Esmerelda had very little trouble following the akashic trail of the girl from space, and after almost an hour in the helicopter, they had found the cabin where she had been taken by the burly Marv and the beak-nosed little Elmo. The terrain was wooded and very rough, and there was the added difficulty of the lake and its shore; no landings could be made there. They decided to put down about half a mile from the cabin, setting down over the rise of the nearest hill from the cabin, far enough away so that they could escape detection by its inhabitants and making their approach on foot down an old dirt trail which looked as if it might have been a logging road at one time.
They had made their reconnaissance at a high enough altitude that no one should have spotted them from the ground unless he were sitting right in the clearing in front of the cabin looking straight up; the forest which covered the side of the small hill was very dense, part maple and oak, part pine, and no one could have seen them without really trying. Padeyevsky didn’t think that anyone would really be trying; it couldn’t be suspected that he could track the kidnappers, and even if he could, that he would have access to a helicopter this quickly.
The landing was uneventful, and Col. Church climbed down from the UH1-B first, feeling rather like the leader of an infantry platoon. He instructed the pilot to stay with his machine and wait for their return. Then he led the small group of Pablo, Esmerelda and Joshua down the road. He walked slowly, carefully down the dry dirt trail, taking in the lovely reddish glow of the turning maple leaves, the variegated yellows and oranges of the oak; this was a lovely autumn. The country was quite deserted; only a few robins and grackle that left here to sing, this late. The squirrels were making the most noise, methodically cutting on their harvest of nuts, dropping the cuttings through the branches at the edge of the forest, lying flat and still at the approaching footsteps. Shadows filtered down on the group, through the lace of the leaves, and the Colonel picked his way past a fallen limb that blocked the trail. It must have been torn down in a late summer storm; it was already quite dead. He was beginning to feel more and more uncomfortable with his decision to help these people; the momentum which had propelled him from doubt to complete belief, provided by his complete immersion in the ritual of healing, had begun to wear off, and he was beginning to feel foolish.
Col. Church was not at any time accustomed to feeling foolish; his military career had been a series of steps towards more and more dignity of being, more and more solidity of personality. He had accustomed himself for many years to evaluating situations, analyzing situations, making rational decisions about situations. This habit of mind had served him well. But now, he had failed to report the situation, feeling that if he did so, it would take hours, even days, to untangle the mess and get on with helping these people. He was right about that; it would have been one big snafu if he’d gone through channels.
But now, as he moved through the peaceful near-wilderness of this lake country, he wondered if his original reaction to the ritual had been sensible. Had he been duped, after all? Was he in the company of, not magicians and good people, but charlatans and confidence men, who had been involved in a murder?
He was, on the other hand, committed to this course, and he may as well follow through with it now to the best of his ability. He cleared his mind of doubt, and began to think about the problem ahead. After all, even if he had made an error in analysis of the situation, there was one “man from space” safely guarded by Sgt. Armstrong, a man in whom the Colonel had considerable trust. Sgt. Armstrong had twenty years’ service. And, in the last analysis, he had a great deal more to lose by not helping these people, if they were who they said they were, than by helping them, and being fooled. For if these were indeed aliens, how terrible it would be for the government of the United States to rebuff them. The political consequences of that would be enormous.
Now: the problem. They had walked to the place where the old road opened into the cabin’s clearing. Someone was going to have to function as scout; they couldn’t simply walk up to the front door en masse, especially not with Esmerelda along. He motioned them all to halt, and went ahead until he had come to the very edge of the trees and could see the outside of the cabin quite well.
There didn’t seem to be a soul around; the yard was deserted. There was, however, a car in the driveway; no way to tell how long it had been there, or if it signaled the presence of anyone in the cabin. The clearing extended at least fifty yards, and there was no real cover at all for the entire distance between the forest and the dwelling.
Col. Church went back to the group and told them of the situation; it was Joshua who came up with a plan. He was dressed in blue jeans and an old sweatshirt, and his beard was a day old; he looked a fairly bohemian type. Since it would be impossible to sneak up on the house anyway, why shouldn’t he simply walk up to the door and ring the bell. He could be asking directions. Or begging for food, for that matter. And he could probably get some sort of an idea of who was in the home. With his scruffy appearance, he shouldn’t be suspected at all, and should be able to return with his information. If the house was locked, he would pretend he was a burglar, and get in by a window, and when the place had been checked and declared safe, he would wave them on.
