Lucifer: Chapter 18
Danser's Guinea Pig
DAMIEN LEFT THE house the next morning before the sun had even risen; it was around a quarter to six when he reached his destination, parking his car off to the side of a long dirt road seemingly leading to nowhere. He didn't get out immediately. Instead he sat there, staring out the windshield at the wide expanse of grass, now showing only as an ocean of black, and the ridge rising far on the right. It was an unusual land feature for Michigan; he supposed it must be the result of heavy rains and erosion a long time ago. The place should have been a sandpit but for all the grass which grew there now. The exposed side of the rise was composed mostly of sand, but that was pretty much where the similarity ended. After a slight sandy dip at the bottom of the drop, the land leveled off to form a huge field. Even as he watched it was growing lighter. All this was now visible despite the lack of sunlight; only the darkened sky bathed it in tones of blue.
It had been licked by fire, flaring orange and red, the way he remembered it.
He got out of the Countach, slamming the door. It echoed sharply off the ridge, sounding like someone clapping--or a gunshot. The sound made him freeze; his shoulders hunched defensively. After a moment he realized he was being foolish--What do you possibly think is still out here?--shook it off, and continued down the road.
It was true; the road did lead to nowhere. It petered off not too far from the rise, stretching away as if leading him on, but that wasn't the way he was going. Not yet. He struck out across the field till he could turn back and see the rise at its direct middle, and glanced up.
Somehow, the ridge just wasn't as big as he'd remembered it. It was big, true, but simply not as huge as it had been before. Then again, he supposed that was because he'd only been six last time he'd been there.
Age had a way of making things seem smaller, though no less significant.
He let out a deep breath or sighed--anyone watching wouldn't have been able to tell the difference--and looked around him. Grass, everywhere swaying grass. He'd read a poem somewhere, he couldn't quite remember; he thought it might be Sandburg. A couple of lines from it popped into his head on surveying the field. "I am the grass. Let me work." It wasn't exactly the best piece of literature to think of; he also remembered that particular poem had mentioned bodies being piled up at various sites of war, the grass growing over them slowly over time.
Yeegh. You are morbid.
He tried to shake it off again. There were no bodies piled here, underneath the grass; yet he still couldn't help but think about it....
The ridge--"hill" or "cliff," he would have called it--towered high, high over him. The longer he stared at it the more it seemed likely to topple down, burying him forever in endless sand. And as it came sliding down over him, there would also come with it bones, all kinds of bones large and small, short and long, old and new--with one skull, a skull sprouting horns and grinning wickedly, laughing....
He shook his head abruptly, snapping awake and glancing around again with some surprise. What the heck had that been? Was he falling asleep standing up? He'd have to get to bed earlier from now on if he intended going on these early morning trips much longer.
Early morning trips is right.
He sighed again and, flicking on a flashlight he'd brought along, started searching the ground. He knew it would be impossible by now to find any trace of that ring of fire, the fire Bodine had ordered set to kill him and his family; yet he still had to find out. Just to make sure he wasn't going crazy. After all these years, it seemed as if there was nothing solid left to connect him to anything that had happened. It had been almost a decade and a half. What could he possibly hope to find?
There was, as expected, no burnt grass, no charred earth. Absolutely nothing out of the ordinary, not even from an ordinary grass fire. He ran his hand through the weeds and shut off the flashlight, standing up again. It was kind of creepy being back here after all this time, yet it didn't frighten him nearly as much as he'd thought it would. He hadn't gone on the railroad bridge since the "incident." But he was standing in the field where he'd nearly died.
That seemed to put a different spin on it. He shivered, almost imperceptibly.
There was a slight wind blowing over the rise and whistling through the grass. He shut his eyes and listened carefully.
He knew he couldn't really hear it--if he could he'd be checking himself into the hospital right about now--but somewhere in his head, aided by the wind, there echoed, "Receive your sacrifice and give us your eternal blessings...."
If Damien had heard his uncle say it, or someone in the church, it would never have made him shiver the way Bodine's voice echoing in his mind did.
This is getting a little carried away.
He turned and headed back toward the ridge. For some reason, he had to climb it. Just to get to the top. He didn't know why; it was a sudden urge he had to look down over the field, take in the same view Bodine had had that night. Maybe he could feel some kind of control if he could put himself in that same position. He reached the sandy base and trudged around to a grassier spot where he could grab onto the tufts and the roots of long-dead trees to pull himself up. Once or twice he slipped, scraping an elbow or a knee; he ignored the stings and kept climbing.
