Ten years ago.
Ash twisted through the air, a sickly, wet snowfall.
The flames were starting to die now, after six grueling hours of assault from the firefighters. There was nothing left of the neat little suburban home that had once stood here. It was now a smoldering pile of slag, punctuated by an occasional freakish, defiant flame whipping and twisting up into the air. Carter listened to his colleagues try to guess what the accelerant had been. He didn’t envy the lab boys. They’d have to go through all of that muck, knowing the melted, liquefied bones of the Harris family – Mommy, Daddy, and baby – were somewhere within.
The sole survivor of the conflagration sat shivering beneath an EMT’s blanket some distance away. Little Peter’s black curls were plastered to his head and slicked tight against his face. Wide emerald eyes in a pale, sweat slicked, sickly face didn’t appear to be seeing much of anything. The kid was in shock. The kid didn’t know anything. He’d been out on the front lawn. The house, according to the kid, had simply exploded, without warning, without explanation.
Carter ought to have felt sympathy for the kid, but he was too weirded out. The kid was sitting on the curb, and not in the back of the ambulance, because as soon as they’d sat him back there things had started breaking. The monitors had cracked. Needles had snapped, and the windshield had erupted into an elaborate spider’s web of fractures. All the while the kid had sat there, looking sweaty, clammy, and out of it as he panted like an overworked dog. The kid was creepy. Some sort of Stephen King crazy creepy. Carter knew what the accelerant was, even if nobody else did. The accelerant was that kid, and he hoped they’d stick him in a hospital somewhere far, far away. He hoped they’d pump him full of drugs and never let him see the gleam of daylight again. If the social worker was smart, that’s what she’d do.
The kid’s mouth was moving. Carter stepped closer. The boy was whispering frantic words in a shivering voice.
“He gets married. He gets lung cancer. He’ll win his lawsuit.” The kid’s hand was twitching, pointing at firefighters, EMTs, reporters, gawkers. “She gets thrown out of her house. He loses his license. She goes to Hawaii.”
The words came in quick, breathy staccato, as if the kid couldn’t stop them. His eyes were unfocused. Haunted. The twitching hand came to point directly at Carter, and Carter stumbled back, sweating. “His dad finds out he’s gay.”
Carter shivered, feeling ice water slam into his spine.
He grabbed the kid’s shoulders and shook. “Snap out of it. Quit it.” Carter’s voice was a rough rasp, thickened by the smoke from the fire, and by fear.
The kid gasped like he’d been drowning. He stared at Carter, and his eyes snapped into focus. They turned wild as they took in the scene, and then he began to cry. He gave out huge, shaking, earth shattering sobs that made his entire body convulse. Carter found himself softening. The only response he could muster was to open his arms. Maybe it wasn’t his fault. Maybe he was possessed or something.
The social worker was standing over them. Carter looked up at her. “You should get him someone with religion,” he advised. “Get him a preacher or something. Maybe then everyone will be safe.”
She didn’t understand, but that didn’t matter. He’d passed on his suggestion, his warning. The fire went out at last.
Applause. Soaring, inspirational theme music. Every inch of the “Life Lift” set gleamed. The Sunday darling of Kansas City, featuring clean cut, dynamic televangelist Peter H. Corbie. Handsome, quick witted, scandal free, radiating trustworthiness from every pore. Together, he and God were there to lift the self-esteem of everyone within the reach of their long arm. His 4,000 strong on site congregation, those watching the local television program, and those tuning in on AM 1089, Radio Love Today.
The canned introduction was describing the church’s humble beginnings as Thomas-Gabriel Presbyterian, riffing on how God had blessed the church and allowed it to grow, how God had turned a failing church around and now was using it to touch lives. The music soared to greater heights of hopefulness and beaming encouragement.
The make-up artist was running out to touch up Peter’s face, one more time before the canned theme finished and the live cameras began to roll. He was already sweating it off under the bright lights, but he was smiling brightly as usual. He was filled with the anticipation of the sermon to come, filled with the pleasure of doing his job. He was used to the heat and the glare by now. He loved the quality the lights gave to everything, like anything it touched had turned into a pure version of itself, some Platonic ideal out of legend.
The podium, which Peter hardly ever used, was arranged in blue today. A massive Bible sat on top of it, but Peter never looked at it. A bleached white cross made a nice, eye-catching shot for the camera to work with at dramatically appropriate moments.
