Saturday dawned bright and cold. There was a light frost on the ground, yet another indication that winter was on its way. Trudy fought against the idea of digging out her sweaters, but it was far too cold to wear her usual summer clothes. Especially up on that hill.
She shuddered at the very thought of going up to that evil place. The only positive result of this day’s Open House at “A Better World Medical Research” was that her dad had a better chance of relaxing afterward. One less intense pressure on him. He’d grown increasingly bitter, and that shroud around him even more pronounced, as the days had gone by.
Everyone in the family was going to be at the open house. Trudy and her brother had been hired and Lydia, being married to the project manager, had to make an appearance also, although it was plain that she was in agony from her hidden wounds.
Once dressed, Trudy made her way downstairs. She was in no hurry; she’d been successful at avoiding her dad the past couple of days, but knew they’d have to eventually share space today. She steeled her nerves and pushed through the door into the kitchen.
There was no need for her to worry. Her dad wasn’t at his usual place at the table. She looked questioningly at her mom, who was watching the birds as she finished her breakfast.
Lydia glanced at her daughter and said, “He got in late, but should be up soon.” Then she sighed as she returned to gaze out the window. “Hopefully we’ll see the end of this project today.”
“I was thinking the same thing,” said Trudy. She poured herself a bowl of cereal and took it to the table, her attention also drawn to the birds outside.
The little creatures suddenly all took flight as the kitchen door swung open again. Steve grumped in and, without a word to either woman, poured himself a cup of coffee. He stood at the sink with his back to them, studying the world outside the window.
“Steve?” Lydia said, her voice hesitant.
“Do you want breakfast?”
“Nope.” He turned suddenly, and Trudy was astonished at how sunken-in his eyes were. “We need to get up to the open house. Where’s Pat?”
Lydia seemed as shaken up as Trudy at his appearance. “Well, um, he’s probably still getting dressed, or…”
“Out running? He’d better not be. We’re expected up there in fifteen minutes. There’s going to be a press conference, the mayor will be there, all that. We can’t be late.”
“No, he’s not out running. He…”
“Right here.” Pat swung through the door. He looked like he hadn’t slept or shaved, and his clothes looked like he’d just picked them up off the floor and thrown them on.
“Couldn’t you have dressed better?” Steve reprimanded him.
Pat gave his dad a look that shook Steve to his core. The glare was part fear, part anxiety, and—could it be—actual hatred? The younger man stared down his elder, and glanced ever so quickly at the injured arm. His eyes narrowed, and Steve had the uneasy feeling that his son knew…something.
“What?” he challenged Pat.
“Nothing,” his son spat at him. “Never mind.” Pat turned away and went over to hug his mom.
“Sweetie, you look tired. Didn’t you sleep well last night?” Lydia looked worriedly at her son’s exhausted face.
“Not really. Just one of those nights, I guess.” Gabriel, we’d better be able to come clean with Mom pretty soon, or I’ll slip and tell her anyway. We can’t let Dad get any worse. “I’ll just get some coffee, and that should keep me going until I can get home and take a nap.”
He passed by Trudy and squeezed her shoulder. She looked up and smiled sadly at him.
Steve threw his hands up in frustration. “You two act as if you’re going to the guillotine!” he yelled.
He tore out the door. “Get up that hill within a half hour!” The slamming of the front door reverberated throughout the house.
Lydia looked sadly at her kids. ‘Normally, I’d try to get you two to make up with your dad somehow. But I’m afraid there’s no way to do that. Something is eating away at him, I can tell, and until this project is over, we’ll all just have to try and keep out of his way.”
Trudy and Pat exchanged looks. This was the last straw.
They were on the verge of telling their mother everything when Gabriel appeared.
“Gabriel, so nice to see you,” Lydia exclaimed, hope and happiness replacing the pain and sorrow that had become so common in her world lately.