By the time he reached the top the sun was starting to rise through a thin veil of clouds which scudded across the sky like broken sheep. He tried to banish that image from his head; broken sheep just wasn't what he felt like pondering right now. There was a slight chill to the air, and he rubbed his arms, stepping to the edge and peering over.
Damien had never been afraid of heights, so it wasn't the altitude that made him shiver again. It was the fact that in his mind's eye he could imagine a great burning circle, with a group of children and three adults trapped in the middle. He couldn't count the number of children. He was trying to spot himself in the group; then, as if realizing finding himself down there meant he couldn't be real up here, thus none of this could be real, he shut his eyes, backing away and trying to block out the sound of the chanting voices, the flare of fire against the backs of his eyelids--
His ankle caught in something and he fell. He let out a yelp as the unsteady earth gave beneath his feet, and flailed out at whatever might be nearby. Luckily there was a particularly tough clump of weeds not too far away from his grasp; he grabbed it and hung still while the chunk of sand he'd dislodged crumbled down to join that already at the bottom. Only after he was sure the land had stopped moving did he carefully pull himself up, scrabbling at other weeds whenever one batch felt ready to give. He didn't exactly relish the idea of sliding down that rise. Even if he wasn't afraid of heights.
When he reached the top again he stood, brushing himself off. His hands shook slightly, and he sneezed sand out of his nose. He craned his neck to see the horizon. The sun was already halfway up. Taking a breath to steady himself, he turned away from the ledge, lowering himself to slide cautiously down the grassy side back to the field.
Later in the day, without telling anyone of his little trip, Damien visited the police station again. Officer Jones, for once, wasn't there; the officer who'd taken his place at the front desk, on hearing his inquiry, directed him upstairs to one of the offices. Damien had never been upstairs before; he'd always assumed it was just a bunch of nothing, or else file storage rooms. It wasn't as crowded as it seemed it could be, considering Cheboygan's size; yet up here there were several police officers walking around. One or two glanced up at him as he went by, looking around cautiously; most didn't pay him any attention at all. Damien stepped into the hallway, glancing at the doors. He finally found the one he was looking for--SGT. EDWARD DANSER--and opened it slightly, without knocking.
He heard a tapping sound. Or more like a clacking. On peering in further he realized it was Officer Felman, sitting at the desk and typing at an old-fashioned typewriter. The officer glanced up at him, then back at his work; he only briefly bobbed his head at Damien's inquiring look. The singer stepped inside, shutting the door behind him.
"You just missed him," Officer Felman said, not looking up from his typing. Damien wondered if those were his notes from the previous day. If so, he probably had a lot of typing to do. "He was going to get something cleared with the city post."
"City?" Damien asked, stupidly.
Felman only nodded. "This stunt of his isn't going to go over well. I don't think so. It's obvious you don't think so, and I'm sure most other people don't think so either."
So he does have his own opinion. That surprised him. He'd thought this guy, being loyal enough to draw a gun for his partner, would be loyal enough in something like this. "So why're you going along with it?"
Felman looked at him this time and offered a very slight smile. "He does have seniority, you know." Back to his work, as if that explained everything. "What Sergeant Danser wants to do is his business. I just keep track of whatever mess he may leave." He shrugged and gave a strange smile to his paper.
"What if you can't keep track of this mess?" Damien pressed. He stepped forward. "Officer Felman, I know the police have ethics. And my guts are telling me that sending in some defenseless lady to infiltrate a cult violates everything even you guys stand for."
"Defenseless lady?" Felman quit typing and turned the chair to look straight at him. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't she say she was in that cult? And kicked out? Ms. Danbrook is by no means defenseless. I believe she could handle this on her own. As for violating my ethics? Of course this does. But you have to understand. This is Danser's baby now. Like I told you, I have no say."
Damien snorted. "And I thought you guys were partners."
Another smile and shrug. "Like I said, he's got seniority." He pulled out the paper and set it on the desk, getting up. "I can't say I understand exactly what you're feeling, but I understand why. If it were up to me, I wouldn't be sending in anybody at all. There must be other ways to find out about a cult than firsthand knowledge."
