“In 1996, the late Alexander Lebed, Russia’s former chief of national security, asserted that Russia may have ‘lost’ up to 100 one-kiloton ‘suitcase-sized’ bombs….”
“Russia’s Scattered Tactical Arms a Temptation for Terrorists,” Boston Globe, 06-18-02
In a hidden, out-of-the-way place inside Montero’s research facility, in a briefcase measuring just twenty-four by sixteen by eight inches thick, a tiny red light flashed on the fail-safe countdown detonator.
The marauding monsters didn’t have time to register the accompanying sound as a blinding fire equal to one hundred suns shot at the speed of light from the SAMM’s hypocenter.
In the blink of an eye, temperatures inside the lower complex reached ten million degrees Fahrenheit. The once-powerful beings, together with everything around them, were reduced in a flash to raw atomic material.
At six hundred fifty feet the steel boxcars designed to transport the Nephilim melted. At fourteen hundred feet, rubber objects as well as plastic signs and wooden furniture exploded into flames.
Within the same millisecond, a wall of immense pressure created by winds of six hundred seventy miles per hour expanded the nuclear fire outward from the hypocenter into a compressed spherical cavity. The Dungeon’s ceiling lifted above the amazing pounds-per-square-inch of pressure, then collapsed in a deafening roar that filled the subterranean chamber with molten rock and radiation.
A short-period borehole seismometer nearly a mile from ground zero began registering the seismic waves, while further away, at the Pacific Northwest Network, it was quickly determined that the wavefield had been 95 percent dilational (explosive-like) and 5 percent deviatoric (earthquake-like), leading to the conclusion that a one-kiloton nuclear explosion had occurred deep underground.
Over the next twenty-four hours similar findings would be made in nine other countries around the world as Operation Gadfly’s SAMMs detonated simultaneously, obliterating the giant army.
Joe felt it at the same time Rahu must have.
First came the human cry from Apol.
Then the earth jerked violently, and pressures shot through his eardrums and out of his eyes.
The mountain moaned deeply, as if in great pain.
Then a vacuous tremor moved along the range, thunderously crackling, rushing along the ground, wrenching and fracturing the indigenous soil.
Momentarily perplexed, Joe stuck his hands out to steady himself as huge loams of earth and plant life began slipping forward nearby, slowly at first, then faster, until suddenly a whoosh brought the ground where Apol stood earlier lurching onto the road and flowing over the bluff in a deafening, path-cutting cascade.
Joe leaped sideways and away from the surge, struggling to stay upright as the street in front of him pitched and splintered under the adjacent dynamic load.
A growling-tearing sound drew his attention downward. He felt the direction of the motion and caught sight of a fractured crack tracing ghostlike his way, then another one appearing just beneath his legs. Joining, they formed an oblique tear, rolling with a wavelike pattern that began rapidly peeling the earth apart like a giant yawning mouth.
He fought to get away from it.
His arms flailed, teetered, grasped at anything he could reach in order to catch his balance and to avoid the snarling abyss.
He captured a solid area with one foot, dug his heel in hard, jumped at the slope in front of him, caught an anchored, mangled root, and used it to pull himself tight against the rim. He froze to the vibrating barrier as the incomprehensible river of rocks and dirt began rumbling like a freight train thirty feet away.
Now there was a closer sensation, and the road in front of him snapped.
Instantly a magnificent portion of the ground just inches away dropped from the street to the river in a thunderous, dusty flume.
The relentless tearing moved closer, hammering and rending the earth, billowing up from the slide into his face, blasting his skin and filling his nose and mouth with bits of gravel and chunks of hard debris.
He squinted and held his breath. His eyes watered as he prayed to survive. Lost for several seconds in the whipping rain of chips, pebbles, and limbs, he felt the tree root vibrating aggressively in his hand and worried that it was about to pull apart.
His thoughts raced. What in the world did Stark do!? Plant a nuclear bomb!?
Moments passed as winds created by the slide brought a heavier cloud of silt and debris raining down upon him. He began coughing and couldn’t stop. He pressed his face to the hillside, aware that it was the feeblest attempt to filter the particles but also knowing that too many minutes of the coarse dust would suffocate his life away.
