About Two Upstarts (From It Didn't Happen)
It Didn’t Happen: A Novel (Working Title)
Part One: October 10th
Chapter 1: The Man Upstairs
“We need to get out of here. All of us. Us. But all of us.”
“Don’t say that. We can’t go back to the beginning.”
“Why not? Look at them, looking up here, fiery eyes. Waiting. For answers I can’t give. Imagine what everybody else is saying. Bet the whole world is having a good laugh.”
“Give it more time. You never said it would be first thing in the morning.”
“I know. Guess I just assumed. God. I used to be normal things.” He clenched his eyes closed, picturing a day like they used to have. “You could tell people, “My husband’s a soldier. My husband’s a psychologist.”
“Everyone assumed the morning. We all did.”
“Weird how that works. People thinking the same thing.” He dragged in a few uncomfortable breaths. The converted barn serving as their home for the last six months seemed to be shrinking. There was an ominous weight to the air, he thought, probably akin to the heaviness that hovered over those huddled inside the Bastille or the Alamo, just before tragedy amplified them beyond something more than anonymous, crappy old buildings.
Something imminent was rounding the corner.
Just not the thing he predicted.
He hazarded another cautious peek through the curtain. She put her slender strong arms around his waist, rubbing his stomach with calloused hands, pressing a pensive kiss to the back of his neck. Her concern was palpable; perhaps more so than his. “Have you heard a message?” she asked, voice soft and trembling. “You’d tell me, wouldn’t you? Anything would be helpful.”
Resentment almost pulled him away, but desperate self-preservation owned the moment. He was beyond exhausted. It was supposed to be over, yet there they were.
Compelling as running might seem, the fortitude of her embrace wasn’t something to be abandoned. It was the only thing holding him up, physically and spiritually. Not the first time for her to cinch him together with implacable love and will. Perhaps, also, with a helping of her own private desires.
“You know what’s funny?” he asked, tilting his head back take in more of her smell.
“I’m surprised you’re finding anything funny just now.”
“Got to say, not the funniest thing I’ve ever heard.” She patted his stomach. It was flatter. That little layer of adipose common to men in their late thirties had withered away recently. The opposite of most men living on the property.
“You know what I mean. Never expected to be hungry again. Thought that worry was relegated to the dustbin.”
“It’s still early,” she said, checking her watch as an alternative to looking outside. It was becoming her only line of defense. The more she said it, the more she was unable to deny her own desperation.
A floor below, just under their feet, they could hear the door slowly opening and closing. The deliberate nature of the entry made the identity of the arrival obvious.
“Are you up here, Paulson? Lydia? Did you get taken? The Storm get y’all?”
She could feel her husband’s shoulders slump. He patted her hands and freed himself from her grasp, turning to face the stairs that led up to their home. “Still here, Rhett.”
“Are y’all decent?”
“C’mon up, little brother.”
Rhett plodded up the stairs and walked carefully into their living space. There was no door to the loft; hence his apprehension. He’d walked in on Lydia in a state of undress some months back. It scared her half dead and managed to add a new trauma to his already scarred psyche. “Boy, I don’t know,” Rhett said, nervously moving his burrowed hands somewhere between his white t-shirt and overalls. “The Storm not coming’s got most everyone gripping things tight as all get out.”
“It’s still early,” Lydia snapped. Her brother-in-law’s face went flush and he closed his eyes, shaking his head.
Paulson tried to avoid flashing a chastising look at his wife. He walked over to his brother and rubbed his golden buzz cut, kissing a spot where hair would never again grow. “Everything’s going to be all right, buddy. I’ll go out and talk to them. Say something reassuring.”
“Boy, I don’t know,” Rhett whispered, tears in his eyes. He was still smarting from Lydia’s hot tone.
“Hey, pal,” Paulson said, holding the faltering head level with both his hands. “Give me a sit-rep. Cut the bullshit, yeah soldier?”
“Andy Hood and his family?”
“Stirred up. Confused but not crazy. Probably need watching. I’ll get on it.”
“Take it easy, now. What about Ida Jean?”
“Didn’t get eyes on. Everyone else is out there, save her. Maybe in her cabin, or maybe she got lucky and the Storm took her. You know Ida Jean better than anyone. On her own ain’t a way to even begin describing her.”
The report was delivered evenly. Given a thing to do, his brother was his old sturdy self. The one who’d followed Paulson to Afghanistan to fight for code and country, before the fight had taken what it had.
“What about Elson?”
Rhett seemed confused by the inquiry but forged ahead. “Normal, I’d say. Smoking his pipe like always. Walked by him just now. Drawing in that journal. He’s a hard one to read when it’s status quo. That girl was with him. The pretty foreign one.”
“Understood. The rest?”
Paulson turned momentarily and sighed at Lydia, still holding his brother’s face. “We can’t be jumping to anything yet.”
“Yeah. Just the waiting. Boy, I don’t know.”
“Thanks,” Paulson said, offering another quick hug. “Proud of you. You’re a good man. My favorite brother. Don’t forget it.”
Rhett’s full freckled cheeks against went red, this time a healthier hue. “I’m your only brother.”
“I don’t see how that’s relevant.”
“What are you going to do, PJ?”
“Go on down. Say I’ll be out there in a few. Don’t worry. Things are gonna be just fine, pal.”
It was obvious that Rhett wanted to throw out another Boy I don’t know, but one last look at Lydia had him lumbering for the stairs, tongue jammed against the back of his teeth.
Paulson walked over to the bed and grabbed a flannel shirt hanging off the footboard. Lydia was standing rigidly in the center of the room, hands atop her head, ready to burst. If her state of mind was any sort of barometer for what he was going to have to face below, things weren’t looking good.
He wanted to fight, but it was no use. There was no stopping it, the second his left eye started to twitch. He unsnapped his shirt almost to the bottom and wrestled his feet inside his boots, desperate to avoid looking at his wife. When he collapsed onto his back, she almost didn’t notice. There wasn’t the usual violent crash associated with one of his “spells.” No knocked over lamps or cracked knees. Just a soft landing and a few muted convulsions underneath a light poof of dust.
Paulson James. My man. How are things in Crazytown, Texas?
“Where are we?”
Complicated question, but you know that. Anyway—where does it look like?
“Looks like the mountains,” James chattered, feeling a chill on his arms, wondering if the place or the sensation was really real. As many times as this happened, it was always the first thing he thought. “And the fishing poles?” he asked, teeth still rapping together.
I thought you might the sensation of catching something. It’s like spiritual virtual reality if you think about it. Figuring to add something more physically interactive. Just an idea. You used to like a little angling, I was told. I could see it. I can see it right now, actually. You’re a cute kid. Eh. Let’s not get bogged down in space and time. One of my pet peeves with you people. Linear is so not cool. Don’t know how you manage.
Paulson glanced at his stream-of-consciousness interlocutor with a disdainful smirk before scanning his surroundings. His feet were dangling off an old wooden bridge. There were snowcapped peaks on either side. Underneath an icy stream ran deep and steady, singing out a consistent low note. “You told me today was the day, Levi. What are we doing here?” Paulson figured on seeing his Messenger again, but not like this. Their next encounter was supposed to take place in the Great Beyond, burdens gone. Maybe God at the end of the table, offering a toast so profound only God could come up with it. Perhaps a few of the Saints and Martyrs, sharing war stories.
Don’t let your line run too far out.
“Levi? Seriously. And what’s with the accent?”
Biloxi, Mississippi. 1930s. Wanted to try it out. Sort of a redneck musicality to it.
Why? Oh, because of the face? I’ll have you know that this is a composite of fourteen different Japanese action stars. Whipped it up myself. All very handsome men.
“Not saying otherwise.” Paulson rubbed his gray eyes with his free hand, feeling a headache coming on that was real in any dimension.
Look, there’s been a delay. This kind of stuff happens. Things you need to do yet.
“A delay? Nobody’s going to listen to me back home. You can only predict our last day on the planet once. People start losing faith in the batter after strike one.”
Levi scratched his precisely managed jet coal black goatee and whipped his pole around like a paintbrush, attempting to goad a fish toward the lure. He was dressed as he always was. A corduroy sport jacket under a grimy camo t-shirt and board shorts. On his feet he wore military combat boots with no socks or laces. He was the homeless guy who all the other homeless guys felt sorry for.
You get more than one strike, Mr. James. Consult a history book. Or a baseball game. People have a capacity for gullibility that you fail to grasp.
Paulson braced at the sound of Levi using the word gullibility. It made him feel like the charlatan he promised his people he wasn’t—the total lunatic he prayed he hadn’t become.
You’re getting mad. Easy, big guy. Integral or expendable as you are, I still have a pretty big checkmark in the seniority column. Hundreds of millennia. Don’t want to pull rank. Just a reminder.
“What am I supposed to do? Is it ever going to actually happen? What do I say to those people?”
Ever think back on your life before? Saying things to people was pretty much your whole deal.
“So is that the reason? The reason it has to be me?”
Levi tossed his rod down into the river and turned squarely to Paulson.
Just once. Just once I’d like for you to consider my feelings.
“I’m supposed to feel sorry for an Emissary of God? You have powers. You get to hang out in Heaven. All the secrets are at your fingertips.”
I can see in your soul. We’ve been over this. It’s almost automatic, but it’s not an automatic blessing, if you can follow. Just now, I had a good look. Dark. You are a classic narcissist. Projection. Deflection. It’s dawning on me. Kind of a jerk, Paulson James.
“I don’t even know if you have feelings to hurt.”
See that right there. You think because we operate on separate metaphysical planes of existence, you get to treat me like the “other.” It’s like talking to a Republican. Or a Democrat.
“Enough, Levi. Tell me what I’m supposed to do.”
No idea. I mean it. This isn’t me messing with you. Believe it or not, your disquiet isn’t the apotheosis of my career.
Paulson’s face remained unchanged. Like he was waiting for the actual answer.
I’m serious. You have to go back. That’s all I was told. Probably some unfinished business you need tending. Or not. Could just be a scheduling thing.
Paulson took a swing at Levi. He hadn’t made an aggressive move since coming home from the war. Now here he was, fishing in an ontologically iffy setting, having a go at a supernatural being.
I’m gonna let you have that one. Just one.
Levi disappeared and then reformed on Paulson’s other side, quick as Biblical Mercury.
You need to get your emotions in check.
“Sorry.” The apology came fast and humble. Levi’s little show of otherworldly power wasn’t done idly. Crazy as the thrift store ambassador was, he was also packing serious fire and brimstone. “Please. Just give me something I can tell them.”
We’re gonna let you work it out for the next little bit. Think of it as good for your character. Little advice. Get things on track with Lydia. Happy wife, happy life. Little simplistic, maybe, but can’t hurt. You’re going to want to keep overthinking now but let me stop you.
Levi smiled and lit up a cigarette. After an overemphasized drag, he blew the smoke straight up and gave James a playful look, slicking back his greased black hair.
