The digger lurched and tipped backwards, engine revving under the strain as it struck something hard in the compacted red soil of the house site where the men were working. A puff of black smoke belched from the exhaust as pistons struggled with the exertion, followed by a loud bang and another shrill whine that made everyone take notice.
‘Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!’ yelled the foreman, abandoning his shovel near a half-finished retaining wall and waving his arms as he hurried over. The other workers looked up from their tasks, welcoming the commotion by pausing to wipe the sweat off their grimy foreheads. It was only midday and already the sun was making the humid air feel like a pressure cooker, unusually hot for late spring in Catawba County.
The pimply young driver, bobbing his head in time with the music from his phone, swore as the iron clank of the backhoe replaced the Iron Maiden in his ears, wrenching him from a daydream where he was preparing to launch into a blistering guitar solo in front of thirty thousand screaming fans. He fumbled with the levers in panic as the machine shuddered, its hydraulic arm jerking spasmodically. The front tires lifted and slammed back down, bucking and kicking before he could cut the ignition, then settled to a stop as orange dust billowed and drifted away on the faint breeze. He unfastened his seatbelt and rubbed his collarbone where the strap had pinched him. The bucket was stuck, no doubt about that. He pulled the headphones off and climbed out of the cage, joining his boss by the steep bank where they were excavating.
‘Damn, kid,’ frowned the foreman, surveying the metal claw embedded in the ground. ‘Think you could wedge that thing any further if you tried?’
‘Uh oh,’ snickered one of his co-workers, ‘new guy’s already in trouble.’
‘Last one hired, first one fired,’ hissed another, their laughter punctuating the awkward silence. They put down their tools to investigate, crowding at the back of the machine.
The digger driver grimaced when he saw where the bucket had pierced the earth and lodged itself deep inside. ‘Sorry boss, I didn’t see no stump,’ he said, absently twisting an earlobe. And it was true, even if he hadn’t been paying particular attention. Usually a spidery network of twisted roots poked out like gnarled hands where the remnants of trees lay hidden, warning the men to dig with caution. But in this case the soil was clean, free of troublesome stones and packed solid like clay. It wasn’t the kid’s fault.
The foreman, a lanky man named Cole who didn’t feel he got paid enough to do construction work and babysit the inexperienced men they could barely afford to hire, dismissed the driver with a curt wave and pushed past him to get a closer look. Stepping up on the slope, he was surprised to find the digger’s iron talons had breached a large egg-like enclosure two feet beneath the surface. A thin clear liquid spilled over the top, small rivulets growing as the dirt crumbled and formed channels for it to escape. Chunks of the capsule broke away and fell inside with a muted splash, exposing the dark interior and sending more liquid coursing down the bank where it collected in muddy puddles at the workers’ feet. The men stepped around it before it could soak their boots, climbing up to peer over their boss’s shoulder.
‘What the hell –’
‘Awww jeez, that’s disgusting,’ one of the men scowled, a smell like moldy socks wafting out of the ground.
‘What is it?’ asked the kid, craning his neck. ‘More stuff from the war?’
‘Get back,’ ordered the foreman. He teetered on the edge of the opening, arms spread and perilously close to falling inside. He grabbed the digger’s arm to steady himself and looked down at what appeared to be the damp crown of a human head, black hair slicked against skin emerging from the water. Receding into the murky depths beneath the skull was the huddled, embryonic form of an adult male, knees drawn up to his chest and hands covering his face.
‘Is it a body? Is it a grave?’
‘I said get back!’ barked Cole, this time pushing the workers roughly away. The driver had already retreated to a safe distance, but the older men reversed down the slope and splashed through the mud as they stumbled to keep their balance. One of them tripped and ended up on his back with a satisfying squelch, flailing as the suction of the muck held him fast. Then it was the kid’s turn to laugh – a response he wisely concealed by coughing and hiding the smile in his closed fist.
