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"I don't get you," he had said to her.
"What do you mean?"
"You seem so..." he paused, struggling to express himself, "so at peace with staying here and facing the Nephilim."
"You don't feel that?" Anna asked.
"I think we're going to lose," Rory responded, "and that has me terrified. How can you not be scared?"
"You know, I'm not ready to leave this world, but if we lose this battle, I know I'm going to be reunited with my dad in heaven."
Her response was a paradox that Rory didn't understand, and her resolve left him in awe of her. He wondered if that's what made Jimmy's last actions appear so easy to carry out. Like father, like daughter.
Now, as the sun's rays warmed his face, Rory realized he wasn't ready to die. Not like Anna or Jimmy. He thumped the steering wheel. But then another thought nudged at him, bringing a memory to the surface of his muddled, exhausted brain. A thought that he remembered contemplating years ago, when he was a kid. People said they weren't afraid to die, because they knew what came next. Call it salvation, or eternity, whatever. He didn't understand it at the time, but now he knew what Anna meant. She didn't want to die either. But she wasn't afraid of it.
He looked across the road at Brewster. The old man gave him a nod. Rory flashed to another memory, just an hour ago, when they were hauling cinder blocks from behind the store.
"You got to prepare yourself," the old man had chastised him.
"What do you think I'm doing?" he grunted back.
"No." Brewster grabbed his arm and looked him right in the face, nose to nose. "You got to prepare your soul."
Rory took a step back. "What, like going to church and confessing my sins? A lot of good that'll do."
The old man grunted at him. "Not that. This isn't about ritual. It's about what's inside you." He thumped Rory on the chest. "There's a battle going on in there and you need the right on your side. You need your soul ready to stop them."
"But why us? Why now?"
Brewster shrugged. "I wish I knew that, but I don't. What I do know is that as long as blood is spilled, the Nephilim will go on, appearing out of nowhere, called on some kinda mystic cycle."
"I don't know," the old man said with more force. "But the gatherer comes in the depths of night, calling others. They rob the air of moisture while they prepare for their ceremony. And they remain until they receive enlightenment, or until their host bodies wither away. Once their power is gone, the skies can open up again with cleansing moisture." He wiped sweat off his face. "I can't wait to feel some rain. You know what that means, don't you?"
"Rain means their control of the elements is dwindling. They fear the water, fear that it will rain enough to flood them out, like in Genesis. So they'll have to leave their host bodies and wander for another century."
"But there isn't a cloud in sight," Rory said, glancing at the clear blue sky.
"Nah, it's coming," Brewster murmured. "I can feel it. They're running out of time."
Rory had brushed Brewster off at that point. The ramblings of an old man weren't helping him, then or now. A depression weaved its way around him. The irony of things. .h.i.t him then, that what he was dealing with was just like his headline said: in the world, but not of it. This was the ultimate battle between good and evil. He brushed his thoughts away as he fingered the garrote he'd wrapped around his hand. He'd fashioned it from a piece of rope, the ends knotted around a couple of sticks. With luck he could get it around Ed's neck. Then he'd have to pull with his entire being and hope it worked. Too many unknowns. He brushed this thought away as well, and leaned out the pa.s.senger window of the Jeep. "Are you ready?" He called out to Myrtle and Anna. Both women nodded, grim determination in their demeanor. But fear lurked there anyway, like a halo around them.
Clinton's service vehicle was parked at the carport, in a spot closest to the lake; next to it were Anna's Honda and Myrtle's green Subaru. Clinton and Old Man Brewster were crouched near the service vehicle, looking over the trunk to the west. Nicholas sat hunched down near the driver's side door, peering through the windows. There was another tan Honda nearby, abandoned since the previous day. The Nephilim, Clinton presumed, had taken the owner sometime since then.
A hush had fallen over Taylor Crossing. No birds chirped, no animals stirred the dry brush, no breeze slipped through the trees, no waves lapped against boat hulls. But the silence was charged with possibilities. Menacing possibilities. But the lull carried something with it, tangible at the edge of the senses, rooting nearby with the smell of danger.