He smiled at her. “I’ve been wanting to come see you, but I’ve been unavoidably detained.” His face turned serious. “I came here to tell you to be really careful at that building complex today. The portal Pat and his friends found still exists, and…”
“It’s gotten to Steve, hasn’t it?” Lydia stated. “Don’t try to deny it. My wrists, ankles, and skull tell me otherwise.”
“No, I won’t deny it,” Gabriel said. “There are definitely evil powers at work here. Don’t let it infect you.”
“But what about Steve?” The worry and sadness returned to Lydia’s face, and the tears she’d held back for so long flowed freely. “What will happen to my husband? No matter what he is doing now, no matter what is happening to him, I still love him. Please, get a message to the Lord to keep him safe. I don’t know what’s going on with him, but…it hurts! It’s killing us all!”
Gabriel put his arm around Lydia while she wept, and caught the eyes of the others. Pat’s face was fierce and angry, and Trudy’s was scared. “After today, you can tell your mother everything,” he transmitted into their thoughts. “Give it one more day. All Hell is about break out, and it will be important for her to know everything.”
Pat’s jaw set, and he merely turned and stormed through the door. Trudy watched him leave and, with a sad look towards the archangel, walked out also.
Lydia turned her tear-streaked face up and said, “I’m sorry they’re acting that way. You can see how Steve’s behavior is affecting them.”
He nodded. “Yes. I can’t blame them. Just make sure they don’t do anything rash.”
Lydia sighed. “I hope I can.”
Trudy caught up with her brother upstairs in the hallway. “Pat? What’s going on? Besides what we’re already dealing with, that is.”
Pat glanced back down the hallway, then pulled his sister into his room and shut the door. There he told her what he’d seen and experienced the night before.
Trudy’s face turned ashen, and she looked like she was about to be sick. Pat knew he had probably looked the same way when he saw it happen.
But she gulped down her emotions, shook herself, and looked steadily into her brother’s eyes. “What should we do now?”
Pat had to admire her courage. If nothing else, this horrendous trial was definitely molding her into one of the bravest women he had ever known.
He said, “I plan on confronting Dad with what I’ve seen. He has to know that I know; in fact, I think he suspected this morning. But I don’t think he knows how to get out of it. Maybe he needs our help.”
“Do you think it’s…Lilith?” Trudy’s voice shook as the idea hit home.
Pat shrugged, his face tired. “I don’t know. But Gabriel’s right. We have to be on our guard up there. Don’t let on that you see anything out of the ordinary. It might be the death of us all.”
At a call from their mom, they went downstairs. The three of them left, heavy-hearted, to drive up the hill that held so much danger.
The first things they noticed were the two school buses. They sat in front of a two-story building toward the back of the property. People were emerging from the interior of the buses, gaping in amazement at their surroundings. Lydia and the kids watched them; some were wrapped in filthy blankets, others without hardly enough clothing to cover their bodies.
“The homeless of Seattle.” Steve’s voice suddenly behind them made them jump.
He was a totally different person from the man who had stormed out of the kitchen earlier; more like the man his wife and children knew and loved.
“Steve?” The woman’s voice behind him changed his expression immediately. His face closed down into a visage of cold woodenness. “Aren’t you going to introduce us?”
A stunningly beautiful woman stepped out from behind him, practically pulling another man along with her.
“Delilah, this is my wife, Lydia. And my kids, Pat and Trudy.” His voice held no emotion. Lydia had a feeling that, if he could, he would run from this woman, from here, from everything having to do with this building complex. She wondered why.
After all, he’d been okay with this project at first. Perhaps they’ve spent too much time together…
Delilah was smiling brightly at her. “Lydia, so nice to finally meet you. Steve never stops talking about you and your lovely children.” She bestowed the same dazzling smile on Trudy and Pat. But for some reason, her smile faded ever so slightly as she gazed at them.
She peered closely at Pat, then Trudy. “Have we met before? I seem to remember you from somewhere.”
