Chapter 1

ONE

The small diamond in Diana’s nose reflected the lights from oncoming traffic. Her pickup moved slowly north on route 160. Hot air rushed through the truck past her damp brown arms. It was past 9 pm and still hot enough to make a rattlesnake sweat. Her long brown ponytail fluttered towards the open window as she shifted into third gear. Her leg clung to the seat as she let out the clutch.

Up the road a lonesome hitchhiker heard her shifting gears. An overture of crickets took his mind off his problems. No job, no girlfriend and nowhere to go. Tonight he threw his sleeping bag and a few clothes into a duffle and walked out to the highway. Rusty Dalrymple didn’t know where he was going; his only plan was to get away. He stuck out his thumb when the old Dodge pickup approached. The dusty old truck slowed down as it drew near.

Diana saw Rusty standing under a streetlight. His messy red hair hung past the collar of an old black cowboy shirt. His thin waist had problems holding up a pair of faded jeans, scuffed black boots seemed to grow out of the dusty street. It was the sad, lost expression that caught her attention, she always had a soft spot for stray dogs. The truck glided to a stop just past Rusty.

“Where you headed scruffy?”

“North.”

“Me too, hop in.”

Rusty tossed his duffle in the truck bed and stepped up into his ride. He watched as Diana gracefully moved the column shifter through the gears. Just the sight of her gave him hope. The cutoffs and sleeveless shirt looked good on her trim figure. Large brown eyes anchored her angular face. No makeup diluted her beautiful brown skin.

He hoped it was going to be a long ride.

“Where you headed?

“Davis, just outside of Sacramento.”

“That’s a long way from Pahrump, Nevada. What’s in Davis?”

“UC Davis, I’m in my fourth year; studying veterinary medicine.”

“What about you scruffy?” Diana’s laugh filled the truck with music, while Rusty searched for an answer.

“The name is Rusty, I don’t know where I am going.”

“Pleased to meet ‘ya, Rusty I don’t know where I am going. I’m Diana.”

“Pleased to meet ‘ya, miss D.”

Rusty leaned back into the vinyl seat and tried to imagine what it would be like to know where he was going. He listened to the tires humming against the pavement. It was good to be going somewhere, but where? Maybe he could move in with Diana. She seemed like she had it together. She was also really cute.

Diana knew she needed to take charge of the situation. She liked having company for the long trip, but didn’t have time for another man with no direction. She didn’t want to carry the weight of another one-sided relationship. “I can take you as far as Davis, after that you’re on your own.”

Rusty seemed oblivious to her words. He was thinking about quiet nights snuggled next to her on a sofa after a hard days work. He imagined what it would be like to look forward to the weekend and getting a paycheck on Friday. Diana wasn’t sure if her words were registering. “Rusty, do you have any idea where you are going?”

“Yeah, ah, Davis, I’m on my own at Davis.”

“What about after that? You can’t just keep hitching without a destination.”

“I think I’ll go up to San Francisco, I have some friends up there. Maybe I can stay with them for awhile.” He was really hoping to win her over and stay in Davis with her.

Rusty stared out the open window as the old truck rumbled over the highway. Dark empty hunger gnawed at him, he hoped she couldn’t sense how desperate he was. Maybe he could go back to school and try again. This time he would study instead of spending his time getting loaded and listening to music.

He searched the dashboard for a radio.  It was going to be a long quiet ride. “I see you don’t have any music.”

“What, every loose bolt and rusty panel on this truck has a song to play. I like to keep the windows down and listen to the countryside as I pass through. It feels like I have been somewhere that way. Loud music and air conditioning makes me feel like I am passing through life without really experiencing it. You know what I mean?”

Rusty thought about his life so far. “I dunno, sometimes I want a little insulation from all the heat and dust. Right now I’d be happy sitting back in a nice cool easy chair drinking beer and letting John Prine sing to me about angels and old rodeos.” His mouth watered as he thought about the six-pack he left behind in his room. No pot, no beer, and forty-three bucks in his wallet, he put his sweaty hands in his pockets so Diana couldn’t see them shake.