Paulson’s hands went stiff, like a person’s hands just before they start strangling someone. He shook them out and did his best not to roll his eyes. “Okay. I just wish—”
It was warm in his ear. He could feel his eye still twitching but couldn’t see anything. Not long and he realized Lydia was whispering something soothing to him as he struggled between states of being. He hated that she had to watch. No matter how many times she tried to reassure him, he imagined it was like viewing a bad actor being possessed in some movie not as good as the original Exorcist.
The eye went back to stasis. His vision corrected itself to seeing the here and now. “How long?” he asked, throat cracking dry.
“Ten. Maybe twenty seconds. I barely had time to get over here.”
His wife got off the bed and yanked him up to a sitting position. They’d gone through the routine enough times for her to be versed. She placed a hand on his crotch.
“It’s okay,” she returned, getting up to fetch something to clean up. “You managed to get your shirt off. Improvement. What’d he say?”
Paulson held out his hand for a towel. Debriefing was hard enough and being covered in piss was just a little too much. “Said that we’re going to be here a little longer. Said that everyone would understand. I make people understand.”
Lydia answered by smacking her husband across in the face with a pair of boxer briefs.
“Sorry if I’m not your biggest fan at the moment. We could have a riot on our hands.”
“It’ll be fine.”
“What if your brother had seen?”
“I’m not sure. We would’ve handled it.”
She wasn’t calming down. “It’s just, we get these little pieces. All these times, and how often have I really let you have it? Don’t put limits on my feelings. It’s gross.”
“Paulson,” she said, squaring up next to the bed, arms crossed like a little drill instructor.
“I’m sorry,” he whimpered, stepping up to take off his spoiled jeans. Levi’s. It was a reminder that he couldn’t tell her everything. Those were the rules. Whatever was happening, there were rules. “You’ve been strong for me. Stronger than me. Always have been.” James wasn’t just telling her what she wanted to hear to make the moment easier. Lydia had always been the rudder, even before all this. They’d been a power couple, on the rise in Texas business and society, but it was her will and positivity that had carried them along. She was forged hard against life’s challenges, clawing her way to prominence at a leading commercial real estate concern, managing a path through the old boys’ club, dignity intact. With her unflagging encouragement, he’d broken through his life as an average therapist to become famous as a motivational speaker, sought by everyone with enough money to pay for his time; high-end corporations to national high school football conferences to international sales conventions. He could work a room. Managing different mindsets and doing it quickly was a skill he’d honed in battle without fully realizing it. Thousands would sit enthralled, listening to practical advice like it had come from a stone tablet. Now his audience was less than a hundred—they listened to spiritual revelations more or less like it was what one did to better their day-to-day.
Chapter 2: Sentinels
“Guess it didn’t quite work out how you wanted. That about sum it up?” Agent Jordy Phelps from the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives hurled the question skyward in a high-pitched, incendiary tone, sweating through the backside of his skin-tight Wranglers. “I mean it’s getting damn near noon time. If I’m the Lord, I’m not waiting half the day to lift off my chosen people. Just don’t seem to compute.” Phelps squinted at the cresting Texas sun, pulling the brim of his cowboy hat level with his unmanaged black eyebrows. “You ever gonna get to talking? Hell, man. Ain’t part of you happy to still be around? Or don’t you get those type feelings?”
The subject of the agent’s criticism was a man in his fifties named Theodore. He was the one everybody at the Fort Worth ATF field office called “The Lookout.” The sinewy, bearded figure sat or stood in a wooden tower near the gate to the compound, watching the road and the edge of the property, loose-necked shirt hanging off his old body like something left on a hanger in the back of the closet. He never spoke, save one word: “Blessings.” Other than that, you weren’t getting anything out of old Theo. He was a sentinel. He was one of those silly soldiers standing guard outside Buckingham. He was Idris Elba from Thor. Phelps was proud to have come up with that one. So he called Theo Hamdoll, because that’s how it came out of Phelps’ weathered lips.
A car door slammed closed behind and the young ATF man turned to see his boss getting off a call. Agent Wolf Becker nodded at the junior agent and then up at the tower. “Has he said anything?” Becker asked, flat and authoritatively. He was the senior man at the field office. That put this problem square in his lap, but if any fed was built for it, he was the guy. Wolf Becker was known as having the equanimity of a cup of water, at least to the casual observer. Whatever Phelps was, Becker was the opposite.
“No, sir. Nothing after ‘Blessings.’ Hamdoll’s doing his usual bit.” Becker tilted his head, watching Phelps as he talked. The young agent made strange movements with his right hand when he spoke. Pointing, waving, but generally having nothing to do with what he was saying. A tick, perhaps. Becker had learned to ignore it. Mostly.
“Then what are you on about? Becker inquired. “I could hear you from inside the car.”
“I was trying to establish something. Get it working. Just two guys shooting it.”
“Wow. As if you lifted procedure straight from the training manual.”
Phelps pulled his hat down another inch and wiggled his free hand. “Well.”
“In half a year that man has shown no crack in his will. Not so much as a hairline fracture. He’s impervious on a microscopic level. What’s your reasoning for starting in today?”
“Come on, Becker. You know that I know you think I’m stupid. And you’re way off.”
“Okay. Pretend I’m stupid and explain why you’re carrying on with Theo.”
“Today’s the day.”
“If any of these wackos are going to become pervious, figured on it being right about now.”
Becker didn’t know what to think about Phelps. He didn’t fit the profile of a born racist full of resentment, being under the command of a black academic. A lot were. Most agents were ex-service or former local law enforcement, but Wolf Becker had taken a different path. He did a stint as a criminology professor before joining the bureau. It was an unusual road, but despite it or because of it, he was a highly effective investigator and one of the most level-headed brains in the ATF.
Phelps wasn’t holding grudges, and he wasn’t exactly level-headed. He was… weird.
All that said, Becker didn’t wholly disagree with Phelps. If the dam was going to break, today would be the one you’d probably have marked on your calendar.
“It’s not inevitable,” whispered the head agent.
“What’s that?” Phelps asked, spitting onto the gravel road and adopting a bemused look.
Becker walked toward the gate, away from his subordinate, staring at “The Lookout.”
“Guess I’ll leave you with your thoughts then,” Phelps said, overemphasizing his accent and kicking rocks as he made a way back to the car. “Taxpayers don’t pay me enough to be mindreading in this heat. Frigging October with this shit. I’ll be cranking the A/C while you and the freak play the silent game.”
It’s not inevitable, Becker thought, resting his arms on one of the rusty gate’s bars.
Inevitability was what everyone was thinking. The situation was primed. Tragedy written all over it. A big piece of private property in Texas with a herd of toe-the-line acolytes made anyone with a pulse go to one place: Waco. The head of the ATF in Washington was soiling himself on an hourly basis, afraid of another public relations catastrophe that would leave an indelible mark on the collective American conscience for all of time. The FBI was breathing down everybody’s throats. No surprise there. The Texas Rangers and local police knew the property and a lot of the people living on the compound. For the hometown badges, the investment was personal; they weren’t too keen on letting another group of folks go up in smoke. Blame would go to Becker and the federal task force, and at that point he wouldn’t be in any position to argue. He’d resign in shame and failure. A life dedicated to stopping bad things from happening would be forgotten by everyone he’d ever met, until the point where he’d forget it himself. God would be a refuge, but what if Dana left? His faith might dissipate. The drinking. Harder this time. It was all laid out, those dark possibilities. To an outside observer, perhaps it appeared the die was cast.
Screw the die. He could work this out. Wherever his mind was, Becker knew he needed at least as much resolve as the man in the tower. Calm. Peace under fire. A sentinel. Easier said than done, but he was absent choice.
The ATF man felt a vibration in his pocket and let out a sigh as he answered the call. “Hey there, Paulson,” he said, turning away from Theodore and the watchtower. “What do we do now, old friend?”
Chapter 3: MRI
The Membership was gathered in the mess hall. It was the largest building on the property, right in the center, with all the surrounding structures radiating around it. Paulson James was smoking near the back wall, standing alone under the shade of a thick oak. He could hear the clamor emanating from inside. The sound of discontented hearts. The sound of his Lydia trying to quell their uncertainties using a temperamental, feedback-prone PA system. A bit like a crowd that’s been waiting in the rain all day after you tell them their favorite band isn’t showing up. The change was frightening. The Membership was comprised of some of the most docile and benevolent people Paulson had ever met, save a few surly-ish outliers. Currently, they sounded like the Hell’s Angels riding a particularly strong crank high.
Understandable. Their band didn’t show up. God being the band.
“I don’t know what to do now. This isn’t the best time, Wolf. The day’s not even over yet.” James lit up another cigarette and smoked it down like it was his last, listening to unoriginal advice from his old college buddy. Frankly, he expected better. “How long have we known each other?” Paulson asked, turning away from the cafeteria. His eye started twitching. Standing in front of him, going in and out of focus, was Levi the Messenger. He was wearing shorts and had swapped his combat boots for the cowboy kind. The ensemble was topped off by an oversized Hawaiian shirt. The wardrobe was almost as arresting as his presence.
You shouldn’t be talking to the ATF. More important things to do.
The Messenger’s words sounded squelched, like they were coming through an old car radio. Paulson was frozen in place, cigarette hanging by the little bit of wet on the inside of his lip. Before he could respond, Levi was gone. “What the shit!?”
“What’s wrong?” Agent Becker asked, voice full of genuine worry, fearing the worst.
“He never comes here. I always go to him. Or he takes me. Or whatever.”
“Are you seeing the guy—the emissary character—is that what you’re talking about?”
“Yeah. He just... right here. In Texas.”
“So he’s there?”
“Yeah. No. Came and went. I don’t understand.”
“That’s okay, PJ. Things get a little out of hand sometimes. What’ve we been talking about lately?”
“We’ve been talking about a lot of things lately, Wolf.” The Membership’s leader was taking fretful little steps in random patterns. Little figure eights. Flattened circles. Eccentric squares.
“Do you trust me?” asked the agent.
James turned around and was startled once again. “Holy crap!”
“What?” Becker asked.
“Everything’s fine. Keep the jackboots back. I’ll ring later.”
Paulson ended the call and gathered up an exasperated breath. He tried to light up another smoke, but couldn’t stop shaking.
“I’ll get that,” said Dr. Davis Dade, taking two steps forward to grab the lighter out of James’ hand. “Seems like you’re about to burst. And you shouldn’t be smoking.”
“Don’t know if you noticed, Doc. Things—little bit crazy around here. They’re ready to tear me to pieces. The feds could be on the march. I’m seeing things. Then the whole not being in Heaven thing.”
“Yeah,” the doctor said, putting his head down. Paulson could see the gaping bald spot toward the back of Dade’s scalp. The skin was red and looked irritated. Too much time in the sun. It made Paulson feel sad. Poor Davis. Lifted from a beautiful life of country clubs and never having to be outside for more than an hour. Now this; rashes and unfulfilled prophesies. “That’s sort of what I wanted to talk to you about,” the doctor said, gathering himself up to face his leader. Paulson studied Dade for the thousandth time. The doc was a weird little fella. His head was too big for his shoulders and his face was too small for his head. He once told Paulson that his incongruous looks helped spur him to great heights in the medical field. He figured money and success would make up for his aesthetic inadequacies. Something like a blind man being able to hear the notes better than someone with sight. Turned out, he was right. Dade’s wife Julie was a knockout. “Not that women go for money and security,” the doctor once joked with James.
