A ruthless and influential cult leader known only as Theodotian begins a campaign of murders to unveil a powerful revelation threatening to destroy the organized Church and to change the world. When the first murder victim is revealed, numerologist Lucas … Continue reading
A slow-boil, modern noir, Of Sound Mind finds audiometry technician Richard Keene settling into his new, center-city apartment just as he reaches his thirtieth birthday. Formerly confined to a mental institution, Richard struggles to adapt to a world of adult … Continue reading
In Delphi, the mountain city deemed by the Greek gods to be the center of the Earth, a cult of neo-pagans re-create with painstaking authenticity ancient rituals to glorify the god Apollo and deliver oracles to seekers from around the … Continue reading
Welcome to Harting Farms
(October 1993–January 1994)
In the fall of 1993, a dark shadow fell over Harting Farms. Newspapers
called him the Piper, like the minstrel of Brothers Grimm
lore who lured all the children away. There were other darker
names, too—names kids whispered throughout the halls of
Stanton School and carved in the wooden chairs of the library like
dirty, fearful secrets. The cafeteria rumbled with talk of escaped
mental patients from Sheppard Pratt and lunatic mariners, lustful
for child blood, who ported in Baltimore and found their way to
our sleepy bayside hamlet.
In homeroom, Michael Sugarland drew pictures of werewolves
with dripping fangs and claws like bayonets until Mr. Johnson,
shaking his head and looking terminally exhausted, told him it
was disrespectful of the missing. No one referred to the children
as dead because none of them were found—not at first, anyway.
They were the Missing, the Disappeared. The first few were even
thought to be runaways. Continue reading
P R O L O G U E
Chad Wilbanks paced his cell. He’d long since measured the distance from the rear wall to the door, and as he placed one booted foot in front of the other, he followed his usual routine: he ticked off the names of one of his victims. One name per step. Very satisfying. Eight was Susan. Nine was Pilar. In the past it had irked him to take the last, unnamed step before arriving at the turning point. Today, though, he hesitated only a fraction of a moment, then stepped down squarely, with all his weight. “Ten,” he said, and pivoted, just like squashing a cockroach. A wicked smile played across his face. It was time. His heartbeat picked up the pace at the thought of the journey ahead. The time for his next adventure was nearing. Th e plan, which he had painstakingly put together over the past six months, was in place. Nothing would stop him. He would not fail. A surge of voices filled the cell block. The other prisoners were returning from chow. He despised their intrusion into the only peaceful time in the day he had. He faced the stainless steel desk bolted to the wall at the opposite end of the cell. Several letters were stacked perfectly square to the edge of the desk, each letter written to a desperate woman he’d found on PrisonPal.com. They all wanted to be his lover, his savior, his wife. They all had gladly sent money to his prison account, as a guarantee for what they foolishly believed would be a future with him. Of course each woman thought there was no other besides her. Each one trusted his carefully written pleas for a partner. Some had forgiven his crimes, but most simply believed him—that he had been wrongfully convicted of serial murder.
Stupid, stupid women. They all qualified to be his next victim. Chad wasn’t about to waste his time on the easy ones like his pen pals, however. He had a mission. A score to settle. He’d waited four years and now it was time for him to take the next step—the tenth one. He picked up the letters and fanned them, admiring the addresses from around the country, laughing at the needy women who dared think they could ever be good enough for him. He checked the calendar hanging on the wall. “I only have to hold on for a few more days. Then”— he tapped the date—”your turn.” Continue reading
North Vietnam, October 5, 1971 Nguyen Van Luc stood on the riverbank, shifting nervously from one foot to the other, watching intently as the small boat silently cut through the murky water. In the darkness, with the dense jungle at his back and a cold moon overhead, Nguyen, a notorious Vietnamese operative and black marketer, had but two things on his mind: pass along the message, and get away as quickly as possible. He didn’t care for these men. Didn’t trust them. Most of all, though, he feared them. Especially the leader, the one called Cain. All Vietnamese, North or South, friend or foe, feared him. Cain. The fuckin’ man was a legend on both sides of the DMZ. A stone-cold assassin known for killing with his bare hands. A “Cain kill” was rumored to be so quick, so perfectly executed that the victim seldom experienced pain. It was also said that Cain never killed a man he couldn’t look squarely in the eyes. Skeptics questioned whether this was the truth, or merely another fabrication of the U.S. mythmaking apparatus. Not Nguyen. He knew it was true. He’d seen the man in action, killing with precision and cold indifference. Cain’s reputation was not built on falsehoods; it was built on body count. Nguyen wanted nothing to do with a man like that. With the boat only a few yards from shore, Nguyen lit a cigarette, took two deep drags, and then tossed it into the water. Rubbing his hands together, he squinted into the darkness, silently counting the men in the boat. Five. Oh, shit. Fear stabbed at his heart. That many here this time. Even that crazy goddamned Indian, the one called Seneca. This must be big. He plucked another cigarette from the pack and tried to light it. He couldn’t. His shaking hands wouldn’t cooperate. Frustrated, he threw the cigarette into the water and watched it float away. As the boat finally slid into the bank and the men came into focus, Nguyen’s fear overwhelmed him. He felt the warm piss stream down his legs. Read more. . . Continue reading
