Mary Eicher © 2020
All Rights Reserved
Warning: This excerpt may contain sexually explicit material, please proceed at your discretion.
Angie rode the remnants of a collapsing wave onto the beach, hopped expertly off the board, and let it sidle along the sand. Her blonde hair fluttered in the wind as she retrieved the board and waved at the slender dark-haired woman watching from a nearby bluff.
“Not bad!” Artemis called down, pleased with the progress her niece was making. Lucy’s pretty young daughter possessed grace and balance and something more, something harder to define but undeniably present in the girl’s confident hazel eyes.
Artemis waited for the girl to saunter up the beach toward her and shook her head. Angie’s trim, agile body was on the verge of adolescence. In a month she would officially be in her teens and the very thought gave Artemis a chill. Whatever influence either she or Lucy had over Angie would soon dissipate like waves withdrawing from the beach. And given the horrors of the current world what would be normal trepidation tipped toward full blown terror.
She greeted Angie with an arm around her shoulders and a gentle hug.
“Can we show Mom?” Angie asked, giving her aunt an imploring look.
“Sure. I’ll text her right now.” Artemis shielded her eyes to check the sun descending in the west. “It’s close to closing time. Lucy should be able to close up shop and head this way. Want to get some lemonade while we wait?”
Angie nodded enthusiastically. “Can we get…?”
“…another round of Maui onion rings?” Artemis chuckled at Angie’s happy fist pump in response.
They headed to Leilani’s and took a free table on the patio. Lucy arrived twenty minutes later, still dressed in her shop clerk slacks and blouse, just as Angie polished off the final greasy onion ring. She gave Artemis a disapproving frown when she saw what they’d been eating and settled into the chair between them.
“Claire wanted to stay open for art night, so I left her in charge instead of closing up,” Lucy said, motioning the waitress for her usual pineapple iced tea. “I think she likes running the shop almost as much as she loves shopping.”
Artemis’s eyes crinkled in amusement. “No doubt about that. Buying and selling are all the same to Claire so long as she gets to be in an air-conditioned store. I hope we’ll have some inventory left though. We aren’t getting supplies again for three more days. And it promises to be a busy weekend.”
Lucy accepted the frosty glass from the waitress and took a long drink. “Oh, I needed that. This has been one hot summer.” She rolled the glass along her forehead and relished the coolness. “I may never get used to the tropics.”
“Maybe you’re just having hot flashes, Mom,” Angie offered with a wicked little smirk.
Not amused, Lucy glanced at Artemis who was sucking in her cheeks to keep from laughing and turned to scowl at her daughter. “Listen, kid. You aren’t a teenager yet. I still have a few weeks before I have to put up with that ‘you are so old’ commentary.”
Lucy set the glass of tea on the table with a thud and gritted her teeth. Artemis was not being helpful and if her partner laughed out loud Lucy was going to—something. She wasn’t quite sure what. Artemis may be her soulmate, but she was also a formidable opponent.
“Temmie! Don’t you dare encourage her!”
“Me?” Artemis asked innocently, touching a finger to her chest. She looked sternly at Angie. “I think your mother wears her age rather well.”
“For an old lady. You’re both past thirty, you know,” Angie chirped and stood up, ready to perform the new surfing skill they’d summoned Lucy to observe. She hooked her board under her arm and started for the beach. Halfway there, Angie froze and stood staring silently at the gentle surf.
Artemis sensed the danger an instant later. She jumped to her feet and searched the ocean where Angie’s gaze was focused. A pair of surfers bobbed in the growing swells about forty yards out.
Angie raised her arm and pointed. “There!”
Artemis took off down the beach, propelling her body with long powerful strides. She dove into the water and swam toward the surfers, closing the distance between them with quick rhythmic strokes. Aware of the hungry presence loitering below, Artemis plunged down and searched the silted water. In front of her was a young tiger shark, tasting the water with its open mouth. Artemis surfaced and called to the two boys perched on their boards, legs dangling in the swells.
The shark swam lazily beneath the bobbing surfboards and began a long, hunting circle back toward them. Artemis grabbed the tip of the first board and shook it, getting the attention of the boys, who were mesmerized by the circling fin. She pointed to the beach thirty yards behind them. The two surfers flattened themselves on their boards and began to paddle toward shore. Artemis trod water, her eyes locked on the rapidly approaching fin.