The men complained loudly but Cole didn’t care. His patience was wearing thin these days and his frustration showed in the way he lost his temper so easily. Maybe it was the scorching weather. Maybe it was the fact that they were months behind schedule, constantly held up by accidents and sabotage by an unknown vandal. Or maybe it was the discovery of American Revolutionary War artifacts – bones, buckles, bullets and cannon balls – that had to be laboriously recorded and reported to the local archaeological authorities each time something turned up.
In any case, Cole was tired of the delays, and today’s find promised to be another. A big one too, if it proved to be a burial site. Those required special treatment: eye-watering amounts of paperwork, excavation by a proper scientist, notification of the local Native American tribes if it turned out to be pre-European – they even had to call in a shaman or something to bless the area afterward. Cole dreaded what the world was coming to, with all the red tape and bureaucracy. If he didn’t know better, he’d think the project was cursed.
Sighing, the foreman climbed down and helped his stuck worker to his feet, then turned to the digger driver. ‘Get on the radio and call Mr. Weebil. He’s going to want to see this. The rest of you, get back to work.’
The kid raised the alert from the cab of his machine while Cole picked up a shovel and returned to the hole to wait. He glanced down once but had to look away; it was too unnerving. More of the enclosure had collapsed, revealing a second pit – also filled with liquid – and a tiny chink in the soil exposed darkness where a third had started to open up too. From what he could see, the person in the first capsule didn’t look rotten like something found in a grave, he looked alive. Preserved. And the stink of damp dog fur was growing stronger as the liquid drained out. Cole rubbed his nose and tried not to breathe too deeply.
In the distance, up a hill toward the start of the subdivision where a trailer sat parked, the shadow of the project supervisor rose and obscured the window of his office.
‘Yes sir, it looks like more battle stuff,’ Cole heard the driver say, followed by a string of expletives crackling over the receiver so loud it made the kid jump. Mr. Weebil wasn’t known for his gratuitous profanity, but the problems with the Acton Park project were having an effect on him too, manifesting in what Cole jokingly called occupation-induced Tourette syndrome: frequent involuntary cursing and a tic beneath his left eye that grew noticeably worse each day. The figure in the window donned a hat, and a minute later had driven the hundred yards to the house site, where he skidded to a stop and exited his pickup before the motor clunked to a halt.
‘Show me!’ he demanded, slamming the door behind him. The supervisor strode to where Cole stood, hitching his pants up on his portly figure and avoiding the mud as he struggled up the bank. Cole offered a hand but Weebil brushed it aside, huffing as he grabbed the backhoe and swung himself up. Feet astride the holes, he peered down and grimaced, his chubby cheeks deflating as the color drained from his face. His left eyelid fluttered.
‘Christ, what’s that smell?’
Cole thought for a moment the little man might gag, but Weebil gulped and kept his composure. His compact caterpillar-shaped moustache, normally sticking straight out like a wire brush, turned down as he bit his lip in contemplation. He kicked at the soil grudgingly.
‘You just found them?’
‘About ten minutes ago. Watch out for the loose ground, it’s giving way near your shoes.’
‘I can see!’ snapped the supervisor, stepping back. ‘Give me your shovel.’
Cole handed it to him and Weebil used the blade to attack the earth, quickly enlarging the jagged openings. Within seconds it became apparent there was more to the discovery, as stones continued to cascade into the liquid, exposing another sodden body next to the first, and a tangle of dusty bones and rotten rags in the dry cavity beside them. Weebil hammered away, panting as he chipped the graves apart and scattered their walls – each blow as if he was settling a grudge. Soon the face of the slope began to bulge. The supervisor paused, resting on his shovel and wiping an arm across his forehead as he surveyed his work. Then the clay wall burst outward from the pressure of the water, spilling its grisly contents in a torrent that drew a startled cry from the workmen nearby.
Weebil and Cole descended and approached the limp figures warily as the other men again drew close to look. There was no hiding the sight: two men, soldiers judging by their dark blue and green military uniforms, sprawled on the damp ground with eyes closed and mouths agape as if they slept. But they weren’t soldiers from any recent era. Their buttoned jackets were fitted and tailored from rough cloth, trimmed by silver piping, with tails extending to the backs of their knees. High leather boots covered their shins, light breeches tucked inside, and wide black belts girded their waists, clipped to empty sheaths.