His sermons –- his lines –- were always memorized beforehand. A congregation, either on site or at home, wanted to see someone dynamic. Confident. So Peter tended to spend the entire time charging back and forth across the stage, letting the mike clipped to his sharp designer suit do the job of keeping him audible. He charged and he smiled. Always smiling. Life Lift believed in staying positive. His smile was a trademark. It beamed boyishly at the residents of Kansas City from dozens of billboards soaring high above the interstate. It was crucial.
The service would begin with music from the choir, so Peter relaxed. He had a chair up front for the choir bits. With its plush bright blue cushion and the hand carved mahogany, the thing was reminiscent of a throne, and Peter sat in it as though it was. He had twenty minutes before he had to get up and deliver his sermon, twenty minutes to simply relax and look happy. Not hard. He was happy.
Then, the headache started, piercing through his consciousness. His own private, malevolent, unwelcome visitor, creeping up on him with just five minutes of hymn left to go.
He tried to will it away. This couldn’t be happening. Not here. Not now. The headache began in the center of his forehead and radiated outward. It took over his vision, his perception. It felt like some sort of octopus made of pure agony had latched onto his face and was busy driving its tentacles into his brain from every conceivable direction.
The gleam of the church had become an unbearable glare in a matter of seconds. He could barely make out anything, and could only hope that he wouldn’t miss his cue. He wanted to moan and grab his head, but he couldn’t let that happen. Not on live television, even if it was only a filler for a local station. A major Christian network was talking about picking up Life Lift, for God’s sake. He’d be beamed into millions of homes via Sky Angel. He’d been approved for a book deal. All of this, doomed to evaporate if he couldn’t keep his cool and force the headache, and all that the headache meant, back.
Dear God. Please not now. In Jesus’ name, amen.
When he opened his eyes his vision had cleared just enough for him to catch his cue. Thank God. He plastered on a smile that felt more like a grimace. 57 episodes of practice meant that he could take his excited, life filled joy to the stage, head pain and all. He didn’t think he’d wobbled in any noticeable way on his way up to the stage. The lights were worse up here, and a spike of nausea shot through his gut. He went to the podium. He was feeling unsteady on his feet. He needed the support. He rested his hand flat on the Bible as if this were all planned, as if this were to emphasize a point he was about to make. In reality, he was trying to remember what his sermon was even about, for the words were swimming away like paint in turpentine.
It had been something about the root of bitterness. Something about that. How to deal with life, when life got hard, or unfair. Those sorts of sermons were the bread and butter of his ministry.
He’d had the whole thing down that morning. Now he couldn’t remember a single word. Live tapings carried some real disadvantages. He’d have to bear that in mind for another day. Maybe it was time to invest in a teleprompter, and tapings done days before the actual show. Maybe they’d end up with outtakes, and they could make a tape out of the bloopers, use them in a fundraiser, feed more starving kids in Africa.
He’d have to wing it.
“Do you have a firm foundation?” He varied up his tone, projected his voice so that it could have hit the back of the room without the aid of the mike. He packed it full of the expected punch. There were so many Christian lingo words these days. They were useful things that could be inserted into any conversation to let people know that you were really a Christian, really on top of things, really a true believer. Peter never used them in any real discussion, but for throwing out a sermon on the fly the buzzwords were perfect. If he threw out enough of them, about half the crowd would walk away feeling energized whether he said anything of real substance or not. The other half would be afraid to admit they’d thought it was all so much fluffy crap, lest someone question their spiritual development.
Peter smiled big and smacked the Bible again as he started to really sweat. The resounding thump made the octopus tighten its grip, but he saw heads snapping up at the boom it made. Without the sound systems it wouldn’t have been quite as dramatic, but the mike carried the sound like a small thunderclap.
He had to make sure they got it, after all, whatever “it” was. He was Reverend Peter Corbie. He could keep their attention reciting the phone book if he had to, if he just handled it with confidence.
If he could just keep the room from melting.
That was always how these headaches would end. The room would melt, the colors would drain away, and something else would be there. It had started happening a month ago, and up until now it had only happened when he’d been alone. It had been painful, disturbing, annoying, but always manageable.
Why oh why did this have to happen now?
The pain slammed into the front of his skull like an eighteen wheeler at full speed. His grip tightened on the podium until his knuckles were white. He wet his lips and managed, “Jesus said –- “
But he couldn’t remember what Jesus had said. He couldn’t remember one thing that Jesus had said, at all. The crowd shifted. He was sure that Rob, his producer, was starting to panic by now.
The room did melt.
