had caught the old man’s movement and understood Satan’s dilemma. The old man had lifted the butt of the hoe just enough to clear the ground, and, although he still held it with just one hand, the other hand was poised and ready to put the deadly weapon to use.

“You can – you should put that down. He won’t hurt you, but he wonders if you will hurt him.”

The old man glanced at Matti for a moment, then back to the dog. In that brief moment when he had eye contact with her, he seemed to ask so many questions. Was she serious? Did she really mean for him to disarm himself and trust to the good wishes of a giant dog with fresh, human blood on his muzzle? Did she really know what the dog wondered? Is she some kind of nut? Okay, she didn’t really get that last question from his eyes, but she should have. Why didn’t he think it? Anyway, she might as well tell him whatever she had to for him to make friends with Satan. Either that or they would have to just go their separate ways. And, they’d be doing that anyway, just as soon as they both had a chance to catch their breaths and thank each other for their help and wish each other good luck on surviving for another week.

“Really, he does,” she said. “Trust me. I know it’s kind of a strange thing to ask a person these days, but … trust me.”

After a moment, the old man set the end of the hoe back on the ground and removed his hand from it, letting it fall to the side and behind him. He also moved both of his hands in front of him where he clasped them together, certainly not a position from which to snatch his dagger from its sheath. Still keeping his gaze upon the dog, he said, “Okay, I will.”

She was surprised at how much she was surprised. How long has it been since anyone trusted me – with anything? He just trusted me with his life.

“Thank you,” she said.

Man not hurt Satan. Man was afraid, but now not afraid. Man friend. “Okay, Satan.”

Satan glanced up at Matti briefly and back at the man. Man not hurt Satan. Satan not hurt man. Satan remember man. Then he took a step forward.

When the old man made no move to run, fight, or otherwise complicate matters, he took another step, then another. Satan’s head – his blood smeared muzzle – was only inches from the old man’s hands, but the hands remained where they were. Satan stretched his neck enough to move his nose to less than an inch of the hands, and he sniffed.

Although Matti was smiling, her insides felt like she had swallowed an ice cube. So much could go wrong so fast.

She said, “He needs to take your smell straight off the skin. That way he knows it’s yours and not something that just drifted in on the breeze.”

Then, when Satan’s tongue slid forward and made a single swipe across the back of one of the hands, she almost yelped. Although, as she thought about it, she didn’t know if her barely restrained outburst had been due to fright, a warning for the old man to run, to defend himself from the ravaging beast, or to the joy that still infused her that Satan had demonstrated his trust in her and his acceptance of the man.

Man good. Man and Satan friends.

Yes, man good. Matti is happy. “Yes, this man is good. Thank you, Satan,” she said before she thought about it. It was clearly a response to Satan rather than a simple declaration.

“Yes. Thank you, Satan,” the old man echoed. “I can only say it in words, but I hope you can understand.”

Shocked by the old man’s apparent understanding of the situation, Matti gaped at him.

“You do communicate with him in some way other than words, don’t you?”

It didn’t sound like an accusation, just a question. And not even a question. More like a verification. It was like he already knew.

“Yes.”

“Is that all? Just, yes?”

“Well, hey, what can I say? I’m a witch – okay?” She hadn’t meant for it to sound like a challenge, but it did.

Nothing could have surprised her more, then, than the simple, light-hearted laugh that prefaced his next words. “No, you’re not. You’re nothing but a person, a normal person who has discovered she can do something amazing. Probably scary, huh?”

“Uh … yeah, kinda. Uh … just what do you know about it, anyway?”

The old man reached out and rubbed the side of Satan’s jaw and under his chin in a friendly gesture that was not lost on the dog.

Matti had not realized just how tense the animal’s body was until he relaxed it a bit more at the caress, sat, and looked up into the old mans face. It was an expression of, if not affection, at least acceptance.

“Well, now,” the old man began. “You know what? That’s a long story that is probably as amazing as your secret. Why don’t we go somewhere and talk? You have a house nearby?”

Suddenly, red flags started waving in her mind. He wanted her to take him to her house where she had a treasure of two bathtubs full of water and a fair supply of food? Then what? Kill her and take it all? Of course, he’d have to kill Satan, too, but she had seen how easily and quickly this old man can kill. Now that Satan’s guard is down, he probably wouldn’t have much trouble disposing of the dog. If he just wanted to get out of the sun to talk, why not go into his house?

She started to say she didn’t when he spoke again. “That’s okay. I shouldn’t really expect you to take me there. That would be pretty foolish of you, wouldn’t it? You know nothing about me. But, if you have family or friends nearby, I don’t mind if you summon them. They would probably be interested in what I’ve got to tell you. By the way, my name is Nate. Actually, it’s Nathaniel Remington, but just Nate will do.”

“Hi. I’m Matti Raven. Pleased to meet you. And, thank you very much for your help. I’m really sorry I got you into so much trouble. If I’d known you lived here, or anyone, for that matter, I sure wouldn’t have led that bunch of animals here.”

“Well, that’s quite all right, but I don’t live here. I was just passing through, scavenging. I had just climbed over the fence over there with the cactuses on the other side; that’s how I knew about ’em. I heard a ruckus out in the street and went to take a look over that fence, and – Shazam – you came flying over the fence like Wonder Woman.”

“Shazam?” Matti asked with a grin.

“Just something from my generation, along with Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman. Anyway, I’m glad I could help. I don’t have to ask why they were after you. I’ve seen enough of this human dog-pack in the past few weeks. Oh, sorry Satan. I didn’t mean to bad-mouth dogs.”

“Uh … I think that’s okay. He’s got a pretty good idea of how bad a dog-pack of real dogs can be.”