‘Holy sh –’ began the supervisor, abruptly cut off by the odor assaulting his senses. Weebil covered his face with the back of his hand and gingerly poked one of the bodies with his shovel.
Water trickled from the soldiers’ nostrils as the wet sheen on their cheeks started to fade in the heat. Their skin was white like grass that had rested under a plastic sheet too long, and only the woven cord binding their hands and feet suggested something untoward occurred. Washed down the slope and jumbled next to them were the bones of a less well-preserved comrade, garbed in a disintegrating coat of the same type. A skull leered at the group, jaw spread wide in a mocking grin. Cole looked to Weebil as the hairs on his arm stood up with a foreboding shiver. It was odd. Creepy. Silently he wondered if they were about to invoke some ancient curse for disturbing a hallowed tomb.
‘Are they mummies?’ whispered the digger driver.
‘Nah, dumbass,’ hissed the man who fell into the mud. ‘Mummies are dried out, these things are pickled.’
‘Like bog people,’ offered another worker in a low voice. ‘I seen them on the History Channel once, they’re folks that got shoved into swamps and stuff, and the tannins cured their skin like leather …’
‘Will you guys shut up?’ said Cole, silencing them with a surly gaze. He stopped a few paces away and strained to get a better view, reluctant to advance any further. Weebil bent down and picked up a brown tricorn hat lying next to one of the bodies. He held it up and examined it, dripping and limp between two fingers. ‘It’s from Battle Creek,’ Cole stated matter-of-factly.
The supervisor stared at him blankly. ‘You think I don’t know that?’
‘Should I call the archaeologist from the park? This is different to what we found before, we need to preserve the site.’ Cole glanced at the remains of the pits. ‘What’s left of it anyway.’
‘Preserve the site?’ said Weebil, arching an eyebrow. ‘Do you suddenly have a college education now? Are you trying to tell me how to do my job?’
‘No sir,’ said Cole. ‘But there’s something weird going on. Those men don’t look dead. Anywhere else, the police would be investigating a crime scene.’
‘Listen to me!’ shouted Weebil, throwing the hat in a puddle and straightening to his full height, eyes almost level with Cole’s chin. The supervisor puffed out his chest and jabbed a meaty finger at his foreman. ‘No one is calling the archaeologists, and no one is calling the police! You and your boys move everything up to the storage container by my office, and I’ll do the rest. Okay?’
‘Everything?’ frowned Cole, gesturing at the lifeless men.
‘Yes, everything! The bones, the bodies, the clothes – get it all!’
Cole looked at his crew, assessing their appetite for what was sure to be a gruesome job. One man shrugged, another shook his head. The young digger driver cleared his throat and turned away.
‘Seriously?’ said Weebil, narrowing his eyes. ‘Fine! Take the rest of the afternoon off too, full pay. No, make that time and a half. One more day of delay isn’t going to make a difference.’
Cole rubbed his chin, considering the offer, then looked to his men for assent. Each of them thought for a second, glancing skyward and imagining a break from the sweltering sun, then they all nodded silently.
‘Alright then,’ said the foreman, leaning close to his boss so no one could hear. ‘But we don’t know anything about this.’
Weebil wiped his hands on his pants while the workers did as they were told. The bodies were already drying in the heat and their pungent odor was starting to dissipate. Cole worked efficiently, organizing his team into two groups. They tried not to act squeamish, lifting the bodies respectfully and carrying them to the foreman’s truck to be placed in the back. But it was clearly difficult. As one of the soldiers passed by, his binding loosened and an arm flopped down, dragging in the dirt and eliciting a muffled squeak from one of the tougher looking guys. Cole quickly gathered up the hand and laid it gently on the man’s chest, beside the sodden hat he retrieved from the muck.
‘Time and a half,’ the foreman said.