Taking a deep breath, she let her body go limp and sink upright below the surface within arm’s reach of the animal. The shark moved its head back and forth in the water, testing the new scent to determine if it was prey. Artemis watched the shark move slowly toward her. Her pale eyes darkened, bits of light sparkling at the edges. Gliding past her, the shark gave a swing of its powerful tail and retreated in search of a more appealing meal.
The two teenage surfers waited on the beach to thank the woman who had warned them. They watched her emerge from the surf, soaked shorts and tee clinging to her body. To the boys the tall, shapely figure was Venus rising from the ocean and they stood transfixed by the vision. Artemis shook water from her long hair and glanced at the boys with a trace of amusement in her ice-blue eyes. They stared as she whisked sea water from her torso and brushed her hair to one side. She nodded as she passed them, relieved the two boys would not join the growing list of youngsters who had not made it through the summer.
“You confused it,” Angie said, a touch of awe in her voice when her aunt returned.
“She was just hungry.” Artemis shrugged, enfolding Angie in a hug and playfully knuckling the top of her head. “She was a teenager interested in grabbing a snack just like someone else I know.”
Lucy gave the pair a quizzical look. What had her daughter felt, she wondered. The shark’s presence? Its hunger? Or just a sense of danger? Angie’s premonitions came in so many different forms of late it was impossible to know for certain. The ability was continuing to develop, not in Angie alone but in the minds of many of the children of the Harbinger generation. Lucy sipped her drink, silently pondering what alarmed her most: Angie’s premonitions or Artemis’s reckless charges into harm’s way.
Dr. Wolfgang Strang wiped his glasses with a soft cleansing rag and situated them on the bridge of his nose. They were a torment prescribed to aid his aging mortal form with his search of the cosmos. The eccentric scientist was constantly cleaning the lens or removing the glasses to substitute the more familiar eyepiece. And when he could not see what he was searching for with either, he set both devices aside as punishment for their failure to be of use.
Images of the Great Rift lay spread out on the table before him. Its secrets safely cloaked in the mystery that had confounded him for the past seven years. The object heckled him as it once again appeared just south of Sagittarius A*, a supermassive black hole in the center of our galaxy. But unlike the objects near it, Strang’s nemesis showed no signs of being consumed. In fact, it was perceptibly larger than usual, and the object’s shape had morphed again from hook to hollow circle. A minuscule form among billions of luminous stars, the object had permitted Strang to wrest precious few of its secrets.
It was not a piece with the Great Rift that formed the background of his investigation. Nor was it connected to dark matter, once the main obsession of the brilliant astrophysicist. The object was its own entity—a phantom like the ghost of Phaeton sent to intrigue him. He tried the hated glasses once again and then, setting them aside, rubbed the bridge of his nose. The Greeks would have had an explanation for such an object, he reflected. They’d have given it a name suited to the object’s trickster nature. Modern science had only sterile questions to bestow upon the object. Strang likened it to the star of Bethlehem, appearing as it had to signal the birth of a godlike ability. The object and the Harbinger were two faces of the perplexing mystery he was determined to resolve.
Strang heard a rumble and noticed a familiar name on his cell phone skittering across his desk.
“Temmie, my darling girl, how are you?” he answered, delighted at the unexpected call saving him from fruitlessly pondering the object further. He sank back in his chair and readied himself for a prolonged conversation.
“I am inviting you to dinner, Wolf.” Artemis’s voice likewise had a smile in it. “Angie has been asking about you and it’s been too long since we’ve gotten together.”
“Yes, it has.” He ran his fingers through his mop of graying hair. “Has our not so little oracle come up with some news?” he asked, hopeful for a positive response.
“Well, she did detect a hungry shark the other day, but nothing about celestial happenings.”
Strang hummed low in his throat. “Ah, well, there are mysteries in the oceans also, I presume.”
“Um, Wolf. Do you have a few minutes to muse with me?” The change of tone piqued his curiosity. “I’ve been bouncing around a new idea and I know how you adore a mystery.”
