I won't reveal too much about the plot of the novel, but I will say that Ron, Mary, and Vance Holcomb once more find themselves facing a cryptic threat. But this one is completely out of left field, from a source they could never have expected. For once, they are not searching for it. Rather, it has come for them.
And this time the threat is not just a temporary danger to their personal safety. Now, there is something far more sinister afoot. Rising from both shadow and light, from fire and ice, comes the very real consequence of the extinction of Homo sapiens.
James Robert Smith
The old man walked out of the forest after a very long time. He was tired and hungry and he needed a car.
When he emerged from the forest he was still engaged in thought and was not paying specific attention to the details of his immediate surroundings. The forest in which he’d hidden himself for so long was green and lush. His initial goal had been to hide as far as possible from the sights and sounds and smells of Mankind. In that he had achieved a small measure of success, but one was never completely out of earshot of airliners and fighter jets using the Georgia hill country for training maneuvers. And no matter how deeply you tried to hide yourself, the stench of machines invariably found its way to any particularly sensitive nose. And the old man’s nose was extremely sensitive.
His legs ached from the long hike out of the deep cove where he’d spent most of the preceding weeks. So he found a good spot and rested there, his squat body and current posture causing him to look fat, rather than robust.
He had spent many nights gazing up at the heavens when the skies were clear and the tree cover was not too overbearing. In fact, he’d found a spot deep in the woods beside a trout pool where an enormous poplar had fallen, causing a break in the ancient forest canopy. At that spot he’d been able to look up to see the starry sky.
And, as had been the case for many years, he’d been disappointed at the sight that was afforded him, knowing what he was being denied. The skies were pale versions of what they had once been. Man had blinded the dark orb of the heavens with the twin curses of particulate matter and light pollution. It had been too long since the old man had been able to look up and see the sky as Nature had intended it to be seen. This was something that concerned him, and this was something he intended to remedy and was why he knew the time was ripe. This was why he had come out of the forest, tired, anxious, and needing that car.
After a while, thinking of these things and of tasks that he needed to complete, he opened up the little backpack that was on the ground beside him and he took out a number of items:
One: a large piece of flint that was about ten inches on a side and five inches in thickness. It had been heavy in his pack as he’d climbed the hills, but he didn’t care about that.
Two: A bit of very hard and smooth river rock that he’d plucked out of a rushing creek he’d crossed a few days before. It fit perfectly in his hand and made an excellent hammer. It, too, had been heavy, but he hadn’t minded carrying it around for a while.
Three: A small section of deer hide that had been handled so often that it was shiny and limp, but still tough.
Four: A piece of deer antler that he’d fashioned into something like an awl. It, too, fit in his hand perfectly, though used for finer work than the river rock.
Then, sitting cross-legged as his father and uncle had taught him so long ago that no one would believe him if he’d volunteered the bizarre date, he placed the section of deer leather (he’d killed the deer himself) on his left thigh and then held the large chunk of flint in his left hand, resting his forearm and the burden of stone on that thigh which was protected by the leather.
In his right hand he lifted the river stone and paused, eyeing the large piece of sandy-colored flint, thinking about his options. The old man examined the flint as if it were a bit of matter ready to be rendered into something else, something more useful than a lump of dense, brittle rock. He thought of the heavy piece of stone and he sheared it apart in his mind, thinking of tools. The old man saw a knife blade, its edges sharper than the finest steel. His mind switched gears and he saw small scrapers, rounded shapes that would fit snugly between thumb and forefinger—a tool that one could use to shave hair from hide, or scrape muscle and dried sinew from that same hide or from bone. Thinking of other options he saw an axe, blunt on one side where he could either hold it in his thick and callused hand, or tie it to a wooden handle with some stout sinew or tough tree bark.
Gazing intently at the blank face of the flint, he could see stone awls, useful for punching holes or drilling through any number of things. It was a large piece of useful flint, and so he even saw the makings of several spear points, all currently hidden away behind the unmoving mask that was the virgin surface of his chunk of fine stone.