Then there was a creak, and a pop, like train cars banging together, and a halting sound tugged at the rolling soils. Here and there moving boulders caught new places to abide while surfing sands struggled for just one more inch of progress before slowing to a grumbling halt.
Except for the ping of small rocks bouncing here and there and the larger echo of trees falling in the distance, silence returned as quickly as it had gone.
He stood against the newly formed and potentially unstable mantle, hoping a breeze would appear and blow the dust away.
As the worst of the tremors subsided, he scanned through the settling dust cloud, gagging and spitting out mud, but saw no sign of the monster.
Maybe the slide had taken the beast when it had torn the road away.
Despite his fear of falling and the questionable stability of the ledge, he was happy to pretend the avalanche had killed the hideous thing.
AHRIMAN GATE NARRATIVE CONTINUES BELOW VIDEO
Joe waited until the canyon was quiet and the air had cleared a little; then he surveyed the hillside above him from the corner of his eye. It was too steep to climb, plus he could lose his balance and fall. He decided to move laterally along the ledge to find a way back to the unbroken portion of the road. He clamped onto the tree root he had unearthed earlier and carefully took a step. Studying the narrow two-foot shelf he was on, he inspected the slope for additional roots and spotted others of different sizes. Holding the tubers firmly, he gingerly scaled the mantle. Before long he discovered fresh air seeping from the thicket when the flora was pulled apart. It refreshed him.
After a few minutes he arrived at the slide’s bank and dug his way to the top. He plotted the path he would take across it to the road on the other side, then hugged the unstable loam and moved as safely as he could.
When he reached the logging road again, he hopped from the mound onto it, noting for the first time that the sun was peeking over the trees. Its warmth was soft and invigorating. It gave him strength. His faith was returning too. He recited Psalm 23 from memory, matching the words and sentences to his breathing cycle as he hustled down the road.
Yet the thought hadn’t escaped him that he’d dropped his knife somewhere, and he didn’t know the correct route to the river.
On the water, the gang had heard the machine gun fire and watched in horror as the partially obstructed cliff broke from the mountainside and crashed thunderously to the beach. There had been an earsplitting sound just before a huge wave from the impact smashed against the eighteen-foot fishing vessel’s hull, nearly tipping it over. Stark was running on his way to help Joe when it happened. Now he stood frozen at the edge of the dust cloud and looked back at the others offshore.
“Everybody okay?” he shouted to the boat.
Buck was picking up hooks and bobbers from a fallen tackle box. He poked his head above the cab. “Look’s like nothin’s broke here. B’lieve we’re okay, uh-huh.”
“All right then, everybody stay put. I’m going after Joe.”
“Hold up! Wait a minute!”
It was Sheri. She looked desperate.
Throwing one leg over the vessel’s edge, she yelled, “I’m coming with you!”
Stark turned to the river again. Now his voice was adamant. “Sheri, did you hear what I said?”
“Yeah. I heard you.”
“Then wait for me here.”
“But he’s my brother.”
This girl could be a pain in the butt. She had fought him all the way down the mountain, refusing to accept the need to leave her sibling behind.
“So you want to get Joe killed?” he asked impatiently.
“No…of course not…but…” she said, her voice thickening.
“Well he might if you don’t stay put. You’re only going to complicate things by following me.”
“But I can help!”
“Yes, you can, by sitting down and being quiet.”
Her eyes widened in disbelief. “What!? And if I refuse!?”
“Then I’ll make you.”
“You and what army!?”
He pulled the Walther P-38 from its holster.
“You wouldn’t dare!” she screamed angrily.
“Right in the leg, if I must.”
She glared at him.
He glared back.
A hand gripped her shoulder. It was Allie. She surprised her by saying, “I think he’s right, Sheri. I’m worried about Joe too, but maybe you should stay in the boat.”
Sheri, who typically would have challenged her big sister until the sun settled in the west, raised one eyebrow above a teary eye. Following a moment of silence and only after glancing at her watch with exaggerated suspicion, she said to Stark, “All right, you have ten minutes. If you’re not back by then, I’m going after Joe.”
Stark lowered the gun. The last thing he wanted was a tag-along, and he was learning something about Sheri—you had to be firm; she could be hardheaded.
