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In a new thriller by John Christian Hopkins, the ...
In a new thriller by John Christian Hopkins, the novel begins with a reporter investigating a macabre murder at a secretive company that supposedly was one of the world's foremost leaders in paranormal happenings; but what Napoleon Marquard thought might be murder and embezzlement becomes something that he had trouble believing: mythological gods, goddesses and magical creatures from storybooks were seemingly coming to life; and led by Loki, the Norse god of mischief, some of the superpowered beings were bent on conquering the world.... As Hopkins writes, "In the Twilight of the Gods... the Cycle of Time nears its end... In your time, they call this Armageddon...It is the beginning of the end of all you have known."
A thrilling masterpiece of fiction by award-winning journalist John C. Hopkins, Twilight of the Gods debuts on Kindle and will be sold as a digital e-book online (Google EBooks, Scribd, and more).
More digital ebooks by Blue Hand Books are planned for 2012, published by a collective of Native American writers ...Visit us often: www.bluehandbooks.blogspot.com
The dust-coated, mud-splattered, dented, once-white Ford pick-up, driven by a smiling, moonfaced Native American with his coal-black hair in a long ponytail, rattled and bounced as it eased its way along a rutted dirt road; the front fender was held on by rope; only one of the four bald tires still had a hubcap; there was an empty socket where one of the headlights was supposed to be and the passenger side window consisted of cellophane and duct tape. The driver held the steering wheel with both hands as it vibrated with every bump; otherwise he seemed wholly unconcerned and was bobbing his head as the radio played "Indian Car" by Keith Secola.
The passenger was a different story; a middle-aged white man dressed in a gray sport jacket, with matching slacks, and a large stain on the front of his white shirt from when the last rut had caused him to lose the grip on his Styrofoam coffee cup. Now he clung to the cup that held only another swallow or two, with the rest of the drink on his shirt. Napoleon Marquard smiled to himself, thinking of how quickly things can change; just moments before he had secretly been cursing that the coffee from that last filling station had been lukewarm at best, and now he was rather glad of that fact.
"Throw it in the back, kola," the driver said, with a jerk of his head toward where the rear window should have been. When he grinned, the passenger couldn't help but notice that a couple of the Indian's teeth were missing.
Turning his head, Napoleon glanced over his dark Blu Blocker sunglasses and saw the truck bed was littered with plastic trash bags, assorted-sized rocks and gravel, a cooler, a toolbox and more than a few empty beer cans. He tilted his head back and finished off his coffee before crushing the cup and tossing it through the back window opening.
"This is a pretty bumpy road, Milton."
Milton Manygoats chortled uncontrollably. "Ha! This is the good road, kola! There is a short-cut, but I'm avoiding it; trying to keep my last hubcap as long as I can, aye!"
"How do you live out here?"
Milton pursed his lips in thought before replying, "Same as anyone, I guess. We just try to get through one day at a time. How do you do it in New York?"
"The same, I guess."
Nap had consulted an anthropologist before coming to South Dakota and had been able to do some research on the area around the Pine Ridge reservation; which was located in one of the poorest counties in America; but even that knowledge couldn't prepare him for the wretchedness of the living conditions.
Dr. Rebecca Bemis—Becca—was the name of the anthropologist. It was his editor, Woodstock DeMeyer, who suggested he talk to Bemis and he had; but much of what she said went over his head. He could see why Bemis would be friends with his boss since they both seemed to take some of these weird reports way too seriously.
Something seemed to be happening, but Nap was convinced it was a full moon, or had something to do with the tides. Hell, maybe it was being caused by global warming!
Anyhow he had found Bemis somewhat stiff during that first meeting, and more than a little obtuse. He chuckled to himself as he recalled their first meeting when he told himself that had she been an actress the perfect name for her would be 'Zsa Zsa Gaboring'. But DeMeyer was high on her though, especially since she had once taught at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Even if he feigned contempt for conventional society, DeMeyer did allow a certain level of respect to seep into his thinking when it came to the Ivy League schools. As far as Nap was concerned the Ivy League was overrated; his degree from the University of Rhode Island had served him well. Mostly as a coaster, though.
Though he told himself he wasn't the least bit interested in Becca Bemis, Nap couldn't stop thinking about her—especially the cute way her nose crinkled when she smiled.
"What are you thinking about, kola?"
Milton Manygoat's question jarred Nap from his private thoughts. "Nothing," he replied. Becca Bemis had told him all about the wretched living conditions at Pine Ridge, and yet Nap was still not prepared for the level of poverty he saw. It was almost hard to remember that he was still in the United States. Many people lived in trailers with missing doors or windows, with rusted cars roaming the countryside as the buffalo once did, he supposed. How could Milton Manygoats seem to be carefree amid such poverty, Nap wondered? Admittedly he knew little of natives; back east most of the Indians he'd met were mixed bloods and had long since lost their grip on their cultures; or so he thought. Hell, he hadn't even known there were any Indians in New England until a casino opened! But out here in South Dakota it was different; it wasn't hard to spot an Indian.
"Are we almost there?"
"Almost," Milton nodded. His grandmother had agreed to this meeting with the wasichu—white man—though she spoke little English. Milton had convinced her that the crazy white people would pay them money to let them take a few pictures of Peggy, her strange foal; he did not know how much money, but anything would help them to prepare for the coming winter. Winters were always harsh at Pine Ridge. "Another forty minutes—as the crow flies. Of course, the Crows were usually flying at the sight of a Lakota warrior!"
Milton Manygoats laughed at his little joke; the Lakota and Crow had been bitter rivals in the past. Several Crow warriors were among the scouts for General George Armstrong Custer during the disastrous Bighorn campaign of 1876.
Nap Marquard grunted; he was already more than half-convinced that his editor had sent him on a wild goose chase. After all, there were no such things as unicorns. But the grainy photos that had accompanied the letter from Milton Manygoats did show a foal with a weird bump protruding from its forehead. Nap was fairly sure he'd see that it was glued onto the horse's head in an effort to fool tourists into paying a few dollars to see a real live unicorn. Well, he didn't begrudge the Indians for trying to make a buck; after all, it's what P. T. Barnum used to do. And, Nap smiled to himself, nothing had changed since Barnum's days—there was still a sucker born every minute. The report of a unicorn being born was just another of the strange reports coming in from around the world's newswires lately; and as far as Nap was concerned it was all a bunch of hogwash. There had to be some logical explanation.
"You think it's a real unicorn?"
"After you see Peggy, you can answer that for yourself," Milton said good-naturedly. He knew the white man was skeptical, but the three hundred dollars he had handed over was real—whether the unicorn was or not.
The pick-up slowed as it neared a pair of natives trudging along the side of the pockmarked road. The brakes squeaked in protest as the truck trembled to a stop. Milton called out his window, "Hoka hey, Bobtail!"
A disheveled gray-haired man in a ragged old army jacket, his hair hastily braided and wrapped in leather ties, squinted, blinking his reddish eyes against the sunlight. A smile slowly crept across his face, revealing white teeth. "Milton! Ho! How are you, kola?"
Nap had already learned that "kola" was the Lakota word for friend. Beside the man was a slight woman who was attractive despite a lack of make-up. Nap noticed a deep sadness in her black eyes.
"How is your grandmother?" the woman asked.
"The same, Grace," Milton said. "You know how she is. I tell her she works too hard and should rest; but she says she has too much to do." Suddenly remembering something else, he asked, "Hey, is it true that there was a white calf born over by Wilson's Creek?" When Grace nodded, Milton added, "I've got to get over and see that. Grandmother says it's a sign, for sure."
"It's inspirational," Grace agreed. "I've been telling Bobtail that he has to come over and see it. It has to be a sign from the Creator."
"One of these days," the disheveled man beside Grace mumbled. Bobtail no longer believed in signs—unless they flashed in neon with the word "beer" prominently displayed. "I'll get around to it. Where are you going, cousin?"