Soon the area was cleared and the workers departed, leaving Weebil alone to survey the site. The supervisor watched Cole’s truck retreat up the hill, chased by a reddish brown haze that swirled on the lifting fumes, then he walked to one of the holes and inspected it. Peering at where the bodies had been interred, it was obvious someone placed them there carefully. The casings of the enclosures, which at first appeared to be random bits of rubble, were in fact beautifully constructed mosaics of hand-cut, tightly fitted stones, with barely a gap between them. They were exactly like eggs in proportion, perfectly curved and sealed with some kind of tar or pitch that had aged from amber color to dark brown – except for the capsule containing the bones, which a tree root had breached from the side. That one was still a dull yellow.
Weebil crouched and leaned close, tracing a finger over the smooth interior. That explained how they held water, but why? As a construction man he could appreciate the craftsmanship, but who would go to such lengths? Why keep a corpse permanently embalmed in liquid when a six foot trench would do? And the soldiers’ hands and feet were tied, bound execution style. What purpose would elaborate burials serve, for people treated with such contempt? None of it made sense.
The supervisor stood and scuffed his boot in the dirt, kicking a pebble into one of the pits where it plinked softly in the water still collected at the bottom. He pulled out his cellphone and tried unsuccessfully to find a signal, then swore and returned to his pickup to use the radio. Crappy phone reception around here, always cutting out.
Pausing before he activated the handset, Weebil stared south where the massive shape of Pinnacle Ridge rose like a solitary stone tower out of the forest adjoining the subdivision. Capped by a scraggly expanse of mountain laurel and riven with fissures wrinkling its sides, it protruded through a hazy cloud that hung around the top and never seemed to go away. The strange formation was as much an enigma as the newly discovered graves, and Weebil couldn’t help but note that it looked a little like a cenotaph – a monument to the thousands of men killed on the battlefield in its shadow. That morbid thought, and the image of the excavated soldiers’ unspoiled corpses, filled him with an unease that made his next task – telling his boss the bad news – even harder. Weebil steeled himself and pushed the mic button.
An impatient voice answered, and the supervisor’s tone immediately shifted from stern to submissive. He ran a hand through his thinning hair as he spoke.
‘Phineas?’ he croaked. ‘It’s Dave. I think we might have a problem.’
The trees at the edge of the subdivision swayed as the wind gathered strength, rustling the leaves that should have been green and laden with new buds, but which instead remained mottled and brown. The dark area where Pinnacle Ridge obscured the sun marked a boundary where the power of nature’s seasons waned, and the forest stubbornly adhered to its own schedule. It was a place where spring never visited and autumn ruled forever.
Overhead a group of birds, black silhouettes with broad wings and swiveling heads, circled and cawed, their scratchy cries echoing over the vacant lots. Across the field, nestled in the thorny hedge surrounding the woods, a camouflaged figure observed the supervisor leaving. As Weebil returned to his trailer the barbed wire vines parted, then quietly shut while the figure continued waiting.
Phineas Gould paced the length of the storage container in three long strides, then turned and stomped back, avoiding the reclined human shapes under painters drop cloths in the corner. He was a large man and the top of his curly black hair nearly reached the ceiling of the metal room, but even if he hadn’t physically occupied almost all the available space, the intensity of his consternation would have made the area feel crowded.
Dave Weebil, in contrast, stood by the entrance trying to make himself as small as possible, watching apologetically with his orange hard hat in hand as his employer rattled the floor with each step. For fifteen minutes this went on, Phineas occasionally stopping and glancing at the figures as if he meant to lift the sheets and inspect them, then he would clench his jaw and resume pacing while the sweat streamed off his supervisor’s balding pate.
Finally Phineas wheeled sharply on Weebil, fixing him with an accusatory glare. ‘You only found these two?’
‘And the bones,’ said Weebil meekly.
‘And the bones,’ Phineas snorted. ‘God, why couldn’t it have only been the bones!’
‘I’m sure that was all of it,’ the supervisor offered with a feeble smile.
Phineas turned and approached the bodies slowly, then knelt and pulled a corner of the sheet away from their ashen faces. Although he knew what to expect, it still surprised him, stealing his breath and making his heart skip a beat with their frightening resemblance to living men. Not since the Iraq War had Phineas witnessed deceased soldiers covered decorously with plastic, but even after so many years it still had the power to unnerve him, the memory dragging him back to a time in his life too painful to revisit.