The sound of a car door opening made Clinton turn. Rory stood leaning against the door of his Jeep. He looked over to the car shelter.
"We've got to keep them away from the store," Clinton whispered, tipping his head in the direction of the makeshift fortress at the general store. "Make sure they don't get to Myrtle and Anna." He didn't care if the women thought he was a chauvinist, he didn't want anything bad happening to them. He spied Anna across the road, lifting a rea.s.suring hand at him as if she sensed his thoughts.
Clinton tapped Brewster's shoulder. "I'm ready," the old man grunted. And he looked it. His feet were firmly planted on the ground, his elbows resting on the car, a rifle cradled in his hands. His whole body exuded a cool, controlled stance. He trained his eyes down the road, the narrow orbs focused and fiery. A trickle of sweat ran down his wizened cheek, but the old man did not notice or care. "Don't shoot unless you have to." It had been Brewster's mantra since they began preparations. They had to wait until Rory took care of Ed, and then they would go after the rest of the Nephilim. At no time did Brewster use the word 'if': if Rory got to Ed; if Rory strangled Ed successfully; if Rory didn't die in the process. He seemed certain that Rory would succeed in destroying Ed. But the old man's confidence was not contagious. Clinton knew this by the cold surges that periodically coursed through him. And he saw it in Rory's tense jaw. It was a suicide mission, worse than anything he had encountered in Vietnam.
Clinton nodded at Brewster, then turned to Nicholas. The boy looked up at him with equal parts excitement and fear. He clutched a red fire extinguisher that they'd taken from the general store. Not much protection, but it was the best they had for him. Clinton winked at him, trying to exude a confidence he did not feel. "You stay low, you hear me?" Nicholas quickly crouched lower, instinctively reacting to the order, as if he might be in trouble if he didn't. The movement tugged at Clinton. The kid deserved to live longer than his seventeen years. He needed to know there was more to life than fearing his father, that there was more than evil in the world.
Finally, Clinton looked back to Rory. They were ready. He tipped his head once, slowly. Rory leaned into the car, took a deep breath and pushed the horn. An earsplitting blare pierced the air. He held the horn down, the noise long, monotonous and loud. After a minute, he took his hand off. "It's driving me nuts," he shrugged.
Clinton threw him a grim look. "Hopefully it's doing that for them, too." His voice came out loud in the heavy pall that surrounded them.
Myrtle laughed, filling the tension-filled air with out-of-place mirth. "I'm sorry," she said, setting the Colt down and covering her mouth with both hands.
Rory scowled at her and punched the horn again. When he couldn't stand the blare anymore, he stopped. Myrtle had regained her composure, and the Colt, and focused again.
The echo of the horn reverberated into the cloudless blue sky, then seemed to ricochet its way down the road and across the lake, soon fading away into the mountains.
"What if they don't come?" Rory asked as he stared off to the west.
"They will," Brewster replied, his voice steady. His a.s.sured manner had been at odds with how Clinton knew him. Admit it, Clinton said to himself. The old man had always seemed crazy. This five-star general approach that he'd had since they first saw him dump the body into the lake was a startling change.
"This thing got a PA system or something?" Brewster tapped the side of the car.
"This'll work better." Clinton dug his keys out of his pocket, opened the trunk, and pulled out a megaphone.
Old Man Brewster nodded approval. "Well, start a-calling them."
Clinton propped his elbows on the trunk of the car. "What should I say?"
"h.e.l.l, I don't know. Just start hollerin' for Ed," Brewster glared at him.
Clinton raised the megaphone and started yelling. "Hey, Ed. We're down here. Hey!" He kept this up for a bit. Then Rory went back to blaring the horn. After fifteen minutes of this cacophony, Rory stepped away from the Jeep.
"This isn't working," he said, his voice laced with anger and frustration. "We need to go find them before it's too late."
"It'll work." Brewster stood up. "Have patience, boy."
"Maybe Rory's right," Clinton said, setting the megaphone down. He wiped the sweat off his brow and sighed heavily. "They're not coming."