"I'm taking this wasichu out to see the crazy horse—ha! I said Crazy Horse!" Milton chuckled.
"You are on a roll today," Grace grinned.
"You should join James and Ernie," Bobtail said, referring to a pair of Navajo comedians that were well-known among Indian circles. "You could become a famous Indian comedian—you could bill yourself as Bob Hopeless."
"Maybe I will," Milton laughed. "Well, gotta get going; if I see you on the way back I'll give you a lift into town."
They waved as Milton drove off.
"What was that white calf stuff?" Marquard asked, more to make conversation than due to any real interest in the subject.
"A white buffalo calf was born nearby. They are rare and my people consider them sacred," Milton explained. "Boy, something must be up—a white buffalo calf and this wacky Peggy horse both being born within a few weeks of each other."
"Yeah, something's up," Marquard agreed; though he was betting it was some type of contamination from all the mining in the area. Something toxic probably got in the water, he figured. He was barely aware that Milton was talking to him. "Huh? What was that?"
"Oh, I was just telling you that Bobtail Robideaux is from a line of great leaders. His great-great grandfather was Bobtail Horse; he was at the Greasy Grass fight."
"Oh, I forgot, kola—your people call it Little Bighorn. Another of his grandfathers was White Deer, who was known for his strong magic. It is said that even Crazy Horse sought him out to interpret some dreams he had."
"What happened to Bobtail? I thought the apple didn't fall too far from the tree?"
"Apple? Not a good thing to say around an Indian, aye!"
"It's an insult, kola. It means someone who is red out the outside, but white on the inside, aye!"
"I never heard that," Nap said. "What I meant was Bobtail doesn't seem to measure up to his ancestors."
"Oh, Bobtail is a good guy. He's a little messed up—" Milton pointed toward his head and made a circular motion—"from his time in Vietnam. He saw too much death, my grandmother says."
"Is that his wife?"
"Grace Yellowhand? Nah, not official or anything. She just tries to take care of him, you know. I think if it wasn't for her, Bobtail would have died years ago. He's alive in spite of himself."
Unsure how to respond, Nap abruptly changed the subject, "I didn't think Robideaux was a Sio ... Lakota ... surname."
"There are a lot of those kinds of names; reminders of the old days when French trappers often married into the tribe," Milton replied. Then, with a laugh, he added, "Hey, your name is French—you sure you don't have any Lakota ancestors?"
Marquard laughed. "Not that I know of."
"No Crazy Horses or Sitting Bulls?"
"Well, my dad sold used cars; I guess that would make him Talking Bull."
Milton bellowed with glee, "You are funny, kola! Who knew that a wasichu could be so funny?"
Nap Marquard was a reporter for the National Inquisition, a national tabloid that occasionally tried to do stories more important than women giving birth to alien babies or finding Elvis working at some fast food joint in Kalamazoo. It might seem odd to some that Marquard worked for a tabloid; after all, there was a time when he had been nominated for multiple Pulitzer Prizes, when he was seen as a rising star in the journalism world. But that was before a divorce wiped him out financially and emotionally, which sent him spiraling down a long dark tunnel of bitterness and self-loathing. In a few years, Nap Marquard went from being touted as "the next Ernie Pyle" to being taken about as seriously as Gomer Pyle.
"Hey, kola, you should do a story on Bobtail," Milton suggested. "He was a real hero back in Vietnam. He saved his whole platoon once."
"Yeah, maybe," Marquard said dismissively. He was falling into a funk; it always happened when he started thinking about his ex-wife. He just wanted to see this ... unicorn ... and talk to the old lady; and then catch the earliest flight he could find back to civilization—if New York City qualified as being civil, that is.
Creeping from shadow to shadow, the two black-clad men neared the edge of the woods, from where they would have a bird's eye view of the tall, granite building that seemed to rise up from the midst of the forest. Located down a winding, narrow dirt road, the monolithic fortress seemed completely out of place; though the surrounding woods lent a dark, foreboding look to the premises. The wind seemed to pick up, scattering leaves about in a haphazard manner.
"Sheesh!" The voice was barely a squeak. "This place is fuckin' huge. You sure there's only one security guard, Pete?"
The building made Pete Stone think of an old castle from medieval days. But Mr. Wolfe had told him there was only a small workforce and the entire complex had strategically placed cameras so only a couple of guards could monitor the premises from the comforts of their office.
"There are usually two," Pete said, pausing to gasp in a lungful of air. He bent over, his hands on his knees. Shooting a quick glance over his shoulder at his hulking accomplice, he added. "One was given the day off."
"How the hell do you know all this anyway?"
Pete smiled in the darkness. "I have my sources, Camby."
Actually, Pete Stone had been wondering the same thing; the sharp-dressed businessman that had hired him for this heist had shifty, darting eyes; and Pete was sure there was more to this than to simply steal a priceless artifact. The man who had hired him had given him specific instructions; including how to bypass hidden alarm systems along the way and which door would be "accidentally" left ajar. Pete had also been told about the security on the premises. The building was huge; it was home to Fenris-Wolfe Technologies, advertised as "the world-wide leader in paranormal studies and research."
"The one guard on duty tonight is some screw-up," Pete continued. He had caught his second wind. They had left their car on the side of a dirt road, where they could reach it in a hurry. "We don't have anything to worry about."
"And you're just supposed to steal some stupid stone club?"
"A hammer," Pete shrugged. "Makes no sense to me either Camby." It did not make any sense to him, but the money—cash, in hundred dollar bills—was real enough and Pete considered it ample reward to pilfer some silly artifact. "It's probably some insurance scam. Lucas Wolfe will probably claim it was stolen and get millions for it —while he still owns the damn thing!"
"Man, I'm in the wrong business."
"You're an unemployed carpenter, Camby —you're not in any business," Pete replied. In fact, Pete was unemployed, too, with a mortgage payment two months overdue; that was one of the reasons he couldn't turn down such an easy job. Of course, the man that had hired him told him to come alone; but since it was all set up to be an easy score, Pete Stone saw no reason to steal just some old-fashioned stone hammer. He brought his best friend and half-brother, Cambridge Thorne, along to help grab whatever else of value they might come across.
"This all seems too easy, Pete," Camby whispered. "It's way too easy; and it's not like we're James Bonds at this sort of thing."
"We don't have to be," Pete replied. "I'm pretty sure it was Wolfe that hired me. I have no idea what his game is, but we stand to make some money out of it."
"I still don't think I like it."
In the darkness Pete scowled. Camby always was the voice of reason. "Well, maybe you'll like the thousand dollars you're getting for this job better?"
Camby Thorne's disposition brightened. "Say, you're probably right about that, Pete." He gave his brother a playful swat on the butt, adding, "I'll take my cut shaken, not stirred."
"There's a camera mounted on the side of the wall; when it rotates we'll make for the door," Pete said. "Okay, follow me—and stay close."
"Is the security guard armed?"
"He thinks he is," Pete said smugly. "But his bullets were replaced by blanks. Whoever planned this thought of everything, Camby. Now, come on—and keep quiet."
With state-of-the-art security systems in place, there was little need for any security guards at Fenris-Wolfe Technologies. A leaf could barely fall from a tree without being caught on one of the hundreds of video cameras that watched over the isolated property like an unblinking, all-seeing eye. But on this night, certain cameras were turned off, or pointed just a bit out of position. A sudden shiver dripped along his spine, and Pete Stone fought down his doubt: he was worried, Camby was right, it was all too easy!
He shook the doubts from his mind; after he gave Camby a thousand bucks, he'd still have four grand for himself. Not to mention they would split anything else of value they happened to stumble across.
In a crouching run Pete raced for the shadows closest to the cold, gray building; Camby Thorne was hot on his heels. To the left was an empty parking lot, small considering the size of the building; to the right another building loomed. It was some type of storage facility, Pete recalled being told by the shifty man. What had he said his name was—Lou Key, or something like that? It didn't matter, for Pete had gotten half the money upfront. Only later, when he had thought about it, had he come to believe this "Lou Key" character was none other than the mysterious billionaire Lucas Wolfe, a tabloid darling dubbed the modern-day Howard Hughes.