"You see?" Damien put in.
The policeman nodded and held up a hand. "But those are not Danser's ways. Danser's--a little more interested in this than you may think. I'll be the second to say he's the best one you can get right now to work on this case."
"Who'd be the first?" Damien muttered.
"Danser would, of course. Humility was never one of his virtues. Nevertheless, humility won't solve you any cases, either." He stepped forward and held out his hand. Damien glanced at it, uncertain what it was he wanted. A handshake? He reached out and took it, and Felman grasped his hand back.
"Look," he said in a low voice, stepping closer as if imparting a secret, "Danser and I were going to meet with Elise on this later tonight. There's no way you can sway either her or Danser. That doesn't mean you have no say in anything."
He let go of Damien's hand, scooping up the paper from the desk and turning to the door. Damien stepped aside as the officer pulled open the door and went out into the hallway. After a brief pause he thought to follow him. But when he stepped out of the office, of course Felman was gone.
Father Damien had a strange look on his face as he opened the door to let his nephew in. He hadn't expected him to show up like this, out of the blue, without at least a phone call; Damien glanced around the den briefly on entering, then turned back to his uncle.
"Are you looking for Elise?" Father Damien asked, uncertainly. He was still holding the door. "Because if you are, you just missed her."
Of course. "She's going to the state police station. To talk with Danser." The priest got another funny look on his face; how did Damien know that? "I was going to drop by myself and listen in. You wanna come?"
"Are you invited?" his uncle asked, sounding slightly suspicious.
Damien shrugged and gave a crooked smile. "Felman asked."
A sigh. "All right. But I don't know what you intend to accomplish. Elise is set on this. I tried to talk her out of it. She told me it's what she wants to do."
How can anybody want to put themselves up for ritual slaughter? Because that was pretty much what he thought she was going to get if she entered Scorpio.
But not if he could help it.
About fifteen minutes later the two showed up at the police station, Damien for the second time that day. This time Officer Jones was back; he looked slightly panicked when he saw Damien come in, and stepped out from behind the desk to block the stairway. He actually held out his arms to the sides. Damien couldn't help but to smile.
"I don't know how you find things out," Jones said, "but you're not going up there. I'm not going to have you starting some kind of stupid fight over what somebody else wants to do with her--"
Damien waved a hand dismissively. "Easy, Jonesy. Officer Felman kindly invited me to attend. You can ask him yourself."
Now the policeman looked suspicious. "Felman said you could? You're not lyin' to me, are you?"
Damien shrugged. "Jonesy, would I do that?"
The officer snorted and grudgingly moved back behind the desk. "I hope that's a rhetorical question there, Dami, 'cause there's no way in hell I'm gonna answer it. I suppose you can go up; they should be waiting for you."
The singer nodded and jogged up the stairs. Father Damien gave Officer Jones a sympathetic smile and followed him. Jones, in turn, snorted again and started rifling in the file cabinet a trifle too noisily.
Upstairs Damien remembered where Sergeant Danser's office was, and made a beeline for it; Father Damien wondered how he knew its location but said nothing. His nephew knocked on the frosted glass, and a voice called, "Come in."
Inside, as expected, were Danser, Felman, and Elise. Damien caught Officer Felman's eye briefly; the policeman made no visible move but seemed to nod mentally. Elise glanced at Damien as if caught in the middle of something she shouldn't be doing; realizing she was staring, she turned her head to look out the window, in the direction of Pizza Hut.
"Damien?" Danser seemed surprised; Damien didn't doubt he was. "How..."
He trailed off; Damien saw his eyes drift slightly in Felman's direction, then he shrugged and sat down at his desk. "Doesn't matter. Perhaps it's good you showed up. You can find out exactly what's going to go on."
"Nothing should be going on," Damien said, leaning over his desk. Uh-oh, Father Damien thought. Danser just gave his nephew that sympathetic look he hated so much. "Sergeant, think about this. I don't care how interested you are in psychological warfare or whatever it is you study. This is wrong. You can't do this."
The cop stared back at him, hands folded. His words, when they came out, sounded carefully chosen. "I'm not doing anything, Dami. It's your friend that's doing it all. I'm not twisting her arm. She volunteered."
"But you can't let her! What, do you think this is just some kind of game where if you screw up you can just start over again?"