Paulson liked Dr. Davis Dade. He was mostly a self-aware type. A rich man able who in the end was able to assess his boundaries and weaknesses with honesty. His short, slight build was kind of annoying; you couldn’t hear him when he was sneaking up—but that was hardly something that merited castigation.
“So what’s up?” Paulson asked, looking over Dade’s to the cafeteria. There was still that lion’s den to contend with. “Why aren’t you back in there with the natives?”
“Remember a couple months ago?” the doctor asked.
“You’ll have to be more specific.” Paulson was acting aloof. More than usual. He sucked his cigarette and scratched his dampening hair. The nerves and the driving sun were beginning to take their toll. “What about two months ago, Doc?”
“C’mon, PJ. The MRI.”
“I don’t want to talk about that.”
“Nobody wants to talk about their MRI.”
“No—I mean—we already talked about it.” Paulson blew a stream of smoke over Dade’s patchy head. It was hard to shift focus from the red spot. It looked like a rash that would only spread. James thought about the irritation that was already spreading through the camp. It made him long for loneliness in a way he hadn’t felt for a long time.
Dade cocked his chin up and crossed his arms, skinny legs stiff with newfound resolve. “I wasn’t honest.”
“About the MRI.”
“We’re still talking about the damn scan? Move on, Davis.”
“I can’t.” The little doctor took a deep breath, walking through a cloud of Paulson’s smoke without flinching. “It wasn’t clean.”
“What’s that mean—not clean?”
“You have a tumor. Pretty big one, actually.”
“I’m not, actually.”
“Well this isn’t funny.”
“Before you get too upset, try to understand.”
Paulson took a half step and made like he was going to walk away, but he couldn’t let the conversation end there. “Let me understand. We snuck out of here in the middle of the night to get my noggin looked at—”
“You wouldn’t stop about the headaches.”
“To get my noggin looked at, just so you could lie to me about the results?”
“You make it sound so simple.”
“Sorry if my summation doesn’t square with your fragile sense of decorum.”
“I can see you’re losing it. We should probably continue this later.”
“Don’t lecture me about my temper, Doc.” James placed a hand on the little physician’s shoulder and gave enough of a squeeze to demonstrate his ire. “You know, I never used to have a temper. Not at all. Turns out, might be the giant brain tumor eating away at my gray matter.”
“That’s not impossible.” Dade was bending from the pull of Paulson’s grip.
“And everything that’s happened—all of this—could just be the hallucinations of a madman with a damn medical condition.”
The doctor ripped himself away from Paulson and turned to face the gym. The clamor was only growing louder. “I figured it didn’t matter, PJ.”
“Explain the sense of that.”
“I knew it might kill you, but I figured we were supposed to be gone by then.”
“Ain’t cutting it, Doc. First, you know damn well that a brain tumor can cause people to act weird—real weird. Second, you wouldn’t have come out here to tell me unless you felt guilty.”
“I’ve always felt guilty, but I’ve always had faith. Still do. God could’ve put it there. The tumor is like an instrument.”
“Oh God.” Paulson pulled his cigarette pack from his front pocket and chain-lit the next. “You sound crazy, Davis. You’re the kind that makes it easy for those assholes out there to call us a cult. I’m supposedly head nutcase, yet you’re giving me the creeps.”
“I know this is a lot to take in.”
“Sure you do. We all have tough mornings.” Paulson barely finished the sentence. He buried his fist into the physician’s soft stomach and shoved him down into the wild grass like he was nothing at all. “Shit,” he whispered, walking away while Dade rolled and writhed around, grasping for oxygen with terrible, grating gasps. “Shit,” James repeated, holding out his hand. “Stand up and calm down. You’ll get your breath back quicker.”
The doctor abstained from hailing the physical as everything, so you resort to physical violence.
“What!?” Paulson called out.
There’s some sort of poetry in there, I think. Oh—outstanding leadership strategy. Maybe we picked the wrong guy after all.
Holding the doctor up, James whipped around, expecting to see Levi. There was no one.
“What?” Dade asked, confused by the sudden change in orientation.
“Nothing,” Paulson said, pulling grass from his friend and doctor’s head. “I’m sorry for hitting you.”
“No, it’s not okay. You’re a faithful guy, Davis. Sure your heart was in the right place. You’re going to have to explain to me exactly why a lie on that level seemed a good idea.”
“That’s great. But seriously. The finer points. Good soul as I know you to be, it was a weird decision.”
“A tumor doesn’t explain everything else that’s happened. Everything else that you did.”
Paulson took a second to try to remember the entirety of the last six months. Davis had a point. A tumor didn’t explain the rest. Didn’t even come close. The doctor’s logic suddenly became less ridiculous, though still hard to understand.
“The Storm’s still coming,” Dade said. “I know it is.”
“Yeah,” James said, steadying his friend. “The Storm’s coming.”
Chapter Four: Last Year’s Lydia
Lydia James sat behind her husband on the little mobile stage, watching him quell the membership. He’d entered through the back with a literal cloud over his head, smelling like a derelict pool hall, projecting little to none of his normal casual handsome cool. Nevertheless, he was once again doing his thing. The crowd had been close to riotous. Not now. She slipped away, picking up a few words here and there, mostly lost in herself.
“The day ain’t over yet. And it’s no time to panic. That’s not what we do here. This is not a bunch of weirdoes. You guys and gals are some of the most accomplished and wonderful people I’ve ever met. Don’t go freaking out.”
Lydia heard them chuckle. Paulson had probably flashed one of his self-effacing smiles their way. She couldn’t see. Instead, she looked down at her hands. They were covered with wear; blisters and callouses in the bends of her fingers. Layers of dirt underneath her trimmed fingernails. What would last year’s Lydia James say to the present day version? Last year’s Lydia. She almost laughed out loud at the thought.
“We aren’t the same people that came here six months ago, but that doesn’t mean we’ve devolved. Am I right!?”
Last year’s Lydia would’ve snuck out the backdoor. She’d have never gotten close to a strange place on the outskirts of Fort Worth, surrounded by knots of wide-eyed religious nutters. But last year’s Lydia hadn’t seen the things she’d seen. The things that her husband had done. A strong dose of belief coursed through her veins, mixed in with the pragmatism that made her so successful in her career. The belief wasn’t necessarily welcome, but it was there and there was no denying it.
Though she still tried.
Another look at her hands.
“Y’all can call me names. Go ahead and do it. Out loud and now, if you’re feeling it. Heck, I bet there’s nothing you haven’t called me that I haven’t called myself ten times a day and twenty on Sundays! Haha! Twenty on Sundays. That’s not even a thing, but here I am, facing the fire, facing the light in each and every one of your eyes.”
They were laughing now. She put her head down, impressed but not surprised, yawning as her thoughts drifted to six or seven hours prior. Lydia had been crawling around down by the creek, through dirt and burrs and mud, looking for a bear, armed with an Alaskan Winchester Model 70. Being her last night, she was determined to find the animal. I’m going crazy, she thought, clapping mindlessly after the applause had already died down. She never told Paulson about the bear, mostly because she thought it might not be real. Bears weren’t a thing in North Texas, especially this close to the city. There was no way it would just be wandering through the property, and yet, Lydia had seen it at least ten times.
Or she was barking mad.
“One thing I know. We’re not crazy. Not one single solitary person here is anything but a good old-fashioned red-blooded American of sound mind and body. Don’t tell yourself otherwise.”
Lydia had never found the bear, despite her many attempts to stalk it in the night. It felt more like the bear was stalking her. I’m barking mad. Last year’s Lydia would call for the orderlies and the padded room if she could see what had become of her.
“Doubts are natural. Let’s take a good lunch and breathe. Talk to one another like you know how. Don’t make everything about us and the Storm. Let’s just be friends for a little bit before we get all riled up again. And no, Chester. That’s not me using women words. You old dog.”
Lydia crossed her hands in her lap and smiled as the Membership rose and applauded. She rose too, but as the crowd smiled and hugged she found herself on the verge of tears. It was the bear. She wanted to see it and know that it was real.
“You okay, Lyds?” Paulson asked, walking up to give her a hug.
“I’m fine,” she said, blinking away. “That message—really something, Husband.”
He kissed her on the forehead. “Thanks. I love it when you call me Husband, by the way. It’s like you’re in the supporting cast of Witness. Maybe one of those bonnet things…”
“I don’t want to hear a segue into another one of your Harrison Ford fantasies.”
He laughed. She could always make him laugh, but right now it was easy. He was coming off a speech. A time when he was Teflon to the hardness and a welcome mat for any positivity that might be coming his way, regardless of circumstance prior or previous.
Despite her knowing that he was merely basking in afterglow, she was genuinely relieved. Hours ago they thought this might be the tar and feather show; now at least he’d bought them some time.
“You sure you’re okay?” he asked, taking her hands. “I can’t believe gardening does this to you. It’s like a contact sport.”
“I’m fine,” she said, slipping his grip and kissing him on the cheek. “Think I’ll talk to Janie. See how she’s doing.”
Lydia hopped off the stage and took a labored breath, Glad as she was to not be lambasted by the Membership, she wanted to be taken in the Storm as much as anyone. More than anyone. If the delay lasted much longer, present day forty three-year-old Lydia was going to have to break a serious slice of news to her husband: on the doorstep to the afterlife, she was at last pregnant with their first child.
Chapter 5: Bored with the Board
At the ATF field office in West Fort Worth, things were abuzz. Wolf Becker didn’t have an exact number, but there was more or less a legion of overdressed FBI agents milling about, looking busy on their cell phones. He always wondered who they were talking to with their concerned, scrunched faces.
One could never tell with the FBI. Good agents for the most part, forgetting the odd simpleton dispersed randomly throughout any collection or herd. There were so many and they seemed able to replicate by spontaneous mitosis; whatever vetting process was in place, nature and the law of averages were bound to let a few clunkers pass muster unchecked. The ATF was a mom and pop operation by comparison and therefore a much harder place to hide ineptitude.
Turning by a series of cubicles toward his corner office, he bumped into a red-cheeked young officer with the Texas Rangers named May Dukes. She was carrying a stack of files and managed to adjust her grip before they scattered to the floor.
“Nice save,” Becker said, holding his hands out in case anything spilled from her grasp.
“Thank you, sir,” she said, now fully confident in her payload. “Sorry about that. Was just on my way to see you.”
“Really?” Becker asked. “Where exactly?”
“Your office. For the—the meeting.”
“I’m heading to my office right now,” he said, slowly raising a long finger to point it over her shoulder.
“Of course,” she said, cheeks reddening more. “This whole thing isn’t what it looks like.”