Strang smiled. “I always have time for my goddess, and a mystery—now that’s icing on the proverbial cake. So please, enchant me. What’s on your mind?”
“The mind is on my mind, you might say.” She chuckled briefly. “What if we…I mean, I’m interested in the relationship between the mind and the brain. Well, actually, I’m mainly interested in how the whole process results in a person taking action.”
Strang nodded. “I see.” He twirled his free hand and launched into a definition. “The mind is a set of cognitive faculties. ‘Mind’ is rather a catch-all term really. The mind includes consciousness, imagination, thinking and perception—not that each of these things is truly understood in its own right, sad to note. But we scientists lump them together into what we call the mind. And then we wax intellectual about how the brain is the physical structure in which these things are housed.”
There was silence on the other end of the call for a moment.
“What if it’s not?”
“The Harbinger! That’s what we’re really discussing here, isn’t it, Temmie?” A warning buzzer sounded in Strang’s head. Artemis was wandering into turbulent waters once again. The world had convulsed the last time Artemis had offered a contrarian view of a little thing called reality. She had walked unarmed into the war roiling between science and religion and had proved both sides wrong, for which she had paid a heavy price. Strang was not eager for her experience to be repeated.
“I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the Harbinger, Wolf. With Angie’s ability becoming more pronounced, I’ve begun to wonder where all this is leading. I mean there has been all this back and forth about the Harbinger and its effect on the mind.” He heard her sigh. “Anyway, I’ve come up with a theory.” She issued a rueful chuckle. “I don’t think it’s going to be a popular one.”
Strang began pacing about his cramped living room. Ordinarily he would have found such a conversation stimulating, but his concern for his friend overtopped his curiosity. What should have been a reaction of interest on his part was instead a sense of foreboding. “Temmie, my darling girl…”
“Dinner’s at six, Wolf,” Artemis said, abruptly terminating the conversation. The subject was better handled face to face. “Don’t be late. We’re having ribs and asparagus with shaved ice for dessert.”
The Servants of the Harbinger were as legitimate as they were ever going to be. The cult had been cautiously revitalized since the explosive death of its flamboyant founder, Jamil Uberdorf. The new leader had adopted the title of Shaman and assumed control of the cult as easily as a snake slithers into tall grass. Brought up in the slums of Los Angeles, Shaman Jerry Benson had been loyal to Uberdorf during the cult’s establishment and he had bided his time. When Uberdorf met his well-deserved end, Jerry had been the one to clean up the mess left behind. He had pulled the lever on abrupt change and taken the Servants underground until the political heat dissipated and then cleverly built a new organization that appeared to be above reproach.
Jerry exited the Cadillac and paused in the driveway to take in the whole of the mansion’s modern façade. The building never failed to impress him. He combed back the hair at his temples and loosened his tie. He wore a business suit on his short muscular frame, kept his thousand-dollar shoes at a glossy shine, and eschewed facial hair of any sort. The Shaman’s only mark of religiosity was a small black skull cap emblazoned with a golden H, the cult’s ubiquitous symbol.
Jerry had adopted the zucchetto from Catholic clerical garb primarily as a sarcastic joke. But the beanie proved useful as a sign of rank in the cult. Beginning with a plain white zucchetto for new male members, aka servants, one could travel up the corporate ladder through a rainbow of ever darkening hues. The embellishment of an embroidered H was reserved for management. Even the fabric had significance from cotton to serge and ultimately to Jerry’s expensive Japanese silk. Zucchettos came in variety of textures just like the men who formed the cult’s membership.
Jerry strode into the richly appointed headquarters, went directly to the bar, and poured himself a generous measure of scotch. He took a few quick swallows, letting the burn sear his throat, and then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and frowned. He was in a quandary about whether to sign a contract promising a lucrative return. It would give him access to the Vatican few others ever achieved, but it bound him to a relationship he could not fathom any way of controlling.
He slipped the skull cap off his head and twirled it atop his index finger and then flipped it onto the bar. Jerry preferred running his own enterprise without partners, helpful or otherwise. And while having an imprimatur from the pope was an attractive idea, subservience was not. Jerry couldn’t shake the feeling he was being lured into a deal with a predator who would end up viewing him as prey.