He thought. He created images in his head and wondered where the best place to strike.
And after a long while he raised his right hand, in which the hammer of very hard river rock was held, and he brought it down. Immediately a large flake separated from the hunk of flint. It was a shard that slid cleanly away from the motherstone, revealing a glassy, black facet of gleaming edge as sharp as the best scalpel. This will make a good cutting blade, he thought.
Then he brought the hammer down again and another bit of flint came away, and he was thinking as he worked, deciding what flakes of rock were to be saved and worked, and which to be left where they fell, discarded by him for all time. All the while, he thought of the faces of the men who had taught him these things—his father smiling and slapping his back so terribly long ago, his mother’s brother sitting close and showing him how to choose the right point and what angle to use to peel away the old, outer surface to reveal the prizes and gifts that each boulder of flint held within.
Lost in these thoughts and concerns, he had chosen to ignore the sudden presence that he’d sensed, albeit obliquely. When the first voice came to him, he sighed and looked up, mildly angry with himself for intentionally ignoring the intrusion on this last bit of solitude before he once again plunged into the crowd he knew as Mankind.
His eyes flicked upward beneath his brow and the rim of his hat. This hat was old and worn and was seeing the last of its useful days. A hat was yet one more thing that he would need as he turned his path toward the cities. He was a very unusual looking sort, and he found it important to hide his unique features beneath big hats with wide brims. No matter his red and wiry beard, his enormous cape of rough ochre hair; a good hat was needed to blunt the shock of his singular skull. Turning his face to his right, he listened to the pair of fellows muttering to one another as they walked toward him. Although they would have been shocked to know, he could hear each word they said quite clearly.
"Why did you bring us all the way out here, anyway?" The voice was keening, almost a whine. "I've never even been to this county and now we're out here in the middle of the frickin' woods. What are we going to do to score out here? Huh?"
"I don't know, I told ya. I just had a feeling. I cain't explain it, but I know we'll find what we need out here." The voices were coming closer, although he was lost in a meditation of sorts, a drawing in.
"Well, if we have to turn around empty-handed we're going to have to fuel up or run out of gas. And I don't think we have enough between us to fill the damn tank."
Then, a brief instant of silence as the two young men saw something. One of them especially was struck almost dumb by the sight, as if a vision in his waking dreams had suddenly taken form and substance.
“Look at that old man,” the taller of the two said. “I can’t believe we got this lucky.”
“I knew it,” Said the shorter. "I told you I had a feeling."
The old man looked at them as they walked toward him. Two Caucasian males. One a shade over six feet tall, one hundred and seventy-nine pounds. The other was, perhaps, five feet nine inches tall, also around the same weight. Both were slightly blonde-ish, their hair going to brown as they passed through their twenty-fourth year. He grunted as he watched them walk toward him. They were familiar with one another and had walked this particular path before. He would have grinned, but already he could feel the blood beginning to pound in his chest.
“Think he has any money?” The tall one was now picking up the pace. He was anxious to get started.
“Maybe. He’s either been camping or he’s lost. Either way he probably has something worth taking,” replied the shorter youth, moving up to keep pace with his companion.
When they were close enough so that they were assured that the old man could not duck into the forest and, perhaps, escape from the situation, the pair drew up and hailed him. He sensed their clumsy ruse and chuckled lightly to himself, feeling his heart pounding and his fingers itching to get things started.
The old man looked up at them and met their gaze. The shorter of the two fellows wilted just a bit, unable to tell if the reddish hue he had seen was really the old man’s eyes, or just a trick of the late summer sun.
“Mister! I’m talking to you.”
The old man just continued to sit. He’d tensed, though, and was ready to move.
They walked up to him, towering over the old man who looked shorter than he really was. If he’d stood, he would have been taller than one of the youths and almost as tall as the other, but heavier by far than either of them. Once again, due to his unbelievably stocky build, bone and muscle was mistaken for fat.