The Colonel could see nothing wrong with this plan; he said so. “Naturally,” grinned Joshua. “I write for television, remember?” It was hard to believe that the man was respectable, thought the Colonel. Appearance meant a great deal to him, and the appearance of two-thirds of this small band was one of the chief reasons his confidence in them had started to flag. They just didn’t look dignified. Starr looked terrible, sloppy and long-haired; the girl could have been a lovely woman if she’d just put her hair up and wear stockings. Padeyevsky looked fairly well. But right now, both he and Pablo looked too dressed up and citified to be asking for directions, on foot, in the country. And neither one of them could function very well in the role of a common burglar either; both were too prosperous looking. His confidence in the integrity of the group grew slightly. “Fine,” he said. “Go ahead with the plan, and we’ll watch for your signal from here.”
Joshua strode out into the clearing, composing his mind for his newest role; he had a great deal of practice at grooming his personality to fit various situations, and he slipped easily into the role of a carefree wanderer, perhaps in need of company, perhaps just curious about his neighbors. His walk was that of the confirmed outdoorsman; he swung along, legs moving smoothly from supple and understated hips, back straight and relaxed, arms swinging. It was almost a caricature of the normal Joshua walk but it was done well, and looked indigenous, believable, and very healthy. He breezed up the rustic, self-consciously woodsy porch steps and rang the doorbell. It echoed harshly through the interior of the cabin; Josh could hear it go. He waited. He rang again. There was no response whatever.
He walked around the back; there was no bell, but he knocked several times, loudly. Nothing. Time for the burglar routine. Either the cabin was empty, or there were people inside in hiding, waiting for him to go away. Joshua had thought of the burglar ruse for two reasons: first, it got him inside the house; second, if the kidnappers were indeed inside, they might have enough sympathy for a criminal that they wouldn’t immediately kill him. Josh had no desire whatever to be killed immediately.
He hefted a rock that was lying near the end of the driveway, by the car. It broke the window in the back door, just above its Yale lock; within seconds, Joshua was inside the cabin’s utility porch. It was very dark. All the shades were drawn. There didn’t seem to be anything in the room except a large pile of awnings or some sort of heavy canvas fittings. Josh left the room and went into the kitchen, which was more revealing of recent inhabitants: there were two glasses in the drain board with droplets of water still clinging to their sides. Someone, or several ones, had recently been here, anyway. He examined a bedroom, which had not been touched, and went into the master bedroom, which had been used, but not to sleep in; the bed was slightly rumpled, as though it had been sat on. Another interesting fact: the room was in total blackness; someone had covered the windows from the outside, and had nailed the windows shut. Josh tested the door: yes, it was also completely light-proof when closed. The plot thickened.
He walked through the bedroom door and into the living room; it was dark and still, like all the rooms in the house; he thought it was empty until he stepped on something next to a long sofa which backed up to the window running across the front of the house. The object turned out to be a human foot, in a shoe. It was attached, Joshua discovered after he had gotten his brief startlement under control, to a dead body, the body of a small man, short and fine-boned in life, even shorter and more wasted in death. The death seemed to be recent: the body still contained warmth. There was no visible sign of injury; however, there were drops of blood on the floor just under one of the body’s clenched fists; Joshua pried the fist open and discovered that the palm was quite bloody. The cuts were obviously from glass; several long splinters were still imbedded in the palm. The other fist was clenched, but not wounded. Then Josh saw several drops of blood on the man’s lips, just under the beaklike nose. He pulled the flesh back from the tightly closed lips and found more glass, a ground-edged piece of what looked to be a drinking glass like the two that were in the kitchen. Part of the lower lip had been cut through, and the glass was still tight against clenched teeth. Apparently the man had bitten the glass, and crushed it in his hand.
There were no other signs of any reason for death or even violence; the face was darkly flushed with blood, but was unmarred except for the injury to the mouth.
Joshua straightened up, his face no longer at all insouciant. He had feared something like this, but he had not spoken of it; it is no use speaking of misfortune as yet unencountered. But so much had pointed to this: the fact that neither he, Esmerelda, nor the man from space had been able to pick up the girl’s thoughts, and could not find her in the Akashic Record. It took a great deal of magical skill to be able to put up that sort of barricade; only a few people could have done it. And the trail of violence of the past twenty-four hours: the deputy sheriff’s wife who had without any need shot and killed a man. And the presumably trustworthy Sgt. Armstrong, whose judgment had been terribly bad; who had shot to kill a man, when there were a dozen other completely non-lethal ways of stopping him. None of it had made any sense, unless these acts of negativity and violence were being-say, encouraged, or prompted, by the magic of one as practiced in black rituals as he himself was in white magic. And, whoever this man was, he had the girl from space. And she, who did not know negativity at all, would not recognize it until it was very much too late. Not if he were very, very good at his art.