He had no intention of deracinating the servants. But it was possibly just as dangerous to turn the pope down. Pope Benedictus was a throwback to the tyrants of the Middle Ages as far as Jerry could determine. Ruthless and imperious—not a person to take on lightly. But access to extensive wealth was so compelling. He vacillated between the two poles of thought as he slid his tie from beneath his collar.
Jerry poured himself another scotch, this time adding a spray of soda. They had a common enemy, the devious pope and the Shaman. They were set to suffer the little children—only not exactly as the Bible intended. The pope saw the prescient kids as a threat to orthodoxy. Jerry considered them evil. Both were of the opinion the troublesome, clairvoyant children had to be contained before they matured into omniscient adults. The waiting contract made his cult’s role in that containment abundantly clear.
He fisted his drink and headed into the voluminous study to reread the document the Vatican had sent him. Pickering was waiting for him with a cigar on a silver tray and a spare scotch, this one with soda and ice, to slake the Shaman’s thirst.
“Dinner’s at seven, sir. Are there to be guests tonight?” Pickering asked in the English-accented butler impersonation he’d been practicing.
“No.” Jerry shook his head. “And stop using that stupid voice. You don’t have the talent, Pic. Just talk regular like. This place has gone to your head.”
The would-be butler frowned. A skinny kid from Compton could never look the part of a British manservant, but he thought he might be able to sound like one. He’d even selected the name Pickering to affect the role, but Jerry had the annoying habit of shortening it to Pic just to be intimidating. Pic set the tray on a table and headed back to the kitchen to inform the chef the Shaman would be dining alone as usual.
“A most satisfying feast, I must say.” Wolfgang Strang patted his stomach and declined dessert. “There’s not enough volume left for that tempting bit of sugary indulgence,” he said apologetically.
“You needn’t worry about getting fat, Wolf,” Lucy said, waving the bowl in front of him one last time. “But I see a touch of gray at those noble temples.”
“Ah!” Strang frowned. “I choose to believe it bespeaks wisdom more than mere antiquity.”
“Looks most distinguished, Wolf. Is that a pair of eyeglasses I spy in your shirt pocket?”
“Yet another degradation of advancing age.” He withdrew the case and took out the glasses which he then placed awkwardly on his nose.
Artemis laughed. “Still getting used to them, eh, Wolf?”
“That, my dear girl, will never happen. I cannot determine the precise location for them on my proboscis and they seem more of a distraction than an augmentation.”
Angie shook her head. “You will get used to them, Wolf. All old people use glasses. Even my mother when she thinks no one is looking.”
Strang gave Lucy a sympathetic glance and smiled at Angie. “Adolescence presents a myopic view of the world, young oracle. And there is no prescription capable of correcting your vision save for time itself.”
“Helping her grandmother with the dishes might provide a temporary cure,” Lucy said as she steered her daughter toward the kitchen.
Artemis ushered Strang to the lanai where they could resume their earlier discussion. The setting sun cast a pastel aura onto Artemis’s dark hair and Strang was transfixed by her extraordinary beauty once again. Age may be visiting them all, but the goddess, as he thought of her, wielded the years as if they were benevolent gifts.
“So, shall we address the real reason I have been invited to dinner, Temmie?” he asked.
Artemis leaned on the railing and looked at the darkening sky. “Something has gone wrong, Wolf. I’ve been watching Angie and some of the other kids. It’s obvious they do not act upon what they are sensing.”
“Ah, you are referring to their precognitive abilities.” Strang joined her at the railing. “But why does this trouble you, Temmie? We have known about the Harbinger for years. People are at peace with the curious if disquieting ability to foresee impending events.”
“It’s not the adults I’m concerned with. The Harbinger has a much greater effect on children.”
Strang tapped his finger on his cheek as he thought. “ Yes, that is true. But the children accept their ability without difficulty. To them it’s merely another source of input. A normal sense. Their minds don’t appear to have been affected.”
Artemis rolled her eyes. “Their minds need to be affected, Wolf. They perceive things, but then they seem confused. Either the kids don’t want to process the information or they don’t know how to. They hesitate when they need to act. I think it places them in danger rather than helping them avoid it.”