“What are you doing, old timer?” It was the shorter of the pair, who was obviously the alpha male.
His eyes shaded from the light by the limp but wide brim of his hat. He peered up at them. Neither of the two interlopers could see those eyes, which was a bad thing for them. If they’d seen into them, they might have been able to turn and run. Doubtful, but it was possible.
“I’m flint knapping,” the old man told them, his voice very deep. The vibration from that voice seemed to pierce to their hearts, and he had a very strange accent that neither of them could place.
“Flint knapping? What the hell is that?” It was the other, the taller one. Immediately the old man did not like him.
“I’m working the flint,” he said, holding up the newly broken master from which he was creating. “I’m making knives, and scrapers, maybe an axe.” His eyes darted back to the chunks of obsidian that he’d already knocked from the mass. “Oh. And at least two spear points,” he added.
“That’s really stupid,” the tall youth replied. “Who the hell needs tools made out of rocks?” He sneered.
“Fuck it,” the pair’s leader said. He reached back and retrieved the pistol from where it was tucked into his belt slightly behind his right hip. The old man had already smelled the familiar scent of gun metal and oil. The kid at least kept his gun in working order, he realized.
“Hey, old man, we’re talking to you. You need to pay attention when we talk.”
If the ancient figure had wondered why he had plunged himself into the deep forest for meditation, he had to look no farther than this pair. He’d not even properly emerged from these woods and already he was under assault. It had always been so, and would continue thus, until he finally did something about it. And, he knew, the time had finally come. The seeds he’d planted almost twenty years before had come up, and the fruit was ripe on the vine. This was why he had come out, and this was why he needed a car.
The old man stood.
The pair halted in their tracks. The old man was taller than they had thought. Seated on the leaves, beneath the poplar tree, he had appeared short and quite fat. But now that he was standing to full height, they saw that he was not quite six feet tall, and the illusion of fat had been created by the amazing breadth of his shoulders and the density of his torso above a pair of bowed and muscular legs clad in faded jeans. And the man’s hands were huge—enormous knuckles like small hammers above thick, gnarled fingers adorned with cracked nails showing the dark crescents of days spent deep in the forest without benefit of soap and hot water.
The situation had become quite the unfortunate one for the two companions. The old man had become completely aware of them.
Billy Wayne Riddle and Toby Wishon were not, strictly speaking, local boys. They did, in fact, hail from a distance of three counties, the one that they called home bordering the Georgia/Alabama state line. This area was not unknown to them, but it was farther afield than they were accustomed when they were on the prowl.
And currently they were certainly on the prowl. Funds were not just low, but almost completely exhausted. Even Billy Wayne, who normally got the lion’s share of whatever they took, had a grand total of seven dollars in his wallet. Toby, his pal and backup, had three bucks and some loose change rattling around in his front pocket.
Of course they had the gun. That was what mattered. They had the gun and an old man in their sights. Maybe the old man was a bit bigger than they had at first assumed, but he was still just one old man. In the past, they’d sometimes had good luck accosting hikers at trailheads and at campgrounds that they could reach (or nearly reach, in this case) with Billy’s car.
After the initial shock of finally recognizing that the stranger’s physique was not lard as they’d first thought, but probably pure muscle, the two predators collected their wits and Billy Wayne rallied all the courage the pair of them would need. In unison, Toby following, they found the necessary will in their step and edged forward.
“Well, we can dispense with the bullcrap,” Billy Wayne told the old man. He held the pistol out, almost cradling it in his palm so that the gnarly fellow could see the .357 in all of its well-oiled mass. “My pal and I need some money, old fellow. And so you need to hand over whatever you have.”
Behind Billy Wayne, Toby stood and smiled, his clean-shaven face looking far younger than his twenty-four years. He might easily have passed for the blonde high school punk he’d been seven years before when he’d walked away from school forever, a grade shy of graduating.
