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DARING DECEPTION'S DAEMONS, Book Two in Hidden Danger Beyond Fantasy series

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Kaytie Flame discovers that madness and sanity are worlds separated by a single step beyond fantasy. Together with the rakish Dax Larue, her competitive journalist on the same assignment she discovers the roots of evil are hidden beyond what appears to be harmless fantasy. Explore the mysteries of what may actually be behind the UFO sightings and cattle mutilations. From mystery to mystery, Kaytie's determination overcomes her fear. But will the challenge to her faith keep her steady when she must make a life or death decision between the two men who love her?

Thriller / Adventure
Harriett Ford
Age Rating:

Chapter 1

Close Encounters of the Wacky Kind

“When did you first know you were a lycanthrope?” I asked the youth behind the barred window.

“Werewolf. I’m a werewolf, Miss Reporter Lady. I knew it when I was eleven years old.” The youth spoke softly.

A dark eye peered at me from behind unruly locks hanging over his forehead, Michael Jackson style.

“What makes you believe that?” I truly wanted to know. Was this a mental illness? Or something else entirely? In my line of investigative reporting for Beyond Fantasy, it could be either. I meet lots of crazies. Lots of fakes desperate for attention. And then there are the other kind. I can usually tell the difference, but I can’t hinge the unhinged.

Werewolf boy brushed a dark strand of hair over an eye and looked up at the ceiling. “The full moon. It called to me. Pulled me outside. I spent many nights gazing up at it from my bedroom when I was a kid. When I grew older, it drew me outdoors to bathe in its glow. I’d stand there gazing up, sensing something different about myself. That’s when the longing began.”

“Longing? For what?” Actually, my only longing at the moment was to have dinner again with the handsome Dax Larue. I had not been successful at keeping him out of my thoughts, even though I had resisted his attempts to see me again after our New Orleans adventures with bayou Voodoo practitioners.

The youth hesitated. I glanced at my watch. The corrections officer glanced at the wall clock. “Just five more minutes, Miss O’Hare.”

Werewolf Boy began, “I didn’t know it then, but I had a deep hunger, and no food would satisfy me. It was a longing to run with the pack.”

I noted his use of the word pack. “According to this police report, you were around sixteen when you found the others.”

“They found me. I knew they were like me right away. Loners at school. Different. None of us fit in. But at night we ran together. Played the same blood-fest games. Hungered.”

His soft voice might have been that of a child, except he uttered the word, hungered, with a deliberate, throaty growl.

“Where did you run?” I wondered if he meant the group hung out together or actually ran some kind of foot races.

“We ran in the empty fields behind our houses. We ran in the woods under the full moon. When we stopped, we howled. It was a rush.” His words denoted excitement, however the voice seemed empty of emotion. There was an eerie flatness in his voice.

“Then you decided you needed to do more than run?” I pictured a group of lanky youths sitting around in the grass, probably smoking pot, and howling at the moon. What did they tell their parents? See ya later, folks. It’s my night to howl. Got to run.

I wanted to shove the strands of black hair aside and see his face. He could use a good shampoo. On the other hand, maybe I didn’t want to see what lurked behind that shaggy hair. The tattoo above his wrist drew my attention. It depicted a wolf with lips drawn back in a snarl over blood-red fangs.

“Yeah, we did more than run. You can call me the Howler.” He spelled it out for me. His last name actually was Haller, spelled with an a instead of ow.

“Okay, Howler. You can call me the Biter. I’m not dangerous, but I’ve been known to bare my teeth at someone with an attitude.”

He chuckled. Unlike his childish voice, the laugh was deep. “I’ve got one of your magazines. You write about some weird stuff, Miss O’Hare. That’s why I agreed to do this interview. I’ve read about how you saw that UFO, same as me. It landed in the field on the same night. The dude that walked out of it was a wolf man.” He emphasized with awe in his voice.

I did recall writing a piece about[1] sighting an unusual shape in the sky, however it had not landed. Rather it had simply vanished from view.

“You mean he looked wolfish?”

“No. Not at first. We were all scared, but we got used to him. Each time he came it was during the full moon. Each time he looked more like a wolf.”

The image of a partly-morphed creature almost made me chuckle. I pictured him stuck during a lunar eclipse with just sideburns until the fullness of the moon.

“He showed us what we needed.” Werewolf Boy avoided looking directly at my eyes.

“And that was . . .?”

“Blood. We needed to drink blood to satisfy our hunger. To have the life we wanted in us. We killed a rabbit and drank its blood. That’s when we knew we had to have more.”

What’s is it with these cultish weirdoes? It’s always about the blood.

“So that’s why you attempted to beat the homeless man in the woods? You wanted his blood?”

“Yeah, that’s why we went after him. We didn’t seriously hurt him though. I’ve pleaded guilty to battery, not murder.”

“When you’ve served your sentence, do you plan to continue this type of . . . hunting?”