“That you don’t know where the hell you are or what the hell is going on?”
“Exactly,” she said, looking like she wanted to melt into the lifeless gray government-issue carpet.
Becker took half of the files out of her hands. “Take it easy on yourself, Dukes. This is my operation and I can barely find my feet these days. Let’s get this over with, shall we?”
Ranger Dukes turned and followed Wolf Becker, biting her lip in frustration. Of all the people running around there that day, he was the one person she was interested in impressing. So far not so good.
“Do these task force soirées get you pumped, Dukes?” he asked flatly, stopping in front of the glass door. “They get me pumped.”
She hid a muted smile and nodded quick and short, meeting his eyes with a strange mix of apprehension and eagerness. “Not sure how to answer, sir.”
“Your relaxed shoulders and the fact that your hands are in your pockets. Indicators leading me to believe this isn’t something you take all that seriously.”
He made no great attempt to change his bearing. Just tilted his head back slightly and sharpened his eyes; she inferred he was waiting for more.
“On the other hand, as a less experienced member of the law enforcement community and dogged member of this task force, I’m almost inclined to disagree with you.”
“But I would never do that—disagree with you—sir.”
Becker showed a rare, unfettered smile. Dukes returned with the slightest of winks. “Yeah. You’re gonna be fine.”
“Thank you, sir. I really like my job.” She looked down and was fifteen again. She’d never seen a flash of teeth or portion of charm from Becker. He was winning when he wanted to be; handsome if one was to ever really consider it.
“I can tell you got a nose for the hunt. Few improvements with your directional abilities and you’ll probably make a first-rate cop.”
She smiled at the rapport they seemed to be building, but quickly forced her face back to serious, nodding her little nods and blinking away a layer of tension as they entered the office.
“Guess you guys couldn’t wait to get going today,” Agent Becker said, smiling tacitly as he maneuvered behind his desk in the corner. He stood there, hands on his hips, looking over today’s players. Mostly old faces. One new one. He said a quick hello to Brad and Phil, his point guys on the Paulson case. They were mustached and in their forties, physically strong but in great shape. Typical, experienced agents with years on the job. They appeared calm but ready for anything, trying to mirror their boss.
The FBI liaison offered a curt wave and “howdy” toward Becker, laboring in vain to seem local. The U.S. attorney didn’t get up—her face was buried in the case file—she was a sharp but overworked Latina woman who had seen a wider range of cases than anyone else in the room. “Governor,” he said, shaking the big hand of the man standing like a statue on the other side of his desk. The politician was doing a poor job of hiding his displeasure; it was obvious to everyone in the room that he was put out—to not be the first addressed was a breach of protocol or at the very least, proper decorum. “Hey Dukes,” Becker said, holding a stare on the politician. “Come meet Governor Biggs.”
Everyone adjusted in the limited space, allowing Ranger Dukes the opportunity to shake the hand of Texas’ chief politician. She smiled and nodded six or seven times before speaking; short bursts of dutiful word groupings—something about it being an honor. Her head was cocked back, like a front row movie patron. The governor was a massive figure and had something of a presence, but Becker imagined the spry Ranger Dukes would see through the façade posthaste. Biggs was a dolt during sunshine and a led vest in stormy seas.
“I know you don’t like me being down here, Wolf,” began the governor, talking too much with his hairy hands, “but maybe it’s good to have reminders. We all need reminders—am I right?” Everyone in the room muttered in the affirmative, unsure if the question was rhetorical. Biggs was given to loose banalities, making it difficult to conclude when he was looking for a real answer.
“It’s not about what I like or don’t like,” Becker said, standing tall with his arms behind his back. He wanted to appear deferential, if only to expedite the meeting.
“Today’s the day,” the governor said. “Am I right?”
Another oblique inquiry, but less than usual. It gave the ATF agent a moment’s pause. He picked up a ballpoint pen and dropped it with a thud on his day planner. “It’s another day, if that’s what you mean.”
“I think you know what I mean. Paulson’s people—still here. At least they didn’t kill themselves like those other dumb bastards.”
“They never said they were going to kill themselves. Can I ask where you got that notion, Governor?”
“Don’t get your blood up, Wolf. I don’t need people giving me notions. I come by them all on my own.”
God knows that’s true, Becker thought. And God help us.
“As far as we can tell, the situation is stable and contained. Nobody’s hurt, and to this point no laws have been broken. I’d like to dissolve this task force and send all these people back to where they can do something productive. This isn’t a standoff.”
“Not yet,” said Governor Tiggs.
“Despite your trepidations, you seem insistent on turning this into something bad. Snakes can be avoided. I suggest we don’t go kicking over rocks.”
Governor Tiggs let out a heavy breath. It smelled like the results of a gallon of coffee and a carton of cigarettes. Everyone in the office reeled as much as they could without being rude. “Can we bring in the board?” Tiggs asked, snapping his fingers and turning toward the door. “Young lady,” he rasped, snapping again in May Dukes’ direction, “do us a solid and get the board with all the pictures.”
Wolf Becker craned his head around and threw a glance with widened eyes at his boys Brad and Phil. They could read the simmering impatience just under their boss’ visage as they waited for Dukes to return with the board.
Becker hated the board.
It was industrial-sized and made of cork, for hanging up pictures and little notecards with thumbtacks. Little strings were occasionally tied from one tack to another to indicate a connection between two objects or points on the board. There was also a map and a piece of paper that reminded everyone in the office how many days they had until “Loony Liftoff.” It was the large circle in the top right corner that Becker spotted as Dukes struggled to push it through the door.
“There she is,” said Tiggs, opening his jacket and placing his fat red thumbs in the little pockets of the gray vest his mistress had picked out for the day. “She looks like some fine work. Wheel her all the way in here, honey.”
“Governor,” Ranger Dukes managed, enlisting the help of Brad and Phil to properly position it in the middle of the room.
This frigging thing, Becker thought, finally slumping into his chair.
Becker hated the board. They only had it in the office at the insistence of Governor Tiggs. The politician apparently took in more than his share of crime shows—shows where a big visual aid was requisitioned to show all the conspirators and all people sitting on their asses at home who and what was going on with the case.
The Resident Agent in Charge took a breath, releasing the tight fists that he’d unconsciously clenched. Every time a superior came in, they wanted to see the board as well. It wasn’t just Biggs. But that look of glee on his big frying pan face—
“Have you made contact today?” asked Susana Rogelio, the U.S. attorney. She knew the facts and didn’t need the pictures and the map.
“I have,” Becker said. “Our boy seems a little surprised, but he’s holding it together. With a little time, this thing peters out.”
“I know you grew up with this wackjob, Wolf, but by God—it’s like you’re on his side all the time. This deal—she’s a big’n. Gotta get her reeled in.”
“I’m not on anyone’s side, Governor. A safe and peaceful resolution is my only aim, and until I think that Paulson James or anyone else on that property is a danger to themselves or anyone else, I’m going to cling tenaciously to that end.” There was enough volume and bite in Becker’s speech to genuinely shock Governor Tiggs.
Rogelio snuck a little smile toward the ATF agent. Everyone else tucked smaller, like waiting on a shelling from the enemy.
Tiggs’ shifted focus to Dukes. The ranger’s breath was finally calming after bringing in the board. “What do you think, honey?”
“I think that Agent Becker is well-equipped and well-informed to handle the situation.”
“It is, Governor. And every bit of insight and intelligence we have on the membership says that they are peaceful, law-abiding citizens that simply have beliefs outside the range of normality.”
“Well,” Tiggs said, puffing out his already prominent chest with a face full of condescension, “little lady. When somebody winds you up, you let loose pretty good.”
The U.S. attorney decided to step between the lines before Tiggs could go full nuclear with his sexism. “What about our guy inside? You get a chance to talk to him today. Oh… shit.”
“Anyway,” Becker said, standing up and pulling out his phone. “Have to take this. Governor if you don’t mind, I’m going to step into the next room.” He was already moving as he motioned for Dukes and Rogelio to follow him into the adjoining office. It was unoccupied except for stacks of banker boxes.
He held the phone up to his ear until closing the door. The ranger and attorney wore puzzlement on their faces. “Do you realize what you just did in there?”
“Sir, if you want me to apologize—”
“Oh I want you to, but not just yet. I’m talking to you, Susana.”
She already knew what she’d done. The lawyer couldn’t bring herself to raise her head. “Shit, shit, shit,” she said. “I was. There’s nothing I can say, Wolf. It was a mistake.”
“Oh no,” Dukes whispered, turning to Rogelio. “Oh no.”
Becker wanted to scream, but the entire conversation had to be restrained for the governor’s sake. “Let me see if I get what just happened in there,” he whispered with all the force his nature would allow. “You decide to make yourself proud and your presence felt, and Rogelio steps in to defend. By talking about the one damn thing we don’t talk about.”
“I’ll take myself off the case,” Rogelio said, covering her mouth. She was on the verge of a breakdown, reeling from a cascade of embarrassment and shame. “Get reassigned. It’s the right thing to do.” Her voice was quiet and quivering. Becker leaned against the door and shut his eyes. Dukes crossed her arms and sat on a stack of boxes.
“No. Run and hide another day, Susana. Tiggs and that FBI lackey have our one secret. Now you’re going to convince them to keep it.”
“How do I know they can be trusted?”
“We trusted you, Rogelio.”
As accomplished and successful as she was, Becker’s retort was a final straw. The lawyer started crying silently into her hand.
“Maybe we pull him out. It may not even matter. It’s not like he’s a plant inside the mob.”
“I’d rather not hear from you for a good bit, Dukes.”
“Go back in there and tell them we’ll be right in. Brad and Phil are probably about to soil themselves. Just say I’ll be back and explain everything.”
“Of course.” Dukes was nodding and blinking at a fierce clip as she walked out.
“I can’t believe it,” Rogelio said, making a noble effort to gather herself. “I can’t believe what just happened.”
“We deal with it, Susana.”
“How do I even go there? To get loose with a source is fucking first day bush-league bullshit.”
Becker wasn’t much for listening to self-loathing, but Rogelio was getting mad. He preferred mad to defeated. “The man’s a moron and he had my blood boiling. It’s some sort of an idiot-savant thing. Gets people off their game. You don’t get elected by a large majority of the state on big oil and big bank contributions alone.”
“Hell, I was already blowing a gasket. The kid—running her mouth—it’s like we’re all in panic mode.”
“You think it’s that big zero on the board? Don’t tell me it’s nothing.”
Becker let a half a minute go by, thinking about the stupid board and the big zero. Mostly, he was thinking about their guy on the inside. He was pretty good about checking in, but nothing so far.
The Agent in Charge met the pacing attorney and steadied her with a firm hand on each shoulder. “It’ll be fine, Susana. Hell, maybe we can make this work to our advantage.”
“How’d that even work?”
“Trying to be optimistic.”
“Sunny isn’t exactly your style, Wolf.”
“Saying I’m grumpy?”
“No. Just. You’re you, is all.”
“I sound on the bland side.”