He called out a name.
Detective Hank Rafferty liked catching his buddy Pete on the radio while he was out working, even if religion wasn’t really his thing. Pete’s sermons were sort of fluffy, and he didn’t really go in for all that power of positive thinking plus faith plus prayer suddenly made the world right and fair and lovely. He’d seen too much crap to believe that was true. Thing was though, he liked Pete, and the fact that Pete seemed to believe that rubbish seemed to be part of his charm.
He was only listening with half an ear as he drove though. He’d been knee deep in a very nasty case for several weeks now, a serial kidnapper, rapist, and killer who was terrorizing the streets and slowly darkening the mood of Kansas City. The media was calling him the Hallmark Man for his habit of sending roses out to the families of the girls he kidnapped. He had a potential lead on the source of those roses, and Sunday or no Sunday, he was out following up on it.
He heard Peter thump something hard and smirked as he changed lanes. Always the showman. The line about the firm foundation sounded like he was about to go into Standard Operating Crapcedure. Keeping his eyes on the road in front of him, Hank reached over to change the station. He wouldn’t feel too disloyal about it, if Pete was just going to spew the standard crap this time.
Then, he heard his own name over the radio.
“Hank!” Peter was screaming his name, right over the radio. “Hank, look out! The truck Hank! The truck!”
Hank’s eyes cut sideways, and he cursed as he felt a sudden bolt of fear. An eighteen wheeler who clearly didn’t see him was drifting into his lane. It was perilously close to running him right off the road, and the thing wasn’t going slow, either. He had about three seconds to prevent a nasty accident. He slammed his hand on the horn and punched the gas. His plain, unmarked blue sedan shot forward, missing the truck by inches as he pulled out ahead of it. He leaned on his horn a moment longer, feeling little but sheer sweat drenched fury. He was irritated for his own lapse in attention, pissed at the trucker, and shot so full of adrenaline that he was starting to shake. The adrenaline was dropping now, leaving him dizzy, so he eased over into the right hand lane, and then, finally, to the shoulder. He leaned back and took a breath until the physical reaction passed. Then, and only then, did he stop and wonder how exactly the Rev had known he was about to become street pizza, and how he’d come to pass a personal warning to him over the airwaves.
Peter tried to claw his way back. The church. He was at the church. The church was what he wanted to see, where he wanted to be. He blinked, and light swam back into view. He thought he made out faces over him. He’d already screwed up. He’d already passed out, right in front of everyone and with the cameras rolling.
The camera lights were all off. Someone had pled technical difficulties and cut the feed. Peter sat up and tried to get the dizziness under control enough to get his bearings. A member of the congregation, one of the doctors, was bent over him. Someone had stuck a suit jacket under his head, and a wet washcloth over his forehead.
He tried to sit up and a slim, pale hand pushed him back down. “You’re overworked, Mister.” That wasn’t the doctor, who was an older man with a grim cast to his face, but Charlotte, bending so close to him that a soft fall of auburn hair was brushing Peter’s arm. She smelled of ocean breeze shampoo. He was glad she was here. Peter didn’t insist that his girlfriend make every service, and she didn’t come to all of them. Had she been here, or had someone called her?
“I can’t find anything wrong with you,” the Doctor said. “Your pulse is a little high, and you’re a little warm, but other than that you seem healthy. Do you remember what happened when you passed out?”
“I got a headache,” Peter said. “Bad headache.”
“You should go to a hospital. Get checked out,” the Doctor said.
“No,” Peter said. “No, that’s not necessary.”
“Peter,” Charlotte began, but Peter shot her a firm look. No hospitals. This didn’t need to be a bigger deal than it already was. Already his mind was whirling with issues. He’d need to meet with Rob and get into issues of pre-taping. He’d need to maybe consult with a therapist or something. He had to spin it to be stress related, that was all. Maybe a massage therapist or acupuncture or something. He’d get checked out enough, in a private, quiet clinic, to reassure everyone he didn’t have epilepsy or something. There was the matter of reviewing the footage, quickly, to determine what he had said, what he had yelled. He knew he’d yelled something, words, not just noises, and God knew how alarming it might have been to anyone else. He’d need to have an explanation ready for the church committee. Damage control was what was needed here, and he couldn’t do that from a hospital room.
The Doctor said, “I recommend rest, and a follow up visit. You’ll want to get home, Reverend.”
“Thank you, Doc,” Peter said, and the Doctor stood. He’d apparently decided there was little more he could do there. Peter listened to him pad away on the soft blue carpet.