Too painful for many reasons.
‘I can’t believe it,’ he said huskily, lowering the covering again. ‘This is the last thing we need. If word gets out we’re pulling corpses from the ground beneath house sites, it’ll be the final nail in the coffin for us. Acton Park will be finished, and right as I’m about to pitch the golf course too.’
Weebil didn’t need telling, he shared every bit of his boss’s frustration. As the person responsible for carrying out the Gould family’s plans, each setback was a kick in the guts, with him taking the blame and incurring their wrath. It didn’t matter that he got the job because he was friends with Phineas in the army. Two years into the project Acton Park should have been filled with houses, with queues of families waiting to move in; instead a sea of empty lots and half-finished building sites surrounded three forlorn model homes whose overly green lawns looked like artificial oases in the scrubby red expanse. Not a good look. Weebil had a wife, three children. His oldest child had special needs. If they lost their health insurance … Weebil shuddered. It didn’t bear thinking about.
‘You know the money is running out?’ asked Phineas, holding his thumb and forefinger barely apart. ‘Dad’s this far from pulling the plug.’
‘God!’ Phineas repeated, eyes drawn back to the plastic-clad figures. ‘It’s like they’re still breathing, isn’t it? Like they’re right out of the Walking Dead! What the hell is that about?’
‘I told you,’ said Weebil, ‘the guys found them in some bricked-up vats down by the forest. They were sealed in the ground, covered in water or something. I haven’t seen anything like it either, but there has to be an explanation.’
‘Yeah, it’s the Universe’s way of saying we’re pooched,’ muttered Phineas darkly.
Weebil shook his head. ‘We can’t think like that. What are we going to tell Joe and Henry? Your old man might be the finance guy, but it’s Henry’s land. He has the last word on the forest and anything we discover.’
‘Tell Joe and Henry?’ Phineas laughed, his voice resounding against the steel walls. ‘Are you kidding? We’re not going to tell Joe and Henry shit!’
‘Don’t you think we should at least –’
‘Ha! You’re not going to tell me bullshit is what you mean!’ interrupted a loud voice from outside.
Weebil twitched and hopped to the center of the room as Phineas rose and joined him. The heavy insulated door, slightly ajar, creaked as a stooped old man pulled it open with the hooked end of a golf putter and hobbled inside. Joseph Gould, dapper in a freshly pressed golf shirt, leaned on his club and straightened himself as much as his arthritic spine would allow, fixing them with a beady stare. Once he’d been tall, almost the same height as Phineas, but age had curved him into a question mark as life refuted everything he knew for certain when he was young. Now he was frail, but still alert. For a person who relied on two hearing aids to watch television at full volume, he never seemed to miss a word when his son was trying to keep quiet. Phineas gulped.
‘Stop. What are you muppets planning?’ demanded Joe.
‘P … p … planning?’ stammered Weebil. ‘Nothing, Mr. Gould. We were just discussing the figures from –’
A sharp crack rang out as the old man stamped his putter on the wooden floor. ‘I said stop! Don’t feed me your crap, Dave. I ran into Cole and his boys as they were leaving, I asked why they were kicking off early. Beautiful day and all. He didn’t want to say, but the young one blabbed about how they found something. He couldn’t help himself, it shook him up pretty bad.’
The digger driver, thought Weebil. He visualized the spotty kid in his oversize reflective vest and made a mental note to fire him.
‘Just some more battlefield stuff,’ said Phineas, eyes darting to the sheets in the corner. He slowly moved to position himself between the bodies and his father. ‘I don’t think it’s a big deal, a few bones and bits.’
‘Sure,’ said Joe. He brushed his son aside and shuffled to the draped figures resting on wooden pallets. Using the brass end of his club, he lifted the edge of the cloth to peer underneath. Phineas wasn’t sure what to expect, maybe for him to recoil and fall on his butt, or clutch his chest and have a heart attack. But he underestimated his father and forgot that he and Dave weren’t the only ones to serve their country in a conflict overseas. The old man had seen things too. Joe drew a deep breath as he studied the bodies, betraying nothing with his somber pause. He lowered the covering and turned around.