“Oh, well, it’s a small town. We get around here a lot. Always busy.” Pat grinned uncomfortably and glanced at Trudy. He had to nudge her, for she was staring open-mouthed at Delilah and the stranger with her.
“Is there a problem, Trudy?” Delilah asked, her smile further tarnishing.
“Uh, no, sorry. It’s, um…” She turned abruptly to the man beside Delilah. “Aren’t you Howard Messer?”
Nice save, sis, thought Pat.
Howard beamed. “Yep.”
Delilah gave him an icy look before he could say anything more, and he melted back into the background. Trudy almost felt sorry for him.
“Well, let’s have a look around, shall we? I’m sure our star construction manager is just dying to show off what we’ve accomplished up here.” Delilah hooked her arm into Steve’s and started off toward the main building.
“Yeah. ‘Dying’,” Pat murmured.
“Pardon?” Delilah whirled around, and Pat could see a brief fierceness in her face.
“Hm? Oh, just…nothing.” Pat made his best attempt to smile.
“Yesss…,” she answered slowly. Her gaze was intense, and Pat started to squirm under that look.
Steve touched Delilah’s shoulder, with a worried glance toward his son. “Let’s see the main building first, shall we?”
“Yes, let’s.” Her hypnotizing stare broken, she smiled again at Steve.
Pat blew out his breath in relief. He turned and whispered to his sister, “Any blackness, shrouds, whatever?”
Trudy shook her head. “I’m not having any signs or manifestations of any kind today.” She looked worried. “I never thought I’d say this, but I wish I could see them now. We’d get a lot more questions answered that way.”
“Not yet,” came a voice into both of their minds. “Soon enough.”
With a glance toward each other, Trudy and Pat followed the others into the building.
“What do you think?” Steve asked his wife. To Delilah, he said, “This is the building where she used to work.”
“Really.” Delilah sounded as if he’d just said he liked to watch paint peel. Trudy couldn’t believe how mercurial this woman’s mood could be. She looked to her mom, aghast at Delilah’s rudeness.
Lydia ignored the woman. She was too busy gaping at the transformation that had taken place in her old office. Gone were the floor-to-ceiling windows, with their view of the forest outside. Small ones, up towards the ceiling, gave little light through the blinds that covered them. Wood-paneled walls absorbed the artificial light that came from small fixtures in the ceiling, and heavy wooden doors replaced the old glass-and-metal ones.
“It’s certainly a lot…darker. And why this expensive wood paneling?” Lydia ran her hand along the wall.
“We thought it would be easier for the employees to stay on task if there aren’t a lot of outside distractions,” Delilah explained. “Those people getting out of those buses—many of them have never held jobs, or lived inside four walls before. Outside distractions may cause them to lose focus.”
There was no warmth in her voice. In fact, her whole demeanor seemed to give off a frigidness that was almost too much for Lydia to bear. Delilah’s attitude towards her confused Lydia; as far as she knew, she hadn’t offended Steve’s client.
She was distracted by her son’s voice.
“Huh. That’s interesting,” Pat was saying. He moved his hand in front of the wall. “No shadow. How is that happening?”
He heard his dad’s sharp intake of breath, and felt those cold black eyes of Delilah on him again. “And aren’t you the observant one?’ she asked, barely concealing her anger under a façade of polite respect.
She chose not to answer his question, turning to Steve instead. “So, shall we see the cafeteria now?” she asked brightly, looking around at everyone.
“N…no, I, I’m not feeling well all of a sudden,” Lydia said apologetically. “I should go out and maybe sit somewhere.” She smiled shakily and turned to go.
“Howard,” Delilah said, “be a dear and see if you can help Mrs. Bronson.”
Pat caught the sharp inflection behind the warm voice, and knew that old Howard Messer wasn’t the “boss” of anything.
“Sure.” Howard shrugged.