“What can I say? I’m a werewolf.” He shrugged his shoulders.

The corrections officer glanced at his watch. “Time’s up.”

I got to my feet, glad to escape the presence of this disturbed and darkened soul.

“Miss O’Hare. You’re gonna see him.” I could feel his eyes watching me from under the stringy fringe.

“See who?” I half turned.

“The alien. He wants to take you through the Third Circle of enlightenment if you dare. You are the living flame.” Haller threw back his head and gave a long, hair-raising, wolfish howl.

I started walking away. “Fine. I’ve always wanted to go there with an alien werewolf.”

Detective Giacomo guided me through a maze of long halls, unlocking three sets of barred gates in progression.

“Does he really believe all that werewolf junk? Or is he merely going for an insanity defense the next time he’s arrested?” I was fully convinced there would be a next time.

“I’d say he’s blown his mind on drugs. You should hear the other guy. He’s making up a story about an alien man that morphed into a wolf. It came out of a space ship that landed in the same field where they attacked the homeless man.”

“Yeah. I just heard that story from Haller.”

Giacomo chuckled. “You know the best thing next to having kids? Not having them. Parents these days. They put a helmet on the kid’s head if he rides a tricycle. Buy him every kind of violent electronic game there is. Then when he robs or kills somebody, they slap his hand and give him a time out.”

I could just about guarantee Werewolf Boy had absentee parents, probably divorced—one or both of them with an addiction of some kind, not necessarily substance abuse. Left to himself, he grew up playing fantasy games filled with violence. When he found a group of misfits, he was willing to do anything for a sense of belonging.

The UFO-angle made his story feature material for Beyond Fantasy, however I didn’t want to write it that night. Instead I drove back to my apartment with a need to shampoo my hair. It’s a ritual I go through—kind of a symbolic clearing of my head from the pollution of the day. I meet plenty of weirdoes in my line of work. Sometimes they leave me feeling contaminated.

A hot shower and a sudsy shampoo washed the toxins away. After drying my hair and pulling on my warmest pajamas, I longed for a good night’s sleep. Instead, I tossed and turned. Outside my apartment window, the wind moaned a mournful autumn song.

What had that Haller kid warned me about? An alien in a third circle?

His cryptic words had no meaning. I wasn’t planning on interviewing any aliens. I’ve never come face to face with one. Well, maybe one or two now that I think about it. That tattooed guy who tried to order tacos to go from a drive-up postal box. And where is the third circle anyhow?

I turned the idea over in my mind until I finally drifted down into a restful place.

* * *

“You know I never want to go on assignment with Dax Larue again.” I planted both hands on the desk.

This was truly a desk-pounding moment if ever there was one. Mild-mannered reporter that I am, I restrained myself, afraid I’d hurt my hand. Instead, I looked for the slightest hesitancy in my editor’s eyes.

“Kaytie, I’d really like for you to go on this assignment.” Ed Gray could be persuaded to my point of view at times. He could also be stubbornly insistent when he wanted a story.

“I’d do anything for you, Boss,” I muttered. “Ask me to interview a guy who thinks he’s a vampire. Send me on a search for Bigfoot. I’ll even spend a night in the Chicago Hotel Black’s haunted room.”

My eyes pleaded with Ed to let me off the hook.

Look, Kaytie, I know your job can get creepy. But when you expose the creeps, you’re protecting unsuspecting people from untold harm. You’ve managed to uncover deceitful schemes. Ghosts that turn out to be holograms. Voodoo mediums with clever ruses. You’ve never been afraid of the charlatans. This is simply a Missouri farmer who saw a UFO. What makes it more interesting is the cattle mutilations reported in the area. If we can expose some chicanery, we’ve punched a hole in a huge lie that’s most likely been deceiving people for years. Now you know I wouldn’t ask you to go if I thought there’d be any danger. You won’t be near a swamp or any voodoo people. And we both know that evil Chevalier character is out of this world.”

My resistance started to crumble.

“Yeah, and you’ll give me a bonus that’s out of this world too, right?”

Ed grinned. He knew he was getting through to me. “Besides, you know the Supernatural Seeker magazine is more concerned with sensationalism than truth. You can’t let Dax Larue get an exclusive.”

I didn’t say it, but my nemesis, Larue, the Seeker’s handsome reporter, was the real danger I did not want to reckon with. I shook my head in protest again.

“I know how you feel about Larue.” Ed answered my thoughts. “But you have to talk to this farmer about what’s happening at his place. Could be that he saw something similar to the same thing you saw. Don’t you want to know? And here’s another angle. That area of Missouri has a history of mystery. Sam Uptegrove is a retired sheriff’s deputy. He used to write a column about UFOs and other phenomena for a Missouri newspaper. Sam can give you some documented leads. You’ll probably run onto a few more eerie stories while you’re there.”

Ed always knows how to entice me.