“God. This is the greatest day in foot-in-mouth history.”
“Well, go on and get it together. Convince Tiggs and the Feebs that the inside source was a planned disclosure, but don’t tell him the name. We still have that, for now. You can do this, Susana.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to try to get a hold of the son of a bitch. Day zero isn’t the one you take off.”
Chapter Six: Gone
Elson Cantrell sat cross-legged in a circle, drawing into a little journal as the talk swirled about him. It was nearing sundown, and people were expectant. He was quiet, and nobody questioned him about it. He didn’t like making his thoughts known in groups if it could be avoided. Elson’s pipe hung from the side of his mouth; he was down to smoking once a day, but the familiarity of the instrument helped satiate his oral fixation.
Cutting back. Planning ahead. It’s what made him the loneliest soul in the Membership. And then there was Sofia Ivrea. She was talking now, sharing her innermost thoughts with the group. Elson didn’t know if it was love, and even if it was, she’d never overlook his grand deceit. Since joining the Membership, he’d become closer and closer with her, but it was all predicated on his truthful intent in being there. Elson didn’t know if that colored everything a lie or not, but not finding his deceptions to be forgivable himself, he doubted Sofia would either.
“I think that maybe this is a test to humble our hearts,” Sofia said to the others. Her voice was so pure in its pleading. An honest voice, from one who actually expected the world to honestly listen. It was like medicine and music. Cantrell drew her face as she talked. Bunched underneath a big oak tree, he sketched as the branches swayed, lighting her beauty different with every caprice of the wind. There was nothing nature could do to tamper with the loveliness of her features. He listened on, feeling the urge to shed a tear. Forty years of living and hardly a single cry to remember, but those forty years hadn’t included Sofia. “We’ve all seen,” she continued. An extended interval of sunlight threw extra notice on her dark brown eyes, big and open as the heart that guided them. “What we’ve seen we didn’t ask for. None of us asked for this. I think we owe it to God and to Paulson—we owe it to ourselves to steady our resolve.”
She placed her soft white hand around the arm that was steadying his journal and gave a gentle squeeze. They touched heads gently as he added the final strokes to his sketch. She smiled as he held it up for her to see.
“Flatterer,” she whispered, not wanting to interrupt the next to speak.
He leaned close. “If there’s any justice in the rendering, you’re the flatterer.”
She pushed him away playfully but he held his posture, getting closer still. “I’ll be back, young lady. Need to stretch my legs and—see to a few things.”
“I didn’t say that. You went there on your own.”
“Just go,” she whispered, tapping his knee with the end of her slender fingers as he slipped away. It wasn’t a difficult escape. Everyone was in a state that he was having a hard time putting words to. Was there a word that fully covered a shared belief that every second might be your last on Earth?
“Real life,” he said to himself. “Heightened.” He made his way to back to center of the camp. Looking in all directions, he entered his cabin and pulled out his cell phone. After placing the chip back in, he waited for it to boot up.
There were no messages. Never were. He pressed on the only saved number.
“You had me anxious.”
“Sorry. I get it, but there hasn’t been a second of alone time today. Think you can understand, Wolf.”
“I talked to him this morning,” Becker said. “He seemed—well, hell if I know how he seemed.”
“I’m going to find him. He’s a creature of habit—right now he’s shooting hoops in the little indoor court out here.”
“Don’t push it. Can’t have you blown.”
“He trusts me, Wolf. Much as anyone right now. I’ll be cool about it. The guy probably needs someone to talk to. He was pretty amped up at the big meeting today.”
“Nothing insane, but clear enough, he’s facing the fire.”
“He’s right about that. And it’s coming from all directions.”
“Thinking I maybe start easing my way there.”
“You mean there? Maybe you didn’t hear. I want your cover intact.”
“It’ll be a shock, but telling him I’m ATF won’t send this guy over the edge. I’m the one on the ground. For a person under this pressure, he’s pretty damn poised.”
“Put that out of your mind. I just want to get through the day.”
“Any rumblings? Dissent?”
“There’s a few playing fast and loose with their emotions, but that’s to be expected. I’ll report anything seriously troubling. You know I will.”
“I don’t like waiting all day to hear from you. Be better about it. We’ve got a lot of worried people here.”
“As long as nothing crazy happens, we should be fine.”
“Nothing crazy,” Becker repeated, taking his time with the words. “I just want this thing over with.”
“And telling him who I am might be step one. Well—you know what I think.”
“Of course, Elson. You haven’t shut up through this whole thing, except when I need you make a damn call.”
“All right. I’m gonna try for a chat. I’ll touch back tonight.”
As soon as the line went dead the SIM card was out and the phone was securely in his pocket. Cantrell took off his boots and replaced them with high-tops, stuffing his jeans under the tongue.
He kept his head down as he walked around a line of cabins identical to his own, keeping a brisk pace. Nothing hinged on it, but he’d feel better if his encounter with James was private.
The door stuck a bit as he stepped inside. Paulson had a rack of balls next to him on the opposite end of the court, shooting threes. Elson let him finish out his set before saying anything. “Hey, PJ. Mind if I join in?”
Paulson turned, surprised but not irritated. “Come on then, Cantrell. Help me gather up these balls. Maybe you can offer some pointers.”
“Being black doesn’t mean I know everything about basketball,” Elson said, smiling as he passed the half court line. He didn’t know if the joke was appropriate today or any other day, but he’d never been cautious with Paulson. It didn’t feel right to start now. “They say it has something to do with the wrist. Backspin, bro.”
The two men finished shagging and shook hands next to the rack. “Seriously though,” James said, dabbing sweat from his forehead with a towel that looked unwashed. “You didn’t play?”
Cantrell took a ball from the rack and stepped behind the line, tossing up a perfect shot and flipping his wrist after the ball dropped through the net. “Of course I played. I’m tall. Athletic. From the street. It’s compulsory. Otherwise people would’ve talked.”
“Talked about what?”
“Don’t say you don’t know. You know everything, PJ. Uncomfortable or not.”
James held a funny smile, tilting his head at Elson. “You’re just messing with me now, aren’t you?”
Cantrell broke from his stern expression and smiled warmly. “I am, sort of. Totally, actually. Completely messing with you. Except for the wrist thing. That’s serious.”
James put up a shot that rimmed in and out. “You’re a funny guy, Cantrell. Where’s the pipe?”
“My back pocket.”
“You must really want to talk, coming in here with an unencumbered mouth.”
“That’s a giveaway, huh?”
“I don’t blame you. Sitting around in circles is probably getting old. Especially today.”
“Think I just wanted to check on you.” Cantrell was good at using whatever language the situation called for, but it was always ideal to stick as close to the truth as possible. Saying he wanted to get a fix on Paulson’s state of mind was damn near nail on the head.
“What time is it?” Paulson asked. The change of direction and tone wasn’t desperate, but it was enough of a drift to make Elson a little uneasy. He looked at his watch and felt soft. Not long ago he’d spent two years undercover with a perpetually unhinged crew of cranked-up psychos running drugs and guns back and forth across the Rio Grande. The idea of being nervous around a nutty white guy shooting baskets in jeans was almost laughable.
“You nervous?” asked the leader, bouncing the ball with a snarky sort of confidence.
The bouncing stopped. The agent meant to overstep. He didn’t like being called out on his own temperament. Lashing back a bit seemed the thing to do. It was instinct. Uncomfortable or not, he wouldn’t sweat. Something years undercover had taught him. The other guy was always first to break. He knew it to be true; if it wasn’t, he would’ve been buried in a shallow grave years ago.
James threw up a shot with one hand, not even bothering to look at the goal. He peered into Cantrell’s eyes. They were almost exactly the same height, well over six feet. “I’m not sure where to go from here,” Paulson said, words absent any affectation.
“Well,” Cantrell replied evenly, “the day’s not over yet.”
“I wish to God it was.”
Elson took his hand away slowly and nodded, trying to figure out what was underneath Paulson’s last statement.
“I can see the wheels turning, Mr. Cantrell. More than anyone here, I’ve got you pegged as the busiest brain here.”
“Maybe, PJ, but busy doesn’t mean productive. Be lying if I said it wasn’t mostly white noise. Coming from who knows where.”
“I can relate.”
After that, there was a lengthy pause. Cantrell rubbed the stubble on his face while James stood straight, looking up at the exposed insulation attached to the high ceiling. For a few moments they were the only two men on the planet, locked in limbo. Paulson had a renegade though that maybe they’d been taken by the Storm and a big empty building was God’s version of purgation.
“It’ll work out. I know I’m not the one usually handing out advice, but we’ll get by.”
“You think?” James didn’t sound incredulous. It was almost like he was suddenly and strangely apathetic.
“I gotta think,” Elson said, moving toward the rack of basketballs.
“Nobody’s going anywhere today.”
The ATF man stopped dead. “How can you be sure?”
James was red-faced and dimpled. “Sure as I can be sure of anything, I’m sure.”
Cantrell was interrupted by the harsh clapping of the door coming open at the other end of the gym. Two robust Indian-American men came running in, heaving and sweaty like they’d just crossed the finish line at a marathon. Hart and Rye, just twenty and twenty-one.
“What’s wrong?” Paulson asked.
“Charlie and Danielle Hood,” said Hart, the oldest. Looked everywhere. They’re gone.”
Chapter Seven: Searching
Elson was behind Paulson James, following him step for step on the way to the fire pit. It was near dusk. The Membership had reassembled once word had spread of Charlie and Danielle’s disappearances and a feverish search of the eighty acres had been conducted. Cantrell could see the agitation climbing on the back of James’ muscled shoulders as they bobbed up and down over the unleveled terrain. The undercover agent took special notice of James’ hands. He kept shaking them out, only to clench them again. Elson didn’t think asking the leader for his thoughts was too smart an idea, but then, surprisingly, he didn’t have to.
James did a quick turn and reached for the cigarettes in his front pocket, forcing a skidding stop from Cantrell. “I’m going to advise everyone to leave.”
Elson might’ve been unconsciously anticipating a thousand things, but this wasn’t one of them. He looked around and saw nothing but tall grass leaning lazy in the warm wind and a few intractable mesquite trees on either side of the makeshift trail. Leaning in he whispered, “You think that’s a good idea?”
“It’s what you’ve been hoping for since the day you got here, isn’t it?”
Elson struggled to conjure an adequate reply. He watched James light a cigarette. “I’m not sure I understand.”
“Which part? My telling everyone to get out, or me accusing you of wanting this whole thing to just sort of go away.”
“I know you’re ATF, Elson. Maybe it’s never been made official. I guess you’re like the Fed’s little experiment. Whatever arrangement you have, I know enough.”
Cantrell had the frame of a sprinter. Powerful arms and even more powerful legs. He thought to make use of his physique, either to subdue Paulson James or to take off running and never look back. An overwhelming wave of adrenaline swept from his brain down to the rest of his body. With fight or flight at loggerheads, he was rendered absolutely motionless. “Let me explain.”