As apparently he was. Because here was a man who had, fairly obviously, been frightened to death.
Joshua started back over the house, much more thoroughly this time, working backwards until he came to the little utility room, with its pile of awnings. He found the other body jammed headfirst into the corner, behind the massive pile of heavy cloth. It was no surprise; he steeled himself to uncover the thing, and look more closely at it. As he heaved at the canvas, the corpse came briefly to life, shoving itself spasmodically into the darkness of the corner of the room, burrowing deeper and deeper into the canvas until it had covered its eyes again. This was not a dead man, just a crazed one. The large body quivered and then stayed immobile once it had achieved darkness, its 250 pounds or so curled into a fetal position, spittle drooling slowly out of his mouth and onto the heavy cloth. Joshua reached out and touched the man’s sleeve, tentatively; the only response was a terrified whimpering, and a brief spasm of further burrowing.
That was all there seemed to be in the house. It was enough. Joshua went back through the front of the small, plush cabin, stood on the porch, and beckoned to his confederates, who broke into a run across the clearing and steamed up on the porch beside him. They had to wait while Pablo caught up; he was haggard with fatigue, and was too winded to run all the way. Josh told them all what he had found, cautioned them against touching anything, and led them into the house. They each examined the two men; Esmerelda was concerned about the corpse, but only because she felt that its departed spirit was not in a state of well-being; physical trauma meant much less to her than to most women, as she had been so often out of her own physical body that she did not identify its life with life itself, but only with existence in this particular time and place. The man who still lived concerned her much more, and she asked what she could do for him.
The Colonel answered first. “I’ve seen this sort of reaction after heavy enemy shelling. It’s a shock reaction.”
Padeyevsky concurred, although he had reservations about the kind of shock it really was. “Speaking as a psychiatrist, I would say you’re right, Colonel. It looks like a shock reaction, or it could be a catatonic schizoid reaction, although they don’t usually burrow like that. But, knowing what I know now, I would have to term it an extreme phobic reaction. He was simply terrified of something.” His hooded, reddened eyes met Joshua’s; both men nodded slightly.
“What scared them?” asked the Colonel. The two looked somberly at him.
He looked back at them, his skin prickling slightly; it was uncomfortable in here; the very air was dark, somehow.
“Let me try to explain, Col. Church; as long as you’re helping us, you should know all that we do.” Joshua took him by one arm. “Let’s get away from all this first.” He lightly steered the man towards the back door; they went through it, and sat on the steps. Esmerelda was wandering around by the side of the house by which Joshua had not been, and her voice came around the side of the cabin. “Pablo! Josh! Come here!”
There was fear in her voice, much more fear than there had been in her manner when she had examined the two men inside. The Colonel followed Josh and Pablo around the corner, and saw them all looking at some wooden object stuck into the rather soft ground at the side of the foundation of the house. It looked like a garden tool of some kind. But as the Colonel kept gazing at it, it seemed to him that he could see a darkness around it, and an unaccountable feeling of fear, even terror, stirred to life within him. The hair on the back of his neck rose up.
“What do you see, Col. Church?” asked Joshua.
“I couldn’t say-except, ridiculous as it sounds, the thing just looks evil. It scares me,” said the Colonel, his emotions jolted for the second time in one day by something which was not, but yet which was.
Joshua nodded. “Yes, Colonel, you are definitely a very sensitive man. What you see is a symbol of goodness, which is used in white rituals; it is a crucifix. The man who scared those men inside must have found this on one of the walls inside. If this house is owned by a member of the organization, it’s quite likely that his family is Catholic. Black magic makes use of the degradation of the symbols of white magic. You see the way this cross is turned upside down? And shoved into the dirt, right next to shrubbery which has been cultivated recently? There’s probably a considerable amount of fertilizer here, probably natural fertilizer, which would make this the most unclean earth around. Now do you see why it seems so evil?”
The Colonel was, dimly, seeing, but he wanted more information about the evil which he saw, and about why he was seeing it. “No one else at the deputy’s house saw what I saw, did they?” he asked.
“No,” replied Joshua. “It’s really very rare for anyone to have the ability to see astral forms without a great deal of preliminary study and training. It would indicate to me that you have, in at least one previous incarnation, done a great deal of work, made great progress, in spiritual matters. Have you ever wondered why you are named Church?”