I also knew Ed was putting me in the ring for another round with our competitor, The Supernatural Seeker. He’d seen a welcome increase in Beyond Fantasy’s circulation since Dax and I had started writing articles on the same subject but from opposing worldviews. Sales had jumped off the charts for both publications. Our readers obviously enjoyed the sharp-witted, lively competition between us. Clearly, Ed was hoping to keep up the momentum.

“Come on Kaytie, what do you say? You’re a better writer than Larue.”

“You’re right. I’m a whole lot better.” Modesty is not one of my virtues.

“That’s my girl. I can trust you to get to the bottom of this. You always take the scholarly approach. You look to truth for answers. I can depend on you to do your research. You’ll bring me a story that won’t lead people astray.”

Whenever Ed appeals to my sense of responsibility, he usually stymies all my arguments.

I rolled my eyes in mock surrender. “Okay. As my N’Orleans cab-driver friend Tex would say, slap me with molasses and call me a biscuit. Here goes your favorite reporter, heading for the unknown again with the determined Dax Larue.”

He put an arm around my shoulder. “You can handle him. Besides, this time there isn’t any weird prophecy regarding your unique name.”

Ed knows my name has always been a sore spot with me.

“If I could do it without having to go to court, I’d change my name in an instant,” I grumbled. “That name got me into a heap of trouble in New Orleans. At least Mom changed it from Katie Scarlett to Kaytie Flame.”

I’ve always been thankful to Dad for intervening. Mom had originally wanted to name me Rhetta Scarlett, thinking it had a good ring with our last name of O’Hare, but Dad talked her out of it.

“I happen to like your name. I also believe you’re safer traveling with a companion. Dax will see to it that you’re protected.”

“Oh yeah? Well he didn’t do so great the last time. Because of him, I ended up on a mountain with a voodoo witch and barely escaped a plane crash.”

“Now Kaytie, you know Dax would certainly have died without you there. Besides, he knew he’d find a way to get you both safely back to New Orleans. And he did.”

I mulled that over, more convinced that divine intervention had saved us from our ordeal on Montagne Terrible.

Ed didn’t have the slightest idea what he was setting me up for. Dax is radically appealing, and I’m not immune to his charm. I had promised my Lord I’d never become unequally yoked to an unbeliever.

That’s easier said than done when it comes to the rakish Dax Larue.

* * *

Autumn rain painted gold and scarlet water-colored streaks on the tarmac at O’Hare Airport. Through the misty porthole, I could see red lights flashing on other planes waiting for passengers to board. The stormy afternoon brought recollections of New Orleans where I’d first met Larue and then became a suspect in a murder case on the same night.

With a slight shudder, I strove to put all thoughts of Rainy Bay Bayou out of my mind. I decided to study my notes on UFO sightings instead. The short flight from Chicago to St. Louis would be good reading time.

Where was Dax? A stewardess started to close and latch all overhead storage compartments. I wondered if he would miss the flight. Why should I care if he didn’t come along? The story would be all mine, an exclusive for Beyond Fantasy. Of course, Ed would be disappointed. He was hoping for another war-of-the-world-views feature. Without Dax, that would be difficult. I’d have to scare up a fantastic story.

UFOs. What could be more fantastic? How could I begin to find the answer to a mystery which nobody has been able to solve since ancient times?

“Hey there, beautiful. Bet you thought I wasn’t going to make it.”

I looked up to see the journalist Larue, mischief all over his features and a pleased grin on his lips. The rest of him didn’t look so bad either. Broad shoulders under a red pullover. Denim jeans over narrow hips. Casual clothes don’t just look sporty on Dax. They look elegant. Most men of even moderate good looks are vain about their appearance, yet there was unconscious ease in his demeanor. Not a hint of arrogance about the man. Instead he exuded intrinsic qualities of adventure and enthusiasm. His focus was not on himself but on the world of possibilities around him. That’s what’s so appealing to me.

Dax stashed a small bag in the overhead compartment and sat down beside me.

“I’m glad to see you, Mrs. Larue.”

I ignored his teasing grin. “Mrs. Larue? How long are you going to annoy me with that ridiculous title?”

“I happen to like that title. Especially on you, Miss Flame. In fact, only on you. I admit I wasn’t crazy about it at first when you pretended to be my wife in order to get the last room at the Lafitte Hotel. But it showed me you’re a determined reporter. When you go after a story, you won’t let anything stop you.”

“Right. Nothing stops me. Maybe, not even a little devil himself. After all, I’m here on a plane with you, aren’t I?”

Dax ignored my jab and buckled up while the captain instructed stewardesses to prepare for takeoff.

“I’m a little devil, am I? In spite of the fact that my mother thanked God when she prayed over me every night while I was a little boy?”

“Your mother prayed over you, huh?”

“Yeah, I head her words. Thank God he’s in bed.”

I had to laugh in spite of myself. Dax knows how to make me laugh.

“That’s better. I can tell you’re overwhelmed with joy at seeing me. What are you reading?” He peered at the articles in my lap.

