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THE PARADISE TRILOGY
By TED DEKKER
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2008 Ted Dekker
All right reserved.
Chapter OnePARADISE, COLORADO One year later Wednesday
THE SOUND of boots crunching into gravel carried across the blacktop while the man who wore them was still a shimmering black figure approaching the sign that read Welcome to Paradise, Colorado. Population 450.
Cecil Marshal shifted his seat on the town's only public bench, shaded from the hot midsummer sun by the town's only drinking establishment, and measured the stranger strutting along the road's shoulder like some kind of black-caped superhero. It wasn't just the man's black broad-brimmed hat, or his dark trench coat whipped about by a warm afternoon breeze, but the way he carried himself that made Cecil think, Jiminy Cricket, Zorro's a-coming.
The town sat in a small valley with forested mountains that butted up against the buildings on all four sides. One road in and the same road out. The road in descended into the valley around a curve half a mile behind the stranger. The road out was a "snaker" that took to the back country, headed north.
Paradise was a typical small mountain town, the kind with one of most things and none of many things.
One convenience store/gas station/video store/grocery store. One bar/ restaurant. One old theater that had closed its doors long ago. One church. One mechanic—Paul Bitters, who fixed broken tractors and cars in his barn a mile north of town. One of a few other establishments that hardly counted as establishments.
No hospital. No arcade. No real grocery store other than the convenience store—everyone shopped in Delta, twenty miles west. No police station or bowling alley or car dealer or bike shop or choice of cuisine ...
The only thing there was more than none or one of was hairdressers. There were three hairdressers, one on Main Street and two who worked out of their homes, which didn't really count.
"Looks lost," Johnny Drake said.
Cecil turned to the blond boy beside him. Johnny slouched back, legs dangling off the bench, watching the stranger.
His mother, Sally Drake, had come to town after being abandoned by some worthless husband when Johnny was a baby, thirteen years earlier. Sally's father, Dillon Drake, had passed away, leaving her the house that she and Johnny now lived in.
She'd decided to stay in Paradise for the house, after unsuccessfully trying to sell it. The decision was mighty courageous, considering the scandal Sally suffered shortly after her arrival. The thought of it still made Cecil angry. As far as he was concerned, the town hadn't found its soul since. They were a sick lot, these Paradise folk. If he could speak, he would stand up in that monstrosity they called a church and say so.
But Cecil couldn't speak. He was a mute. Had been since his birth, eighty-one years ago.
Johnny watched the stranger and rolled a large red marble between his fingers. He was born with a crooked leg, which was one thing that had bonded him to Cecil. The Children's Hospital in Denver corrected his leg surgically, and even though he still limped now and then, he was pretty much an ordinary boy now.
No, not ordinary. Extraordinary. A bona fide genius, they would all see that soon enough. Cecil loved the boy as his own. It was probably a good thing Johnny didn't know about the mess that had followed his birth.
Cecil turned back to the stranger, who'd left the graveled shoulder and now clacked down the middle of the road in black, steel-toed cowboy boots like a freshly shoed quarter horse. Black boots, black pants, black trench coat, black hat, white shirt. A real city slicker. On foot, three miles from the nearest highway. I'll bet he's sporting a black mustache to boot.
Cecil dropped his eyes to the leather-bound copy of Moby Dick in his lap. Today he would give Johnny the book that had filled his world with wonder when he was fourteen.
He looked at the boy. Kid was growing up fast. The sweetest, biggest-hearted boy any man could ever want for a son.
Johnny suddenly gasped. He had those big light brown eyes fixed in the direction of the city slicker, and his mouth lay open as if he'd swallowed a fly.
Cecil lifted his head and followed the boy's eyes. The black-cloaked stranger strutted down Main Street's yellow dashes now, arms swinging under the folds of a calf-length duster, silver-tipped boots stabbing the air with each step. His head turned to face Cecil and Johnny.