Pete's first thought had been to steal the hammer and hold it until he could squeeze more money out of Wolfe; but those lifeless black eyes had unnerved him.
"How did you get picked for this job, Pete?"
"Shh! Quiet." But Thorne's question bothered him; how had he been chosen for this job? Wolfe, if that was who had hired him, seemed to know all about him, including his need for money. "No time for questions."
Edging along the back of the imposing structure, Pete came to the door that he was instructed to look for. He touched the knob; it was cold to the touch; as cold as death. He shivered, but the knob turned easily in his hand. The door pulled open soundlessly and Pete went in, followed by Thorne.
They found themselves in a long, narrow back hall; it led to a single door at the far end. Pete took out the small penlight he had brought with him; it had a mag bulb that gave off a lot of light. He scanned the hall—this was one area that had no cameras. Once inside the building, his nerve seemed to come back to him.
"That door should be unlocked, too," Pete whispered over his shoulder. "Then we'll be in the break room."
"This place is huge, Pete; are you sure you know your way around?"
Pete smiled, thinking of the map in his pocket. "Don't worry, Camby. I know what I'm doing."
"I've heard that before."
The door at the end of the hall was also unlocked; Pete eased it open. The break room was dark and empty, one wall lined by vending machines offering a plethora of chips, crackers, candies and soft drinks; along another wall there was a white fridge, beside it a counter with a microwave oven on it; and trays holding plastic spoons, forks and condiments like sugar, ketchup and coffee creamer. A television was attached from the ceiling at each end of the room. Empty chairs lined the two dozen large tables.
"What now?" Thorne asked.
"Now, we walk. The offices are on the ninth floor," Pete said. "We'll take the stairway."
"Can't we take the elevator?"
"Can't risk it. When the elevator door pings before it opens, it might alert the guard."
"If he's awake—or even in this part of the building. This is one big-ass building, Pete."
"That's true." Pete took the map out of his pocket; it showed a layout of the floor plan. "The security guard's office is on this floor. Maybe we can catch the elevator on the next floor."
Camby paused before the fridge before opening the door.
"C'mon, Camby; there's no time for snacking."
"You sure, Pete?" Camby pulled two cans of beer from the refrigerator. "Looks like the guard was planning a nice night."
Pete caught the can Camby tossed him. "Don't open it until we get up another floor."
The halls were lit by low-watt emergency lighting, with the floodlights outside of the building adding to the cloaking shadows here and there. On cat feet they slipped along the hall, coming to the first bank of elevators. Holding a finger to his lips for Thorne to keep quiet, Pete edged his bulky body further down the hall until he could peek around the corner.
Returning to where Thorne waited, Pete spoke softly, "The guard's in his office; he's sleeping." Pete led the way to the door leading to the stairwell. They took the steps two at a time, until they reached the second floor landing. Pete was heavyset, and now bent over—hands on his knees—as he tried to catch his breath again. Thorne was larger than Pete was, but with a more muscular build. Thorne seemed to have boundless energy; as far as Pete could remember, Camby had always been that way.
"Are we going to stay here all night?"
"Lemme catch some air, you big ox," Pete groaned. "Besides, we're in and we have all night if we want."
"As long as that guard stays asleep."
Pete took out his map again. "Okay, the lab where this hammer is, is on the ninth floor. I'll go get that and meet you here—..." He indicated a tenth floor office on the map. "That's the travel office; and I know they must keep a wad of cash on hand for emergency purposes. We'll find a bag or something and stuff as much dough as we can into it."
"Well, bro, I guess I have to take it all back," Camby said. "You've had a lot of lame-brained schemes over the years, but it looks like you finally hit it big."
"It's like I always say," Pete replied. He gave Camby a wink, adding, "If at first you don't succeed, steal, steal again!"
Pete watched as Camby raced tirelessly up the stairs. By the time Pete reached the third floor landing, Camby was already out of sight, several floors above him. Peeking out the door, the hall was silent and only dimly lit. Pete figured it would be safe enough to use an elevator now, so he pushed the button and waited.
Camby Thorne was right, of course. Pete had always been the one with the clever ideas—that usually backfired and got them into trouble. But this time, he finally hit pay dirt. He'd steal that stupid hammer for Mr. Lou Key, or whatever his name was, and get something extra for his troubles. The elevator bell gave a soft ping and the door slid open. Pete entered and pushed the number nine. Smiling, he opened his can of beer and took a long swig.
Lou Key would be the only one who knew what he'd done, but Mr. Key wouldn't be able to say anything without betraying his own role in the theft. Smiling to himself, Pete Stone was certain that his luck was about to change. Sure, he was getting a pittance for this job, but Mr. Key had suggested that if all went smoothly, there might be a lot more "projects" coming his way. He didn't ask, but Pete had an idea that the mysterious man who called himself 'Lou Key' was none other than Lucas Wolfe himself. In any case, Pete Stone was sure he was about to make the score of a lifetime.
The elevator came to a smooth stop on the ninth floor and Pete stepped out into the hall; like the others, it was dimly lit, but bright enough to make his way around in. He found the door number he'd been told to look for. The room had several large desks to one side, with beakers, microscopes and flasks of various liquids. It looked like an ordinary high school laboratory; but it had a secret, and Pete knew it. He crossed to the bookshelf and looked over the book titles; there were books on different mythologies from around the world. The title he sought wasn't a scientific work though; it was a leather-bound edition of Louis L'Amour's The Lonesome Gods. Pulling the top of the book toward him activated a hidden lever, and the bookshelf slid open to reveal a concealed room that did not show up in the blueprints for the room. There were no windows in the hidden room, no light at all; Pete scanned the space with his small penlight. The room was bare, with a smell of being long enclosed. A plain wooden crate, no more than eight inches long and five across, sat in the middle of the floor. Pete expected the box to be heavy, after all, a stone hammer must be heavy, he figured; but the crate seemed light as a feather. He carried it out into the laboratory and set it on a counter beside some other boxes and equipment. Glancing at his watch, for Mr. Key had been rather specific about the timing; Pete saw that by using the elevator he was slightly ahead of schedule. He went back to the secret room, but there was nothing else in it. Back in the lab, he pushed the book-lever back into position and the bookshelf slid back to once more conceal the hidden room. He rifled through the desk drawers, but found nothing of interest. He retrieved the box and turned just as the door burst open—and the security guard was standing there!
"Alright, hands up," the guard said, clawing for the pistol he was carrying on his belt. A flashlight in his left hand held Pete in its wavering beam.
"I don't want any trouble," Pete said. "You can't stop me, so just get out of my way!"
"Make a move and I'll shoot," the guard said. His hand, holding his gun, wavered slightly. "I'm calling the police."
"I can't let you do that," Pete said. Even if the guard's gun was empty, Pete decided he needed a weapon to give a show of force. He tore the lid off the crate and saw an odd-looking hammer, with a wide, long stone head and stout, decorated handle. He grabbed at the hammer, letting go of the crate. His arm seemed to be wrenched from its socket as the hammer dropped to the floor. "Oww! What the hell ...?"
The guard squeezed the trigger and the gun recoiled in his hand as a slug tore into Pete's chest. The guard fired again, and again. Pete's body jerked with each impact.
"B... blanks ... supposed to be ..." Pete fell heavily against the desk; he tried to grip the desk with weakening fingers, and slipped slowly to the floor. The hammer had fallen back inside the crate and with one hand the guard lifted up the entire box. He left the room, the door ajar; and took the elevator up to the tenth floor. The guard hurried to the office with the name Lucas Wolfe on the door. He entered, setting the crate on the polished desk. Picking up the phone, the guard took a slip of paper from his shirt pocket and quickly dialed the number on it.
"It's me—Smithers—Mr. Wolfe."
"You have it?"