“This is a fascinating subject,” I kept my eyes on the page. “It was naïve of me to assume that UFOs are a relatively modern phenomenon. It seems they’ve been appearing in various shapes since recorded history. I was just reading about the ancient Nazca drawings in Peru. Some people, like Erich Von Daniken, believe they are cryptic messages from ancient aliens.”

“Ahhh. Researching the story like a dedicated journalist. I guess I can’t complain, but I had hoped for a bigger welcome.”

My laughter turned to a simple smile and I glanced his way/

“That’s better,” he leaned over and brushed his lips across my cheek, leaving a little trail of fire tingling at the touch. I quickly drew away.

“Now wait a minute. I seem to have heard somewhere that people should greet each other with a holy kiss. I believe that’s in the Bible.”

Holy kiss, Dax. The operative word is holy when it comes to a greeting.” My cheek still tingled.

The impish look in his eye intensified.

“I’m not sure if I understand the difference when it comes to kisses. Will you give me a little demonstration? I certainly want to be biblical.”

“The only lesson you’re getting from me is in the Bible alright. Remember the story about Jonah jumping into the sea?”

He looked amused.

“Good. Go thou and do likewise.” My smile softened my curt response.

He broke into genuine laughter. “That’s not the first time I’ve been told to go jump in the lake. Or the sea in this case.”

Somehow, I doubted that any female other than me had ever told Dax to go jump in the lake when it came to the subject of kisses.

He struck a thoughtful pose, index finger against his cheek. “As I recall, Jonah was rescued in a rather spectacular manner. So, if a woman of faith tells me to jump, it must mean that you know I’ll get back on board sooner or later. I promise I won’t disappoint you.”

Disappoint is hardly the term. I’d be most happy to see you obey, like Jonah did, and go to wherever God sends you.”

“Maybe the Lord sent me to you. Ever think of that?”

Actually, I hadn’t considered it. The thought struck me as rather incongruous—God sending a man like Dax to me. A rakish, handsome hunk of male temptation. No. God would surely send me a man who shared my faith. A man who would pray for me, protect me, and I’d never have to question his faithfulness.

“Come on Kaytie. Don’t be so unfriendly. How about a little holy kiss?” He leaned toward me.

“You’ll get one, the next time I see you in church,” I raised an eyebrow and leaned as far away from him as my seat would allow.

“Okay, okay. Enough about kisses,” he relented, seeing my annoyance. “But don’t worry, my sweet, we’ll get around to it sooner or later. You have my word on it.”

I started to remind him that kissing was not part of our strictly-professional agreement, but he glanced at the photo copies in my hands. All teasing left his eyes, replaced by curiosity.

“Those Nazca drawings have to be one of the world’s great unsolved mysteries.”

Relieved that he had changed the subject, I looked at photos of enormous figures carved on the stony Peruvian plain.

“Dax, these drawings couldn’t even be seen from the ground. Not until after aircraft was invented thousands of years later. How could the artist draw these figures with proportions so correct?” I was genuinely mystified.

“Fascinating, isn’t it? And they are perfect figures. The theory is that they may have been landing strips for alien craft. One of the drawings looks like a guy wearing a space helmet.”

I glanced out the window at watched the ground disappearing beneath clouds below us as the plane climbed. “Why would a technologically-advanced space ship need a drawing of a giant bird to land on? It’s true, there are some simple lines etched on the flat ground, but they intersect all over the place and have no recognizable pattern. I suppose by some huge stretch of the imagination they could be considered runways. And that totally flat mountain top does look rather like an airstrip. Still, I don’t connect every ancient marvel to space travelers.”

Dax reached for his pocket notebook. “The pyramids for instance. Some say they couldn’t have been engineered without help from space travelers. You’ve read the National Geographic article which explains how the Egyptians built these massive structures?”

“I’ve read it. Nothing mystical or other-worldly about it.”

He took a pen from the notebooks spiral and began to jot a few lines. “I grant you that. The ancients were no less ingenious than modern man. The Greeks and Romans developed all kinds of wonderful tools and instruments. Nazca ancients were equally resourceful. They probably used mirrored light reflected in a beam to achieve their perfectly straight lines for the drawings. So, yes, I agree with you completely. We do these people a disservice by assuming they couldn’t achieve their astonishing feats without help from star people.”

Dax was disarming me again by assenting to my ideas, just as he had in previous conversations while we were on the ghost assignment at the haunted hotel in New Orleans.

“I get irritated at the false and deceptive assumptions of so-called men of science. Star people indeed! Where there’s a will, there’s a way. The ancients found a way to build amazing architectural structures. The Parthenon. The Coliseum.”

The stewardess was evidently brewing coffee. The scent of it filled our nostrils.