Kuk Sur, Southeastern Tibet 19,492 Feet Mother Nature was angry. There are some places, apparently, where she didn’t want man to tread. She baked deserts with scorching heat, draining them of all life and water. She churned the seas with towering waves and thundering ocean storms. But Mother Nature saved her best work for the sorry lot who considered themselves mountain climbers. For reasons she kept to herself, Mother Nature used everything in her extensive arsenal to keep men and women off her majestic peaks. She sucked the oxygen from the air until it could no longer support life, coated the steep slopes with thick ice, sometimes loosing tons of snow and ice down their flanks, 2 BRIAN ULLMANN and blasted everything with winds forceful enough to grind down solid rock. And then, her coup de grace—bone-chilling cold. No, humans were not built to endure temperatures of 40 degrees below zero. And Mother Nature knew it. Fortunately for them, mountain climbers are blessed with remarkably poor memories. If they could recall the curses of high-altitude climbing–paralyzing cold, wet, sleepless nights, bone-deep hunger—climbers would surely never again set booted foot upon another abominable slope. And yet here I am, Conner Michaels thought. Too cold to move and too proud to stop. Conner could see the summit, a snowcapped peak two thousand vertical feet above his head. Kuk Sur rose sharply from the frozen Tibetan plateau like a giant ice pyramid, its steep summit marking the easternmost peak of the immense Himalayas, the tallest mountain range on planet Earth. Kuk Sur was the most inaccessible of the lot, defended to the east by the world’s largest and deepest canyon, the Tsangpo Gorge. America’s Grand Canyon would barely climb halfway up the massive chasm. Though the summit was less than a day’s climb away, at that moment nothing seemed farther. Sucking wind at nineteen thousand feet, Conner had lost feeling in his extremities over an hour before. His fingers had long since frozen stiff inside his thick wool mittens, locked in place around a pair of ice axes. Icicles clung to his face, turning his once-brown eyebrows to a dirty white. Ice crystals speckled his three-week-old beard, the mountain version of salt and pepper. Under the grizzled exterior was a ruggedly handsome thirty-three-year-old, with eyes the color of caramel and legs as thick as the redwoods in his home state of California. But with frozen snot hanging a half inch below his nostrils, Conner looked like he’d been on the losing end of a raging fight with a blizzard. Which, of course, he had been. The twenty-two thousand-foot Kuk Sur was giving Conner a wintry beating. Still, the mountain summoned Conner and other mountaineers like a beacon. As the highest unclimbed peak in the grand Himalayan range, Kuk Sur represented the challenge of a lifetime. A chance to have your name immortalized alongside such legends as Mallory, Hillary, and Messner. A first ascent is something to which all climbers aspire—and in a rapidly shrinking world, the summit of Kuk Sur embodied one of the last true firsts. And so Conner found himself high upon Kuk Sur’s northwest ridge, chasing a glorious dream and gazing west through the crisp Himalayan air toward Namche Barwa. A ten thousand-foot gash in the earth separated the two towering peaks, carved by the mighty Tsangpo River. From high on Kuk Sur, the Tsangpo was little more than a windy brown trickle, but remembering the fury of the river up close quickened Conner’s pulse. Yes, it was vistas like this that erased the hardships from the minds of alpinists. Mountaineering had always been like this for Conner. It was the ultimate rush: red-hot adrenaline pumping through his veins. Others referred to the high as “feeding the rat,” but for Conner it was more than that. It was his way of life. After bitterly frigid days and even colder nights of heavy slogging up high mountain passes, the satisfaction of summiting was as pure an emotion as there could be. It was nature’s kind way of saying, “Okay, you made it. You deserve to feel something special.” It was almost enough to make him forget how miserable he felt. Conner glanced at his wrist computer, a Suunto X6-HR complete with altimeter, barometer, compass, and heart rate monitor, and saw the temperature had dipped to 30 below. With wind chill factored in, minus 40 easy. “That’s all you got?” Conner yelled at the elements through his balaclava. Of course, that was not all Mother Nature had. Not by a long shot. Read more. . . Continue reading
Thursday was shaping up into one of those days that made Bonnie Pinkwater wish for a dart gun, the kind used to put rhinos, or in this case teenagers, to sleep. She brushed a gray tendril of hair from her forehead and held up her hands, palms toward her twenty-six student class, the signal for quiet. “One at a time.” Stephanie Templeton shook back her Barbie-doll tresses. “Just explaining to Morticia Addams here that The Witch of Agnesi doesn’t have anything to do with witches.”