“Oh, and Howard,” Delilah added as he started to leave, “see if maybe she’d like to work here too.”
Lydia winced as her hidden wounds shot pain throughout her body in waves. She was able to hobble to the door, but then couldn’t open it. Howard was by her side in an instant, helping her outside.
Delilah’s eyes followed them out, cold and disdainful. Pat looked away from her before she could catch him staring at her.
“So, are you two ready to start working here?” The buttery warmth was back in her voice again.
“As ready as we’ll ever be, I guess.” Trudy said. “Meaning, we were certainly hired quickly. Takes a few days to take it in.” The glare her dad had shot at her softened after her hasty explanation.
“Well, yes,” Delilah said as she led them further down the hall. “We want to hire local people too. Wouldn’t look good to just hire outsiders when people here need jobs too. And Steve’s told me how talented you two are.”
So we have warehouse and filing jobs? Trudy’s unspoken question was cynical, but it didn’t show on her face.
“Thanks for the, uh, chance to prove ourselves.” Trudy hoped her smile looked genuine. She sure didn’t feel grateful.
If Delilah suspected the falseness, she didn’t show it. She led them back outside and across a green, sculpted commons area. “And here we are at the cafeteria,” she announced, opening yet another pair of heavy wooden doors.
“And these are the dorms, or, should I say, the living quarters.” Delilah swept her arm in front of the building, game-show-host style. “No furniture yet, but I daresay these folks are happy enough to have a secure suite of rooms to live in. The…furniture…will come later.”
Trudy looked up at the wide, long wall of the employee building with a feeling of trepidation. Even without her sensory gift switched on, the place was creepy. It looked more like a prison than a home.
The wall that faced them was lined with small windows, each covered by what seemed to be a very dense curtain.
Delilah’s eyes followed Trudy’s gaze. “Questions?” she asked the girl, eyebrows arched.
“Um…I guess…it just looks like it’ll be pretty dark in there too. Such small windows.”
“Again,” sighed Delilah, losing patience, “these were homeless people. They don’t need to see the outside world, since they lived in it for so long. Besides, the building is south-facing. Smaller windows will keep it cooler during the summer for the inhabitants.”
Trudy nodded, understanding. “Ah. Thanks.”
Delilah smiled tightly. “Nothing else is really ready to see yet, but this is a start.”
“Well, thanks for the tour,” Pat said, glancing towards where he could see his mom and Howard. “Think I’ll go back and see how Mom’s doing.” He excused himself hastily and started across the compound to where Lydia sat in the shade of a cottonwood tree.
“Me too. I, uh, have a babysitting job coming up.” Trudy ran to catch up to her brother, leaving Steve and Delilah outside the dormitory.
Lydia sat in the shade with Howard hovering at her side. I don’t see why everyone puts him down, Lydia thought. He seems very nice.
“Can I get you some water?” Howard asked.
Lydia looked up at him gratefully, and noted the concern in his soft brown eyes. “Thanks, but no. I’m…I have…bad memories of this place, is all.”
“Previous employers hard on you?”
Lydia shuddered. You’ve no idea. Aloud, she said, “I was here when this place, I guess, imploded.” She had long ago tired of trying to get anyone to believe that the demonic events a couple of years ago actually happened. Too many people had been convinced by the popular media that the whole thing had been mass hysteria.
Howard sucked in his breath suddenly. Lydia looked where he was suddenly staring, and gasped as the wounds of the stigmata formed on her wrists.
“That…what is that?” Howard gasped, stepping back.
“Oh, this.” Lydia tried to make light of the wounds. “They show up when I get too tired. Kinda weird, huh?”
“Yes…” He looked away, then said hurriedly, “It looks like your kids are on their way over. I, um, need to get back to showing folks around, and make sure the audio’s working for the press conference. See you later.”
He walked off quickly, before Lydia could say anything else. He passed Pat and Trudy without a word, his blue eyes cold as ice.