He faced the woods again. This time the heavy dust from the avalanche was clearing from the fall area. What he saw wasn’t good. The winding trail back to the logging road was buried beneath tons of debris. The only way to reach Joe’s last known location now would be straight through the forest and up the mountainside. He flipped the Walther’s safety off, surveyed the timbers for the best opening, and ran into the trees.
Wind from the gorge rippled gently along the roadside scrub as Joe searched for a place to descend. He had no weapon, no shirt, and no clear sense of direction. The only thing he knew was that he needed to get away from this place, down off this mountain, to the boat on the river.
He pulled the low-hanging limbs apart and pushed into the thicket. Blackberry vines cut against him, sending sharp thorns through his pant legs into his wavering skin. He forced himself to ignore the pain as he thrashed through the underbrush.
Reaching a rolling meadow, he thought he heard something following, listened, then dismissed it as his own echo.
Crossing the grassy field, he entered the woods again, stopping long enough to pick up a thick tree limb to use as a club, just in case.
Stark moved stealthily through the stand, up the hill, over mossy obstacles toward the trail above. He held the P-38 in front of him and carefully measured his moves. Stop, look, listen, move. Stop, look, listen, move.
Yet he had to keep moving.
He prayed for strength and pushed even harder.
Then for reasons he couldn’t understand, his pace returned. A second wind came to him so quick and so strong that he was amazed by it. Although he hadn’t discerned the healing touch of Justice the angel, who was back on Earth after having sealed the Ahriman Gate, Stark took the hill with newfound power, scaling outcroppings, moving around fallen trees, climbing straight through to the target area. In a few minutes he was there. He jerked himself onto the old logging road and pulled the P-38 from its holster. He scanned the area for bodies. The site was unsettling: Joe, Apol, and Spot the monster were gone, together with a substantial portion of the road.
He inspected the massive slide area and feared for the worst. Then he found something familiar on the ground.
Joe’s pulse quickened as he heard it again. There was also an inaudible sense that something was following him, matching him step for step, staying just out of visual range.
He waded through the brambles, treading softly on the foliage and studying the trees to the right of him.
Earlier, when Apol’s monster had first entered the woods, the buzzing of insects and the chirping of birds had dropped to an instant hush. He hadn’t thought about it since, but now it dawned on him. Once again, he couldn’t hear any wildlife, no birds, no chipmunks, nothing other than what he’d detected moments ago when he’d been sure somebody was following.
He took a few steps and this time, on the path he’d just come down, it happened for sure—a rustling in the brush not far away. Something was there.
He squinted through the overgrowth. A shadow crept over a low-lying branch, then pulled back.
He pulled the club into both hands.
It hissed again, not like a snake, more like wheezing, as if somebody was calling to him through laryngitis or a cancer-ridden throat.
He stood perfectly still, listening. Fear slashed at his nerves as sharp as razor blades. Studying the trees uphill, he thought he saw the shadow return, then noticed something embarrassing. A slight breeze was moving a tall tree that cast its shadow on the brush. It moved over the branches, then pulled back, moved over the branches, and pulled back. As far as the whispering he’d heard, he told himself it could have been the wind whisping around the scrubby limbs.
Hah! What an idiot greenhorn. Letting your imagination run away like that.
The woods were safe.
He resumed movement along the trail. Using the club he was carrying to knock down blackberry vines and other scrub as they got in his way, he had gone less than a hundred yards when a twig snapped behind him.
He paused, saw nothing, and when he’d almost decided it was his reactive imagination again, a glimpse of something jumping behind a thicket caught his attention. He squinted, straining to hear, and thought he detected the vaporous voice again. The sound repeated, and this time he was sure of it. The ghostly presence whispered his name. Joe.
He had to get to the river.
He could think of nothing else as he rushed desperately forward.
He dared not look back.
The icy chill of horror was closing on him.
AHRIMAN GATE NARRATIVE CONTINUES BELOW VIDEO:
WATCH DR. THOMAS HORN EXPLAIN THE CONNECTION BETWEEN GENETIC SCIENCES AND THE WATCHERS, GIANTS
“We’ve waited long enough,” Sheri said out of the blue. “We should have formed a search party by now!”
She’d been sitting on the back of the boat, twirling a curl of her hair, staring at the woods, combing the beach with her eyes.