The Colonel nodded. “Yes, as a matter of fact, when I was in college I planned to go into the church as a career, and I used to think how my name fit right in with that ambition. But the year that I got my B.S. in physics the Korean War came along, and by the end of the war, I was pretty well advanced, and I enjoyed the orderly ways of the military; it seemed dignified, somehow, and I felt like I was in a position of service to my country …” He paused. It struck him, suddenly, that he had been happy in the military for pretty much the same reasons that he would have been happy working within the church: it was dignified, people accorded respect to the position, it was apart from the rank and file of civilian humanity, it had its special and protective mission to perform, it even had its own special robes, or uniform.
“Your parents were probably chosen by your higher self before you incarnated this time,” said Joshua, “to help remind yourself that you wanted to resume your metaphysical studies. I’m afraid that you just got lost on the way to your first ambitions, Colonel.
The world often does that to people.”
The Colonel was tentatively feeling his way through the ideas that Joshua had given him to ponder and, somewhat to his surprise, he discovered no resistance in his mind to the seemingly outlandish notion that he had been born before. His intensely logical mind, which was so good at analyzing situations, was not failing him now. Everything this rather disreputable man showed him seemed to make the simplest kind of sense, more simple and logical than all the reality that had gone before. All right, he thought, if I really believe this to be true, then I must act on it. So much for my career, maybe so much for my family. He thought briefly of his wife; she would be all right. She would be able to adjust to this shift in his thinking. She had never had any difficulty that he could find adjusting to new places, new people, new languages, new food, new ideas … she would follow. Things would be all right. “And this man, whoever he is. What exactly did he do, to frighten these men?”
Joshua paused, trying to think of a way to explain. “I’m not sure that this is just how it happened, but it’s probably something like it, anyway. The two men are both criminal types, probably pretty negative. It’s easy for a black magician to work with this type of personality: not too much intellect, but lots of negativity. He probably summoned from the astral plane-you are familiar with the creatures of light which were the thought-forms of Esmerelda and myself, as magicians-well, the astral plane has many, many inhabitants, some beautiful and full of this light, and others from lower in the plane which partake of very heavy astral material and which are dark and prone to evil vibrations of thought. These two men probably both had habitual thoughts of an evil nature, some obsession about some evil excess, lust or cruelty towards someone whom they hated, and these thoughts caused the heavy etheric material of the lowest astral plane to form into shapes, just like our shapes of light, except these would be horrifying shapes, monstrous forms, as evil as the thoughts were, and if the thoughts were thought often enough, the monsters would become permanently alive on the astral plane, have an independent life of their own. Do you see, so far, what I mean?”
Col. Church vaguely did, and was-as seemed normal for the things Joshua had to tell him-not surprised. He had often felt the power of thoughts; often felt, for instance, that his wife’s even-tempered kindness, her perennial affection and cheerfulness had been a shield to him that had protected him, somehow, wherever he went. Yes, he could see easily enough that thought could raise forms of its own. He nodded to Joshua.
“All right,” said Joshua. “What this magician did, and he could do it very easily, if he’s as good as I think he is, was to make these forms materialize briefly in the physical plane. So that the two men could see them. They would be especially terrified of them, for these monsters would have been personifications of thoughts of a very personal nature.”
Now the death and lapse into mindlessness was easy enough for the Colonel to understand. “But what about the girl from space? Could she have been killed too?”
Joshua seemed unsure of his answer. “I really don’t know, but I suspect that she will have been protected by the fact that, on her planet, there is no part of development that is as low as this is, and she will not have been able to see these forms. Although I should imagine that the very atmosphere would have made her afraid, even though she did not know what she was afraid of. That would explain the sensation of fear-which is unknown on her planet and then immediately the blackout of her aura. The magician would have been able, once he got here and was actually in her presence, to block her out, put some sort of a mental fence around her that she would not be guarding against, since she was never in a position to know of its existence before.”
“Then why was she afraid at all?”
“The higher self always recognizes danger to the spirit.”
Col. Church nodded again. “Well, then,” he said, his habit of military analysis and action functioning automatically, “you’re a magician; what can you do to counteract his magic?”
“Our magic may not be strong enough to counteract his, Colonel.”
“Blast it, man, you’re on the side of good, aren’t you?” The Colonel was sure that good inevitably triumphed over evil. He had seen battles won, and known that right was on his side.
“Colonel, I’m afraid that on this planet, it isn’t as simple as that.”