“Doing okay, Mom?” Pat sat down beside Lydia. She gave him a tight smile.
“Not really. Look.” She showed her kids the marks.
“Oh no. And…Howard saw them. That’s why he bolted.” Pat watched the figure of the man as he hurried away. “Wonder who he’ll tell. As if I couldn’t guess…”
“Pat!” Trudy shot him a warning look.
“What?” Lydia looked from one to the other, suspicion on her face. “”What are you trying to keep from me?”
At that moment, to the kids’ everlasting gratitude, Kim and Ned hailed them from the pathway. They had little Toby in tow.
Lydia waved and smiled, but said in a quiet aside to Pat, “Don’t think I won’t ask again.”
Pat blushed and gulped. He knew he couldn’t keep it from her much longer.
As the little family approached, Lydia asked, “What brings you guys here?”
“What else? We’re hoping one of us will get hired here,” Ned replied. “With this many people here night and day, they need an experienced security chief.” He grinned and thumped his chest. “That would be me.”
Toby stretched his arms out to Lydia. “Auntie! Me hug.” Kim let him go, and he ran to his “aunt”.
Lydia looked dubiously at the bulge under Kim’s maternity dress. “Do you really think they’ll hire you in your condition?”
Kim glanced down and smiled. “Baby’s current residence isn’t permanent. I hope they can see beyond this. I think I read that the company will have a day care here. We really need the income. I didn’t realize my unemployment was coming to an end.” She looked sheepishly at her husband.
He responded by putting his arm around her shoulders and pulling her close. “Don’t worry, babe, we’ll get through this,” he assured her as he kissed the top of her head.
Lydia watched them with a mixture of happiness and pain. Happiness that these two had such love for each other; sadness and pain that, not too long ago, she and Steve had had that same type of loving relationship.
Toby’s squirming woke her from her reverie. He’d seen someone coming toward them.
“Unca Steve!” he yelled, breaking free and running toward him. But he stopped short at the sight of Delilah and Howard accompanying him.
Steve grinned at the little boy and beckoned to him. “Come here, buddy!”
But Toby wouldn’t come any closer. His happy smile disappeared, and he turned and ran back to his parents.
“Scary,” he said. He buried his face in his mom’s leg. Kim looked down at her son, confused and a little embarrassed.
“He’s never been like this before,” she said. She gave the newcomers an apologetic look.
“Probably just his age,” Lydia said. “All kids go through phases like this.” She held her arms out to Toby, and he ran to her.
“Steve? Who are your friends?” Delilah had turned on the warm voice again. She practically fawned over Ned, who looked uncomfortably at his wife.
“This is Ned Sawyer and his wife Kim. And their son Toby.” Steve gazed sadly at the little boy, who had his head buried under Lydia’s arm.
“Very nice to meet you,” Delilah purred. Howard, behind her, rolled his eyes. His business partner held out her hand to Ned, her back to Kim.
“Yes, we are very happy to be here,” Ned said, stepping closer to his wife so that Delilah had to look at both of them. “We’re both looking for work. Who would we talk to?”
A united front was something Delilah wasn’t comfortable with. It signified love, strength, reliance on one another; she couldn’t get through it, and the love energy burned her demonic spirit. So she turned her attention to the most vulnerable member of the family.
“Looks like you’ll be a family of four soon,” Delilah said in an enthusiastic voice, gesturing at Kim’s baby bump.
“Oh. Yes.” Kim laughed, pressing her belly. “But not for about three months or so.”
“Do you have kids, Delilah?” Ned asked.
“No.” Her voice dripped with distaste.
“Like asking a teetotaler if she likes whiskey,” Pat whispered to his sister.
But Trudy was caught up in her own thoughts. “Hm,” was all she said. She was looking quizzically at Howard.
“What is it?” Pat asked under his breath.
“Something about Howard. I can’t figure out what it is.”