“I’ve got some bottled water here, Peter, you should drink some,” Charlotte said. “Slowly.”
She lifted his head like he was a baby, which he tolerated, and gave him some of the water. He was grateful — his throat was parched, like he’d been yelling at the top of his lungs. He remembered yelling. He remembered what he had seen, and yelling about it. He hoped it would all pass off as a stress episode.
He saw phantom flames licking at the edge of his vision. His stress levels were rising just thinking about it. Not that, he snarled firmly at his own brain. It burned and flickered, right at the edges of his control. He knew what it was. He knew what the visions were. He knew what other things were in there, just waiting to be unleashed. He’d spent a lifetime trying to forget, but there was no forgetting. There was only putting them to sleep, and then having them show up again at unwanted, inconvenient intervals.
He stared up at Charlotte and tucked a long strand of her hair behind her ear. “What’s the fallout looking like?”
“Your producer’s going crazy; other than that nobody’s said anything,” Charlotte said. “I don’t think that’s what you should be worried about right now though. Peter, you seemed really sick just now.”
He opened his mouth to answer her, but a queasy flash rent through his mind, sending him reeling for control. He closed his eyes. When he opened them, he saw Charlotte staring in disbelief at a point somewhere behind him. He turned to look, only to see the giant wooden wall cross was no longer attached to the wall but hovering seven feet above the floor. He swore, and it dropped to the ground with a heavy crash of finality.
“Peter?” Charlotte whispered.
He forced himself to his feet and staggered away from her. Get it under control. Get it together. He wasn’t even angry. He’d spent many years trying to keep his considerable temper under control, and attempting to manage the flashbacks to the day of the fire that always brought on one of these episodes. He’d learned to wake himself instantly from nightmares of his drunken father laying into him the day of the fire, so he didn’t start more fires. He’d been run out of more foster homes than he could have counted because of the things that had lifted into the air around him, before crashing to the ground just as the cross had crashed. He’d frightened people with his visions, until Pastor Tom Corbie and his wife had taken him in. They’d been kind and unafraid, though concerned, and he’d learned, for them, how to keep it all in check. The fact that his control was slipping now was terrifying. Slipping after nearly thirteen years without a single lapse, and right where his congregation and his girl could see it.
“Rob’s probably trying out a new camera shot,” he lied. “Something for a new opener.He put wires on that last week.” He hurried away from her and into the men’s bathroom where she could not follow, but not before he saw her walk up to the fallen cross and start checking for wires that he knew she’d never find.
Beth Olson’s day was taking a turn for the annoying. Her car, an ancient beater of a Honda, had given out some fifteen minutes away from campus. At least she’d made it to work that morning. She couldn’t do without any part of her meager paycheck. She had an extremely important chem lab to get to, and she was already late. She didn’t really want to show up in her Koffee Kart uniform, not where at least three of her sorority sisters would see her, but it couldn’t be helped.
She hadn’t had an umbrella in the car, and the rain was pouring down. She was too exhausted from her walk to campus to run now, so she held her book bag over her head, tucked her chin down and blinked water out of her lashes like some sort of pathetic water rat. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon, but the darkness of the storm made it look much later.
She was cutting across an overgrown, unused field spotted with clumps of trees, which happened to be her most direct route onto campus. A few parking lots bordered it, but walking around to the field would take her far out of her way. She needed every advantage of time she could buy herself, even if it meant her shoes were sinking in nasty, glopping mud with every step. The field felt a little ominous, but Beth figured, at the moment, just about anything would. She just had one street to cross up ahead, and then she’d be on campus proper. She’d feel a lot better then.
There was a sleek SUV idling up the street. Midnight blue with all the trimmings. Whoever was in there was making a cell phone call. It was nice to see someone being considerate about their freaking phones for a change. A lady had nearly run her over when her car had stalled, and had made screaming at her out the window just another part of her cell phone conversation.
The rain got a lot worse as she started to cross the road, and she groaned and hunched her shoulders. It was cold, and it was running down her neck.
She heard the SUV’s automated window go sliding down. “Pardon me, miss, but do you need a lift?”
She took a second look at the driver, who had apparently finished his call. He was an older gentleman. His clothes were pressed to perfection. Expensive. Something about his face reminded her of Patrick Stewart, if Patrick Stewart had hair. Or maybe it was just something in the way the man carried himself. He was wearing tight leather gloves, which looked a little odd emerging from the starched, pressed cuffs of his tailored white shirt. His hand, the one she could see propped up on the steering wheel, looked a little strange regardless of the gloves. It was sort of stiff and bent, like maybe he had arthritis.
