The Boys from Betelgeusebyshawalphamale©
They were just an ordinary bunch of boys really, except that they were cloned from a humanoid body found in a fifty thousand year old glacier. And they did have one other thing in common -- whatever or whoever they didn't want around instantly disappeared. Which was why Judith should have looked for a news story somewhere else. Anywhere else.
I was getting ready to quit for the day when Dan Baldwin phoned and asked me to stop by his office. Dan's the feature editor on the 'Record' and writing feature articles are the kind of job that a cadet reporter loves to get. So, I went to see him.
"Hi, Judith. Sit down. Are you still eager find a good story all to yourself?"
Dan's a nice old guy, well into his thirties, but I'm sure he moves the chair in his office before I go in there to get the best possible view of my legs. Not that I mind. Firstly because I quite like Dan; secondly, because he sometimes does me favors; and finally, because I became leer-proof after my first week in the newspaper business.
"Sure. Have you got something interesting?"
He shrugged: "I've got something that I'm about 99 per cent sure is a waste of time. But there's still that one percent of possibility in it. I can't spend money following it up, there's too many more important things to do. But I thought I'd mention it to you and see if you wanted to check it out in your own time."
"OK, what's the story?"
"It's not really a story, just an odd situation. There's a place up in the mountains called Lake Constitution. I had an e-mail a couple of days ago from a guy called Scott Schneider who runs the local store up there. He says a mansion at the lake has been taken over by some kind of religious studies group. They keep themselves very much to themselves, right down to high security fences and guard dogs in the woods.
"In fact the place they have is called 'Hyde's Island' and the mansion is a miniature castle built by a gangster back in the thirties. Jake 'Toe Cutter' Hyde that was, from New Jersey. He was in retirement then but it seemed he wasn't retired enough to suit some people. Anyway, that's ancient history now. What's sparked my interest is the possibility that this religious group at Lake Constitution might be another sect in the making. They certainly seem to have something to hide."
I wasn't sure what to say, so I scratched the back of my calf. That was enough to keep Dan quiet and contemplative as I tried hard to think of an intelligent comment and as he tried hard not to let his eyes roam too obviously over the same area as my fingers.
"What's Scott's interest in this, Dan? These people aren't bothering him, are they?"
He shrugged: "Oh, I guess he's hoping we'll run with the story the way he's giving it to us, playing up the mystery angle and maybe getting a few more tourists visiting the area out of curiosity. But I want some hard facts before I publish anything."
"Do we really want to know about a bunch of religious nuts anyway?" I asked.
"Judith, sect stories are a journalistic minefield. Most of the time they're as boring as hell and then you suddenly find yourself with a Waco on your hands and everybody wants to know how come the local press completely missed out on what was brewing up in their own back yard. I'd certainly like to know a little more about these people on Hyde's Island but I can't afford the time or the budget to send anybody up there on what information I've got right now."
"So, if you should develop a desire to spend a day or so sightseeing around the lake, and if you should happen to find out something which would develop into a real story, maybe you can get to write it. But right now, the paper won't give you a dollar or a minute of company time to dig any deeper. It's up to you whether you bother to take a look."
"OK," I stood up. "Perhaps I can go out there this weekend."
I noticed that Dan was fiddling with his marriage ring, as if hoping it would suddenly disappear -- for a weekend, anyway.
"If you want to, Judith, that's fine, but this has nothing to do with the paper yet, so don't go getting us involved. No fronting up to the local law waving your press card around, and definitely no contact with this religious studies group on the basis that you're representing the 'Record' in any way. You drift in, you drift in, and coax the information out of the locals the easy way."
"And what's the easy way?"
"In your case, finding the local bar and then sitting on the highest stool in your shortest skirt. Then just let your legs do the talking while you listen to the local guys and see if you can pump them: or vice versa, if you're in the mood."
"Dan, that's a very sexist remark." I leaned far enough over his desk to let him catch a glimpse of my tightly packed bustier. "But since I'm a pretty sexy lady I won't complain."