The brief thought that Zorro might be wearing a disguise—a Halloween mask of a skull—flashed through Cecil's mind. But this was no mask. The head jutting from the stranger's white shirt was all bone. Not a lick of skin or flesh covered the bleached jaw. It smiled at them with a wide set of pearl teeth. Two eyes stared directly at Cecil, suspended in their deep bone sockets, like the eyes down at the butcher shop in Junction: too big, too round, and never blinking.
Cecil's pulse spiked. The ghostly apparition strode on, right up the middle of the street as if it owned Paradise, like a cocky gunslinger. And then the stranger veered from his course and headed directly toward them.
Cecil felt his book drop. His hands shook in his lap like the stranger's eyes, shaking in their sockets with each step, above a grinning face full of teeth. Cecil scanned the man's body, searched for the long bony fingers. There, at the end of long black sleeves, dangling limp, the stranger's hands swung to his gait.
Flesh. Strong, bronzed, fleshy hands, curving gently with a gold ring flashing in the sun. Cecil jerked his eyes back to the stranger's face and felt an ice-cold bucket of relief cascade over his head.
The face staring at him smiled gently with a full set of lips, parted slightly to reveal white teeth. A tanned nose, small and sharp but no doubt stiff with cartilage like any other nose. A thick set of eyebrows curved above the man's glinting eyes—jet-black like the color of his shoulder-length hair.
The stranger was twenty feet from them now. Cecil clamped his mouth shut and swallowed the pooled saliva. Did I see what I just thought I saw? He glanced down at young Johnny. The boy still gaped. Yep, he'd seen it too.
Cecil remembered the book. He bent over and scanned the dusty boards at his feet and spotted it under the bench. He reached way down so his rump raised off the bench, steadied his tipping torso with his left hand on the boardwalk, and swung his right arm under the seat. His fingers touched the book. He clasped it with bony fingers, jerked it to safety, and shoved himself up.
When his head cleared the bench, the stranger stopped in front of them. Cecil mostly saw the black pants. A zipper and two pockets. A crotch. A polyester crotch. He hesitated a brief moment and lifted his head.
For a moment the man just stood there, arms hanging loosely, long hair lifting from his shoulders in the breeze, black eyes staring directly into Cecil's, lips drawn tight as if to say, Get a grip, old fool. Don't you know who I am?
He towered, over six foot, dressed in the spotless getup with silver flashing on his boots and around his belt like one of those country-western singers on cable. Cecil tried to imagine the square chin and high cheekbones bared of flesh, stripped dry like a skull in the desert.
The stranger's eyes shifted to the boy. "Hello, my friend. Mighty fine town you have here. Can you tell me where I would find the man in charge?"
Johnny's Adam's apple bobbed. But he didn't answer. The man waited, eyebrows raised like he expected a quick answer. But Johnny wasn't answering.
The man turned back to Cecil. "How about you, old man? Can you tell me who's in charge here? The mayor? Chief of police?"
"He ... he can't speak," Johnny said.
"That right? Well, you obviously can. You may not be much to look at, but your mouth works. So speak up."
Johnny hesitated. "A ... about what?"
The man casually slipped his right hand into the pocket of his slacks and moved his fingers as if he were playing with coins. "About fixin' things around here."
Move on, stranger. You're no good. Just move on and find some other town. He should tell the stranger that. He should stand right up and point to the edge of town and tell the man where he should take his bones.
But Cecil didn't stand up and say anything. Couldn't. Besides, his throat was still in knots, which made it difficult to breathe much less stand up and play marshal.
"Yordon?" Johnny said.
The man in black pulled his hand from his pocket and stared at it. A translucent gel of some kind smothered his fingers, a fact that seemed to distract him for a moment. His eyes shifted to Johnny.
"Yordon?" The man began to lick the gel from his hand. "And who's Yordon?" He sucked at his fingers, cleaning them. "Now you're mute, boy? Speak up."
