by C. D. Lee
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"Two angels, one of Life and one of Death,
Passed o'er our village as the morning broke;
The dawn was on their faces, and beneath,
The sombre houses hearsed with plumes of smoke."
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
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I tried hard to think -- which, given the circumstances, wasn't easy. I fought down another impulse to escape, despite being worried that it might already be too late to help the people at camp.
"He who hesitates is lost," I'm always telling Evie. But don't I also advise Gus to "look before you leap"?
Who was the enemy and what was he up to? My kidnapping couldn't have had anything to do with Eden Blake personally. She had no enemies, except the petty kind -- jealous women at work and men resentful because she refused to date them. As for Mantra's foes, only Kismet and Necromantra knew that she and Eden were the same person -- and I'm pretty sure that both of those homicidal harridans are dead.
Think, Lukasz, think!
What I was experiencing and the ugly pranks played upon the campers so far had to be linked somehow? It wasn't robbery, surely. White slavery? While that sort of scum usually prefers teenagers, I had to admit that Eden had a few good years left in her -- maybe hundreds of good years if Archimage had told me the truth for once in his life.
Were the three officers really deputies? Whether the answer was yes or no, they were definitely involved in some sort of lawless conspiracy. Ominously, their roadblock hadn't been set up to intercept escaped cons, but to capture anyone trying to leave the camp.
But why? Kidnapping for ransom? That didn’t seem likely...there hadn't been any known millionaires on our bus and I suspected that most of the organizations we worked for probably weren't good shakedown targets either. Anyway, I was pretty sure that Aladdin wouldn't pay much to get back a small-fry data analyst.
So, if money wasn't the root of this particular evil, what was? Were any of us special in some way? We were all parents, naturally, but that was hardly extraordinary. For their own part, the children were also a very unremarkable mix. But if it wasn't the children, the parents had to be key.
Come to think of it, Eden Blake was special. In her identity I had daily access to a high-security organization inside the U.S. Government, and while I didn't hold prominent rank, mere access to some of Aladdin's installations had enabled me to tap into its high-security database several times over the past year. I’d used it to keep track of, and sometimes to foil, a good share of its more illegal and immoral operations, but such information could certainly be put to nefarious use in the wrong hands.
What about the others? One held a university chair, I knew. Another was on
the Los Angeles Environmental Committee, and still another was a lawyer from
an A-list West Coast law firm. There also seemed to be a good sprinkling of
bureaucrats. Then there was Erica...as a journalist, she might be a useful resource
-- everybody who's up no good wants to have influence in the press if only to
convince a naive public that "it's no big deal," or "everybody does it." But
I was at a loss to think how anyone could make someone like her cooperate
This much seemed to be true: we were all career-oriented types. It was possible that most, like me, had only come to this shindig because the school implied we were neglecting our kids. But our association with the academy, pressure groups, the bureaucracy, state security, and the media surely added up to a pattern. We were all involved in the business of controlling other peoples' actions and influencing the way they thought about things. But who was pulling the strings? I couldn't visualize a gray man like Storch as the kingpin in a big conspiracy. Could the perpetrators be a cadre of middle-class nut-cases willing to use violence to advance some weird agenda and Storch was just one of their field hands?
If that was the case, exactly what did this "Secret Seven" hope to accomplish? If their aim was assassination, why bother to pull all these upsetting stunts? If simple kidnapping was their objective, why not get to it? A gang of thugs with guns could have taken over the camp in two minutes flat -- except that Mantra would have been on hand to give them the old heave-ho!
Filled with a sense of crisis, I flashed into my Mantra outfit and willed myself to go phantasmal.
Just then I heard someone fumbling at the lock on my door and, not wanting anyone to find Mantra where Eden Blake was supposed to be, I escaped through the rear wall of the cell. To my surprise, I found not open air but earth. Apparently, I had been imprisoned in some kind of underground structure.
Now I heard voices coming from outside my cell. Solids carry sound extremely well, so I decided to lay low for a minute and listen in. The lack of air was not a concern since I'm able to free all I need from the molecules of earth and water. I had to make it spectral like I was before I could breath it, but I've learned how to do that, too. Early in my super career I survived for a day on the moon by extracting oxygen from the sterile rocks underfoot.
"What are you doing, Kohler?!" a man demanded in Russian-accented English.
"Compeer," replied a female voice, youthful and American. "Nothing. I was only curious."
"I do not think you intended to eat out of turn, so what is it about this particular cow that makes you so curious?"
When the girl made no immediately reply the "compeer" yelled, "As I suspected! Seize her!" A brief scuffle ensued. It ceased abruptly and I could imagine the young lady being held firmly in the clench of some strong-arm man. "We have been monitoring you!" the compeer continued harshly, arrogantly. "We destroyed your parents for defending these cattle," he snarled, "and you have long been suspected of coming from a tainted gene-line!"
"You wrong me, Compeer!" Kohler answered breathlessly. "I despised my parents' treason! I am loyal to the cause."
The cause? What was all this adding up to? The bossy palooka was Russian, maybe. Was it a conspiracy concocted by die-hard Stalinists? If so, why would any self-respecting Stalinist waste his time and resources menacing the Canoga Park PTA?
"What did you intend to do?" the compeer demanded. "Free the woman?"
Interesting. Had I been the intended beneficiary of a bungled rescue attempt? If so, I'd have to help the girl out of her jam if possible. Then again, this quarrel might be bogus, staged for Eden Blake's benefit -- a sort of good-cop, bad-cop routine. I had to be careful about intervening until I understood the situation better.
"Put her into one of the cells for now!" the Russian-type barked. A few seconds later, I heard a scuffle of feet and the click of a small mechanism.
"What about the human?" the second man asked.