Dan gulped, looked away and flicked his hand at me: "On your way, gal. Go and dangle your lures up at the lake. And listen, make sure you keep your cell phone handy and call me if anything at all happens. Anything, anytime at all." Dan twisted his lips in self depreciation, as though the idea I might ever need him was only a joke. "It's just that I always get nervous whenever any of our people get within any distance at all of these religious types. You never know when they're liable to turn violent."
"You mean like Pope Urban's speech which began the First Crusade to the Holy Land?"
He smiled and ran his hair through his close cropped hair. He has a nice smile sometimes, our Mr Baldwin, even for smart assed history grads.
"Let's just say I'd be happier if you took one of your boyfriends with you."
I looked back around the door: "Do you want me to take all of them? I could save you a seat at the back of the bus, if you'd like."
He shook his head, grinning again: "I'm not a team player, I guess."
"Not even if I wear my cheerleader's outfit?"
"One day, Judith, it's a remark like that which is going to get you into serious trouble."
I grinned and left Dan stewing nicely. If only I'd known how good a prophet he was I'd have been hiding underneath his desk, screaming.
The Saturday morning started as roughly as my car. The old Civic coughed out black smoke when it finally started, then settled for an interesting shade of gray emissions to match the weather. Rain leaked down from clouds pressing against each other for room in the dim sky. My head ached, I hadn't had enough sleep and for two pins or a pair of strong arms I'd have stayed in bed. Since nobody was around to offer either pins or a pinfall, I settled for a flask of black coffee and Queen's 'Bohemian Rhapsody' on the CD player as I left the city behind.
Most times I like the mountains, especially when I can get to see them. This time they were all above the clouds. It was more like instrument flying than driving: regular bursts of raindrops splattering across the windscreen, shiny wet tarmac continually disappearing around hairpin bends and dripping tree branches clawing at the mist patches sliding down the steep slopes. I wondered if I could get a egg-and-bacon burger somewhere in lieu of breakfast.
By the time the 'WELCOME TO LAKE CONSTITUTION' sign sidled up out of the damp vapor I definitely had a grumbling stomach to match my discontented mind -- this was all a waste of my time and my money. A row of mock log-cabin type frontages appeared, most with verandahs and all of them heavy on well trimmed lawns. Holiday homes, resort homes, retirement homes, and many of them providing homes for garden gnomes with fishing rods. About as peaceful and dull a community as you could find this side of the pearly gates.
Scott Schneider matched his community. He was probably the most unstressed man I'd met in months. Mid forties, square-shouldered, trim waistline, neat mustache, casual clothes, faded tattoos on his arms and pleasant manners. He came across to me as the sort of guy other guys would call for good advice if their wife had just left them or they had a Chevy engine they wanted to rebuild. His own wife matched him in quiet good looks and self confidence. Dark haired, wide around the hips, a smile of welcome as genuine as Scott's, introduced as Diane. One of the first things I found out about Diane was that she cooked an excellent burger. I felt a lot better about things by the time they both sat down with me. Scott poured out the coffee and I got out my notebook.
"OK, Scott, maybe you could set the scene by telling me something about these religious studies people?"
He reached over to a stand which had some tourist maps on it. It also carried a lot of postcards with mottos like: "Old fishermen never die -- they just smell that way" and "Old golfers never die -- they just lose their balls". Lake Constitution was that kind of a community.
Scott opened the map and turned it around to show it to me. He rested a finger on the village and then moved it around the edge of the lake, to where a blob of land stood almost clear of the shore, connected to it only by a thin strip of land.
"This is what we call Hyde's Island. It's about a mile and a half north east from here. It's not really a island as you can see. There's this tongue of land to it across the lake. A private road runs over it to the island, with a high security fence which has been put across the tongue at the narrowest point, where it's about two hundred yards wide."
"A high security fence?" I asked. "How secure?"
"Very secure. Ten feet high, bent over at the top, and covered with razor wire," Scott replied. "It stretches from one side of the peninsular to the other, right down to the shorelines, and the only break in it is the gate where the road goes through it. The gate is permanently locked and with a sign on it saying the whole area is the private property of the Priscillian Religious Studies Group."