"Yes, sir; everything went just like you said."
"Is he dead?"
"Yes, sir. I watched him take his last breath."
"And he touched the hammer before you shot him?"
"Yes, sir. It went just as you said it would. The crate is on your desk, sir."
"Good work, Smithers. You will be greatly rewarded."
"Thank you, sir."
The guard set the phone back on the cradle and after a hasty glance around the Spartan office he left, closing and locking the door behind him. He hadn't turned the lights on, relying instead on the light that fell into the room from the hallway, thus he didn't notice the empty beer can lying on its side near the door.
Shaking in fear, Camby Thorne crawled out from under the desk. He knew he was supposed to meet Pete in the travel office, but hadn't been able to resist seeing what was in Wolfe's personal office. He figured a man as rich as Wolfe was sure to have something cool to steal; but he had been vastly disappointed to find the room nearly barren, not even a file cabinet. When he heard the ping of the elevator he at first thought it was Pete, but when the footsteps paused at Wolfe's door, Thorne had thrown himself under the desk.
The security guard said he had killed an intruder—it had to be Pete! Thorne was confused. From the sound of the conversation he had overheard, it had all been a set-up. But why would anyone want to target Pete Stone? Pete was a good guy, although a petty criminal; but he had never done anything to majorly piss anyone off. Now, Pete was dead. Then Thorne thought of something else, the guard would probably be calling the police!
"I've got to get out of here." He saw the crate on the table and peered in at the hammer. "This is what Pete was killed for? This stupid-looking hammer?"
It didn't look like anything special, but Thorne figured it must be valuable so he picked the hammer up from the crate and hurried from the room. The guard would go back to the ninth floor before calling the police, so Camby decided it was safe enough to take the elevator all the way down to the first floor.
"Damn, Pete; what the hell did you get us into this time?" he wondered.
"Hey, look, it's Geronimo!"
A group of young men were gathered near the trunk of a rusted Chevy Malibu; they were pointing and laughing loudly at the ragged pair that hurried away from the backdoor of the Dew Drop Inn.
Clutching the precious bottle of whiskey to his chest, Bobtail Robideaux tried to hurry his steps, doing his best to ignore the taunts and catcalls coming from the parking lot. The woman beside him had to almost run to keep up with him.
"Maybe it's Crazy Horse?"
"Crazy Horse, hell—he's crazy drunk!"
Their laughter echoed inside his skull, but Bob Robideaux had long ago grown used to the taunts of the whites living around the Lakota's Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The Indians from the reservation were usually maltreated in many of the border towns, and sometimes someone turned up dead.
Robideaux had seen enough death back in the jungles of southeast Asia. The army had given him medals and hailed him as a hero; but he came home to chants of "baby killer" and back in Rapid City he was just another lousy redskin. Around there many people firmly agreed with Gen. Phil Sheridan when he said back in the 1870s that the only good Indian was a dead Indian.
"Hey, Chief Wahoo, you gonna keep your squaw's wig warm tonight?"
One of the young men left the group and ran toward Robideaux as his friends egged him on.
"Let him have it, Joey!" one of them called.
"Scalp him!" another added.
Joey stepped in front of Bobtail. "Hey, we're talking to you, Tonto!"
Robideaux kept his head down and tried to step around Joey, but the young man grabbed his arm. "You aren't very friendly, Kemo Slobby."
"We don't want no trouble," Robideaux mumbled, without making eye contact with the young man.
"Well neither did Custer, you sorry son of a bitch; but you savages murdered him all the same!"
"I just want to go home."
Robideaux tried to free his arm, but the young man snatched the bottle from his hands. "Nice of you to buy us a drink, chief."
"Please," the woman said. "We don't want any trouble."
Looking Grace over, Joey called to his friends, "Say, guys; she ain't bad-looking for a goddamned squaw!" Joey reached out and touched Grace's long black hair, but she pulled back fearfully. He blatantly eyed Grace's curvy figure. "Maybe if I drink enough of this buffalo piss I can talk myself into fucking you, Pocahontas."
"She'd like that, Joe," one of his friends suggested.
Joe leered at her. "You want that, don't you, squaw? I hear that you Injun whores love white totem poles!"
"Leave her alone, man; she hasn't done anything to you," Robideaux said, slurring his words slightly. "Just give me my bottle and we'll get out of town."
"Oh, you need 'em heap drinkum, Geronimo?" Joey tossed the bottle in the air caught it again. "Let's see you get it, prairie nigger!"
The group of young men laughed and shouted in glee as Robideaux awkwardly tried to get hold of the bottle that Joey was taunting him with. The Indian's reflexes were slowed by drink and the young man easily kept Bobtail away from the bottle. Losing his balance, Bobtail sprawled on the ground. Joey swung a kick at the Indian's head; rolling aside the boot glanced off Bobtail's shoulder.
"Aw, you missed, Joey! Give him another!"
Distracted by his friends, Joey fumbled the bottle as Bobtail managed to get a hand on it. They struggled briefly before Bobtail was able to snatch his bottle back.
"Nigger!" Joey pushed him and from instinct Bobtail defended himself. A swift, brutal chop with the palm of his hand and the young man went to the ground, gasping for breath and withering in pain.
"Hey, he hit Joey!"
"Let's get the son of a bitch!"
Bobtail Robideaux turned to flee, but his alcohol-infused legs betrayed him and he felt himself stumbling. He hit the ground hard, managing to protect his bottle. He had no money left for another one.
The woman tried to help him up, but he pushed her away. "Run!" he hissed at Grace. "Get out of here!"
They were on him then, raining punches and vicious kicks at him; Bobtail tried to use his arms to block, but the blows often got through his defenses. A boot collided with his head and he felt himself blacking out. The last thing he remembered was pain—excruciating pain—as someone purposely stomped his hand; and someone yelling, "Let's go get that bitch!"
It was dark and cold when Bobtail Robideaux came to, shivering in anger, pain and from the barely above freezing temperature. The lights from the Dew Drop Inn were off, even the parking lot was still and empty. He pushed himself to his feet and stood, wobbling, as his head swam. His right hand was raw from being stomped on, yet he worked his fingers and decided that nothing was broken. Bobtail took a step and his foot kicked something, he saw the slight gleam from the unbroken whiskey bottle; he picked it up, telling himself that he needed a drink to steady his nerves. His hand stopped when it touched the cap and Robideaux dropped the bottle in his army jacket's pocket and stumbled in the direction he remembered Grace Yellowhand running in. The Dew Drop Inn was a murky dive on the edge of town and the road Bobtail Robideaux followed led off into the darkness. It was cold and he tried to pull his old, torn coat tighter, wishing the zipper still worked. Onward he walked, just concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other. He heard the gravel crunch beneath his feet; crunching like bones being ground underfoot.
He tried to keep his mind off of Grace; she was the women who tried to love him. What a thankless job that was; trying to love a man who didn't love himself! But Bobtail did not remember how to love, how to care for anyone or anything; he was a man who had put a bottle to his head and pulled the trigger decades ago. He couldn't count the number of times he promised himself he'd quit the booze; or the number of mornings he awoke wishing he didn't have to face another day in this godforsaken world.
Now, Bobtail Robideaux was on his last legs; if he didn't fall asleep on the way back to Pine Ridge some night and freeze to death, his liver would likely shut down within a year or two. He hated his life, and that made him drink; he hated drinking and that made him hate life—and everything about it. Why wasn't he the one who died back there in the jungle, instead of his best friend, Tommy Black Elk? He had tripped a wire, and set off a shotgun blast that took Tommy Black Elk full in the chest. Kneeling, tears streaking his muddy face, Bob Robideaux had cradled Tommy's head in his arms and watched his friend die.
"Be strong, kola," Tommy Black Elk told him with his strength fading. "Hokey hey, kola, it is a good day to die!"