“You mean your white magic is weaker than his black magic?”
“There’s more to it than just us, Colonel. I can’t tell you directly why it’s so complicated, but … well, think this over. One of the basic truths of magic is that the entire creation is formed by thought, or consciousness. This consciousness has two poles, and we on this planet call the poles good and evil. The duality is what makes action in the physical plane possible, just as there is no electrical current if there is no potential difference. Since the physical plane is almost completely a plane of action, this duality is very strong here, and magicians draw their power by polarizing, or concentrating, on one of these two poles. We concentrate by using symbols that other people dedicated to good have concentrated on in the past: it’s not the crucifix itself, for instance, that is important, but all the positive thinking that has been concentrated upon that symbol for so long that makes it powerful. Black magic utilizes these same symbols, and twists or inverts them so as to degrade them, and that’s how it gets its power. Everyone on this plane, whether he knows it or not, thinks either positively or negatively all the time. Now, tell me, Colonel. On this planet, which do you think has more concentration: the good or the evil pole?”
The answer was obvious. “The negative.”
Josh’s eyes flashed, dark in his clear face, and his body moved in on itself, tightening as if for movement as he sat on the step. “That’s exactly right, Col. Church. And that is why, on this planet, black magic can be more powerful than white magic. In the rest of the creation there are millions of galaxies, and in our galaxy we are a small planet, turning around a small star near its outer rim. And this, Col. Church, is Earth.” He paused, lean frame hunched on the steps. “And I am responsible for bringing these innocent children here.”
He got up. “Come on,” he said, as if throwing off the seriousness of that last remark. “We’ve got to get out of here and find the girl. Can’t hang around all day, man.” He walked back into the utility room, where the good doctor was observing his patient. Pablo stuck his hands into his pockets and jingled keys.
“You know, Josh, it took quite a bit of skill to have this much effect on these men. I don’t have any knowledge of the, ah, personnel in the field. How many black magicians are there who could have done this?”
“In this country?”
“Well … does it make much difference?”
“Yes. But still, it is likely to be an American. A very short list, Pablo: two. Marcall in New Orleans could have done it. Or Trostrick in Ft. Lauderdale.”
Pablo cut in. “Trostrick? Oh my God.” As Joshua looked questioningly at him, he went on. “Here it all is, Josh. In a nutshell. And all my fault. You remember when we were talking about my betting?”
A nod from Joshua.
“I wouldn’t have been able to do that on my own. After you stopped working with me, I went on alone for a while, but I hadn’t gotten anywhere. But about five years ago I received a visitor. Said I’d met him somewhere, some university thing I’d gone to. And I did remember him. One thing led to another, and we started talking about the research I was doing on the horses. He had a few suggestions. Said he was really very interested in this sort of project. Well, to make a long story short, he helped me quite a bit. I knew that it was magical, what I was doing. And wanted to tell you about it, about the results I was getting using these techniques he showed me. But Trostrick asked that I keep his name and activities totally secret. Just an interested observer, he said. And I was making money off the deal. So I didn’t want to …” Pablo trailed off, sounding as miserable as he felt.
“All right,” said Joshua. “Now we know where we are. Trostrick was behind the kidnapping, and he’s got the girl. And we still can’t hang around here all day.”
“No,” Pablo looked again at the man lost in the awning material. “I don’t know how we can do this, but we shouldn’t go without getting someone out here for this man. He needs help.”
“I can do that,” said Josh. “Anybody touch anything?” Nobody had.
“Then we’ll just call the local constabulary from here, and leave right now. You all go on. I have a phone call to make myself. I know how to go through a network switchboard so the called number won’t mean anything to the police. We don’t want to have any connection with this mess here. Then I’ll join you.”
The sense of this was easily seen, and they filed out, leaving Josh to make his calls. As soon as he was connected with a close business acquaintance, he told him to contact a detective agency in Miami, in Padeyevsky’s name, and have all the airports in the Miami and Ft. Lauderdale area watched for the possible arrival of two persons of the descriptions of Trostrick and the space girl. He then made a call to the police and, as the number began ringing, placed the receiver on the table. The officer on duty came on the line. “Help,” screamed Joshua in falsetto.
He left the line open for the authorities to trace, and caught up with the rest of the group as they crossed to the edge of the clearing. The birds’ songs had all but stopped. The sun was high, and it was time for the quiet that the heat of the day produces; the sun was warm as summer on their backs as they walked back along the wooded trail to the helicopter.