"Spell that, please," I requested and Scott took a piece of folded paper from his shirt pocket.
"It's on there."
"As soon as that sign went up, a month ago, I typed 'Priscillian' into an internet search engine. This is what I got back."
I felt a bit chagrined. At one time it was the reporter who had the facilities to do the research which impressed the reportees. Now everybody knows everything. So I read the printout myself:
Born 340 AD, died Spain 385, Trier, Belgica, Gaul [now in Germany].
Early Christian bishop who was the first heretic to receive capital punishment. A rigorous ascetic, he founded Priscillianism, an unorthodox doctrine that persisted into the 6th century.
Priscillian taught that angels and human souls emanated from the Godhead, that bodies were created by the devil, and that human souls were joined to bodies as a punishment for sins. He was executed in 384 AD by the Roman Emperor Magnus Maximus on grounds of sorcery. Thereafter Priscillianism as an organized cult disappeared.'
I put the paper down and sipped on my coffee. "So we're talking about somebody setting up a center to study a set of religious beliefs last heard of over fourteen hundred years ago. That's a hell of a long time to wait for a comeback -- or even a second coming."
"Maybe somebody left them some money over the centuries at compound interest," Diane remarked. "That island and the house on it are worth millions and I've heard said that it was a cash down sale, no haggling."
I felt I was having difficulty in touching bottom on this one. "So how much contact do you have with these Priscillians -- you and the other locals?"
"None at all," Scott said. "They don't shop here, they don't drink here, they don't visit here and they don't even hire anybody around the Lake as cleaners or gardeners. All we see is an occasional vehicle going out or coming back from the island sometimes. But where they're from and who they are, we don't know."
"Scott, could I go and take a look at this island without making myself too noticeable?"
"Sure. Just follow the road around the lake until you see the Hyde island turnoff -- it's sign posted. There are pine trees on both sides of the road right up to the island. You can walk through them as far as the fence line. Then you won't be going any further, I guarantee that."
"Yes . . . " I kept on looking at the map. "Just suppose I got hold of a boat and landed on the island itself? As anybody else done that recently?"
"Nobody has landed on the actual island from the lake since about 1933, when Toe-Cutter Hyde turned it into a small scale Alcatraz. The walls all around the shoreline are twenty feet high and topped with broken glass. He was a man with a lot of enemies. Most of them nicknamed 'Lurch'."
"Mmmm . . . OK, but what about the piece of land on the other side of the fence? Between the fence and the house. Is there anything to stop me from going ashore there?"
"Only the pack of very shy and sensitive Rottweilers that run loose in that area."
I was stunned: "You're joking!"
"Nope -- and neither are those dogs."
"What the hell is it with these Priscillians? Are they expecting the FBI to come around with tanks?"
"That's what I was trying to explain to your newspaper, Judith. There's something heavy going down around here but we can't get a handle on it. Maybe you can."
Well, it was a pious hope but I couldn't see any chance of it happening. If the locals couldn't find out anything about the Priscillians I couldn't see any way I could turn up something fresh in one day. Certainly not as a mere junior reporter under orders not to make any fuss.
Then, as I was driving along the road around the lake, I had an idea. I'd never yet heard of any company doing any kind of major work without leaving some kind of advertisement on it -- a company name and contact number at least. If I walked the length of the fence I might be able to get a lead on the construction company that had put it up. It wouldn't be much but at least it would be something to take back to Dan.
I found the turnoff easily enough, drove on a little further and parked the Honda away from the road, carefully checking the ground first to make sure I wasn't going to get bogged down. Then I put on a old windbreaker and slung a pair of mini-binoculars around my neck, trying to look like a member of the Audubon Society. As a matter of fact I am a wild life observer in my spare time. I often use the glasses on the beach for hunk-spotting and butt-rating. Then I put my Nikon Coolpix in my pocket and the ace reporter was ready for anything. Or so she thought.