"What's the matter?" Anna asked from across the road.
"Nothing," Rory called over his shoulder.
Clinton went out to meet him. Brewster came after them. "This'll work, I know it." The old man was rubbing the center of his chest as he talked.
Rory threw up a hand, the garrote dangling from it. "Do you see them?" Anna had now joined them as well.
"It'll work," Brewster insisted, still working the spot on his chest.
"What if they're too smart for this?" she asked quietly.
"We need to go find them," Rory said. "Go get them just like Burgess Barton did. He went out after the Nephilim." He focused his gaze squarely on Brewster, daring him to challenge the logic again.
"And he got himself killed, too." The old man took the challenge, but remained surprisingly calm.
"Not before he took a bunch of them out. And there's more of us."
Clinton raised a hand, trying to calm Rory down. Anna also sensed the irritation in Rory. She put a hand on his arm and said, "Hey, let's listen to Brewster, okay? He's been right so far."
"I just " Rory began.
"Let's try something louder," Clinton interrupted. "Give the noise another shot." Rory jerked his arm away from Anna. "I'm fine," he said, too abruptly.
"Hey!" Myrtle said in a loud whisper. They all spun around at the sound of her voice. She was crouched on the porch, frantically waving her hands and pointing to the west. "They're coming," she hissed.
Clinton turned his head, but in the glare he saw nothing. He shielded his eyes with a hand. And then he saw them. Emerging silhouettes out of the sun's sweltering backdrop. Walking in slow, methodical steps down the road, entering town.
"Everybody down." They dove in different directions, a panicked melee of bodies. Brewster hurried back to the protection of Clinton's car. By the time Clinton had made it there himself, Rory and Anna had darted around behind the Jeep and joined Myrtle on the porch.
"Let 'em get close," Brewster hissed in Clinton's ear.
Clinton nodded. He glanced to his left. Nicholas was huddled near the door of the car, peeking up through the window. His hands were balled up into fists so tight the knuckles were white. Clinton looked down at his own hands. They were shaking.
Brewster stared straight ahead. "We'll have to make sure Ed stays focused on the well so Rory can sneak up on him."
Clinton kept silent. He rubbed his left palm on his shirt, wiping away the clamminess. He brought his right hand up, the Glock he held slightly unsteady.
"Nerves?" Brewster asked.
"I'm all right." Even as Clinton said it, he knew he was anything but fine. He'd been in danger before; in war and in the line of duty he had been in situations where he faced the raw black opening of a gun barrel, but that did not compare to what he felt now. It was terror on a new level. And it built as the Nephilim came closer.
"Steady." Brewster had the shotgun resting easily in his hands, but his eyes were cold and calculating.
Clinton didn't know how the old man managed to stay calm. Clinton looked past Brewster. The group of Nephilim continued their approach. Ed was in front, walking down the empty dirt road. A few others trailed behind him. Clinton recognized Samuel and Joan. These were people he'd socialized with at their cafe, and now he was going to have to destroy them. The thought made him ill.
Brewster hissed out a stream of breath and whispered, "Come on. Smell the water. Go to the well."
They were past the cafe now, coming up on the antique store. A ripple of anxiety ran up Clinton's neck as he watched another group of people Nephilim emerge from the other side of the Silver Dollar Cafe. "How many are there?"
Clinton signaled across the road, making sure Rory saw the other Nephilim. Rory raised a hand in acknowledgement.
"Look!" Nicholas whispered, pressing a finger onto the front car window. "They're going to the well!" His voice choked. "That's my mother! And Mick!"
Just as he said it, Clinton watched as a few of the Nephilim broke off from their groups and trudged with stilted steps over to the well. The first one to reach the well stared down at the trough, then dropped to his knees, plunged his lips into the water and drank.
"The miner was right," Clinton said in awe. Brewster nodded, and there was the slightest of grins on his wrinkled face.