“It’s pretty obvious,” James said, “you’re here to keep watch on things. Make sure Becker stays in the know. He obviously doesn’t trust me. That’s what he’s always saying; how he trusts me. All this time, having a plant right here in the Membership. People,” he said, taking a final drag from his Marlboro. “People, Elson. It’s one of the reasons I was looking forward to pulling up stakes.”
Even in the failing light, Cantrell knew he must’ve looked like a whipped dog. “You’ve been wise to me a long time?”
“Since about the day you got here. I had a lot of money and resources before all this. Still do, actually.”
“And in your figuring, I guess you didn’t figure on me having a guy on the outside who could dig deep enough to find out about your storied career.”
“Don’t feel bad. Ain’t like it was a Google search. Should be proud—it took my guy almost a whole day to send me your dossier. Is that the word for it? Dossier?”
“You didn’t tell Agent Becker that you knew. Why?”
“Because it didn’t make any difference to me, and if it gave him piece of mind, figured it couldn’t do all that much damage. You weren’t mounting any insurrections.” James started laughing. Cantrell thought it sounded strange. Sarcastic. Sad maybe. It was hard to say; his powers of discernment had fled. “We were going away, so I figured, you’d wake up and see the rest of us gone. Maybe your punishment would be that you missed out.” He stopped laughing and lit another cigarette. It was his second pack of the day and almost half were gone. “Would you believe me if I said you weren’t the first thing on my mind morning noon and night?”
“I’d believe you.”
“So what do you think?”
“About telling everyone to leave?” Cantrell asked. He felt naked and ashamed, but somehow a little bit safer than a few minutes before.
“Yeah. I think it’s a juicier topic at the moment, all things considered.”
“It’s a good idea. But we need to find those kids. They’re bound to be somewhere. No way they slipped out in the middle of the day.”
Paulson looked away. Not much of a tell, but enough for the agent to notice. The leader was calculating. Hedging. It was a gut feeling, but Elson’s guts generally ruled proceedings. “This isn’t the ranch from Giant. Not small, either. The lookouts can’t see every inch of fence.”
“I suppose,” Elson said. He was still shaking from having his cover blown. He wasn’t likely to lay out any theories with a tone of absolute certainty.
“Plus, they could’ve…”
James held up his finger and leaned into the wind. “They’re singing. We’ll finish this later.”
Cantrell reached for the pipe in his back pocket and resumed following Paulson. His head was heavy from worry and humiliation. He tried loading a bowl of tobacco as he walked, but he stubbed the toe of his boot on a rock and spilled the lion’s share. “Goddammit,” he said.
James glanced back over his shoulder but continued without a hitch in his gait.
The trail descended into a depression where they’d cleared out the trees and high grass to create small little amphitheater. There was a rock wall on the far side from where James and Cantrell were coming from. A large, flat slab of granite sat at the base of the wall. Paulson could remember one of the members calling it nature’s stage. Another one called it God’s altar.
The Membership stopped singing when Sofia spotted James and Elson and held up her hand as they hurried down little slope. Everyone else went silent and turned around.
“Don’t stop on account of me,” the leader said, stepping through the crowd like traversing minefield. A few were standing against the rock walls, but most were sitting cross-legged.
Elson stayed at the base of the trail. Sofia smiled and waved, but he didn’t return it the gesture. The pipe was lit now. He took in an uncomfortably large drag and inhaled it without thinking, standing there with no eye to where any of this was going. Sofia looked down and then turned her attention to James as he stood up on the big rock and gave her hand a gentle shake. This is exactly like a normal service, accepting that it’s exactly the opposite of a normal service, Cantrell thought, inhaling until his pipe glowed a deep red.
“I know we’re all worried about Charlie and Danielle. I’m not here to make any speeches, but I think there’s something y’all need to hear. We keep searching, of course, and we find the kids. After, it’s time we think about heading ho—”
“Paulson, you mind if I say something?” The sandpaper voice of Andy Hood was unmistakable. He shot up with both his puffy hands raised. James had never seen the paunchy ex-banker move so fast in all the time they’d been acquainted. Andy’s wife Darlene stood at his side, head proud and high. Something about their solidarity and bearing struck Paulson strange, but he wasn’t about to stop a worried mother and father from saying their piece.
“Of course,” James said gently, holding out his hands.
“We know where they are,” said Andy.
“Sure we know,” said Darlene, clapping her hands together and intertwining her fingers. The smacking sound bounced off the rocks encircling the Membership. “They went on ahead of us. My boy and his wife are with God right now.”
James couldn’t respond. Usually when someone hit him with something unexpected, he was able to reel something off out of instinct. That was one of his talents. This time though, he stood there, withering in front of a group of people desperately needing leadership. “They never lost faith,” Andy said, turning left and right. He was actually smiling. Paulson tried to remember when Andy wasn’t wearing that inveterate, jowly look of irritation. “They never lost faith in the Storm. Maybe we’re the problem. We just need to have more patience. Endurance. Stick together. No matter what.”
The Membership seemed to be in agreement, though James’ senses were so hampered with surprise, he was still mostly atrophied. Elson had skirted his way around the rim of the depression, and after giving Sofia a quick kiss, he tapped Lydia on the shoulder, whispering, “I think you should go up there.”
The leader’s wife seemed to be put off by Elson’s presence, even more than the fact that her husband was full deer in the proverbial headlights.
Elson repeated: “It’d be a good idea.”
She was blinking a lot, sitting with her legs pulled up close. Cantrell didn’t know what the blinking signaled. He hadn’t really focused on Lydia. His attentions were mostly reserved for the loudest and biggest presences. Folks like Paulson. And now, the irascible Andrew Jarrett Hood.
Lydia was over her surprise at Elson’s unsolicited advice. The Membership was growing loud. Some were excited. A few were genuinely upset. It was an unwieldy bunch. She popped to her feet and gained the stage, hooking Paulson’s right arm with hers. “You were going to tell them we should go home,” she muttered, kissing him on the shoulder.
He tipped his head to the right and did his best not to move his lips. “Yep.”
“You think maybe we should’ve talked about that first?”
“Say something,” she said, burying her face against his arm.
Finally, he broke out of his stupor. “Y’all might be right about the kids. You may be right about everything you just said. But I’m going to be out searching all night, anyhow. Hopefully you will too. Just in case. Tomorrow morning we’ll meet for breakfast, Charlie and Danielle included. If not. Well, we can talk about it.”
The Hoods looked like Paulson had ripped out their hearts, but he didn’t let it linger. “Go on, now. Get out there and make sure the search is exhausted, twice or three times over.”
As the crowd scattered, Andy waddled his way up to the base of the rock. Elson leaned an ear toward the proceedings, despite being pulled in the opposite direction by Sofia. Paulson caught a glimpse of Ida Jean Florence, unflappably at work knitting a blanket from her usual spot. Rhett James came roughly through the crowd, sensing unrest. Paulson pointed at his brother and put up a stop sign. “Hey there, Andy.”
“They wouldn’t just run away.”
“I’m not saying they did. But we have to make sure they’re not hiding or something. I’m sure it’s nothing, but it’s not nothing right now. You know?”
“What’s that even supposed to mean?” Darlene asked, hands pressed to her bony little hips.
“I’m going to go have another look.” He said it matter-of-factly, as if it was the only thing that could be said. He nodded at Ida Jean and hopped off the rock. Paulson thought he caught a hint of a smile from the veiny old woman as he moved his way through the crowd, greeting every member with his usual genial enthusiasm.
“I guess we get going,” Sofia said. Her voice was gentle and sonorous. A complete turn from the braying of the Hoods. “Are you coming, Lydia?”
The leader’s wife stood on the rock with her hand over her stomach.
“Are you sick?” Sofia asked.
“Fine. I’ll head out with Paulson.” She nodded at the Hoods as politely as she could fake and made for the trail back to the central compound. “Just fine.”
Chapter 8: Hatch
It was dark when Paulson reached the house of Bobby Delray. It was on a property that ran adjacent to the Membership’s compound. The house and barn were set on a slight hill, under the cover of enough trees to make finding them a tough proposition. Bobby shared a good amount of fence with James. They’d come to certain arrangements when the Membership started construction on the compound. Mr. Delray wasn’t naturally friendly, but he hated the government and was more than happy to take Paulson’s money, seeing as how the government seemed to hate Paulson.
“You in there, Bob? Paulson here.” He stepped back from the door. Delray wasn’t the most predictable of men, except his proclivity for defending property. He was an aging Texan living alone in a self-built cabin. One wouldn’t be jumping to conclusions to ascribe to him an affinity for privacy.
The door opened sharply. Bobby Delray lurched through. He was holding a shotgun in one hand and a bottle of Jim Beam in the other. His wore no shirt or shoes, though he’d been generous enough to put on a pair of dirty jeans before answering his caller. Random puffs of white hair decorated his dark chest and paunch. “Kind of a cliché look, Bobby. You drunk?”
“What time is it?” Delray asked, using the bottom of the bottle to scratch one of his bushy eyebrows.
“Just about, then. Self-awareness is harder in isolation, so the time gives me a pretty decent gauge on my inebriation.”
“Smart. Or not. Hard to reckon if that makes any sense. Your old man voice might be giving undue gravity to a line of bull.”
“Yeah. What the hell am I ever goin’ to know?”
“Mind if I have a swig?”
He looked a little bewildered, but mostly apathetic. “Have at it, Reverend.” Delray was an old black man, raised Southern Baptist. He didn’t have a care for Paulson’s title or even if he had one. If you went around talking about anything related to the Bible, you were a reverend. “I suppose you’re looking for the two that ran off.”
The “reverend” James handed back the bottle after one more lengthy swallow.
“Did you talk to them?”
“They weren’t in the best of moods, if that’s what you’re wondering. They came right across the clearing, holding hands, looking half-scared, half-pissed. I hollered for ‘em,” Delray said, pausing to wiggle his chin and straighten out his tongue. His mouth appeared to be tensing up. He wasn’t used to so much jawing. “Like I said, I came out and gave a holler. They walked on over, stood where you’re standing. I gave them the whole deal.”
“You saw them leave?” asked James.
“Now dammit, I done exactly as you said. Any of your minions come through looking for transport, I show them the road.”
In something like a dozen encounters, it wasn’t uncommon for Bobby to get riled. James took him for a decent enough guy, but he had a limited endurance for people. Paulson understood this and thought he’d learned the ropes; that’s why it stunned him when the old soldier picked up the shotgun and jacked a shell with a snap that cut through the damp of night.
“Sorry, Bob. I’ll back off.”
“Ain’t you I’m racking for, Rev. Who’s out there?”
Paulson turned so he was standing just off Delray’s right shoulder.
“Sorry. I was looking for my husband. He’s sort of tall. Friendly sort. Yeah,” she said, turning on a heavy-duty flashlight. “That’s him.”
“She done tracked you, Rev,” Delray whispered, lowering his weapon.
“Thank you, Bobby.” James wondered if the veteran’s crooked little porch light provided enough illumination for Lydia to see his chagrin.