I walked back to the turnoff and followed the road to the misnamed island through the pines, fifty yards over on the left from the tarmac. It was still a gray day, still overcast, with droplets of water ready to fall off the branches and bushes at the slightest disturbance. There were plenty of fallen branches as well, so I had to keep zig-zagging to get past the obstacles. Whenever possible I favored my left side, until I saw the surface of the lake and knew I was out onto the peninsula. Then I kept edging left again until I was against the water's edge. The peninsula curved over towards the side I was on and Hyde's Island was clearly visible about a quarter of a mile away. I looked at it through the binoculars.
Scott was quite right in his description. The whole island covered about ten acres and as far as I could see it had a wall right around that would have done credit to Berlin at the height of the cold war. Behind the wall were the upper windows and steep roofs of a mock Gothic monstrosity adorned with turrets and domes. Most incredible of all, the whole place was a weird pink color. Xanadu meets Rosebud -- Citizen Kane would have loved it. Personally, I thought it looked like a Disney World version of Herman Goering's hunting lodge.
How the hell had Hyde gotten permission to build such a monstrosity? I guessed that a few county officials had been offered a choice between picking up some easy dollars in bribes or getting on the wrong side of a man called the Toe-Cutter. It's amazing how influential some nicknames can be. Well, if all else failed maybe the US government could be persuaded to bomb the place flat on aesthetic grounds -- it didn't seem as if the Priscillians were committing any other offenses against the public weal.
I started walking again, following the side of the lake as closely as I could, knowing the fence couldn't be far away. I certainly wasn't likely to miss it, not from Scott's description. Nor did I, the silver strands showed up well before I got to the clearing which had been cut across the peninsula with the fence in the middle of it. About five yards of forest had been cut back on each side of the row of concrete based steel posts. In between the posts were panels of steel mesh with strands of razor wire woven through them like grapevines growing on a trellis. The whole thing looked strong enough to stop a herd of charging elephants and vicious enough to keep out a crowd of British soccer fans.
Being conscientious, I started my inspection at the shoreline, surprised to find that the fence extended well out into the lake waters. No expense spared here on security. What the hell, maybe it was a recovery clinic for Hollywood stars. Even the paparazzi would have a tough time getting in here. Already I was sure my bright idea had turned out to be a dumb one. The people who'd organized this place wouldn't have left any useful phone numbers lying around. But here I was, so at least I'd go through the motions.
I walked alongside the edge of the cleared area, following the fence towards the road. And then I walked straight into a miracle.
The thing was, I had to keep looking down at where I was putting my feet because of the old branches and puddles that I was stepping around. And just before I put my foot down on a patch of bare mud I noticed there were footprints already in it -- and the first one was only an inch or so away from the fence. Just as if somebody had walked through a gate which wasn't there!
Well, you know how it is -- whenever you need an Indian tracker pronto you can never find a Tonto. So I did the best I could myself in trying to make sense out of it all. Some things I could make a rough guess about. The foot prints had been left by somebody wearing trainers, apparently brand new ones. The feet inside them seemed about the same size as mine. The prints were slowly dissolving back into the mud, but they surely hadn't been there very long to be still visible. They must have been made the day before at the latest, or so I figured. And, most interestingly, the first set of prints were no deeper in the mud than the following ones. No indication at all of an impact landing.
An impact landing! I looked up at the top of the fence and laughed at myself. A kangaroo on steroids couldn't have leapt over that obstacle. So there couldn't possibly be any matching footprints on the other side of the fence, could there?
Well, of course there couldn't be, but I had a look anyway, standing as close to the fence as I could with each of my feet astride the footprint. The mud patch extended back underneath the fence, and within stepping distance, another clearly defined footprint right up against the fenceline!
A joke! It had to be a practical joke by somebody with the strangest sense of humor in all the world!
I was so absorbed in trying to make sense of this that I never even saw what was happening, not until I heard a threatening growl from somewhere around my knees. I looked up and on the other side of the wire a set of pure white teeth snapped together in a bite big enough to have taken my hand off in one go. The black eyes above the killing machine jaws were as merciless as a shark's. The Rottweiler was sixty pounds of bristling aggression, desperate to haul me down as prey for the rest of the pack bursting out from under the trees. I shrieked and fled for my life, fence or no fence.