The old man stood his ground and seemed to be glaring at the pair. He neither said anything nor made a move to comply with the demand that Billy Wayne Riddle had made. The leader of the pathetic outlaws felt a prick of impatience as the silence dragged on for another few seconds. Something was telling him to hold back, to keep a few extra feet of space between himself and the aged target, but he chose to ignore this tiny instinct scratching ineffectively at his brain.
“I ain’t going to tell you again, old man.” He cocked the pistol. He’d stolen the gun in one of his very first robberies. It had been in the glove compartment of a car that had been the object of a smash and grab when he was just nineteen years old. That gun had seen some action in the intervening years and he knew how to use it. He didn’t particularly enjoy firing it, but he had been known to do so when the situation dictated it.
“Just give us your wallet, old man,” Toby said, standing safely behind his pal. “Don’t make us shoot you.” Even though only Billy Wayne had a gun.
There were a couple more seconds of silence. Billy Wayne and Toby tried to see into the old man’s eyes, but the shade being cast by the tall poplar tree and the brim of the guy’s broad hat prevented them from getting a good read of his face. He was just a wrinkled, hairy, old man as far as they could tell. The barrel of the pistol began to edge toward the old man’s torso.
“All right,” the man said, his voice low and rough, like a heavy tire rolling over wet gravel. “I’ll give you my money.” And he reached slowly into his back pocket and when his hand came back to where the two robbers could see, it was holding a wallet. The wallet was thick and very fat. Green bills seemed to want to spring from it—it was that packed with money.
“Damn,” Billy Wayne Riddle said.
“Shit,” Toby Wishon added, his own voice low and whispered.
The old man held the wallet out. Billy Wayne tapped his companion in the gut with the back of his left hand. “Go get it,” he said to Toby.
Toby scrambled forward. His eyes were on the wallet that was barely able to fold in half, so heavy from the mass of greenbacks held within it. Even if every bill there was a one, it was still enough money to keep them going for a couple of days, at least. Booze and pills and gas money. If the bills were larger denomination...well, they’d never seen that kind of cash. Toby all but trotted up to the old man, his eyes glued to the wallet and not giving their victim a second thought as he focused solely on the cash.
“Gimme that money, jackass,” Toby grunted, reaching for the wallet. He felt his fingers touch the leather surface of it. He could all but smell the familiar and fleeting scent of the folding cash. Nearby a hornet buzzed on the thick, warm air. He tugged on the wallet, but it did not come free of the old man’s fingers. Toby pulled a little harder, but the wallet stayed put.
He locked eyes with the old man.
His first and only thought was that it had not been his imagination that the old man’s eyes had been red. They were. They would be forever for Toby, because the next thing that happened was that the old man let go of the wallet and in one impossibly quick movement he pushed the enormous crowbar fingers of his right hand through Toby Wishon’s forehead. The youth was instantly dead and his body was still crumbling to the earth when the old man leaped over it and was a blur headed toward Billy Wayne Riddle.
Riddle had seen something in the wake of that initial action. It had just been the merest hint of red. Something like a mist or spray moving out from Toby’s head. Whatever it was, it had been enough for Billy Wayne to raise the pistol a couple of more inches and squeeze off a shot.
“Damn,” said the old man. He was surprised to feel the bullet whiz past the space between the left side of his neck and his trapezius. The kid had been faster than he’d thought. Even so, it was far too late for the punk to do anything more than scream and die as he passed the flake of super-sharp flint through the youth’s neck, creating a cut so smooth and so deep that the thug’s head almost came off. Only the fact that his spine had not been cut through kept that head on those dead shoulders.
When the rage passed, the old man looked down. Both men were very dead, their spirits fled from their skulls. Blood littered the forest floor and bits of brain matter were scattered over the green of the logging road. Looking around, the old man retrieved his wallet and his small bag of items that still lay beneath the poplar tree where he’d left them. Pausing for just a moment, he riffled through Billy Wayne Riddle’s pockets until he found what he was looking for.
Well, he was still tired.But he had his car.