‘A few bones, huh?’
‘I didn’t want to bother you,’ Phineas shrugged. ‘Dave and I were planning to handle it. We are going to. Leave it to me.’
‘Mr. Gould, sir – what do you think they are?’ asked Weebil.
‘What do I think they are?’ repeated Joe, his wiry gray eyebrows knitted together. ‘I think they’re a whole hell of a lot of trouble!’
The room went silent.
‘Exactly,’ blurted Phineas. ‘So I’ll just –’
‘You’ll shut up and do as I say!’ snapped the old man, banging his putter again. The walls reverberated with the sound, ringing in their ears after it faded. Although Phineas towered over his father, he appeared to shrink almost to Joe’s size at the rebuke, his shoulders slumping as he cast his eyes down sullenly. He suppressed the temptation to shout back, but inside his resentment bubbled like a caustic brew, tingling in his chest as it percolated through his limbs. They never had an argument that didn’t end without Phineas feeling twelve years old again. Having Weebil witness it only made the humiliation worse.
Joe noticed his son flushing and spread his knobby fingers in acknowledgement.
‘Sorry, Phineas. Look, you can’t leave me out of the loop any more, it’s not going to work. I know all about the setbacks; I know about the problems with the archaeologists and the park officials, but I’m not going to cut and run. Got it? Don’t make dumb decisions because you’re fearful. I’m as determined as you to see Acton Park finished. It’s not just your pride at stake, it’s my money on the line – and I don’t like to lose.’
Phineas met his father’s gaze, calmer but hardly reassured. ‘Okay. I’m sorry too,’ he mumbled.
The old man motioned toward the bodies in the corner. ‘I don’t know what those … things are, and I don’t care. I don’t care how they were located and I don’t care where they came from, but I’ll tell you where they’re going.’ Joe pulled a golf scorecard from his pocket and began writing with the gold-plated fountain pen he carried everywhere.
Explaining as he scribbled on the back of the paper, he gave them directions to a pit on private land where things could be dumped – any things – with no questions asked. Joseph Gould still had connections from his long years in the civil construction industry, and he wasn’t afraid to call in a favor now and then. That was partly the reason their housing project had progressed as far as it had, in the face of stiff opposition from a few busybody federal and state officials.
‘The important thing is to get this stuff off site as soon as possible,’ Joe continued, handing Weebil the card. ‘We’re not going to tell the authorities, and we’re especially not going to tell Henry. You were right about that much. I want everything gone, and I mean everything. Scour the area where the bodies were found, remove every stone, every clue that graves existed there, then fill in the holes and burn it all before you throw it in the dump. Got it?’
They nodded. ‘What about Cole and his crew?’ asked Weebil. ‘What if they talk?’
Joe snorted. ‘It’s a recession. Ask them how happy they are to have steady work. Pay them off if necessary, take it from petty cash.’
Weebil moved toward the men under the sheets but Joe blocked him with his golf club.
‘Not now, you oaf! Don’t dispose of corpses during the day, when people could be watching. Wait until night. I’ll let my guys know you’re coming. Now give us a minute.’
‘Yes sir,’ said Weebil, donning his hat and exiting the locker.
The old man waited until the supervisor was out of earshot, then turned to Phineas. ‘You think your friend can be trusted?’
‘Dave? Of course. He’s solid.’
‘Alright,’ said Joe, squinting at Weebil leaning against his truck and picking his nose while he pretended to scratch an itch. ‘We need to have Henry on our side when you show him the proposal. Something like this would spook him for sure, and we can’t afford that.’
For a moment Phineas thought Joe was going to clap him on the back in a gesture of approval, but his father only grunted as he tucked his pen in the folds of his cardigan, then teetered out to his waiting golf cart. He whirred away, back to the putting green installed on the front lawn of his stately home overlooking the highway. Phineas was almost disappointed, but such an expression would’ve been unusual. It might have led him to believe he was doing things right and could think for himself, and Joe would never allow that to happen.