I pulled out a sheet from my collection of papers and tapped it with my finger. “I just read this article about a retired construction worker in Michigan who can move and lift 22,000-pound blocks of concrete. He uses small stones as pivots. When he wants to create an upright, he uses a lever to lift the block’s opposite end and slowly slides it into a hole. You can watch him do it on the Forgotten Technology’s website.”

“Oh yes. I’ve seen the guy, Wally Wallington. I believe that’s his name. Very clever. An ingenious engineer. In every age, there have been ingenious people. However, I do think there’s something out there beyond our earth. Too many credible people have been seeing too many things for far too long.”

I silently assented. After all, I was one of those people. And since I’d published my story, I had heard from numbers of credible people—law enforcement officers, naval officers, military flight personnel who had seen unexplained things in the sky.

“What do you think these people have been seeing, Dax?”

His expression became slightly more serious. “I think anything is possible. I’m sure you’ve heard the argument that our universe is so vast. There are literally billions of galaxies and new ones discovered all the time. It would be simplistic to assume Earth is the only planet where life evolved.”

Evolved is a red-flag word for me, believing as I do that God created the heavens and the earth and everything in them. If intelligent life exists in the cosmos, God created it. But I didn’t feel like arguing the point. Dax already knew what I believed. Was he trying to provoke an argument, or had he simply used the word thoughtlessly, out of habit? Knowing his skepticism about spiritual matters, I chose to avoid the issue. Not everything needs to be said.

By this time the plane had climbed through the dark, heavy clouds. Beams of gold bounced off the silver wing, displaying a marvelous truth in the sun-drenched skies. Ed always says, no matter how stormy things look from below, that wonderful orb keeps shining, a constant reminder that light overcomes all darkness.

“Dax, listen to this. As far back as 216 B.C., Roman Author, Julius Obsequens, wrote that people saw things in the sky over the city of Arpi just 180 Latin miles east of Rome. The same Julius later described something in the sky at Capua. He wrote that the sky was on fire and filled with many figures which looked like ships.”

Dax leaned over my shoulder and read aloud, “A historian writing on Egyptian papyrus in the annals of Thutmose III, who reigned around 1504-1450 B.C., described a circle of fire in the sky, soon followed by several mysterious circles shining with more brightness than the sun. The army of Pharaoh watched as he stood in their midst, thereupon these fiery circles ascended higher and moved towards the south.”

I spoke the next line. “As early as 1034, a writer drew an illustration of what may be the earliest pictorial representation of a UFO in Europe. Hartmann Schedel’s drawing is kept in a museum at Verdun, France. What do you think they were seeing?”

He shrugged. “Maybe some of the world’s unexplained mysteries simply don’t have an answer. People are very clever at inventing theories though. Scholars link the Nazca drawings to ancient religious rites. Various New Age practitioners and occultists have their own speculations. I suppose your magazine won’t give those ideas any credence.”

Beyond Fantasy is not opposed to various trends of thought. However, we do strive to print the truth and expose false assumptions. Hatred of truth is intellectual suicide. I’m sure you’ve seen Ben Stein’s film, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.”

“That movie is a must for every self-respecting journalist. Stein presented both sides of the evolution-versus-intelligent-design theories from academia, and he did it with incredible balance. The challenge is, can you do the same, Miss Kaytie, when you write about UFOs?”

“I’m going to try.”

How balanced could I be with such an inflammatory, nebulous, myth-filled, cult-ridden topic? As far as I know, space visitors to our planet are completely without physical evidence or forensic evidence. However, there are thousands of eye witnesses to something in the skies. The enormity of the ancient mystery was beyond me. I felt the weight of the challenge and the risk. Perhaps I would discover nothing. Or maybe things I did not want to know. Whatever challenges lay ahead, I was simply a journalist headed to Missouri to speak with a single witness and compare notes with him. That much I could do.

Without warning, the plane dropped like an elevator in a down shaft. I grabbed the armrest, my knuckles turning white. Dax threw a protective arm around my shoulders. Both of us had survived a plane wreck together just a few weeks earlier. He must have flashed back to our wild plunge into the Caribbean just as I did.

A baby cried. A woman screamed.

The captain’s voice calmly apologized over the intercom and assured us the plane had just hit an unexpected down draft and lost altitude. “Everything is under control now, Ladies and Gentlemen.”

His message was most welcome. Still I felt a little shaken. Then I realized Dax was keeping his arm firmly around my shoulders.

“Umm . . . you can move your arm now, Dax.”

He didn’t.

“I don’t understand it. I think I’m not such a bad looking guy. You should be falling in love with me at least a little by now.”

His tone was playful, but I sensed an underlying tension. Dax was as rattled as I was by the sudden drop. He squeezed my shoulder and then removed his arm. “After that plane crash we’ve been through together, I just thought you might need a little comfort from the man you’re falling in love with,” he added, taking my hand in his.

I removed my hand. “Your good looks and our shared adventures are not on my list of requirements for falling in love.”