“Oh?” Nate’s short response invited her to explain her remark, but she ignored it. Maybe later she’d tell him about Kathy – if they actually did have a talk.

“I don’t have any family or friends.” She blurted out before realizing she had decided to tell him the truth. She didn’t know why. Maybe it was because Satan had accepted him. “I’ve been scrounging around alone since it happened. The past couple of days, I’ve been bunking in Satan’s house. As a matter of fact,” and now the full truth, with whatever it brings. “That has to be the house right on the other side of this fence. I recognize the tree, now. That’s where Satan has been keeping himself, lately … beneath it. It’s kinda special to him.”

“Oh, well, I suppose we could talk here. That is, if you want to talk at all. I don’t mean to impose myself on you. If you would rather we split up right now, I fully understand. Honest.”

“Well, I …” She licked her parched lips.

Nate took a canteen out of a pouch on his belt and unscrewed the cap. He held it out and said, “Here, you’re probably pretty dry after all that running and flying through the air and all.”

Matti looked at the proffered canteen and back at Nate’s face, trying to catch some indication that the offer was real. No one had offered her a drink of water since the day that ended so horribly with Ellie Morgan’s death.

“Go ahead. It’s just water.”

“Thanks.” Just water?

She took the canteen in both hands lest she spill some of the precious liquid. She raised it to her lips and sipped quickly and lowered it back to his hand.

“That all you want? Go ahead. Nothing worse than trying to have a conversation with a dry mouth.”

She raised it back to her mouth and took another quick sip. Then, as she held eye contact with this old man with the most disconcerting smile, she took another.

“Are you really that hard up for water?” he asked with what appeared to be genuine concern. “You know what? I’ll bet my friends would like to meet you. And you,” he added as he looked down at Satan. “And I think you would like to meet them.”

“Your friends?” Red flags started fluttering again.

“Yes. Jason is, or rather was, a police officer here in Petaluma. He’s got his daughter, Emmie, with him. She’s ten. His wife died a couple of years ago, I understand. There’s also Erin Doyle, a very nice lady that had a pretty bad time of it, but she’s doing fine, now. And then there’s Rachel … well, don’t that beat all – I don’t even know her last name. Anyway, she’s about your age, and she also had some awfully harsh treatment before we settled in at the museum a few blocks over that way.”

She still felt the warmth that had enveloped her when he had shown his trust in her, and for the few moments when he first mentioned meeting his friends before the red flags started waving. It would be so nice, if only …. More to stall while she considered it all than because of real curiosity, she asked, “How’d you all make it through alive? Not many did with most of the town burned down.”

She almost blushed when she saw he had picked up on her reluctance.

With a smile and a nod, he said, “Okay, short version: We weren’t here at the time. But, you knew this isn’t the only town that got burned, right? Jason and Emmie lived here, but they were down by the Golden Gate Bridge when the west coast got hit. They watched San Francisco, Oakland and all the others down there go up in flames. When they got chased out of there, they came up the coast on foot to Muir Beach. That’s where I lived with my wife, Patty.” He paused for a moment, his eyes blinking a few times before he went on, “She was killed. The place was just about wiped out by one of the invaders’ planes on its way up the coast. Erin and a friend were visiting there from out of state. Afterwards, a couple of psychopathic brothers and their hangers-on showed up and went on a killing spree just for kicks. They killed Erin’s friend and captured her. They also made Rachel a prisoner. It was one of their bunch killed my Patty. Erin was in store for lots of bad stuff until Jason came along and helped her get away. We tried to free Rachel but couldn’t. The brother of the one they killed freeing Erin, along with his friends and Rachel, chased the four of us clear to Petaluma in a wild, car chase straight out of Hollywood. We got lucky and ditched them, and then we joined a group of other survivors. Next day, the invaders found our hideout, and we all scattered. I went with someone else, but the three of them stuck together. Then, the guy that had chased us from the coast spotted them, and that chase started up again. I was hiding in the museum, and when I saw them going past outside, I pulled ’em in. They were enough ahead of the guy chasing them that he didn’t see where they went. Not right away, anyway. They found us, though, and we had a hell of a battle. We won. Rachel was finally free and joined us. That was the day the invaders left. The five of us have been there ever since. Don’t know what ever happened to everyone else.”

The brevity of Nate’s narrative almost made her miss a startling revelation. “San Francisco burned up too?”

A sympathetic smile touched Nate’s mouth and eyes. “I guess you had no way of even knowing how extensive this thing is. Well, I’m sorry to say, it appears to be world-wide. I doubt if anyone is going to be coming to set things right.”

Matti took a few quiet moments to absorb this, and he let her do it without interruption. Finally, she slowly closed her eyes and nodded her head. What could she do but accept it? And, if she was honest with herself, she knew even before he said it that such was the case.

When she reopened her eyes and focused on Nate again, she considered the wisdom of going with him. A man—a cop, even—with his ten-year-old daughter should be safe enough, especially if Satan will come, too. I can even tell him to be on the alert without anyone knowing. And it sure would be nice to be with people again.

Nate prodded. “I don’t want to push, but, you know, the more good people stick together, the safer they’ll be from the bad ones. And we’ve got lots of water in a rain-water catch-basin out back. Looks like it was used to keep the landscaping green without having to use city water. Must be a hundred gallons still in it.”

She glanced into Satan’s eyes, then into Nate’s before answering, “Okay.”

Carefully stepping around the bodies littering the back yard, they left through the gate with Satan. Just before they rounded the corner at the end of the block, they failed to notice a skulking figure emerge from the front door of the house and, keeping to the cover of the house fronts, follow them on their northward course.

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