The human? What exactly was I up against?
"Leave her locked up until we are ready. She is young and healthy; she will not die too quickly." The man's tone had tone became almost jovial when he referred to me suffering inside my canary-sized cage.
I was really starting to look forward to frying that S.O.B.
"She must still be unconscious or else she'd be screaming her fool head off like all the others have. Ah, the music of terror! There is nothing like the endocrines of pain and panic to make human meat succulent," remarked the compeer's buddy.
I did not like the sound of that! I could take care of myself, but the other campers probably couldn't. And I still hadn't found out who -- or what -- my captors were. I'd known plenty of bad Russians in my time, but no Russian cannibals -- if one overlooks the Novgorod famine of 1230, that is.
"There shall be plenty of fresh meat at the camp," a third person piped in enthusiastically, confirming my worst fears. This one sounded female and also had a Russian accent.
These people were speaking of humans as if they were themselves something else. What could they be? Demons? Russian-speaking alien androphages? Those cops had looked human enough -- although, now as I paused to think about it, their auras had felt a little out-of-sync.
I mentally kicked myself. Debbie Daschle's biofield had similarly been out-of-tune, but I'd shrugged it off. Now, it got me wondering what the connection was. It bowled me over to think that the little girl had been one of these characters, but I’ve been around the block enough times not to be blinded by naiveté.
It was even possible that the little girl whom I'd found in the forest had not been the same little girl originally lost. I've seen some pretty fantastic cases of replacement and imposture in my day -- and I've seen a lot of days. If the Debbie I'd located had been a substituted infiltrator, what had happened to the real child? I shuddered to think.
Though steamed up, I wanted more information before I could start blasting everyone in sight with a clear conscience. Was the girl Kohler a potential ally? To find out I'd have to get her alone and interrogate her. But I worried that my eavesdropping was killing precious time while an atrocity was in progress back at camp.
Angry, frightened, torn, I wasn't sure which way to turn. But at the very least I wanted to give the compeer his comeuppance for that "cow" crack before this business was over!
Things quieted down just then, the biofields withdrew, and I waited a only couple minutes more before poking my head out of the wall. I saw that the makeshift cellblock, now empty, resembled a bunker of World War II vintage -- probably some long-abandoned military installation. The mildew-stained concrete had been sparingly decorated with prints and sculptures calling to mind the symbols of Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century mysticism. The centerpiece seemed to be an eye-in-the-pyramid plaque, vaguely resembling what's printed on the dollar bill. This symbol, I'd always understood, had occult connotations. Curiouser and curiouser.
I floated to the floor and solidified. Then, probing each of the tiny cells in turn with my life-sensing power, I detected just one aura -- a not-exactly-human biofield which, presumably, belonged to Kohler the "traitor."
I decided that the cell lock was nothing special and so I placed my palm over the mechanism to juice it with a little kinetic magic; the expected release-sound came a few seconds later.
You're just so good, Lukasz!
Now I was all set to meet "Kohler," the mysterious person who had apparently fallen out with her own kind. Because I'm no babe in the woods -- no pun intended -- I knew that my enemy's enemy wouldn't necessarily my friend. That's why I put up my shield before I opened the door and saw the shadowy shape huddled within.
Oh, my God!
At first glance I thought that every joint in the poor girl's body had been dislocated! My second look told me that her eyes were wary, alert, and that she was feeling no pain. As she stared at me bemusedly, I realized that there was no way on earth that this being could have been a member of the human race.
In the blink of the eye Kohler shifted her body and suddenly looked completely normal. In fact, she looked so normal that if I hadn't overheard her conversation with the compeer might have passed off what I’d seen – or thought I'd seen – for just a trick of the light. She was a girl of about nineteen -- lean, strongly-built, and comely despite her dishabille -- a fact that I could still appreciate even after having been a woman myself for over a year.
"W-Who are you?" she asked, her voice subdued and shaking.
"My name is Mantra," I told her. Not seeing an immediate look of recognition, I added, "Maybe you've seen my tumbler at Burger King."
Though flippant, I remained on guard. Aliens can be full of unpleasant surprises. I've met my share of them over the centuries -- the Tradesmen and Hellion being among the most memorable -- and most unpleasant.
I nodded. "Who -- what in Sam Hill are you?" I suddenly realized that I'd spoken in my -- in Eden's -- natural voice. I do that sometimes when I'm taken aback, but in this case I had to play Mantra to the hilt and overawe her enough to get some quick answers.
She didn't reply to my question, but instead asked: "What are you doing here?"
Making my voice husky and tough, I said, "If you want to talk, come out of there." I suspected that I'd have to get her away from that place for a real interrogation.
Kohler seemed glad enough to escape the tiny cell. I stood back and placed my fists firmly akimbo -- a stance that always makes Mantra look formidable, if a little butch. "I saw three deputies manhandling a woman hiker," I remarked, "and I followed them here. After I rescued her I returned and found you locked up, too. What's going on? You'd better tell me quick -- girl -- if you don't want to be shoved back into that box."
She sized me up with a nodding motion, probably unsure whether I should be considered a friend or foe. A little less bellicosely, I inquired: "Did those bastards really murder your parents?"
She nodded, her expression somber but not especially pained. Maybe it had happened a long time ago, or maybe her alien emotions didn't register in a recognizably human way.
"Quick -- Mantra," she urged suddenly, as though something just occurred to her. "We have to get out of here! They're going to destroy all those people at the campgrounds if we don't --"
I alertly raised my head and asked: "Do they intend to kill those people?"
She bit her lip before answering. "Yes, in a way."
I swallowed the lump in my throat. "Are -- are they going to eat them?"
Kohler blinked, grimaced with what looked like human embarrassment and responded: "Yes --
"In a way."
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