“Okay,” he grinned. “I’d like to think that to know me is to love me, but self-deception has its limits. You’ve made it clear I’m not your type. Still, I’m not giving up. You might be interested to know I’ve been visiting a few churches.”

“Oh?” I wanted to know more. What if he did choose to believe?

He couldn’t just say it though. Calling Jesus Lord, but not doing the things He says. That’s not the kind of husband I wanted.

“I’ve been to four different churches. It’s kind of confusing though. So many denominations are out there. Kind of like name-brand versus generic drugs. How do you know which is the right one?”

I started to answer when an elderly woman sitting across the aisle from us spoke up.

“It’s them you know,” she stared at us in a conspiratorial manner, implying that she knew a secret.

“Pardon?” Dax turned his attention toward her.

“The aliens. Pilots always explain them away as downdrafts when they have to perform a sudden maneuver around a UFO. I’ve been flying for years and I know this to be a fact. You don’t have to fear the star people though. They’re mostly friendly.”

“Oh?” Dax kept his tone polite.

I thought perhaps the woman had been listening to our conversation and decided to have a little fun with us, but her tone was completely serious.

“It’s just the lizard men you don’t want to tangle with. Deceptive demons, I call them.”

Over Dax’s shoulder, I peered at her. She looked sane enough, stylishly dressed. Professional even. White hair worn in a smooth bob. Attractive. She might have been an executive on the way to a corporate meeting.

“Have you had an encounter with an alien?”

“Oh yes, my dears. Many times.”

“We’d like to hear about them,” Dax leaned slightly toward her.

“They fly above my house every night.” She announced this with an almost childish pride.

“Every night? What do your neighbors say about this?” Dax kept any skepticism out of his voice.

“My neighbors don’t know. Not everyone can hear them or see them. I have a heightened awareness, you see. A gift of perception. The aliens talk to me telepathically.”

I looked for mischief in her eyes, but her calm voice and sincere expression were without pretense. She had every appearance of sharing a choice secret.

“Have you reported this to authorities?” Dax coughed to cover what might have been a chuckle.

“Oh, my Dear, I stopped trying to get their attention years ago. The authorities don’t have my gift of awareness. They won’t listen. I did report the car fires though.”

“Car fires?”

“The aliens are not happy with our world. Too much crime and violence here. They’ve been setting cars on fire all around the country to get our attention. House fires too.”

Dax flashed a knowing look toward me and lowered his voice. “Fighting violence by destroying property, huh? That always works.”

If she heard the sarcasm in his quiet words, she ignored it. “They are here to help us. They don’t want us to destroy the planet.”

“How do you know this?” I was fascinated. How could she look so normal and yet entertain such off-the-chart notions?

“I’ve been on their space ships many times. Traveled the galaxies and visited other worlds.”

Oh boy. A space traveler.

“How long do these visits last?” I wanted to hear more.

“I’m always back in my bed before morning. They beam me through a time warp. Haven’t you ever watched Star Trek?”

“Beam-me-up Scottie,” Dax suggested.

“Yes,” she looked pleased. “That’s exactly how I travel. You must excuse me now, dears. I have some company work to do on my laptop.” She turned to open her computer. Then she added, “Just one more thing. Young woman, you are a living light. A flame. You have a peculiar destiny, Miss Flame, and your past is somehow linked to the intergalactic worlds. I see fiery circles enclosing you. Beware the energy of the third circle.”

That threw me. The woman’s cryptic words—so similar to my last experience with a witch’s eerie prophecy using my exact name and also with werewolf boy—set off alarm bells in my brain. Not only that, she somehow knew my name.

“You will escape the circle of earth, and water. Beware the energy of the third circle. It is a consuming fire and if you dare deception’s demons you might not escape.”

“Lady, what are you talking about?” Oh no, here we go again. I’ve had nothing but trouble when it comes to prophetic warnings and my name. My mind darted to the forgotten words from Werewolf Boy. He had spoken of a third circle. Now here was a woman repeating the same words.

She did not respond to my question, having covered her ears with small head phones. I wanted to whisper to Dax that we’d just had our first encounter of the wacky kind, but feared she might overhear me. Instead I muttered, “Whatever could she mean?”

“Kaytie, I know your name is taken from a Civil War novel. But how would she know your middle name is Flame? Does your photo appear in Beyond Fantasy? I’ve never seen it. If I had, I assure you I would have paid much more attention to your articles before I met you in person.”

I gulped. “No, my photo is never in the journal. Ed thinks it’s safer for me if people don’t know what I look like, considering all the weirdoes we deal with in our interviews. What do you suppose she means by the third circle?”

Dax turned to me and spoke in the drama-filled voice he uses for reporting mysterious happenings. “I think we should take this warning seriously. Three circles, huh? One in water. Maybe we’re going to float around on inner tubes in a circular swimming pool. The third time we tip over.”

“Yeah, how dangerous is that? I could get my hair wet.”