As they stared, Mary D'Angelo and another man drank from the trough. "Come on," Brewster murmured to the others. "Go to the water," he urged. But the other Nephilim stayed back with Ed. Clinton quickly surveyed them. Besides Ed, there was Samuel and Joan Friedman, Mick Hull, Gino, two men, Lewis and Howie, dressed in hiking gear, and other poor souls he didn't recognize.
Ed turned a wicked gaze on the Nephilim drinking at the trough. Another stepped out from behind him, also heading for the well. Ed raised a hand to halt him, but the man continued, drawn by the scent of pure water.
Then Mary stood up suddenly, arching her back. She flung her head back and clawed at her throat, as if to stop the liquid that was already flowing down into her being. A gurgling sound came out of her mouth, a harsh noise that mutated into a hollow scream. Clinton was riveted, watching Mary's death throes with a morbid fascination. And then she met Clinton's gaze, and in that brief instance, he would swear that he saw the woman inside, the one who knew that she was dying and could not stop it. Just as quickly, the contorted Nephilim face again took its place, and with one final grasp at her throat, she flopped to the ground and lay still.
"Oh my " Clinton breathed, his voice shaking. He'd barely uttered that when the others who drank began their death throes, the scene as horrifying as the first. He glanced over at Nicholas. Tears were streaming down the boy's cheeks. Clinton started for Nicholas but Brewster interrupted him.
"It's working," the old man muttered, still as calm as a cloudless day. "And look," he pointed a bony finger over the hood of the car, "Ed's focused on them."
"Go on, Rory," Clinton said, looking across the road. "Get around the store now." Before the words had split the air, he saw Rory give Myrtle and Anna a quick pat on the shoulders, then move off around the store.
The second he saw Ed watching the other Nephilim drink the well water, Rory knew he had to act. After a few rea.s.suring words to Anna and Myrtle, he ran in a crouch off the porch and around the rear of the store. He paused briefly at the west corner of the building and poked his head out. Through the alley between the general store and Back In Time Antiques, he could see Ed watching the Nephilim at the well.
Continuing in a crouch, Rory snuck along the side of the building until he reached the general store's water hose. He quietly picked it up and aimed it at Ed. Earlier, they had unwound the hose and put a nozzle on the end. He turned the water on full blast, took the nozzle in trembling hands, and crept to the edge of the building. Ed was still looking toward the well.
Rory grabbed the nozzle, taking a deep breath to ease his nerves. He pointed the hose at Ed and furiously turned the nozzle open. An arc of water blasted from the hose, out into the street, and hit Ed directly. He arched his back, the veins in his neck throbbing as an ugly snarl ripped out of his throat, rocking with fury down Main Street. The spray of water bobbed as Rory's hand shook more violently.
Ed raised his hands as he flung himself around in the direction of the water, his anger cutting the air. Rory stared into the evil eyes and felt his soul ripped by its impact. But even though the water continued to spray Ed, he didn't fall. He didn't shrivel or hiss away like Rory had expected. Instead he continued to slice Rory open with his eyes, working their hypnotic magic, while the water evaporated quickly off his skin and clothes.
Rory averted his gaze, but still felt a sickening feeling take him over, not because of Ed's power, but because he knew their plan wasn't working. The water was doing little to immobilize Ed.
We're in deep trouble, he thought, backing up. The hose lowered as if by its own will, until the stream hit the ground at his feet. He reached down automatically and turned off the water and pulled the garrote from his pocket, knowing that it truly would be suicide to attack Ed now. Just then another sound pierced through his panic. "Oh no!" he muttered.
Across the road, Clinton was stricken by the same high-pitched scream that panicked Rory. Clinton instinctively ducked back behind the shelter of his car. Brewster, however, continued to look up the road with an amazed look on his face. "What's he doing?"
Clinton hurried to look around the old man. Mick was plodding toward the well. Ed howled out and gestured at him, trying to communicate with the spirit inside the boy. But Mick continued on. He reached the well and, ignoring the bodies around him, stooped and drank from the trough. A moment later he flung himself away from the water, scratching at his throat. Awful choking sounds split the air.