The man ran his wet fingers under his nose and drew a long breath through his nostrils. "You have to love the sweet smell of truth. Care for a sniff?"
He lowered his hand and ran it under Johnny's nose. The boy jerked away, and the man swept his hand in front of Cecil's face. Smelled musty, like dirty socks. Cecil pulled back.
"What did I tell you?" the man said, grinning. "This stuff will make you see the world in a whole new way, guaranteed."
Eyes back on Johnny. "Who else?"
Johnny stared at him.
"I said who else? Besides the father."
Johnny glanced at the bar, thirty yards to their right. "Maybe Steve?"
"Steve. That's the owner of the bar?" The man studied Smither's Saloon.
Cecil looked at the establishment's flaking white frontage. It needed a few coats of paint, but then so did half the buildings in Paradise. A plaque hung at an odd angle behind the swinging screen door. Faded red letters spelled Open. A dead neon Budweiser sign hung in one of the saloon's three windows.
He looked back at the stranger, who still faced the bar.
But the man's eyes weren't looking at the saloon; they were twisted down, fixed on Cecil. Crooked smile.
He cocked his arm up to his shoulder as if it were spring-loaded and formed a prong with two fingers, like a cobra poised to strike. Slowly, he brought the hand toward Cecil and then stopped, a foot from his face.
What on earth was the man doing? What did he think—
The stranger moved his hand closer, closer. Cecil's vision blurred and he instinctively clamped his eyes shut. Hot and cold flashes ripped up and down his spine like passing freight trains. He wanted to scream. He wanted to yell for help. Help me, boy! Can't you see what he's doing? Help me, for heaven's sake!
But he could do nothing more than open his mouth wide and suck in air, making little gasping sounds—hach, hach—like a plunger working in a toilet.
A long second crawled by. Then two. Cecil stopped sucking air and jerked his eyes open.
Pink filled his vision—the fuzzy pink of two fingers hovering like a wishbone an inch from his eyes. The fingers rushed at him. Cecil didn't have the time to close his lids this time. The man's pink pointers jabbed straight into his eye sockets.
Red-hot fire exploded in his skull. He saw an image of a cowboy branding a calf 's hide with a burning iron. Only this was no calf 's hide. This was eyeballs. His eyeballs.
Cecil's mouth strained wide in a muted scream.
The fingers dug right to the back of his sockets, wiggled deep. Waves of nausea washed through Cecil's gut. He thought he was going to throw up.
Then he could see he wasn't throwing up, because he could see everything. From a vantage point ten feet above the bench he saw it all. He saw Johnny cowering in horror at the far end of the short bench. He saw the black cowboy hat almost hiding the stranger's excited black eyes.
The man planted his feet wide, grinning with glee, right arm extended toward Cecil's face, fingers plugged into his eye sockets like an electric cord as if to say, Here, you old bat, let me juice you up a little.
Cecil's head tilted back with those two bloody prongs quivering above his nose. His whole body shook on the bench.
Pain swept to the ends of his bones and then was gone, as if it had leaked right out his heels. Maybe that's what happens when you die. Maybe that's why I'm floating up here.
The stranger's arm jerked back, and Cecil saw his eyeballs tear free from their sockets, cupped in the stranger's fingers. A loud, wet sucking sound filled the afternoon air. Little Johnny threw his arms over his head.
With his left hand, the stranger reached for his own face. Jabbed at his eyes. Plucked out his own black eyeballs.
Now he held a set of round, marblelike organs in each hand, a blue pair and a black pair. From above, Cecil caught a quick glimpse of the stranger's empty sockets, black holes drilled into his skull.
They weren't bleeding.
His own, on the other hand, began to ooze thick red streams down his cheeks. The stranger chuckled once and slapped the two black-marble eyes into Cecil's sockets in one smooth motion, as if plucking and replacing eyeballs was an art long ago perfected by his kind. He flung Cecil's blue eyes into his own skull and then wiped the blood running down the old man's cheeks with his palms. The bleeding stopped, but his eyelids had flapped closed, so Cecil couldn't see what his new eyes looked like.