Diana eased into the steering wheel as she guided the truck around a long graded curve. This was going to be a long trip with such a lost man. She made up her mind to stop and see her grandpa Duane. Maybe he could help this guy.

“I’m going to spend the night at my grandpa’s house, would you like to meet him?”

Rusty thought about one more night in his sleeping bag on someone’s floor. Maybe he could get some breakfast out of the deal. “Sure, how far to his house?”

“It’s just past the next town, we should be there soon.” Rusty wondered what her grandfather would be like. Would he throw Rusty out as soon as he saw him? It wouldn’t be the first time someone told him to hit the road at first sight.

They rolled passed a sign that welcomed them to Sin Gatos, Nevada. Diana downshifted as they drove through the small town. Two gas stations, three seedy bars, a general store, Melba’s Country Kitchen, a real estate office, a Starbucks, a small church and the Sheriff’s office.

A few miles past town Diana turned into a small road with no street sign. She slowed the truck down and switched on the high beams. Two deer ran off when the headlights hit them. The road wound uphill for several miles. Diana turned into a narrow dirt road that ran through a grove of pine trees. The old truck bounced and rattled up the dusty road for another ten minutes until they came to a small clearing in the trees. Diana stopped the truck next to an old Chevy Nova station wagon.  The old car was covered in faded blue paint that was chipped and peeling.

The silence descended on them when Diana turned off the engine. Rusty heard the sound of a small stream somewhere in the distance. The sweet scent of a pine forest filled the air.

Diana slid out of the truck and slammed the door. The sound echoed through the clearing. She headed up a small dirt trail through pine and aspen trees. “C’mon Rusty grandpa lives right up here.”

Rusty trudged up the dusty trial behind Diana. They came out of the trees on top of a small hill overlooking the town below. There was a small clapboard house with a large porch in front. A light was on behind a wooden screen door.

“Grandpa Duane, it’s Diana.” They heard a gruff bark in reply.

“Eleanor is that you?” A small bulldog pushed through the screen door. She wagged her stubby tail when she saw Diana. “Where’s grandpa Eleanor? Go get him.” Eleanor barked twice and stared at Rusty with a doleful expression, drool slid across her jowls and one tooth jutted out from her bottom jaw.

Diana rushed into the small house. “Grandpa, you home?” No one replied.

Rusty walked in to the small living room. There was one chair and a sofa. The hardwood floor was bare and dusty, split firewood was stacked neatly next to an iron stove. A broom leaned against the wall.

A Martin guitar stood in the corner. Rusty yearned to cradle the battered old guitar and make it sing. Diana looked around the room. On the wall was a framed watercolor of three people in a rowboat with the orange sun setting behind them.

“This is weird; I wonder where grandpa is.” She walked into the kitchen and Rusty followed. Flies hovered around an old Wedgewood stove. The stove and sink were worn down from years of scrubbing. A wooden table with two chairs stood against a row of windows. The table and chairs were thick with years of paint; the newest coat was taxicab yellow. Eleanor lapped water from a red plastic bowl on the floor.

“Grandpa.” Diana headed towards the bedroom. The single bed was neatly made. Next to the bed was a small table with a Bible, a stained glass lamp and a picture of a dark middle-aged woman with a crown of flowers ringing her head. One wall was covered with a book filled shelf, opposite that was an old oak dresser with a few photos on top. Rusty saw one photo of a little girl in a hula skirt hitting a piñata with a broomstick.

“Grandpa.” Diana’s voice was starting to sound frantic. In the bathroom there was a large clawed tub. The sink, small cabinet and toilet all seemed worn but clean. There was a faint scent of pine cleaner.

Diana headed for the front door with Rusty and Eleanor at her heels. She stood on the porch and shouted. “Grandpa Duane, it’s Diana. Where are you?” Eleanor joined in with a volley of hoarse barks.

Diana led the way around the outside of the house to the back. She stopped behind the kitchen windows and called out again. “Grandpa Duane, where are you?” Eleanor nudged Rusty with her wet nose smearing drool on his leg.