“Now for the earth circle. I think we’re going to ride on a merry-go-round,” Dax continued. “We fall off on the third revolution and land in the dirt. That could hurt.”

“At worst I might get a smudge on my clothes. I’m very elastic, so I know I won’t break any bones. However, I couldn’t tolerate dirt on my designer slacks.” I pictured us laughing together on a carnival ride.

Dax was making light of the conversation to defuse my alarm.

“What about the third circle of the cosmos? Maybe we’re going to get beamed up to the third ring of Saturn. I’ll vote for Saturn, since I’ve never been there,” I suggested.

“Never? I hear it’s not the best place for a vacation, but it’s probably superior to the island we washed up on after the plane went down. You wouldn’t get me to Saturn if it was the last place on earth.” Dax twisted the cliché into a pun.

“So, you’re not only good looking. You’re a punster too.”

“Ah ha! You finally admit it. I’m handsome and clever. That’s it! The third circle happens when I get to wrap you in the circle of my arms again.”

“Come on, Dax. You can do better. On second thought, never mind. I don’t want to get you started.”

He flashed his rakish grin. “I’ll win you yet, my sweet. We’re meant to be.”

I felt a little flutter in my chest. Before he could continue, I changed the subject. “When do we meet the Missouri farmer?”

“I’ve set up a time for us for this evening. We’re renting a car in St. Louis and driving down to Adelphia Valley where the farmer lives.”

“Is he going to be like the lady across the aisle? A seasoned space traveler who talks with aliens every night as they fly over his house every night?”

“Actually, he’s very credible. At least he sounded credible when I talked with him on the phone.”

Settling back in my seat, I thought, okay Mister, here we come. I hoped the farmer did not live in the third ring of a series of giant crop circles.

* * *

It was more than a two-hour drive in the rental Explorer through gently rolling hills toward the sleepy community of Adelphia Valley, Missouri—pleasant scenery compared to the flat and monotonous farm lands of Illinois.

“I didn’t realize there was so much undeveloped land in Missouri.”

Dax turned the wheel to avoid a squirrel on the road. “We’re driving through the Mark Twain National Forest. Some 94,000 acres of it. Beautiful, huh?”

I couldn’t help saying, “The sign says to watch for deer crossing. I always wonder why the highway department thinks deer can read, but squirrels cannot.”

He consulted a map before he turned off the pavement and followed a narrow gravel road for some miles without passing another vehicle. I watched the dying sun bleed crimson on rolling hills behind a thickly wooded ridge.

“This area seems very remote.”

“It’s a lonely road.”

We crossed a charming, covered bridge spanning a tumbling stream, the water so clear I could count the pebbles at the bottom. In the deepening twilight, the woods seemed to wait with a hush of expectation.

Dax hit a chughole and slowed the rented Explorer. “Seems pretty isolated. Bet a farmer could get lonely out here.”

“So lonely he might see things?”

“We’ll find out. That looks like the place up ahead.”

We approached a gabled farmhouse with yellow light pouring from the ground-floor windows behind a wraparound porch. The place looked as charming as a Thomas Kincaid painting. I stepped out of the vehicle with the feeling that we had stepped back in time a hundred years.

The fields had been harvested. The fences and outbuildings were freshly painted. Everything looked orderly and well-tended. No signs of neglect or decay. No barns left to crumble. No farm tools left to rust in the grass.

A big yellow dog barked a warning. His master appeared from a nearby barn, walking toward us with an outstretched hand.

“Good evening, Sir. I’m Dax Larue from Supernatural Seeker, and this is Miss Kaytie O’Hare. We spoke on the phone.”

The two men shook hands. The dog wagged his tail and dropped his head.

“Yes, I’ve been expecting you. Welcome. I’m Harry Potts. Thelma’s in the kitchen putting the coffee on. Come on inside and meet her.” He wore coveralls and spoke with a Missouri drawl. He had pleasant, grandfatherly features under bushy gray brows.

Thelma, an Angela-Lansbury look-alike with twinkling green eyes, welcomed us. She served generous slices of hot apple pie and steaming coffee in yellow mugs. Her kitchen was charming—a blue-checked cloth on a round table, white chairs, white walls and windows gaily decorated with blue and yellow flowered curtains.

I was pleased to see that the farm couple showed no outward signs of mental deterioration. Their entire setting spoke of an orderly, well-structured life.

Dax lifted a fork and dug in. “Umm. This pie is delicious. We’re eager to hear you story, Mr. Potts.”

Harry exchanged knowing glances with his wife. “I don’t know what to make of it. But I know I saw something. Something mighty unusual.”

Thelma patted his shoulder. “Mister Larue, my husband and I have lived around these parts all our lives. He’s well known for his honesty. You can ask anybody. Harry wouldn’t tell a lie if it cost him a month of rain.”

I already knew that by looking at Harry’s eyes. They were as clear as the creek we had just crossed. I would have bet his character was as solid as his shoulders, muscled by years of farm work. Thelma too, was not the type to see things that aren’t there. She had a practical, down-to-earth presence.