“I think it’s time we stop messing around.”
Allie, imbuing her words with a lecturing tone, said, “Admiral Stark ordered us to stay put.”
“Well, he’s not my boss, you know. Besides, It’s my fault Joe’s out there.”
Suddenly the light went on in Allie’s head. Sheri was feeling responsible for Joe. Softly, she tried to comfort her.
“Oh, Sheri, that’s not true.”
When she realized how unconvincing she sounded, she glanced at Buck for support, adding, “It’s nobody’s fault…but those freaks’ in that cave.”
Buck dropped his spit over the side of the boat. He’d been watching the beach, undoubtedly thinking Tater should have been back by now. “That’s fer sure, missy. None of this’d be happen’n if those fellows hadn’t tried t’ play God, yeh know. So don’t be blamin’ yerself fer what bad men do.”
“Besides,” Allie continued, “I’m sure Joe will show up any second now.”
Glancing at Katherine to see if she agreed with Allie and Buck, Sheri found her new friend wide-eyed, frightened, looking beyond them to the woods.
“Uhm…I think I saw something,” Katherine said uneasily. “Something moving in the trees. There! There it is again!”
Sheri turned, just as a form, came running out of the timbers, a dirty mess, waving something shiny in his hand.
“This is all I could find,” Stark called as he came close. He was holding Joe’s fighting knife and breathing heavily. “Everything else seems to be gone.”
“Gone!?” Sheri said. “What do you mean gone!? You didn’t see any trace of Joe at all!?”
Sheri jumped to her feet, cupped her hands at her mouth and began screaming over the bow, “JOE! JOE! IT’S ME, SHERI! CAN YOU HEAR ME!? ANSWER ME!”
Stark wondered how he would tell Sheri if Joe had been swept from the ledge and buried in the slide. He waded through the current and climbed onto the deck of the boat as Katherine and Allie joined her. He made his way past them to the old man.
“What say we fire this thing up and make a run upriver, Buck? We can search the beach faster that way, don’t you think?”
Stark knew this would mean moving away from the target area. If Joe was somewhere beyond the slide, he’d gotten lost for sure.
“Sounds like a plan t’ me, uh-huh,” Buck said.
The decision made, Stark pulled the anchor in as Buck started the outboard. The old man backed the tri-hull gently from the beach and rammed the two-stroke Johnson forward full throttle. The front of the boat lifted as gravity gave in to horsepower. Moving upstream, the girls waved from the side, calling out Joe’s name repeatedly.
Joe came at last to the forest’s edge and ran onto the beach in a panic. He continued straight over the sand into the river, sloshing out waist deep before turning to see what was chasing him. The water was so cold it took his breath away. Muddy ooze swirled into his insulated boots, forming a squishy filler that flowed between his toes.
He clung to the club and waited for the snake man or whatever the heck was there to charge from the woods after him. Groping with his feet to find level ground beneath the sun-dappled water, he watched the trees and listened. Every inch of his body was filthy, hurting, tired, running on nearly depleted adrenaline. He had to force himself to breathe.
When nothing happened, he clutched the club and stared down the river both ways. To his east was a craft like the one Buck owned speeding away from him. The people in it appeared to be jumping or dancing. To his west was the massive rockslide. He could see something beside it; it looked familiar…slithering his way?
Trying to ignore the fatigue burning in his muscles, he waded downstream a few yards, then returned to the beach. He stopped and studied the distant object. Against all common sense, he gripped the heavy club and staggered toward the figure on his wobbly rubber legs.
Buck had never pushed the tri-hull so hard. He didn’t know the old boat could go so fast. As the underbody bounced on the water, fresh waves moved across the Columbia in a diminishing v-shaped spiral.
“We’ll turn ’round at Rooster Rock,” he shouted to Stark over the engine. “Then we’ll make yer slow pass ’long the south shore!”
“How far to Rooster Rock?” Stark yelled, steadying himself against the quivering plastic windshield. His salt-and-pepper crew cut was twitching wildly in the wind.
“Jest there,” Buck pointed.
An enormous rock bearing the faint resemblance of a rooster jutted up and out of the gorge. The monstrous plug had been shot into the water by an ancient volcano hundreds of years before.