Delilah was bending towards Toby. “And how are you, young man?”
Toby gave her an owlish look, one eye exposed over Lydia’s arm. He dug in further, a thumb in his mouth, and stayed silent.
“Lovely child.” Delilah straightened up. The smile was still pasted to her face, but her eyes were cold.
Kim’s mother instincts went on sharp alert as she saw the look that the woman gave her son.
Delilah said to Ned, “Howard is the person you’d talk to about jobs. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go to my office. The city’s sending out someone to do some sort of inspection. Paperwork always.”
She bestowed a generous smile on all present, glanced disdainfully at Kim’s belly and the scared boy, and walked away. “Howard,” she tossed over her shoulder, “come along soon. We have to have a meeting about today, preferably before the press gets here.”
Steve made a move as if to follow her, but Delilah stopped him with a look. “Not now, Steve. I’ll…call…you later.”
Lydia could see the haunted, longing look on her husband’s face, and her heart twisted within her. She held Toby tighter, tears welling up in her eyes. The kids could see their mother’s distress. Pat’s jaw turned white as he tensed it in anger.
Kim and Ned were busy talking with Howard. Trudy turned from her mom’s sad countenance to the lively conversation about experience, hours, and wages.
And it was suddenly clear to her what was odd about Howard. It took all of her will not to stare at him, hardly able to believe what she realized. But she didn’t say anything to Pat for the moment. She needed to talk to him in private.
Getting Kim’s attention, she said, “If you want, I can take Toby back to the house. I think the walk down the road would do him good. Tire him out for a while.” Trudy turned to her mom. “You look worn out, Mom. Maybe you should go home too.”
Kim smiled gratefully. “Thanks, Trudy. Then Ned and I can talk further with Howard.”
Ned nodded happily and walked over to Toby, who’d pulled his head out from under Lydia’s arm once Delilah had gone.
He tousled the boy’s curly hair. “You go with Trudy, okay? We’ll come get you in a little while.”
Toby bobbed his head silently, then hugged his step-dad.
“That’s my boy.” Ned kissed his son. “See you later.”
Kim hugged and kissed Toby in turn while Pat and Trudy helped their mom up.
Steve stood by uncomfortably. “Well, uh, I guess I’ll see you at home.” He fidgeted, unable to look his wife in the eye. Then he turned on his heel and trudged toward the building currently under renovation.
Lydia avoided Kim’s questioning look, busying herself by looking for her car keys in her purse. “Yes. Right. Well, the kids are right. I should go home. I’m sure I’ll feel better once I’ve had a rest.”
She started for the parking lot. Pat and Trudy fell in behind her after saying good-bye to their friends. They couldn’t help but notice Kim and Ned watching them, worried expressions on their faces.
And Howard, impassive.
“Pat.” Trudy whispered.
“Howard’s eyes. What color are they?” Pat started to look over his shoulder. “No, don’t turn around. What do you remember?”
“Um, let’s see…he has blonde hair, maybe some grey. And he has blue eyes. No, wait. His hair is a light brown and his eyes…brown? You know, I don’t remember.”
“That’s because…okay, this is going to sound weird, but…his eyes kept changing color. I hadn’t noticed the hair, but sun and shade could influence that. When we met him, his eyes were blue. I remember thinking how they were such an odd shade. And when we saw him stride away from Mom, they were blue. But just now, as he was talking to Kim and Ned, they were brown. I’ve heard of peoples’ eyes changing color with their moods, but never this dramatically. Green to hazel, but not blue to brown.”
Toby had been holding Trudy’s hand and kicking leaves, listening to the two. Now he piped up.
“You mean ‘man’. There’s only one,” Trudy corrected him automatically.
“Mans.” Toby was insistent. He let go of Trudy and touched his fingers as he said, “Man, man, man.” He held up the three fingers he had touched. “Mans.”
Then he thought a moment. “Bad doggy,” he murmured.