Harry assessed us, no doubt looking for signs of skepticism. Finally, he cleared his throat.

“I was out in the field at sunset to check the crops for storm damage. There was a powerful storm that afternoon. One of those green clouds that pelt down hail stones bigger’n hickory nuts. I looked up to check the sky for more weather, and there it was hanging over me—shaped like a grain silo and almost that big.”

His description excited me. It had the same shape as the thing I had seen. “Did you hear anything?”

“You mean like an engine? Nope. Not a sound. I wouldn’t have known it was there if I hadn’t looked up right at that moment.”

“Was it moving?” Dax wanted to know.

Harry shook his head. “Nope. Just hanging there, still and quiet as the moon.”

“How high above you?”

“Not more’n fifteen feet.”

“Were there any lights?” Both of us asked simultaneously.

“No lights. No windows or openings that I could see.”

“What was it made of? Was it metallic?” I asked, more excited than I wanted anyone to know.

“It wasn’t made of metal.” Harry scratched his head and his eyebrows rose in a puzzled expression. “Shall I tell them, Thelma?” He exchanged a glance with his wife.

“That’s the strangest part. You ever see one of them older model TV sets? The kind with all that snow on the screen before the picture comes into focus? Well that’s what it looked like. Static snow. Plain out of focus. I had the feeling that if I touched it, my hand would pass right through the surface.”

“Like it wasn’t really solid.” I knew exactly what he meant.

“That’s right, Miss O’Hare. Like it wasn’t really solid.”

I almost slapped the table. Harry wasn’t crazy and neither was I. We had both seen a similar object hanging above us, much like a snowy image trying to manifest on a TV screen but not quite coming into focus. The questioned remained. What did we see?

Dax pulled out a notepad and pen from his pocket. “What did you do then?”

“Why, I went about my business. Finished my chores and headed to the house. I wanted Thelma to see it too, but by the time I could get her out on the porch it was dark. The evening settled blacker’n the bat cave over in the hollow. We wouldn’t have seen the thing if it landed in our front yard.”

“Were you frightened?” I already knew the answer.

He shook his head. “Just mystified. The more I thought about it, the more puzzled I became. What could it have been? No military craft looks like that. No weather balloon either.”

Dax looked at him without any hint of skepticism. “Harry, do you believe alien space crafts could be visiting our planet?”

Harry looked doubtful. “I don’t rightly know. Never gave it much thought before.”

“Has this object returned?” I wanted to know.

“Nope. But there have been some odd things happening around the place. The dog barks at nothing. Then he tucks his tail and whines. I’ve never seen that dog act cowardly. Only one thing scares him, and that’s a black bear.”

Dax and I exchanged a glance. “Anything else going on?”

“Well there is something. A crop circle formed in the field overnight. It wasn’t big and it wasn’t elaborate like the kind on those TV shows. We didn’t have any wind that night. All I know is that when I went to bed it wasn’t there, and when I woke up next morning, it was.”

“Have you told anyone else about these things?” I asked.

“Nobody. Not until I got hold of a copy of your magazine. Then I decided to give you a call. Do you have any ideas about what it could be?”

“Everyone has ideas about what this could be.”

I couldn’t let the remark go unchallenged. “And nobody has any evidence to prove their theories.”

Dax ignored my comment. “Would you mind showing us the place where you saw it?”

“I’ll show you. Thelma get us some flashlights, please.”

Soon we were following Harry, our flashlights cutting yellow swatches through the black fabric of night. The big yellow dog stayed close to Harry’s heels. When we had walked some distance into the darkened field, the dog began to whine.

A thrumming presence passed overhead. I glimpsed broad wings with a span that must have been a large owl’s.

“What’s wrong boy?” Harry bent down to comfort the distressed animal until he wagged his tail. “I reckon this is close to the place,” he gestured. “Can’t say for certain, since it’s so dark. The thing could be hanging over our heads this very minute, and we wouldn’t see it.”

I knew from my own experience that he was right. The thought wasn’t comforting out there in the dark with the big dog cringing and whining.

“Could there be a bear nearby?” I asked, looking for an explanation for the dog’s frightened behavior.

“I reckon it’s possible. Old Rex’s been plumb spooked lately. I’ve had to bring him in the house at night, or he sets up a howl.”

Dax shined his light upwards. It didn’t penetrate far into the dark overhead. We saw nothing but the wand of yellow fading into thick blackness.

On the walk back to the house, Dax continued to question Harry. “Did the dog’s odd behavior begin at the time of the sighting? How did he behave on the night the crop circle appeared?”

“Just like he’s acting now. Whining and pawing at the door. When I let him inside, he ran under the bed and wouldn’t budge until daybreak.”

“Would you mind if we set up some surveillance cameras and left them here for a couple of nights?”

“I’d welcome that. If there’s any mischief going on, I want to know what it is.”

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