Be strong. It was one thing he had always been; he and Tommy enlisted before they were drafted; each eager to win battle honors, to make their ancestors proud. And then Tommy Black Elk had died and, in many ways, so did Bobtail Robideaux that steamy August day in the tangled jungles of Vietnam. He spent the rest of his time in Vietnam getting revenge for Tommy Black Elk. When his first tour was over he had re-upped. By the time he was sent back to the States—with emotional problems, the doctors said—Bobtail could have boasted of earning two dozen red-tipped eagle feathers for his war bonnet. Once, when his platoon, had stumbled into an ambush, Bobtail singlehandedly fought off the Viet Cong as his comrades got the wounded soldiers safely away. He had emptied his machine gun, a pair of pistols and finished off the last Viet Cong with a perfectly thrown knife, the blade driving up to the hilt in Charlie's throat.
A hero. That's what they said of him; but Bobtail didn't see it like that at all; he was just a maniac, looking to kill as many enemies as possible to make up for the loss of Tommy Black Elk.
Pausing to catch his breath, Bobtail looked up at the handful of stars that were sprinkled in the otherwise dark Dakota night. He had killed his best friend; was it to be the same now, with Grace Yellowhand? Why did it seem like anyone who cared for him ended up dying? Maybe he couldn't save Grace, just as he couldn't save Tommy Black Elk; but he could take revenge on those responsible for hurting her.
The blacktop ended and the road turned into a rutted gravel trail, barely wide enough for one car at a time. He limped along, his body starting to feel the aches and pains of the beating he'd taken. Bobtail jammed his fingers into the pockets of his coat; he hunched his shoulders as he continued on. Once, his people had roamed this land of the Paha Sapa, afraid of no man; the Lakota were lords of all they surveyed. Now, he was alone; a bitter, broken old man trudging hopelessly to ... to where? To what? It was cold, so very bitterly cold. He could curl up and sleep, never knowing when hypothermia set in; he could end it all so easy. There would be no more suffering, no pain, no regrets. He stopped walking, looking all around him at the flat land. To the west was a low hill, with rocky slopes. He started toward it. He would sleep, and he would let it all end. These years belonged to Tommy Black Elk; he should have lived them, he should not have died in Vietnam. No one ever blamed Robideaux for what happened; no one, except himself. He stopped at the foot of the hill, looking up toward the crest. He took his left hand from his pocket, holding the unopened whiskey bottle. He looked at it through bleary eyes. Why not drink it, drink it all and then lie down to wait for the end? Slowly he unscrewed the top ...
What was that? There seemed to be a dim glow coming from the top of the hill, strange colorful specks of brightness, as if an army of fireflies swarmed around the hilltop. Bottle in hand, Robideaux took a few steps up the hill; the light grew steadily brighter, and larger, as it came together in a big ball. It was a black night, yet the top of the hill seemed as light as midday! With one hand Bobtail shielded his eyes as he stared; and then a shadow seemed to move within the circle of light; and a bulky, shaggy figure slowly took shape. A young white buffalo was standing atop the hill, its eyes fixed on Bobtail. Was it the white buffalo that Grace had wanted him to see? But it was too large to be that calf.
"What is this? I must be dreaming," Robideaux muttered in confusion. He looked down at the bottle in his hand. Though he had not touched this bottle yet, he thought he must still be drunk from all the drinking he'd done earlier in the day. He had to be hallucinating. "Go away!" He yelled at the white buffalo, but the beast merely stared at him, as though it could see past his flesh and bone and peer into the depths of his soul. "Go away! Leave me alone!" Bobtail shook the whiskey bottle and some of the fluid erupted from the top. "You're not real! This made you, the wasichu's devil water! Go away! Go away, you hear!"
Bobtail threw the bottle toward the shaggy beast; it fell short, smashing against a rock, the fluid leaving a dark stain. Bobtail fell to his knees. The buffalo only stared at him as a blinding light enveloped it, and yet Robideaux would swear that he heard a voice speaking to him.
"Hokey hey! The time has come!"
Time? Time for what? His head reeled from dizziness and he pitched forward, slamming his face in the ground. The white buffalo calf faded away and the light started to slowly dim. It grew darker, and then as the light surrendered to the night, a bluish finger of lightning suddenly tore through the darkness and slammed into Bobtail Robideaux's prone form; the impact flipped him onto his back. He lay with his eyes closed, as a strange sensation seemed to take hold of him. This must be what it feels like to die, he thought. No man could survive such a direct blast of lightning; he must be dead, his spirit on the way to the Paha Sapa, the Black Hills, to join the ancestors. Bobtail Robideaux sat up. He ran his hands over his body, he seemed the same, yet different. Glancing up the hill he saw no more bright light, no sign of the white buffalo; but something was there, a small, dark bundle on the ground. When he stood his graying hair, which had been short, swung to cover his face. He brushed it away; noticing that his hair now was shiny black. Had the lightning somehow caused his hair to grow—and his hands, they looked like the strong, steady hands of a young man. In fact, Robideaux realized that he felt younger, stronger. It seemed as if some mysterious power was building within him. He started up the hill when a fire seemed to ignite, engulfing the hilltop. He dropped to the ground, for a moment he had a flashback of being in Vietnam and half expected to hear gunfire. There was no sound, not even a crackle from the fire! Uncertain whether to turn around and run or not, Bobtail slowly rose to his feet and the dancing fire seemed to beckon him. With wary steps, he slowly climbed the hill.
He found a medicine pouch near the fire; it was made from soft deerskin and decorated with colored porcupine quills. As his fingers touched the pouch some dormant memory seemed to awaken within him. Bobtail tore off his raggedy clothes and found sage inside the pouch. He dropped some sprigs into the fire and the flames leaped happily. Using the smoke from the fire he carefully cleansed his entire body in the old, sacred way. Just as suddenly as the fire appeared, it now dissipated; leaving a bundle, wrapped in a Pendleton blanket, lying on the ground. Carefully, Bobtail unfolded the blanket and discovered a magnificently decorated quiver, with an unusually large hickory bow and silver-tipped arrows! He saw clothing, too; a buckskin shirt adorned with porcupine quills and boasting an assortment of beads, baubles and bangles. Beneath the shirt was a pair of fringed leggings. After he had dressed in the new clothes and swung the quiver onto his back he felt as if some strange power was growing within him.
He thought of her then; maybe it wasn't too late to rescue her. Slipping the quiver over his shoulder and ran along the gravel road, his feet seeming to barely touch the ground. He heard raucous laughter ahead, off the road, down an embankment. He heard a scream—it was Grace. He moved closer. In the headlights of a car, he saw Grace slowly backing away, frantically trying to hold her torn dress in front of her. Four young men faced her in a half circle. The one called Joey, the one who had attacked Robideaux, stood closest to Grace, a knife in his hand.
"You're going to treat us right, bitch—or you're going to die right here."
"I don't want to fuck her, Joey," one of the others said. "No telling what diseases the squaw has!"
"Yeah, Lenny's right," another agreed. "Let's just scalp the bitch!"
Before he knew it, Robideaux was walking toward the men. The one that wanted to scalp her noticed him with a start.
"What the hell? Joey, look!"
They turned to face him; four disheveled red-eyed young men facing a lone Indian warrior in full traditional regalia.
"What the hell do you want, Tonto?" Joey yelled. He waved the knife menacingly. "Get lost, unless you want some of this blade."
"I'm going to take that knife from you and shove it up your ass."
"Oh, really?" Joey grinned. "Let's get him, guys!"
Bobtail met the first one as he came in, easily blocking a looping hook and sending the man sprawling with a fierce hand chop. Another reached for him and Robideaux grabbed his arm, jerked him off his feet and lifted the man above his head; throwing him into the third man. Joey rushed in holding the knife in his hand; but Robideaux did a spinning kick, striking Joey in the gut. The knife flew from Joey's hand and Bobtail deftly grabbed it out of the air. Joey had scrambled to his feet and was running into the darkness; but Robideaux tossed the knife into the air, caught it by the blade and flung it—the blade driving deep into Joey's backside as he yelped in pain. The others crawled to their feet and ran off into the night. Robideaux watched them go.