Stark gave Buck a thumbs-up and turned to transfer the message to the girls. He saw something on the beach behind them, grabbed Buck’s arm, and thumbed rearward like a hitchhiker.
“Hey Buck! Something’s back there!”
“Hold on,” Buck stuttered as he pulled on the throttle. He made a quick sharp turn with the wheel, then hit the accelerator again.
As the boat drove against the water and came around, the gang, holding onto the rim, focused on the shape. It was hunched over…or maybe being pulled down…struggling with something.
A quarter-mile away.
The vessel lurched as the outboard clattered noisily. The boat moved faster now, with the river, toward the animate object, Buck pushing the throttle arm firmly forward with his trembling hand.
The chilly wind against Stark’s face made the form difficult to discern. He checked the handgun’s clip. Several rounds remained. He made the sign of the cross over his heart.
As the boat skipped on the whitecaps, Buck seemed to be aiming directly at the outline on the beach. “Can yeh tell what it is?” he shouted.
Stark’s voice returned through the misty kaleidoscopic spraying off the fiberglass hull. “Not sure yet.”
Fifteen hundred feet.
The shape stood.
Its back was to them.
Its midsection looked distorted, baroque, like a python swallowing some large prey.
Four hundred feet.
With the surge of the river pushing hard against the deck, Buck reversed the throttle and let the Glastron level out. A temporary swell lifted, then gently feathered the boat back down.
The thing on the beach was defined now: a shirtless man, holding something, his back black and blue.
Sheri stared intently at the muscular physique and long brown hair, then shouted, “J-JOE!? JOE!? IS THAT YOU!? OVER HERE!”
Turning toward them, beaten, bloody, cradling Tater’s limp body, he was too exhausted to answer.
Buck rammed the boat forward as if intentionally beaching the craft. Joe was barely standing. Tater was slumped over his arms, dead still.
As the crew jumped to land, Buck somehow got to Joe first, even with his limp. He was encouraging him, telling him everything was going to be all right, as he took Tater into his arms to relieve him of the weight. The dog was barely breathing.
While the others grabbed to support Joe, Buck stepped away, complaining to the unconscious Labrador as he carried him to the surf.
“Hey, boy, why’d yeh run off like that fer, huh? Yeh scared poor old Buck half t’ death! Got yerself all torn t’ tarnation too, didn’t yeh. Well. It’ll be okay. I’ll fix yeh up some curin’ viddles as soon as we get home. Yew’ll be hoppin’ like a texas jackalope b’fore mornin’ comes, uh-huh.”
Sheri could see blood trickling onto Joe’s shoulders from puncture wounds in his neck. His hands and arms appeared beaten and bruised too, drained of life like the rest of him. With a tight loving hug, she pulled his arm over her shoulder and let the admiral take the other side. They walked him through the water and loaded him onto the boat, where moments later he seemed hardly aware when Sheri laid his head in her lap and let him drift into the trusted bliss of a dead and welcome faint.
Katherine didn’t know if there was a proper way to thank God for Joe’s safety, but she felt appreciation in her heart as she stared at her brave marine. That, and something else, something she had tried to brush off, but was starting to believe in. Love at first sight.
Taking a seat aboard the craft, Stark studied the forest until a shadow caught his eye. Something was moving silently behind a grove of tall firs, a talon-tipped finger, maybe. It slid quickly around a tree with an unintelligible sound.
A moment passed as his eyes went to Joe. He was nuzzled against Sheri’s soft arm on the rough deck of the boat. Stark glanced above them at Allie, Katherine, then Buck, who was trying to hold the dog as he moved to the wheel. He looked at the trees again. They swarmed with shadows. Suddenly the outboard roared and began struggling to pull free from the sand. The vessel slid left, then right, before finally pulling away and heading toward the Washington shore, the frigid waters going from dirty brown to gray and finally to deep blue as they crossed over the ancient river.
Watching the forest wane, Stark pushed strange feelings aside that monsters were preparing to rush them from the grove. Paranoia was playing tricks on him, he told himself. Nothing would come of the phantasms. Rahu was dead, buried alive in the landslide, along with Apol.
Yet, what if…
What if the beasts had survived? Rahu was efficient beyond measure, and Apol was a wise old snake. They could have made it, even be under the boat, in the river, swimming to meet them on the other side of the gorge. “De profundis,” Malina had warned him during Operation Gadfly planning: out of the depths.