“Hey, easy there, I like you too, but not enough to let you slobber on me.”

Diana chucked softly. “Looks like you found a new girlfriend. Hey, where you going?”

“Back to the truck to get my flashlight, maybe your grandpa is asleep or unconscious somewhere out there.”  Eleanor followed Rusty out to his truck. Something was bothering Rusty. He felt even more heavy and lost than usual. He knew something foul and dark was happening.

When he came back through the trees he saw Diana pacing on the porch. She ran her hand through her hair and stared out into the darkness. “C’mon Diana let’s take a look around.”

Eleanor growled and took off around the house. Rusty pointed the light in the direction she had gone and called her. “Eleanor, come back here.” She answered with a low bark.

“Let’s go and see what she’s up to.” Rusty lead Diana around the house, they found Eleanor sitting under the kitchen windows. As soon as she saw them she took off down the hill.

“Eleanor.” This time Diana shouted after her. “This is unlike her, she usually stays close.”

They took off downhill; Rusty blazed a trail with his flashlight. The sound of flowing water grew louder as the headed down. They heard Eleanor bark just ahead. Rusty felt more and more uneasy as they trudged toward the stream, he could hear the croak of bullfrogs, as they got closer. Eleanor barked again.

They found her standing next to a small stream that cut a path down the hill. She was sitting on a large granite rock with a flat top that jutted out over the stream. She barked again when they approached, then sniffed intently at something at her feet. Rusty pointed the light at the damp spot where Eleanor was sniffing.

He bent down and rubbed his index finger in the dampness and bought it to his nose. The smell hit him like a punch in the stomach and he fought back the urge to gag. “Let’s get out of here.” His head was swimming in a sea of bad memories.

“What do you mean get out of here? We have to find my grandpa.” Diana’s voice made it clear that she was not leaving.

“Listen to me Diana, we have to leave.”

“I’m not leaving until I find him.”

Rusty knew he had a challenge on his hands. Diana was the type of person who needed concrete answers. He would have to tell her, or she would not budge. He saw the determination in her face and posture, he wasn’t sure she would even believe what he had to say. Eleanor nudged him again. Rusty smiled at her pleading expression.  “Okay, Eleanor, I’ll do my best.”

He tried to think how he could convince this take-charge woman to follow him. He decided humility and honesty would give him the best chance. He would never win a battle of wills with Diana, but she might give him a chance if she new the truth.

“Diana, I can explain.” He knew he couldn’t tell her here. He wasn’t sure who might be listening.

“Then start explaining.” She wasn’t about to follow some directionless hitchhiker who needed a map to find himself. She needed to find her grandpa but she was frightened and confused. Where could he be? This whole thing did not make any sense.

Rusty and Eleanor were both staring at her with pleading eyes. The sight made Diana laugh. “What, you two are ganging up on me now? You’re even starting to look like each other, except Eleanor bathes more often.”

Rusty stuck out his bottom teeth, pushed his nose up with his finger and grunted.

The laughter cut the tension, Diana felt her shoulders loosen up. She let out a long slow breath. “Okay, girl, remember to breathe,” she mumbled quietly.

Rusty saw Diana unclench her jaw, and her whole posture relaxed. Eleanor barked softly. It was now or never, he had to try.

“Diana come on back to the house I want to show you something”

“Why, we know grandpa’s not there, we need to keep looking here.”

Rusty’s mind was working. How could he convince her to leave without tipping his hand here in the darkness? “C’mon Diana it will all make sense when we get there. Sometimes even scruffy drifters know what they’re doing. Can you just trust me for a little while?”

Diana studied his sweaty, anxious face. She could see he was more frightened than he was saying. She could also sense his sincerity. Something broke in Diana. She knew it was crazy to follow someone like Rusty but she also knew it was okay to not have all the answers. At that moment she knew she didn’t have to be in complete control at all times. It felt good to let go, part of here was terrified, at the same time she felt clear and calm. She wondered what had come over her. She heard a voice say “Alright, let’s go.” She was surprised that the voice was hers.