"That will teach them," he said. He was surprised when he turned to Grace and saw fear in her eyes! "You are safe, Grace."
"You know my name?" She fell to the ground, bowing toward him, crying, "Wakan Tanka!"
"Grace, it's me ..."
"Wakan Tanka," she sobbed. "Oh, Great Creator, thank you for rescuing me!"
Bobtail Robideaux walked past the car, seeing a slight reflection in the windshield. He didn't look the same as he had earlier in the night. He was different, he could feel it. Robideaux was gone.
Confused, Bobtail turned back to look at Grace Yellowhand. "What's happening?"
A vehicle topped a small rise and the headlights swept toward them, catching a glimpse of Bobtail Robideaux before he turned and fled into the night. The pick-up crunched to a sudden stop and two passengers jumped out hurriedly, a third, an elder woman, slowly pulled herself from the truck.
"Grace!" Milton Manygoats rushed to the near-hysterical woman. "Grace, are you okay? What happened?"
Still dazed, Grace babbled incoherently.
Grandma Manygoats knelt beside Grace and gently took her hand. Speaking in her native tongue, she asked, "What happened here, Grace?"
Grace, managed to explain how she and Bobtail were assaulted and how she had run, but the young thugs had caught up to her.
"But who—or what—was that man?" asked Nap Marquard as he stared off in the direction the figure had run.
"I never saw him before," Milton Manygoats said. "Do you have any idea who he is, Grace?"
Grace shook her head and sobbed.
Grandma Manygoats looked off into the darkness, in the direction the figure had gone. "It is Wakan Tanka," she whispered. "Wakan Tanka has returned to walk among the people."
The room was dark except for the dim glow from a muted television. Still in shock, Camby Thorne slouched in his threadbare recliner; a three-quarter empty bottle of Captain Morgan's rum stood valiantly on the dinner tray beside him. He had started with rum and Coke, but the soda had run out three glasses ago and the empty plastic Coke bottle lay on the floor beside the mess that had been a box of take-out Moo Goo Gai Pan from Lucky House before he had thrown it against the wall.
What the hell had just happened? He hoped it had all been some kooky nightmare; that Pete Stone wasn't really dead; but it was no dream. Two hours before, Pete's wife had called him to tell him the news; he couldn't tell her what he knew, so he said nothing about being there, too. He couldn't say anything that would comfort her, and he certainly couldn't tell her the truth: that her husband had been killed as part of some bizarre plot. It had to be a plot; everything was going just as Pete said it would, everything until that security guard showed up.
"God damn you, Pete! Why did you have to go and die?"
Thorne refilled his glass with rum and gulped it down, no longer even tasting the amber liquid. He stared at the TV, only marginally aware of what was being discussed on The History Channel—something about the prophecies of Nostradamus—but his mind was too clouded to really wade through what he was hearing. He stood up, his legs unsteady, and stared stupidly around his squalid apartment. On the couch beside him was the weird-looking hammer—its handle too short, the head too large—that had been the cause of all this trouble. He picked it up and studied it; it looked like any ordinary hammer—assuming it was made of stone with a short, wooden handle adorned with odd symbols carved into it. On the stone head it appeared to have a small nick in it; it was jagged, reminding Thorne of a streak of lightning. He put the hammer back down and snatched up the rum bottle, not bothering to use the glass this time.
"Murder." He muttered to himself, "Oldest sin in the book." His thoughts cleared a little. "It was murder. I heard that security guard talking to Wolfe. I've got to tell the police what I know. I've got—"
Got to what? He couldn't go the police without incriminating himself. He already had two strikes on his record, both minor offenses related to drinking and fighting; but a third meant automatic prison time. But if he remained silent, Lucas Wolfe would get away with having Pete murdered!
"By god, he won't get away with this!" Thorne vowed. "I'll kill him myself!" His eyes touched on the hammer again. "You!" Thorne lifted the surprisingly light hammer. "Pete is dead because of this stupid, fucking hammer!"
He had thought of trying to sell it to some antique dealer when he first took it off Wolfe's desk; but then he had realized that a rare object wouldn't be too hard to trace. He'd get rid of it, that's what he'd do; get rid of the hammer and then make Lucas Wolfe pay ...
Putting the hammer in a Minnesota Vikings duffle bag, Thorne left the house, leaving his door open in his haste. He got into his green Taurus and drove slowly out of town, toward the North Road quarry where he and Pete used to hang out when skipping high school all those years ago. It was illegal to swim in the quarry, but the teens generally had ignored that rule; that is until some kid had drowned earlier in the summer. Thorne knew the place would be empty now; and no one would find the hammer in the bottom of North Road Quarry. The more he thought about it, the more he began to laugh to himself. The quarry can hide more than just this stupid hammer, he told himself. It would be fitting if Lucas Wolfe joined his precious hammer at the bottom of the quarry!
Large boulders had been placed at the entrance to keep people from driving up to the quarry; leaving his car parked off the road, Thorne grabbed the duffle bag and followed the narrow gravel path through the woods and to the edge of the quarry. The water was ninety feet deep, or so he'd heard, and most of the walls were slippery and couldn't be climbed, except for the one spot the kids called "the beach." Thorne looked to the east, where the first rays of sunlight were creeping sleepily over the horizon. With a firm grip on the hammer's handle, Cambridge Thorne gave a grunt as he threw it as far as he could.
"Goodbye, you bastard!" he muttered. He knew he couldn't throw it all the way across the quarry, so he expected it to drop in the middle of the water and plunge to a final resting place. He was amazed as the hammer flew straight across the quarry—leaving a trail of blazing blue lightning—where it struck an ancient oak with a crack like the rumble of thunder. The tree splintered apart, tiny missiles of wood flying in all directions; with its roots loosened the remainder of the oak tumbled off the edge of the quarry and slowly sank into the dark water below. Staring dumbly at the tree, Thorne failed to notice something else—after striking the oak, the hammer reversed course and was soaring back toward him. At the last moment he looked up and saw the hammer as it slammed into his forehead, knocking him unconscious!
They were the Zep Tepi.
Lucas Wolfe sat in his leather office chair, his triangular chin rested on his abnormally long, interlocked fingers; he stared sullenly with bushy, arched eyebrows at the empty wooden crate on his desk. He was a smallish, handsome man— or would have been handsome if he had ever smiled. His strangely disconcerting eyes were a milkish color; his stare was piercing, always boring through whatever he stared at, unnerving all who had dealings with him. That number was small, as Lucas Wolfe was as mysterious as Howard Hughes and twice as wealthy as King Midas.
But now, a thousand questions raced through Wolfe's mind; foremost was where was that cursed hammer? Wolfe had spent years, decades—centuries—in search of Mjolnir, the mystical hammer forged by the dwarves and imbued with their strongest magic. Mjolnir was the legendary hammer that could only be used by its true master. And that master was dead.
On his desk was a large dusty book—the Assyrian Book of the Dead, or so men knew it as. This was the final piece to the puzzle that allowed him to finally locate his prey.
Their forefathers had come to this world from their home in the Orion Galaxy, they were called Zep Tepi, the "Complete Beings," and they possessed unfathomable intelligence, curiosity and an insatiable thirst for perfection, the Zep Tepi had learned to use more of their brain capacity than any beings known in the universe. They learned to tap into the mystic powers of the mind, of thought, persuasion and suggestion. They knew things better left unknown. The Urshu, those who derived their powers from the light, and the dark-worshiping Neteru struggled for dominance in Orion; for centuries beyond counting they had waged war against each other; coming to the point where all life on their homeworld was endangered.