She walked the across the little white rocks of Delray’s drive and turned off the flashlight when she got close enough. “Hello there,” she said, overemphasizing a polite affectation. “We haven’t met. My name’s Lydia James.”
“Robert Lawrence Delray,” said Bobby, standing up straight. “It’s nice to meet you. Seen your face of course,” he added, putting across his bare chest. “On the TV and whatnot. “Rev here says you’re a fine type woman. Had me one of those, once.”
“That’s nice of him.”
The exchange between Bobby and his wife wasn’t particularly long or tense, but for Paulson it seemed otherworldly. Time was slower. He was separated from it, something like being a self-aware statue, an exhibit talked about and to but not with.
This is quite a situation, Mr. James.
PJ swept his head back and to the right. Sitting in Bobby’s rocking chair was Levi, wearing the original Air Jordan’s and long jean shorts. An oversized Tommy Bahama shirt drooped down his little frame like a flag on a windless night.
“What—” James started. Bobby and Lydia stopped their introductions, at once annoyed and grateful. This wasn’t a hotel convention with nametags and anonymous people wearing anonymous suits. This was Texas country, and the world was bearing down. The world was coming to an end.
Was this your plan when you came out here? I thought you were a scout sniper or a sniper scout or whichever. Didn’t the world’s latest and most boring empire offer a class on avoiding being tracked through the woods by your wife? Better sharpen up, buddy. Lots riding on those big boy shoulders of yours.
Paulson didn’t look back. He might attack Levi, and thus appear to the others as attacking the air. Instead, he kept his eyes forward and fixed on Lydia, Remembering and reminding himself that they couldn’t see or hear Levi. To them, the Messenger wasn’t reality. Not in this time or place. Where does that put me? the leader thought.
“You want to start giving me answers?” Lydia asked, arms crossed. “Why not tell me you built an escape hatch into the plan?” She laughed mockingly and jabbed him between the pectorals. “Sorry. God’s plan.”
You can’t tell her. She’ll be a problem.
The fact that James had mumbled it didn’t matter a jot. Lydia’s eyes went wide. Bobby Delray stepped away and bent his dusty knees slightly, appearing intent on blasting Paulson’s head from his shoulders.
“What in hell is that?” Delray said, pointing his shotgun out to where the clearing met the tree line.
Despite her reluctance, Lydia ducked down and gained the steps next to her husband, out of the way of the barrel. Not long and she saw it as well. Two lights, coming their way. A young voice calling out across the night.
As the lights got bigger, Lydia recognized strain in the voice. Soon they could make out the figures of the young couple: Danielle and Charlie Hood.
“He’s hurt,” Danielle said, trying desperately to hold up her husband. “Hurt bad. Help, Mr. James.” Lydia used her flashlight to scan over the bodies and faces of the young twenty-somethings. A long knife was sticking from Charlie’s ribs. His head was dangling. Even in the scant light, it was obvious the kid’s color was almost gone.
This might end up being the best thing.
“Let me take him,” Paulson said, hardly hearing Levi as he hopped down the creaky cabin steps. “Give him over.” As he took Charlie’s weight, Danielle just about went to her knees. Lydia offered steady hands on the girl’s waist and back. She was soaked through with sweat.
“I’ll go clear the kitchen table,” said Bobby, turning with a quickness foreign to most his age.
“What in the world is going on?” Lydia asked. She’d thought she’d been carrying secrets. Looking at her husband, the wounded kid, and the strange old man, it was clear she wasn’t the only one holding out. A charge of shivers ran through the thickest muscles of her legs to the tiny bones in her fingers. She hazarded a glance back at the dark, toward the trees. She had to look. She felt like she was there.
And she was not alone.
Chapter 9: Yes
“You’re trying to stall,” Charlie said, careful only to help and not pull her along, much as he might want to. They took it slow, negotiating a path between gnarly trunks and mean stumps of the live oaks and cedar elms surrounding them. Going slow was probably best; a random tug from a mesquite tree’s thorns could tear a lasting hole in a person’s flesh. The Texas woods were a long way from forgiving. He warned his wife to avoid touching pretty leaves as much as she could. Charlie spent two entire weeks suffering from poison sumac when he was a kid. He’d labored from skin problems ever since and wouldn’t wish the unceasing annoyance on another soul—especially his new wife. The affection was still fresh; he loved and liked her in equal portion. Currently though, he couldn’t tell if those feelings were reciprocated.
“I’m not trying to stall,” Danielle said. “I just don’t know where we’re going. I’m talking long term. Every hope he had was back with the others.”
“We have money. Paulson gave me account numbers. We can go anywhere. Another country. No one will remember this in a year.”
“I doubt that.”
Charlie turned and aimed his flashlight at her little feet. “I’m not saying it’ll be easy, but don’t pretend this is a shock.”
“What if it’s happening now? Or—now? See that,” she said, snapping her fingers, “there they go. And we’re here. We should all be together. How is this not selfish?”
Charlie tucked the flashlight into his pants and used both hands to kiss her soft lips. “You’re thinking we’re going to screw it up for everyone?”
“Paulson said we’re supposed to be in one place for the Storm.”
“The Storm didn’t come, baby. It was never going to.”
She put her head down and he pulled it to his chest.
“Besides,” he continued, “that’s not what he told me.”
“What did he tell you?”
“Account numbers, Dani. Account numbers and the best beaches in South America. I figure we work on our Spanish and write a memoir. Or not. Don’t you feel better, even now?”
She looked around. Charlie wasn’t making sense, and it was almost completely dark. They were standing in the midst of thick, unknown woods. It reminded her of a gothic book cover from the 1800s. She expected a sense of dread, the same as any bird leaving a nest, but there was something extra. Something she didn’t want to bring up.
“The locale isn’t important,” Charlie said, picking up on her reticence. “It’s the freedom.” Look around, not one person droning about the Storm or prepping our fragile little hearts for this or that. We’re out of jail, love.”
“I guess,” she said, trying to will herself into trusting him. Danielle was twenty-two and had proclivity for going back and forth on a thing. It’s why the last six months had been so wonderful—doubt had been lifted. Now it was back, firmly weighing her down.
“You’re still blinking a lot,” he said, adding another kiss to her soft lips.
Her answer came quick and caused her to laugh: “I know.”
“Let’s keep moving,” Charlie said, lifting her chin. “Maybe another half mile to
They walked on, slowly gaining on their destination. Stepping slowly down into a dry creek bed, she heard the same noise again. Crushed leaves. Something grunting. “Don’t you hear that?” she asked, tugging on his backpack.
“Probably a deer. Nothing else out here.”
“It didn’t sound like a deer, Charlie.”
He didn’t know how to respond. As much as he wanted to chalk his wife’s trepidation up to little girl scared of woods syndrome, he was hearing the same thing. It was no deer.
They continued stepping over the jagged rocks, aiming their flashlights to guide the way. A branch snapped somewhere close, but it was hard to fix the source. A gust of wind blew down the depression, just enough to drown out their hearing. “Charlie—”
He turned his body halfway and shined his light at Dani’s chest, enough to see her eyes without blinding them. They were wide, looking past him. “What?”
Turning back, Charlie found himself facing a large figure covered in foliage, face painted black. The figure lunged forward and shoved a knife into the young man’s ribs. Danielle dropped her flashlight and fell down on top of her husband, shaking and unable to scream. Her head was down. She could tell he was standing there, breathing short and heavy. Another branch cracked, somewhere beyond the opposite side of the bank. When she finally looked up, the attacker was gone. “Oh my God,” she said. It could’ve been a hundred times. She tried a few times to wrest the knife free, but Charlie’s screaming stopped her. He was talking, but it wasn’t much good. The only thing he could say was “yes,” and only when she asked.
“Charlie, do you know the rest of the way?”
“Can you tell me how to get there? We’ve got to get you to a hospital.”
Her shaking was rabid.
“We’ve got to go back, then.”
As time turned into a hazy nothing, she managed to calm down. It was like there was nothing left to terrify her. Whenever they stopped to rest, she imagined she was in shock. The grunting in the woods didn’t cease. It seemed to be following them as they retraced their steps. Charlie weight was almost twice hers, but they managed to push on, both wrestling the limits of their bodies and their own particular brands of shock. They fell more than once, and each time Dani assumed it was where her husband would die. Each time she managed to get him back to his feet. When they came to the clearing leading up to the cabin, she thought it was a mirage.
“I’m—not sure—but I think we’re gonna make it,” she grimaced. The pain in her neck and shoulder was excruciating. Her face was cut bleeding and cut from all the branches they’d tumbled through. Each second was another chance to fall down, but each second she reminded herself that her husband had a knife sticking out of his side.
“Come on, Charlie. I love you, Charlie.”
“What in hell is that?” she heard someone say. She saw the old black man standing on his porch, aiming a shotgun with purpose, straight in their direction. It was the sweetest thing she’d ever seen. Either way, a break was in the offing. Maybe Bobby Delray had an old couch she could sit on for the next year. Maybe he’d shoot the two of them down right there in front of his porch. That’d be better than their present circumstances. Maybe God would make good on his promise and take them up with the Storm.
“We’re going to be fine, Charlie.”
Chapter 10: Home
Wolf Becker ended his call with a sigh and gave his wife a squeeze. She was leaning on his shoulder, watching the show they always watched at that time on that day of the week. For a man with a job trafficking in emergency calls and unsuspected trips, he was remarkably strict about his schedule when it involved what mattered. His was a short list and she was at the top.
“Was that Mr. Inside?” she asked, gently rubbing his chest.
“Did the guy make it to the next round?” he asked, pointing at the TV then spreading his fingers in a bewildered manner.
“He didn’t. They didn’t like him. Something about not having it.”
“I liked him. He had it. Don’t you think I’d know?”
“Of course. Years of lecturing. More years solving crimes. The last word in vocal performance.”
He gave her another little squeeze. She rubbed his chest once again.
“You’re doing what they just did. Judging off the wrong criteria. It takes a big person to look past the obvious.”
“Is this going to be a whole thing about big people?”
He offered a controlled little laugh and gave her another squeeze. She rubbed his chest. “What’s Mr. Inside have to say? Everyone still residing on this plane?”
“You know I can’t talk about it, Hazel.”
“Yet you always do.”
“So. Go on.”
“Paulson knows about Mr. Inside. He’s known all along.”
“Oh my God.”
“That’s what I thought, but it doesn’t sound bad as it might. In fact, our guy says it’s probably a good thing. James wants out, but there are other complications. Some missing kids.”
“I don’t think so. He’s going to check back in with me later. Nothing terribly exciting, I’m afraid.”
“How many people knew it was supposed to be today? This Storm thing?”
“Just the people expecting to get caught up in it. And the people involved in the investigation.” He rubbed his eyes. “And a few higher ups.”
“I can’t believe you’ve managed to keep a lid on it.”
“My shit is tight. My shit has always been tight.”
“Ugh. When you talk like the streets…”
“I think you mean to sound formidable. Creepy and sad is more how it comes off.”