The man wiped his own eyes as if brushing away tears and adjusted his collar. "Now I have their eyes," he mumbled. He turned to his left and strode toward Steve Smither's saloon.
The black-clad stranger had taken three steps when he stopped and turned back to Johnny, who was still fixed in shock. For one horrifying moment Cecil believed the stranger was considering another victim.
"You ever see a trick like that, boy?"
Johnny couldn't have answered if he'd wanted to.
The stranger winked, spun on his heels, and walked toward the saloon.
The pain was back. It washed over Cecil's cranium and spread like a fire, first through his eyes and then directly down his back.
Oh, God Almighty, help me!
Cecil's world began to spin in crazy circles. From somewhere in the dark he heard a thump echo through his mind. My book, he thought. I've dropped my book again.
JOHNNY CRINGED in horror. He gaped at the stranger, who appeared frozen on the steps to Smither's Saloon. Everything had stopped. Everything except for his heart, which was crashing in his ears.
The saloon door slammed.
He tore himself from the bench, tripped on a rock, and sprawled to the dirt. Pain knifed into his palm. He scrambled to his feet and spun. The old man was slumped on the bench, eyes closed, mouth open.
"Cecil?" Johnny whispered. Nothing. A little louder. "Cecil!"
He stepped forward cautiously, put a hand on Cecil's knee, and shook it. Still nothing.
Johnny lifted a trembling thumb to the old man's left eye and pulled up the eyelid. Cecil's blue eyes, not the stranger's black eyes. And there was no blood.
He released the eyelid and stood back. It occurred to him that Cecil's chest wasn't moving. He leaned forward and put his ear against his shirt. No heartbeat.
He bolted, nearly toppling again, and ran for home, ignoring the pain in his leg.
Chapter TwoPARADISE Wednesday
STEVE SMITHER stood behind his cherry bar and polished a tall Budweiser glass. Paula Smither, his wife, sat at the end of the bar, next to Katie Bowers and the minister's secretary, Nancy. Behind the women, Chris Ingles and his friend Mark had herded six others into a poker game. Waylon Jennings's mournful baritone leaked out from the old jukebox. But it wasn't the poker or the beer or the music that had brought the crowd today.
It was the fact that the town's one and only mayor/marshal, Frank Marsh, had run off with his "secretary" three days ago.
Katie Bowers pulled a string of gum from her mouth, balled it into a wad, and dropped it into the ashtray. She lifted her beer and glared at Steve. Strange how a pretty valley girl like Katie, who wore her makeup loud and talked even louder, could be so unattractive.
Katie set her bottle down. "Lighten up, Paula. It's not like we haven't been here before."
"That was different," Paula shot back.
"Was it?" Katie glanced at Steve. "Be a doll and give us some peanuts."
"She's right, that was different," he said, reaching under the counter for the Planters tin. The air had thickened with the last exchange.
Katie's husband, Claude Bowers, spoke without looking at his wife. "Go easy, Katie. It's not like nothing happened here." The huge Swede sat at the bar, running his forefinger around the rim of his mug.
"Oh, lighten up. I'm not actually endorsing what he did. I'm just saying that it's not that big a deal, and I think most of us agree. Last I heard, 50 percent of marriages in this country end in divorce. So that's the world we live in. We might as well get used to it." She took another sip of her beer and dipped her hand into the peanut bowl.
Steve caught his wife's eyes and winked. She might not be as slender as Katie, or have her magazine looks, but to him Paula was the prettier woman by far. They met in high school, two immigrants trying to make their way in a country insensitive to both of them. The Colorado mountains proved to be the perfect refuge for their wild romance.
"Frank didn't do anything right by Cynthia," Steve said.
That silenced them for a moment.
Excerpted from THE PARADISE TRILOGY by TED DEKKER Copyright © 2008 by Ted Dekker. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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