From the diminishing corners of the woods, he imagined Dragon eyes following them like the lair of the beast from which serpentine forms slither across sand into glittery channels. He stared across the basin and polished the P-38’s trigger with the tip of his finger.
“Mother of God, protect us from evil,” he whispered.
The sound of a dull explosion came from the top of the mountain.
Smoke drifted skyward above Montero.
Still higher, the heavens looked odd, as if receding into a soft reddish glow.
He could see flames licking into the clouds, dying embers leaping up from Hell’s busted lantern.
Sirens blared in the distance.
Hope was breaking free of chaos.
Against all unanswered questions, Montero was burning.
AHRIMAN GATE NARRATIVE CONTINUES BELOW VIDEO
WATCH! Dr. Thomas Horn And University President Dennis Lindsay Discuss Facts Behind Fallen Angels And Nephilim Giants
Eight weeks later, September 26.
Driving to Granny’s farm for a highly anticipated and overdue family barbecue, Joe contemplated the last eight weeks for at least the thousandth time. He had not been surprised when government spin doctors made the media rounds following the explosion at Montero, blaming terrorists for the attacks on the United States and the other League of Ten Nations members. Nor was it a shock to him when investigators on the scene agreed with the officials, citing Montero’s military research as cause for targeting by extremists. As stock markets around the world focused on the economic ramifications of the nuclear attacks, the president of the United States appeared on national television, pledging to “relentlessly pursue these enemies of freedom to the far corners of the earth.”
Concerning the Ahriman anomaly, not many in the public even knew it occurred. Mysterious men in black uniforms reportedly visited those private firms that had recorded the rift, “counseling” them for their memories of the event and helping them reinterpret it. Suddenly concerned with protecting the United States from future acts of terrorism, the patriotic business owners had been more than happy to donate their files and equipment to the MIB.
Raiders News Update, refreshed daily by new and equally conspiracy-minded owners, reported that agencies including NASA were being similarly instructed to delete evidence of the phenomenon from repositories and computers. Although the space authorities were not happy with the orders, more important issues evidently required their immediate attention. Satellites in orbit around Mars had confirmed their worst fears—Outpost Alpha was gone.
For Joe, the day after the explosion had been the most intense. Armed with a warrant, FBI agents searched his home and interrogated him for two hours at the hospital where he was treated for a fractured rib and several smaller injuries. It was obvious the bureau was more interested in locating Admiral John Stark—aka “Phobos”—than they were with arresting him. The fact that Portland police hadn’t simultaneously arrived to shackle him and his desperado sister on the trumped-up charges of robbing Montero indicated that law enforcement was also under orders to leave them alone.
Yet if federal investigators were hoping he would lead them to John Stark and Operation Gadfly, it’d be a long wait. From the moment he’d awoken at the hospital with the girls and Katherine at his side, Stark had been missing. According to Sheri, he’d disappeared soon after riding with them to the emergency room. She had no idea where he went, and Joe was glad about that. If the government’s pursuit of the bad boy admiral kept him and Sheri from being arrested and prosecuted—if it meant the FBI would back off in hopes that over time Stark would try to contact them—it was a welcome paradox. He knew Stark wasn’t that stupid, and meanwhile Sheri and he would be left alone to work things out, to mend physically, psychologically, and spiritually.
He had personally found the most theologically difficult issue to be Sheri herself, and why she’d been allowed to go through this. To keep from getting angry, he’d taken consolation in Stark’s words that the human race was receiving another chance due to her ordeal. Of course there was Katherine’s salvation and the question of where she would be if Sheri’s kidnapping hadn’t forced him to enter Montero when he did. He suspected meeting her was as much a part of his destiny as destroying Apol Leon had been. The event hadn’t seemed to affect her in the way it had the others, at least not that he could see, and consequently she brought a sense of normality he needed and desired.
Besides all that, he found her irresistibly attractive. The way she walked, the sound of her voice, her dimples and ditsiness—everything about her was cute to him. The fear of attachment he’d nurtured so long was slowly crumbling beneath an unexpected passion for companionship. His father’s murder avenged, his sisters and mother comforted, romance was free to blossom.