“Ah, may I assume you are reacting to the recent spate of accidents involving the prescient youngsters? I’d begun to wonder about that myself.” Strang cleared his throat. “But tragedies occur even to children, my darling goddess. Surely you don’t think you are intended to protect them all?”
Artemis smirked in the way she always did when Strang addressed her as if thousands of years were simply wiped away. “Yes, I mean no. All I know is the kids are vulnerable and they shouldn’t be. I thought if I understood how the mind is meant to work, I would know how to help them.”
“Ah, a commendable approach.” Strang nodded. “The mind is the product of the brain. A marvelous organ, the brain. It processes a ceaseless torrent of sensory input. The mind, a much more ethereal concept, organizes these sensations into thoughts and actions.”
A light breeze traveled about the lanai, lifting Artemis’s bangs and spreading her long black tresses around her shoulders. She smiled, a twinkle in her eyes.
“The mind is not the product of the brain, Wolf,” she corrected him. “The physical is the slave not the master. Consciousness creates the physical. We’ve been over this, many times. The mind is the connection between the physical and the infinite. I thought the Harbinger augmented that connection in the children. Which makes their behavior—or lack of it—all the more puzzling.”
“There is so little known about the brain or the mind, Temmie. I too believe the Harbinger is the source of the children’s perceptions. As to why the possessors of this marvelous gift fail to use it, I have no insight for you.” He uttered a weary sigh. “However, the prospect of you delving into this once again fills me with trepidation. Are you certain this is what you want to do?”
Artemis touched his arm. “I’m worried for Angie. And the others. They are in danger, I’m certain of it. I can feel it. I just don’t know how to get them to focus.”
Strang saw the depth of concern in the pale-blue eyes gazing intently at him. It was pointless to try to dissuade her. The goddess of the hunt was on a new quest and he would do whatever he could to assist her.
Lucy, carrying a tray of coffee for the couple, slid the glass door and stepped onto the lanai. Struck by the intense look on their faces, she paused to wonder what issue made the pair appear so serious. “What are you two up to now?” she asked in a low, suspicious tone of voice.
“See that?” Artemis nodded toward Lucy. “Now that’s focus.”
Artemis stepped barefoot into the damp grass, ignoring the chill as she made her way across the yard. A full moon drifted serenely in the night sky. Shadows puddled at the base of tall shrubs poised soldier-like in moonlight helmets. To one side the limbs of a banyan tree curled upward with questions of their own. On the right, a bougainvillea wore dappled spots of gray and silver on its dark leaves.
She knelt upon a small stone platform she and Angie had constructed in the center of the yard. The rough surface of the stone bit into her knees and she shivered at the coldness seeping from the rock. Lifting her arms, Artemis turned her palms upward and sent her questions into the void.
She had not performed this ritual in years. Not since the Harbinger had presaged Ichabod’s death and the world had gone mad with fear. Only the whispers had kept Artemis from a madness of her own. Then she had found Lucy and grief had given way to joy. They had discovered the Harbinger was for the children—a new sense for a new generation. Artemis had not needed the whispers then. She’d been certain her happiness would go on forever. Only it hadn’t. The dread in her heart told her something was wrong and now children were dying.
No matter how much she wanted them to, she feared they might not be able to accomplish what the Harbinger expected of them. She wanted to understand what that expectation was. She freed her mind and waited for the whispers to come. But wanting isn’t having and a perfect, empty silence settled over her.
After a while, Artemis accepted the voices would not speak this night; would not remove the dread seated firmly in her chest. She lowered her arms and turned to find Lucy standing beside her, arms folded and a look of “caught ya” on her pretty face.
“Somehow, I knew I would find you here, praying to the moon.” Lucy chided.
Artemis stood and enfolded her partner. She placed a kiss atop Lucy’s tousled hair. “I was listening. Not praying.” She flashed a self-deprecating grin.
“And what did you hear?” Leaning into the hollow of Artemis’s shoulder, Lucy felt her sigh.
“Just the wind. I think I may have lost my touch.”
“That’s not likely.” Lucy smiled. She put her arm about Artemis’s waist and guided them back to the house. “One doesn’t forget how to listen. It’s like riding a bike or making love. Once you know how, you never forget.”
Artemis hugged Lucy tighter. “Making love, you say. Do tell me more.”