She bet the SUV was really warm. Totally comfortable. But she wasn’t about to get into someone’s car, no matter how old or rich or nice he looked.
Leather seats, and a heater. Why couldn’t it have been a woman? She’d have risked it, had it been a woman.
“No thanks,” she said, sighing. “The offer’s nice, really, but it’s not much farther. I’d just mess up your seats anyway. Thank you though. I’m fine.”
When he raised the gun, her mind wouldn’t process it. Not right away. She’d never even seen a gun before except on television. It seemed to fill up her vision until it was the largest thing she could see, eclipsing the SUV, the trees, everything.
“No, my dear,” the man said.
His voice was soft. That made it even scarier. He met her eye and he smiled like he was her grandfather or something. Panic froze her, froze her throat, froze her feet, froze everything.
“I don’t think you’re fine at all. Now get in the car.”
She didn’t, but only because her feet were rooted to the spot. He sighed, as if greatly vexed by the trouble she was putting him through. As if she was actually being really quite unreasonable about all of this.
He lowered the gun, and her mind jump-started. She ran, her adrenaline catching up with the rest of her at last. She screamed for help, even though there was nobody to hear.
She felt something hit her arm, hard enough to feel like she was being punched. Hard enough to spin her around. She twisted her ankle, slipped, and fell on the sidewalk, which was as far as her mad dash had taken her. She touched her shoulder and encountered a dart. She yanked it free and stared at it. It was small, but it was a tranquilizer. She’d never seen one of those off of television, either.
He was out of the car now, giving her a pitying smile as he made his way forward. He was holding a different gun now. The dart gun? She tried to stand up, but her legs felt like lead. So did her arms. Her vision was swimming. Her heart had moved up to her ears and started a mad, horrible pounding.“I never miss,” he said.
The room she woke up in was big. She couldn’t make herself move quickly. The drug was still in her system, and she felt groggy. Nasty. Heavy. She felt something around her throat, touched it, and recoiled. It was some sort of collar. She was wearing that, and a short silk robe in an absolutely god awful shade of red. Nothing else.
She was ready to rewind the day now. Could she have her worst customer on her worst day back? With an engine blow out and rain and maybe a failed exam too? None of that could top this. Could she go back?
The bed was a four poster canopy and it looked antique. She got off of it on unsteady legs, reaching a hand out to touch one of the posts to keep her upright. The room was busy, decorated in warm browns and golds. Victorian. It would have been gorgeous under any other circumstances. A full length mirror caught her reflection. She shuddered. Against such austere colors, the garish robe made her look like a splash of spilled blood.
She padded over to the door. It had one of those old fashioned, really huge keyholes. She dropped to one knee and looked through it. She saw nothing but maroon hall carpet.
She tested the door. It opened! Maybe she could sneak back out before he returned. Maybe he’d expected the tranquilizer to keep her out a bit longer. How long did she have?
She stepped over the threshold and screamed in pain. Fire erupted around her neck. It felt that way, anyway. She fell to the floor and clutched her collar while pain pulsed hard into her neck and shoulders. She scuttled back into the room, wondering what had just happened, laying as still as she could in the hopes that the pain would start to subside. It did, but it took its time about it.
“It’s sort of like a dog fence.”
She heard the voice, soft, feminine, and forlorn, from somewhere below her. She rolled onto her stomach, unable to handle much more movement than that, and saw a patterned wrought iron ventilation grate. She clutched it. “Hello?”
“I’m here,” came the voice through the grate. “I always know when someone’s come, because there’s always that scream. I’m Zoe. Zoe Cunningham.”
“I’m Beth Olson.”
“There’s like, sensors. Under the floor. It makes sort of an electric fence. Everyone tries it once. The screaming? It’s gotten to be like, an introduction.”
What a sick and horrible thought.
“What is this? What’s going on here?”
“What’s going on? He’s crazy. Psycho. Another Paul Bernado. Or Ian Brady. Maybe a Gerald Gallego. He takes us. Does stuff to us. Kills some of us.”
Beth hadn’t heard of any of these names. “Us? How many people are trapped in this house?”
Beth dreaded the answer, but she had to know. How many times had he gotten away with this? How hopeless was it? She had to know.
“Thirteen,” Zoe said. “You make number thirteen.”