The strongest evidence of this new affection so far had been last week. He’d taken her on a date to the Oregon coast to celebrate her eighteenth birthday and to play in the sand with Tater and his new girlfriend—make that dogfriend—Granny’s golden retriever, Princess. It took some real persuading to get the old man to concede that a picnic at the beach might be good for the dog’s recovery, but in the end it had been terrific, filled with energetic silliness, canine antics, and innocent flirting with Katherine. Her company had been immensely pleasurable to him. He’d actually smiled for the first time in a long while, laughed, talked for hours, and shared so many things.
Though not yet everything.
It wasn’t that he wanted to keep secrets from Katherine. He simply didn’t know how to describe what he’d found on the riverbank near Tater that terrible day two months ago. Looking back, he could hardly believe it himself—Apol’s fleshy membrane all ripped apart like that, the way the ground under the corpse was pushed up and charred, as if fiery demons had crawled from the earth and ripped the snake man’s soul from within him.
Then there was the strange serpentine trail leading from the scorched carcass through the sand into the woods, as if Apol had gone to oblivion while something separate slithered from his remains into the trees. Reacting without thinking, Joe had kicked the human shell into the river that day, cursing the slimy hide to Hell.
Later he’d wondered if he’d destroyed important evidence. The skin’s DNA might have been valuable in tracking the alien-thing down. Although so far, investigators had discovered nothing out of the ordinary, and frankly, he was tired of thinking about it.
Maybe a creature had crawled from Apol’s skin. If so, had it died in the woods with Rahu, its leftovers eaten by wildlife? For many times in as many hours he’d told himself that was true. The monsters were gone, consumed by critters or washed down the Columbia into the sea, scavenged by the very fish Buck had resumed angling.
Now there was a thought! Buck eating a sturgeon…that had eaten the dead monsters…that had tried to eat him!
Whatever the case, all had been quiet since, and this would be the best day yet. He’d spend it doing what had become his favorite hobby—being with Katherine.
He grinned at the thought of her…and those lips! They provided the private kisses by which all others would be judged. It energized him even now as he arrived at Granny’s farm.
Leaping from the Colt, he saw Katherine standing with Allie, Sheri, Donna, Dr. Jones, and his wife, Joyce, by the porch. The six of them were watching Mom and Granny, who it appeared, were being held captive by Buck as he gave lessons on how to make proper barbecued vittles. Off to one side, Carl and Garth were pitching horseshoes.
Everything, he told himself, was going to be okay. Better than before.
He joined them at the deck steps and talked for quite some time.
Later, when he thought he could, he took Katherine by the hand and slipped away to the old red barn where they watched Tater and Princess frolicking in the garden. They held each other and laughed about how much trouble those dogs would be in as soon as Granny saw them knocking down her corn.
“So you think we should tell everyone our secret today?” Katherine asked, smiling up at him.
“We can if you want. They’ll know soon enough anyway.”
“What do you think they’ll say?”
“Sheri won’t be surprised. She’s already told me we make the perfect couple.”
“And your mom, Nettie?”
“Mom’s pretty instinctive, I doubt she’ll be taken off guard. Either way, I know she’ll be happy for us.”
“What makes you so certain?”
“Just look at how cute you are—who could resist?”
Katherine’s smile got twice as big as before. “But…to be engaged? So soon?”
Joe breathed deeply of her perfume. “Trust me.”
She ran her hand up his sleeve and squeezed his large arm muscles. He loved the touch of her fingers against his skin like that. It was the “good kind of electricity,” he had told her. He leaned over to steal a kiss…and saw Dr. Jones walking their way. The professor had a section of the Portland Times in his hands. He held it up and said cryptically, “See the top story in the press today, Joe?”
Joe studied his expression, then reluctantly took the newspaper and unrolled the pages.
The headline took his breath away.
LOCAL HUNTERS CAPTURE WOUNDED “BIGFOOT” NEAR COLUMBIA RIVER. MASSIVE BEAST FOUND BARELY ALIVE, PROTECTING UNKNOWN REMAINS
His eyes jumped to Katherine. He saw her face go pale. Then, for a split second, he thought he heard someone in the woods near the farm, whispering, “Joe.”
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