Well, Phineas was determined to prove he didn’t need anyone to hold his hand. He’d show his father he was tougher than the old man thought. He called Weebil inside and they set to work. Phineas put aside his apprehension and decided he would wrap the bodies, while the supervisor cleaned up the dig site.
When Weebil returned to the excavated bank, he found the digger wouldn’t start. With further inspection, he discovered the engine hood had been pried open and a handful of wires were cut and ripped out. Worse, the cap to the fuel tank was missing and the lip of the opening was caked with sand. The vandal had struck again! How did anyone get down there without being spotted? Weebil looked around angrily, cupping his hand over his eyes to block the blazing sun. Nothing. He turned to the woods, prompted by the sensation he was being watched, but there was only an impenetrable thicket of thorns and tangled bracken stretching as far as he could see. Just the cicadas, buzzing and chirping like radio static in the background. And those damn birds, looping around and squawking as they lazily drifted away.
Cursing and rubbing the irritating tic under his eye, Weebil rolled up his sleeves and snatched a shovel off the ground, then laboriously started to remove the finely-stacked bricks and destroy all evidence of the tombs’ careful construction.
Colonel Nikolas Kassel had been asleep for so long, that when he finally woke, the world greeting him was far stranger than anything he ever dreamed.
The voices drew him back to the land of the living, calling from outside his consciousness and alerting him to the fact that he wasn’t alone. The sounds were indistinct at first, a faint susurration no louder than a moth fluttering around a candle, but just as insistent. Kassel was in the middle of a hazy reverie, vaguely aware he was walking along the banks of a stream in his childhood home of Hesse. It was a picturesque day. The sun shone but didn’t warm his skin; the grass was lush, but no leafy fragrance perfumed the air; the trees moved but no breeze brushed his face. He was simply … there. Participating, yet only observing. He thought it must be the water making the noise. Then gradually the rustling became a murmur, the murmur began to find cadence and rhythm, and finally the singsong sounds became words – foreign words – but words he could make out nonetheless.
Where the bodies were found … Fill in the holes … Burn it all …
It confused him. The world he inhabited was a limbo where he’d spent decades wandering in the fog of his memories, reviewing and reliving his life – over and over again – from the time he was a boy to the moment when … the moment when what? It was hard for him to think, hard for him to recall. His thoughts were disordered and jumbled, coming to him unbidden and without reason. Images flashed by, random and fleeting in no particular order. He had periods of lucidity when he recognized he was in a dream and attempted to regain control, then his tenuous reality would evaporate from under his feet as if he was standing on a cloud, and he would pitch again into another realm, another picture, another unending story where he was an impotent watcher.
The voices outside his mind grew louder. It sounded like people arguing, and in that recognition Nikolas Kassel found an anchor – something he could grasp and use as a tether. The words became a lifeline he seized to pull himself from the mist. Slowly his physical senses began to return, and as the conversation faded, he started to re-enter his body. A familiar heaviness weighed him. He became aware of his limbs and the sharp prick of needles tickling his flesh; first his feet, then moving up his legs, his torso, his hands, and finally along his arms over his neck and scalp. It hurt, but it was a pain that crystallized his consciousness and reminded him he was alive.
That he was alive!
At that moment a terrifying panic overwhelmed him, and the last moments of his life before he went to sleep rushed back in a torrent of hellish vignettes. His heart kicked into action with a force that made his chest heave, the blood rushing through his veins so strongly it deafened him with its pulsing whoosh. The heaviness he felt, the inexorable pressure of gravity, abruptly inverted itself and expanded from within, filling his lungs as if he was a balloon about to explode. Claustrophobia gripped him as he awoke to an endless white expanse pressing in and choking him.
Kassel coughed, an explosive shudder that expelled the water from his lungs and somehow blew it back into his face, stinging his eyes. He took a deep breath and the clinging whiteness sucked against his mouth, preventing him from drawing air. He twisted and thrashed like a fish caught in a net, loosening his bonds. The covering slipped from his head as he rolled off a low platform onto the floor of a darkened room, then he clawed the rest of the sheet away and sweet, life-giving oxygen filled every cell of his body, animating him once again.