Only then, at the last, with their own world on the brink of collapse, had the Zep Tepi —both Urshu and Neteru—come together, forced by the common goal of survival. The Urshu, who saw themselves as protectors of the universe, and Neteru, who sought knowledge and power for less noble purposes, had learned that good and evil dwell within the hearts of every man, woman or child in the universe; that some beasts are driven by pure instinct, and only those creatures knew not hatred, prejudice or shame. The Zep Tepi knew that to think, to dream and to comprehend was to welcome doubt, jealousy and uncertainty into life; for no great accomplishment can be born without great risk, no precious dream lives without its nightmarish sibling a possibility. It was an innate part of that which we know as life, for the moment you are born into the world there is only one certainty—the day you must leave it is drawing nearer.
Even the Zep Tepi, though they had extraordinary lifespans by the standards of mortal men, were not immune from the one reality of life. All things that enjoy the fruit of life must one day taste the bitter rind of death.
For a millennium their Orion homeworld was wracked with violence, war, murder and all manner of brutality; they struggled endlessly, the Urshu and the Neteru. Then, at last, with their world teetering on obliteration, they had realized the necessity of coming together, for each side possessed powers essential for survival. The forefathers had sent out exploration teams to locate a new home, a new place where the Zep Tepi could settle and start life anew. The Urshu wished to share their knowledge, if worthy beings of potential could be found; the Neteru believed that their immense powers gave them the right to dominate any new world or peoples they encountered. Rather than living quietly among the inhabitants of another world, they saw no reason they shouldn't rule it.
One such team of ancient, galactic explorers had landed on this third rock from the sun.
Lucas Wolfe stared glumly at the empty crate. He had carefully documented genealogical records and was sure that Mjolnir's master was Peter Stone. For inside Stone lived the slumbering spirit of Thor, hidden—as all the 'gods' were—in an effort by the powerful Urshu to prevent the Ragnarok, the Twilight of the Gods. Wolfe knew soon he would no longer need that manifestation, and could reveal himself to the world by his rightful name, Loki—and he understood what he had to do; he had to get Stone to touch the hammer, Mjolnir, to reawake the spirit of Thor. But then, before the mighty thunder god was fully revived, if Stone was killed, the spirit within him perished also. The Urshu had done everything in their immense power to thwart the ambitions of the Neteru, the dark half of the Zep Tepi.
The forefathers knew they had to keep their descendants apart, for it seemed inevitable that when Urshu and Neteru came together, chaos would follow.
The wisest and most powerful of the Zep Tepi knew that for their race to survive, it must be protected—from itself—by paying special attention to mystical items that might be associated with each individual Zep Tepi. Thus, for example, the Thor spirit could not reawaken unless the human vessel carrying it touched the magic hammer, Mjolnir; the same for Poseidon and his trident, or Athena and her bow. The odds that a mortal carrying a Zep Tepi spirit would actually come into contact with the one sacred item that could reawaken that spirit was so remote as to be laughable.
Wolfe wasn't laughing now.
Stone had to touch the hammer just before he was killed; and that had happened. Wolfe had seen Stone's body. So where was Mjolnir? Anyone could pick up the crate carrying the hammer; it was the deceptively light hammer itself that could not be used by any other than its rightful master. Mjolnir's magic could only be wielded by one being: he that the Norseman knew as Thor, the god of thunder.
So how could the hammer not be here? No one could have taken it; by destroying Stone before Thor's spirit could fully awaken, Loki would finally defeat the thunder god and bring about the Ragnarok. And with Thor dead, there could be none to prevent him—Loki, god of mischief—from ruling Midgard, this world of men. Long, long ago he had vowed to rule the world, or see it destroyed.
But the hammer wasn't here. What happened? How could that be? It had to be here. With a vicious backhand, Wolfe knocked the empty crate off of his desk. He had to think —what could possibly have happened?
Unless ... Maybe Smithers hadn't followed his orders! What if Smithers had killed Stone before he had touched the hammer? If a mortal shell holding one of the sleeping Zep Tepi was destroyed while the Zep Tepi was dormant inside, the spirit would move to another mortal body. It would take Loki a thousand more years to track Thor down again. Smithers! Wolfe's eyes narrowed; what possessed him to entrust such an important task to a mere mortal? If Smithers had killed Stone before he touched the hammer ... Oh, Wolfe gritted his teeth; he would make that fool Smithers rue the miserable day he was born!
Wolfe started to rise from his desk, then dropped back into his chair as another thought came to him: if Smithers had killed Stone before he touched the hammer, then Mjolnir should still be here, inside the crate. Loki slammed a white-knuckled fist on his desk. Damn it! Could he never win this final triumph?
Wolfe had come so close when he secretly masterminded the murder of the first Zep Tepi, the one named Baldur, who had been revered and beloved by the ancient Norsemen. But the Urshu—the leaders of the Zep Tepi—had realized the danger awaiting them all and had pooled their considerable might to hold the end of time, Ragnarok, at bay.
To the foolish mortals, his race of Zep Tepi were gods—prayed to throughout time from Easter Island to Maachu Pichu and all places where men lived and worshipped. The Urshu, known as The Watchers, were the most powerful among the Zep Tepi; the lesser Zep Tepi were called Neteru. The purest among the Urshu and Neteru joined their powers and casted an intricate weaving of powerful enchantments upon all the remaining Zep Tepi. Being nearly immortal, the Zep Tepi could not be easily destroyed, so the lesser of the Urshu and Neteru were entrapped in the frail shells of mortal beings. Each generation the Zep Tepi was reborn to a descendant of the original human vessel. Sometimes a mortal would demonstrate unusual powers—like Alexander the Great, Shakespeare, Houdini or Mother Shipton—but they never realized the true extent of their destinies; none discovered that lying dormant inside of their mortal shells were the slumbering spirits of the Zep Tepi race that men once knew as gods.
Men were so foolish, as they had ever been , Loki thought. Like that baseball player they worshipped: Babe Ruth. Foolish mortals believed that a fat, hot dog-eating, beer-swilling barrel with legs could slug all those home-runs; never suspecting that there was a fun-loving Neteru spirit hidden within him!
When the gods went into the dormant state, the memory of men faded, and soon many of the gods, once revered, were cast aside and forgotten. Those whose names lingered were seen to be mere mythological creations, figments of some ancient imagination. Once, the world of men worshipped and trembled when the Zep Tepi were among them; now they scoffed at such old tales, now they no longer believed in the world of the gods.
"Oh, but they will," Wolfe vowed. He saw his reflection on the computer screen before him; his face was triangular, his skin smooth and pale. His eyebrows were thick, his black hair kept short. A perpetual smirk seemed to always be on his lips. His nose was the only flaw; he winced at the thought of it, and how it had once been broken by Thor.
The Watchers had been wise, but they did have a flaw; they believed in their omnipotence, thought themselves infallible. It was a weakness to be exploited. Loki was a master of trickery and mischief, and his senses were tuned to every manner of debauchery; thus he was aware of a flower known as peyote. He knew how the plants could be used; the taste bitter, but the effects potent. It altered the mind for a brief time, and before he was forced to submit to the Watchers' plan, Loki had ingested some peyote. When the Watchers placed their enchantments on him, one of which was to block his memory from recalling who he really was, the Mischievous One knew that due to his altered state of mind, their spells would be weakened once he regained his normal mental state. Thus, of all the Neteru, only Loki had been able to limit many of the mental barriers set in place by the Watchers. He had self-awareness, even if—at first—his powers were limited. But, because he had found a way to control his mind and partially block the spell from The Watchers, Loki knew that in time he might find a way to regain his full powers—and to locate his Neteru allies. He remained aware of where his own spirit rested and, over thousands of years, learned to control the leaping of his spirit, so he might inhabit the body he wished. Loki had been the inner evil lurking inside many different people throughout history; among them Vlad the Impaler, Ivan the Terrible, Adolph Hitler, Jack the Ripper and numerous others that have stained the pages of history with blood. From mortal to mortal, his spirit jumped for a millennium, always searching for the magic hammer Mjolnir—and the mortal wherein Thor, the god of thunder, dwelt. He had come close, so close many times, and yet just when victory seemed to be within his grasp, his plots had failed when it mattered most.