Rusty was stunned. His pleas had actually convinced her. Why would anyone want to follow him anyway? What did Diana see in him? He was beginning to have doubts about the whole situation when Eleanor took off running up the hill. He didn’t say a word but took off after her hoping Diana would follow them. Rusty didn’t turn around when he heard Diana treading through the undergrowth behind him.

When they reached the house Eleanor was waiting on the porch. He held open the screen door as Diana and Eleanor walked in.

Diana turned to Rusty. “Okay, we’re here. What do you want to show me?”

Rusty leaned close to Diana, the nearness made her uncomfortable. “We need to go out to the truck.” Rusty spoke quietly in Diana’s ear,

“What for, I thought what you wanted to show me something here?”

Rusty was still unsure if anyone was listening. He leaned close to Diana again. “I have to tell you something. But I can’t do it here. Please don’t ask any more questions right now. I promise I will answer them all in the truck.”

Diana paused and thought about his request. She leaned close and whispered “Okay, let’s go Mr. mysterious.” The whispering and air of secrecy made her giggle.

Rusty started speaking in a loud voice. “That’s it, I think your grandpa just went into town. Let’s go there and look for him.”  The sudden change startled Diana. She gave him a puzzled look but said nothing.

They left the house and headed for the truck. No one spoke as they walked through the trees. They could hear Eleanor’s labored breathing.

Rusty held the truck door open as Diana slid into the drivers’ seat. He put Eleanor in the middle and got in on the other side. “Start up the truck.”

“Hold it, I’m not going anywhere until you explain what’s going on. “

Rusty rolled up his window and whispered, “We’re not leaving, just start the truck and roll up your window.”

Diana hit the starter and the engine sprang to life. The truck vibrated and hummed. Rusty whispered again, “We are going to drive down the road like we are leaving and walk back up.”

Diana put the truck in reverse, turned it around and headed down the dirt road. Rusty was trying to figure out where to start. He decided to just jump right in.

“How well do you know your grandpa?”

“Real good, where is this going?” Diana sounded defensive.

“Has he ever been involved in the Occult?”

“What are you talking about? My grandpa was a pastor in San Francisco for twenty-two years. He had to work as a bus driver by day to support his family.  He would never be involved in something like the Occult.”

“Are you sure? What about before that?”

“Listen, my grandfather lived a rough life. He spent fifteen years in prison for accidentally killing a man in a barroom fight. After that he gave up drinking and devoted his life to helping others. What he did when he was younger doesn’t matter. Where are you going with this?”

They had reached the road, Rusty told Diana to head towards town.  She turned the truck towards Sin Gatos but wasn’t sure why. “I thought we weren’t leaving?”

“Don’t worry we’ll be back. Drive a couple of miles towards town and then turn around. Shut the headlights off on the way back.”

“Okay, Sherlock I’m heading to town but I really need to know what’s going on. Please tell me in plain simple English, without anymore strange questions.”

“Alright here it is. It’s about that damp spot we found next to the stream. I know what it is.”

“Damp spot? What does that have to do with anything?” Diana turned to Rusty and Eleanor growled.

“Hold on Diana, just let me explain. It will be a lot easier if you don’t interrupt me. That goes for you too Eleanor.”

Diana frowned at Rusty, “Okay, I’ll be a good girl, go ahead.”

Rusty put his arm around Eleanor and started his story.

“That damp spot was made of blood and urine.” Diana opened her mouth to speak but remained silent.

“It’s part of a satanic ritual. The leader of the ritual has a pentagram carved on his or her back with a special knife. The participants put blood in the cup from the leaders’ wound. The leader then urinates in the cup and drinks from it. That is what was on that rock, I would know that smell anywhere.”

“How do you know all this?”

“I know because my parents were Satanists.

One Comment on “Chapter 1”

  1. Alan Buhtz Says:

    That’s a strong opening. I’ll be back to take in Chapter 2. I don’t want to drink the whole cup at once.

    Blessings,

    Alan


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