The headache excavating the inside of Bonnie’s cranium ratcheted to six on the Richter scale. Her finger twitched at the trigger of her fantasy pistol. The other girl, Ali Griffith, opened her mouth to speak.
Stephanie cut her off. “It probably got its name because the curves look like witch’s hats.” “Play nice, Stephanie. No name calling.” Bonnie pointed with her chin toward the other girl. “Your turn.” Ali bristled. Straight, jet-black, shoulder-length hair, black eye shadow, nail polish and lipstick, Ali—short for Alexandria— bristled better than most. Her dark eyes flashed, and she looked every centimeter the witch she claimed to be. It was easy to believe she might turn a sneering debutant into a spotted salamander. Ali’s ebony lips curled in disgust. “I never claimed The Witch of Agnesi had anything to do with the craft. I just said it seemed a weird name for a curve. Then this, this . . .” Her mouth formed around a B-word. Bonnie was sure the word in question had nothing to do with Beelzebub. Though she agreed with Ali’s unspoken assessment, she gave the girl a warning look nonetheless. I’m getting too old for this shit. Red-faced, Ali waved her hand at Stephanie and drew a long breath. “When I told Stephanie, she pulled a Cruella DeVille on me.” Stephanie huffed. Ali shot her a threatening glare. Time to take a nap, ladies. A pair of well-aimed darts from Bonnie’s fantasy pistol sent the two arguing girls into the arms of Orpheus. They slumped across their desks, hands dangling each to a side, a look of angelic peace glowing on their unlined faces. From the hip, no less.
Unfortunately, the real Ali and Stephanie remained painfully awake. The wall clock showed ten minutes until the end of first period. Not likely to get more done anyway. “All right, I meant to work with some of the actual math of the curve today and save the story until tomorrow, but what the heck.” Several students settled themselves into their seats, giving Bonnie the vague fear that in her impending senility she’d become one of those teachers who could be distracted into wasting time. To quell a guilty conscience, she wrote both the Cartesian and parametric representations of the Witch of Agnesi equation on the board then drew the corresponding graph. “As a matter of fact, you two, each of your points is well taken.” She pointed to the Cartesian representation.
“This implicitly defined equation and its corresponding curve have nothing to do with witchcraft, per se. However, how The Witch of Agnesi got its name makes an interesting tale.” The door to her classroom burst open. Edmund Sheridan, a tall Asian boy with blond-tinted spiked hair lurched into the room. “Missus P, Jesse Poole’s beating the crap out of Peyton Newlin.” The roar of hallway commotion echoed into the classroom. Bonnie fixed a hand on Edmund’s shoulder. “Go get Principal Whittaker.”