The hammer, crafted by the dwarves, was protected over the thousands of years by a select few who, if they did not know the full extent of what they hid, understood that the seemingly ordinary hammer possessed a power far greater than mortals could comprehend. Once, Loki had found the hammer was kept in Pompei, but before he could locate it, Mount Vesuvius erupted and buried the city. By the time he was able to explore the Roman city, the hammer had been whisked away by some enchantment. He had located it again, on Atlantis, but the island was swallowed from the earth and he had yet to relocate it.
There was a time when the Knights Templars kept the secret, and the freemasons— and always, just as he was close to finding it, the hammer vanished.
But he had found it again. An illiterate Russian monk named Rasputin had been its keeper. Loki—he was known as Prince Yuri then —had agitated rebellion and his plotting led to the murder of Rasputin and the execution of Tsar Nicholas and the entire Romanov royal family.
And at last the hammer had come into his possession.
Like everyone, except Thor, he could not lift the hammer itself, and so it was left in the wooden crate that had been its home since the long sleep of the Zep Tepi began. But once he had the hammer, Loki had only to find the mortal shell that held Thor's spirit. And he thought he had found it in Peter Stone.
Could he have been mistaken?
No, his research was careful, deliberate; he was sure that Stone was descended from Baron Von Bismarck, himself a member of the long family line that had unknowingly housed the spirit of Thor.
Smithers! He had to talk to Smithers. He would wait until night, when Smithers was working the evening shift. The second security guard would be on duty too—but that was his misfortune.
The man known as Mr. Wolfe clasped his hands behind his head and leaned back in his plush chair, his feet on his spotless desk. He thought of all he had learned about the Sleep of the Gods; and knew that to trigger the Ragnarok required the death of one of the Urshu; one death that would light the spark that stretched to doomsday. For the first death opened the door to the chain of fated events that would culminate in the end of world order—and would soon usher in the reign of Loki!
Foolish men have always pondered the end of days, experts studied the Bible, the Quran, the Dead Sea Scrolls and the writings of psychics and false prophets to understand what fate awaited them. Even now, many believed the signs pointed to a certain date when the world would end.
December 21, 2012.
The day was fast approaching and, if Wolfe had his way, it would indeed be the end of the world - at least the world men now knew. It would also be the birth of a new world order, and all the inhabitants of this Earth would bend the knee in homage to Loki!
But the sleeping Zep Tepi would have to awaken, and slowly regain their powers; it was during this time of awakening that they could be killed if the vessel they lived inside was destroyed. Loki had located Baldur, and set about the necessary steps for him to reawaken—and then he slew the human body, killing the Urshu spirit within.
Ragnarok had begun. Now, he would make his final plans ...
The night shift at Fenris-Wolfe Technologies was endless hours of boredom; few people even knew of the existence of the isolated company, and fewer still had even been allowed inside. Smithers glanced over toward Dennis, who was sitting in front of the small screen television he always brought to work.
"What's the score?"
"Five to nothing," Dennis replied. He took a swallow from his soda can. "Big Z has a no-hitter going. I tell you, Smithers boy, this is the year the Cubs win it all!"
"Right," Smithers chuckled, drawing out the word. "There's a better chance of the world coming to an end!"
"Ah, you'll see," Dennis insisted. "Heck, look at the Boston Red Flops—nothing for almost ninety years and then two titles in four years."
Smithers wrinkled his nose at the mention of the Boston team; a loyal New Yorker, the sun rose and set in the Bronx as far as he was concerned—and Derek Jeter was god! "Yeah, well the Cubs haven't won the World Series for a century, Dennis. Sheesh! They stink so much that even Three-Fingered Brown could express his opinion of the team with two fingers to spare!"
"Yeah, yeah, funny man," Dennis said, waving a hand dismissively. "Go take your nap, knucklehead."
Chuckling, Smithers picked up his flashlight and his portable radio. "Make sure you wake me in time to see Letterman."
"Aw, Leno's better."
Smithers sighed and then left the guard office and made his way to the waiting room, which boasted the most comfortable couches in the building; and Smithers had just about tried them all. He smiled to himself as he stretched out on a soft, white covering; everything had gone just as Mr. Wolfe had said. He didn't know what it was all about, but Wolfe said he'd be rewarded handsomely, so that was all Smithers needed to know. He wondered how much he'd get; maybe enough for a new car? Some sleek, sporty number; he'd always wanted something cool like that. Maybe a Fiat X19, or a Ferrari. He drifted off to a happy rest, seeing himself behind the wheel of a black Lamborghini.
His eyes flicked open. Had he heard something? Smithers thought he'd heard a blood-curdling scream; but now he heard nothing.
"Must have been dreaming," he grumbled. After rubbing the sleep from his eyes, Smithers glanced at the clock on the wall—it was midnight. "Damn! Letterman is half over."
Smithers grabbed his light and radio and hurried back down the hall. The light was on in the guard's office, but he couldn't see Dennis through the window. Entering the office, Smithers saw the TV was on, it was the late news. His partner was sitting in a high-back chair, facing away from Smithers.
"Dennis! Hey, you bum, why didn't you wake me?" There was no response. "Dennis? Shit, he fell asleep." Smithers walked to the chair and spun it around, "Hey, wake up!"
Dennis' lifeless body rolled to the floor like a sack of potatoes; his throat had been torn out, and blood soaked the front of his shirt.
"Dennis! Oh, man, what the hell happened? Dennis? I ... I gotta call someone—the police, an ambulance ..." Smithers turned around and leaped back in fright as he realized someone was standing in the doorway. "Oh my god, Mr. Wolfe! It's you. Something terrible has happened, someone killed Dennis! We've got to get some help."
Ignoring the body, Wolfe's long, thin fingers took the phone from Smithers' trembling hand and let it drop to the floor. "It's too late to help him, Smithers; and we don't want the authorities snooping around here, now, do we?"
"N... no, sir. Of course not."
"That burglar you killed, are you sure everything happened the way you reported?"
"Huh? The burg ... oh, that. Yes, sir, Mr. Wolfe, I told you everything, just as it happened. Does that have something to do with ... with Dennis?"
"He touched the hammer before you killed him?" Wolfe demanded sharply. Smithers nodded dumbly. "You are certain of this?"
"I saw it, I did everything like you told me, Mr. Wolfe," Smithers protested weakly. He was getting an uncomfortable feeling. "I remember it real good. He tried to pick the hammer up but something funny happened."
"Oh?" Wolfe raised an eyebrow. "How so?"
"Yeah, he tried to pick up the hammer and it must have been a lot heavier than he thought it would be; it just fell right to the floor and nearly tore his arm off doing it."
"What! Are you telling me that he couldn't pick up the hammer?"
The sudden burst of anger scared Smithers and he took a step backwards. "Y ... yes, sir. It looked like it was too heavy for him."
"So—I was wrong."
"He still lives." Wolfe seemed to be unaware of Smithers' presence. "But how could—" He wheeled back toward Smithers. "The burglar was alone, wasn't he?"
"Yes, I mean, at least I never saw anyone else."
If someone else had been here, that could explain the missing hammer. It didn't explain how that person was able to lift it. Unless ...
Wolfe dismissed the thought. There had to be some explanation, and he would find it.
"S ... sir? What about Dennis? What should I do?"
"What? Oh, yes—I almost forgot about you. I promised you that you'd be taken care of, didn't I?"
Thoughts of a huge reward, gave Smithers some of his confidence back. "Yes sir, Mr. Wolfe!"
Smithers stood motionless, doubting what he was seeing. As Wolfe smiled, his teeth seemed to lengthen and grow sharper; the shape of his face changed, becoming rounder and hair seemed to grow from every pore, his nose grow longer, into a snout.
Wolfe's thin figure became fuller as he became a werewolf, with rippling muscles, blood-red eyes and white fangs. The man-wolf lunged suddenly, its jaws tearing into Smithers' throat.