He offered a muted laugh and gave her a squeeze. She rubbed his chest.
“I’ll go back to impervious and academic. Apologies for drifting lanes.”
“You can make it up to me.”
He kissed the top of her head. “I can’t wait,” he whispered, looking back at the show. “Have a look at this guy. Good God is he ugly. Looks like an alien.”
“He’ll make it.”
“What are you talking about? He hasn’t even sung yet.”
“I’ve got a feeling. My feelings are pretty much right.”
“I’ve got eyes and ears.”
“Yeah. Mine beat yours.”
Becker hated the show. She was right. He never picked the right people. It was the last thing he would’ve wanted to watch, except that she wanted to. That meant it was okay by him.
“You need to get Paulson out of this,” she said. The change of tone wasn’t drastic, but enough for him sit up a little against the back of the couch.
“That’s what I’ve been trying to do.”
“I get it. Really. I do, honey.”
“Since the beginning.”
“I wouldn’t be here without him.”
“Why would you say that? Like I don’t understand?”
“Lord knows you try. But for me, there’s no trying. It’s straightforward.”
“That’s good enough for me.”
He was desperate to pivot. “Governor Tiggs worries me. He’s an idiot.”
“So, it’s not just an act.”
“But nobody can be as stupid as he seems. It’s like he’s got information I don’t. Something doesn’t feel right.”
“Besides everything else, you mean?”
“Exactly. I’ve been losing sleep. I don’t talk about it enough. My lifelong love of sleep.”
“Well. I guess I’ll have to tire you out, then.” She clicked the TV off and stood up, holding her hand out for him to grab. “Let’s go upstairs, Special Agent Becker.”
With that, his thoughts were suspended. There’d be no more talk of Paulson James and the Membership that night.
The Second Day: October 17th
Chapter 11: Jonah and Lazarus
Time. Time. Time.
“It’s worse than ever down there.”
Ida Jean Florence was in the corner of the loft, knitting slow and deliberate with her age-spotted, translucent hands. The Texas heat had broken all the way and a brutally cold draft swept uninterrupted through the room. Her thin-lipped smile was unwavering as she kept to her task, head barely rising over the back of the chair. “You worry too much, my boy. Always have. Always have.”
“Don’t start. I can’t take your babbling right now—and how many blankets can you make?”
“This one is special. For protection. You should get away from that window.”
He mumbled something caustic under his breath.
“You’ve always been troubled by your duty, but that’s the way of things. My reluctant prophet. Would you like me to tell you the story of Jonah?”
“Please don’t. Not again. Never again. I’m not—not feeling right.”
“I’ve heard that before. You’ll be fine in the end. Don’t forget what you did for your mama.”
“I didn’t do anything. I’ve never done anything.”
“You saved her.”
“Ida Jean, I love you, but you’re a crazy old woman. When you were young I imagine you were a crazy old woman. I saved her? Look around. She’s gone.”
“Gave her time is what you did. Time. Time. Time. That’s the most we can get. A little more time. And that’s what you gave. Argue if you want, makes no matter. No matter at all.”
“I’m going to scream. It’s all wrong.”
“Well go ahead then. Scream at me. Scream at the brother you saved. Scream at all those strangers you saved. Scream at God, if makes you feel better. I think He’s faced tougher adversaries.”
“Bobby’s,” Paulson said, snapping his fingers. “I can slip out through Bobby’s. Elson will help. Becker will help. I’ll take Rhett and Lydia and never look back.”
“Mr. Delray’s is no longer an option. Even if it was, you sure Lydia would want to go?”
“She’d follow me.”
“Now you’re sure of things. Tell you this—your little brother isn’t going anywhere.”
“He made a mistake.”
“Are you sure? Did you ask the Messenger?”
“How do you know about him?”
Come back. Paulson! Come back.
“Did you hear that, Ida?”
“You shouldn’t worry about me and what I hear. It’s the others and what they know—put your mind towards that.”
“I’ll walk out the front gate. Nobody can stop me.”
“A thousand things can stop you. Forces you don’t know about. Faith is key. Let me tell you Jonah’s story again, like when you were a boy and things were just starting. It’ll be a good reminder.”
Come back, Paulson!
“There it is again.”
“You’re about the wrong things, boy. Let me remind you. The things you’ve done.”
“I don’t want a reminder. Something’s not right. I’m so hot.” His voice was desperate, like a child’s.
“Strange, seeing how the weather’s turned so drastic. I wonder what that’s about?”
“Something’s not right.”
“Paulson! Come back!”
He opened his eyes. He was still in the barn, but the perspective had changed. The shade of the room. He was looking up. Lydia was shaking his shoulders. It had been her calling him back. Elson was staring down at him from the other side of the bed, hands on his head. It was cold in the loft, and he was sweating. “No stories. No stories.”
“Imagine you’re talking at me.”
James blinked away the sleep and sweat impeding his vision and saw Ida Jean sitting in the corner, just where he’d left her. “What is it? What’s happening?”
“You’re sick, baby. The doc’s got you on antibiotics. It was just a fever dream. Everything’s going to be okay.” Lydia placed a cold washcloth on her husband’s head, stifling tears. Paulson’s hearty complexion was gone; his eyes danced wild as his body continued to shake from the rushes of cold strangling his bones.
“The Hood kid.”
“He’s fine, man,” Elson said, stepping forward with a sense Lydia needed a break. “Better than you, actually.”
“No, brother. No need. He’s already back on his feet. Won’t shut up.”
Cantrell stopped himself from saying more as he watched James curl his body tight. It could wait. The agent figured Paulson would get his recollection back once the sickness abated.
It was a strange enough story to tell under the best of circumstances.
He was lying in his cabin enjoying Sofia when Lydia came knocking the night of the 10th. She was gasping. Blood on her shirt. Told him to come to the barn and to keep it quiet. When he asked why, she said no time. Paulson had asked for him and Doc Dade. Only them. When he arrived at the barn, the kid was barely breathing. Dade was already there, shaking, saying the Hood kid had lost too much blood. There was no time for a hospital. Nothing to be done. Something about being a specialist, not an ER lackey. Lydia was frantic but managed to relay the details. A stabbing in the woods. Nobody saw the attacker. Paulson forced the doctor to keep trying, then pulled Elson aside, still out of breath. Said he’d cleaned the wound and sewed it with up with an old first aid kit.
“Whose first aid kid?” Cantrell asked, trying to stay calm. The kid’s young wife was crying out to God and muttering about something lurking in the trees. Lydia was imploring the doctor to do something. Anything. “Whose first aid kit?” he asked. “Look at me, PJ. Focus, now. Whose first aid kit?”
“It doesn’t matter. This is what matters.” James turned him away and showed him a military-style knife caked in blood. “It’s Chet’s. Chet did this.”
“Give it here,” Cantrell said, taking it without another word. “I’ll hang on to it. Come on.”
By then, Charlie Hood was beginning to breathe dangerously shallow. Paulson left the knife with Elson and pushed Doc Dade aside: “What’s wrong with you?”
After ordering Cantrell to keep the doctor in the barn, James steadied his voice and asked Lydia to grab their medical bag from upstairs. Inside five minutes, he managed to rig up a transfusion line from his arm to Charlie Hood’s.
Lydia held Dani as the blood started pumping. Cantrell gave the leader’s wife a wondering look. She told him that Paulson was O negative.
“I’ve done this before,” James said, squeezing his fist white. “More than once.”
“No shit,” Cantrell said, watching on with his hand firm to the doctor’s shoulder.
“Take Dade to the storeroom. Grab fresh bandages and something strong for infections, best antibiotics we’ve.” The commands ceased momentarily as the leader went slightly lightheaded. “And. Anything else he forgot to bring the first time.”
By the time they returned, Charlie was awake. Paulson was passed out in a chair next to the cot, needle still in his arm.
“What happened?” Elson asked, watching Lydia trying to wake up her husband.
Dani was holding her husband’s hand, thanking God for Charlie’s miraculous survival.
“Thinking maybe you should thank Paulson,” he said.
“It wasn’t the transfusion,” she said, euphoria making her blue eyes float. “He was gone.”
“What are you saying?”
“You know what she’s saying,” Charlie whispered. “He did it. Like before.”
“You’re saying he healed you?”
“He was gone,” Dani repeated. “Paulson said a prayer and put his hands on the wound. Then. It was like he went somewhere else. I thought he passed out, but it was more than that.”
“Wow.” Elson didn’t want to flash too much incredulity at the young bride. It would betray him and do her no good.
She continued, smiling radiantly. “God worked through him and brought Charlie back. It was like Lazarus.”
“Wow. Your boy gonna be okay, Lydia?”
“He’s breathing. I think he overdid the transfusion.”
With a push, Cantrell implored Dade to make himself useful.
He didn’t have to convince anyone of anything. They all pledged to keep the events of the night a secret.
Charlie had an accident, right?
That was that. Or so he told himself. A little lie to gain a moment’s peace. The bloody knife shoved through his belt loop reminded him there was a lot more that needed doing.
A mountain more.
Chapter 12: Underneath
“So what’s your deal, Dukes?” asked Special Agent Jordy Phelps. They were humming down I-20 toward the Membership property west of town. Phelps was at the wheel, sneaking obvious peeks over at the young Texas Ranger with a tight, crooked smile. “C’mon, now. You can tell Jordy.”
Holding her gaze straight ahead, she returned with a question. “By my deal, you mean what, Phelps?”
“Okay,” he said, getting a strong whiff of agitation. “Don’t have to tell me. I’m a modern man, though.”
“A modern man?” she asked, unable to resist. If he was a modern man, she ached for a time machine. Past. Future. No need to be choosy, considering the present.
“That’s right. We’re both professionals. Just trying some conversation. We are fellow members of the law enforcement community.”
“Yeah. I’m sorry. What was the original question?”
“Damnation, Ranger May. I was seeing if you were seeing anybody.”
“Not really,” Dukes said. “I’m just over a year with the state. Trying to make it my focus.”
“I see,” said Phelps, spitting tobacco juice into a little Styrofoam 7-11 coffee cup, managing to maintain his smile. “I get it. Same way for me when I started. Plus, finding girls ain’t as easy as it was. You know what I’m talking about.”
Dukes let a moment pass before deigning to answer. “Girls.”
“Yeah. I know.”
“No. You said girls.”
“Implicating that I, like you, am interested in girls.”
“I thought that’s what we were talking about.”
“You have a way of turning small talk into a full-blown mystery.”
“So, you’re all about them dudes?”
“Is this how you always talk? Yes, I like men.”
“Lanky ones,” she continued, lowering the pitch in her voice. “Cowboy types. Tight jeans. Thin, searching eyes. Tall, but not too tall. Dark eyebrows get me going. Oh. I really like scruffy hair. Good for grabbing. Well. You know what I’m talking about.”
The junior ATF man thought over himself and nodded at the rearview mirror. “I’d say you got good taste. And I got that last part, you turning on me with my own words. Not as dumb as you’re thinking.”
“I never said you were dumb. Maybe a little too into playing the part.”