When Bonnie Pinkwater arrived at East Plains Junior/Senior High Wednesday morning, a cow stood in her parking place. To be fair, the cow didn’t know it stood in Bonnie’s parking place. The spot didn’t have her name on it, although what that would have meant to a Guernsey was problematic. Unfortunately, the space represented the last remaining faculty parking place. Bonnie hung her head out the window. “Give me a break, Ruby. I’m running late.” Ruby gave a look that could be interpreted either as “How you doin’?” or “That’s nice, dear, don’t bother me.” Milk-cow body language being the inexact science it is. Frustrated, Bonnie exited her car. She snatched up an egg-sized piece of granite. “I’m warning you, Ruby. I’ve had a bad morning, and I’m in no mood to take any bovine crap.” She hefted the stone, feeling its weight and taking a bead on the bony rear end of the cow. Unfortunately for Bonnie and fortunately for Ruby, one doesn’t just toss rocks at a friend’s backside even if that friend weighs nine hundred pounds and gives milk for a living. “You are one lucky cow, Ruby. There was a time when I wouldn’t have thought twice about pegging your skinny butt with a rock.” To drive home her point, Bonnie chucked the stone into the flagpole maybe fifteen meters distant. The resounding clang echoed across the parking lot. She shook her head, conceding the spot to Ruby and parking in the student lot north of the school. Bonnie glanced at her Mickey Mouse watch. Damn! Bonnie swiveled the rearview mirror. She grimaced. Steel-gray hair stuck out like straw from the loose bun she’d tied before leaving home. She tried to coax the errant hairs back into a semblance of order with gentle and not-so-gentle pats, but the rebels would have made Che Guervara proud. Her lipstick had faded, as well. “Boys and girls, this morning Math Analysis will be taught by the Bride of Frankenstein,” she said in disgust. Bonnie pulled her coat tight about her small, thin frame and trudged through gravel and snow to the side of the blue-steel and gray-brick school. After a struggle, the aluminum door grudgingly opened. Squinting, she peered across the gymnasium. Neither Harvey Sylvester, nor his seventh-grade boys’ Physical Education class noticed her as she sped across the gym. She exited through the far door into the school’s main hallway. By the time she arrived at her classroom, Bonnie was almost ten minutes late. While not a school record or even a personal best, it was the latest she’d been this school year. “What the hell, anybody can be on time,” she murmured. Matthew Boone, her student aide, held open the door for her. “Good morning, Missus Pinkwater.” He dropped the absent-list/lunch-count slip into the wire basket fastened to the back side of the door. Good God, youngster. Continue reading
Prologue “Slow down, Spoon.” Moses Witherspoon took a loose-gravel turn stupidly fast. Th e Trans Am slid sideways sending up a cloud of dust. “What’s the matter, angel boy? Wings on too tight?” Gabe Trotter wanted to slap the idiot. “Cut out the angel-boy bullshit. I hate that, always did.” Red-eyed and looking halfway to shit-faced his own self, Dwight Furby giggled. “Gabriel, Gabriel, come blow your horn.” Gabe couldn’t believe he’d let Dwight talk him into cruising East Plains’ back roads in Mo Witherspoon’s Trans Am. Both assholes had been drinking before Gabe crawled in and had since put away even more brew. Spoon’s straw cowboy hat sat cockeyed on his shaggy blond head. In the three years since graduation, Gabe had successfully avoided being subjected to the angel-boy nickname. Hell, he’d mostly made it a point to avoid Mo Witherspoon altogether. He couldn’t believe he once thought Spoon cool, when now it was obvious the asshole had his head so far up his colon he could deliver a singing telegram to his pancreas. Yet, here I am just like in high school, sidekicking along with Dwight-can’t-fi nd-my-butt-with-both-hands-Furby. Chalk one up to a bad memory, boredom, and having no wheels on a Saturday night. A not-so-still nagging voice reminded Gabe if he’d gotten a job like his mom and Missus Pinkwater kept telling him, he’d have wheels and long ago would have moved out of East Plains and away from Spoon and Dwight. He shrugged off the admonition. No, Goddammit, this entire shit-fest is Dwight’s fault. If I survive this round of high speed idiocy, I swear to God I’m going to kill the imbecile. “Unlax, bro,” Dwight said in his nasally whine. His own shoulder-length dark hair stuck out from beneath an oily Pennzoil baseball cap. “Just having fun with ya. You remember fun?” Gabe forced a smile. “Yeah, I remember.” He had to admit, there had been fun. Hanging around with a football star and bull rider like Spoon had its high points—the parties, the chicks, the drinking, even the fi ghts. You couldn’t hang around Mo Witherspoon and not get into fi ghts. Th e combination of loudmouth and bigot rubbed a lot of people way past static discharge. But Spoon always came out on top, and by association so did Gabe and Dwight. What the hell. Might as well make the best of it. “Give me a beer and slow it down to warp one, you gigantic scrotum.” Spoon guff awed and slapped the wheel. “Now that’s the Gabe Trotter I remember. Sure thing, buddy. Warp one it is. Hey, lookie there.” Spoon pointed with his chin. Illuminated by the Trans Am’s headlights, a tall figure carried a gas can. “Is that who I think it is?” Dwight asked. Continue reading