"Damien." Father Damien stepped forward and tapped his arm. It didn't help. Both Damien and Danser opened their mouths to speak--obviously in argument--when Elise turned back to face them.
"Damien, I told you my answer already," she said, her voice rising. The other four in the room looked at her. "Nothing you say's going to change my mind."
"Even if you got in you won't get out of there alive!" he protested.
"Don't you want to see your parents again?" she demanded. "You won't unless I can find out where they are."
"Yes I want to see them! Yes I want them back! But you? If you do this there'll be three people that need out!"
"Did you ever think that they don't need out."
This time it was Danser who spoke. Damien glared down at him, not believing what he'd just heard. Danser had turned his chair to face the side wall and was staring at a spot roughly somewhere on the floor, slowly twirling his fingers.
"What do you mean, 'don't need out'?" Damien growled, dangerously close to losing it.
Danser looked up at him, open sincerity in his eyes. "Your father was brainwashed. No matter what any of us do he wouldn't allow anyone to take him out of that cult."
Damien's temper flared. "I don't care if you had to force him--!"
"That's called kidnapping, in case you didn't know, and it's against the law too." Danser stood up to face him. He was bigger than Damien was, and Damien realized he could probably get in a few good punches should he want to start a fight right then and there. "Nobody ever forced him to join. As far as I know he never committed any illegal acts. Other than the fact that you don't happen to like this cult there's no reason for us to try and free him."
"What about my mother?" His fists were clenched at his sides; he could feel his fingernails digging into his palms. Father Damien gripped his arm again; in the very back of his head Damien was grateful for that, as he was pretty sure without it he'd be swinging by now. "She was forced in. She needs out, at least. Or don't you care?"
"I never said I didn't." Now the sergeant's voice was deadly serious, the low sound of a file grating over metal. "You insist on putting me in the bad guy role. Let me tell you something. It's this cult that's the bad guy here. We two are both on the same side, in case you happened to forget."
"Then why are you risking her life?" Damien returned, his voice also low. "If you hand her over to them we'll never see her again."
There was a long pause. Danser's eyes never wavered. He finally answered, "Sometimes you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet."
A deadly silence filled the room. Damien's eyes widened. Even Felman looked shocked.
In the next instant Damien had lunged over the desk at the policeman, his fist meeting the side of Danser's face with a crack. The two of them collapsed in a heap on the floor. Felman, Father Damien, and Elise all rushed forward to pry them apart, the latter two dragging Damien back to the other side of the room, still snarling and flailing his arms, Felman helping Danser back up to his feet. The police sergeant looked surprised, to say the least; a thin line of blood trickled from the corner of his mouth. He touched his fingers to it and looked at them, then up at Damien.
What the HELL did you do that for?! a different voice--he assumed this must be his conscience, long delayed--was screaming in Damien's head. Are you NUTS? You just punched a COP, for God's sake!!
The look on everybody's faces was saying the same thing.
After a moment Danser pulled his arm away from Felman. "I'm okay," he said. Officer Felman backed off, still staring at Damien. There was another pause, this one much more awkward than the first. I hope you like handcuffs, the original, annoying voice was sniping, 'cause you are going to be wearing them for a long time.
However, all Danser did was sit back down, still rubbing his mouth. Damien felt his uncle's and Elise's grips grow looser. He slowly pulled his arms away, not wanting them to think he was going to go at him again. There was no way he was going to do that. He already felt stupid enough. He was sure it showed on his face.
Danser just let out a slight noise, somewhere between a snort and a sigh. "That's going to leave a mark," he said.
No one spoke.
The policeman waved his hand. "You can all sit back down, now."
A pause. They did so.
"We were going over what Ms. Danbrook planned to do," Danser said, pulling out a paper and looking at it. He was still rubbing his smarting jaw. "The best way I see it is to involve as few people as possible. That means everyone in this room. That's it. No one else."
Still none of the others said anything. They were wondering if and when he'd decide to book Damien for assaulting an officer. What a lovely thing to go on your record, the annoying voice remarked. Damien wished he could pound his head against the wall to make it shut up.
Danser stared at them all, then snapped his fingers at the air. "Hello? We were having a meeting?"
A slight murmur from the others as they pretended to be interested again. Felman kept casting glances between Damien and his partner.
"All right then. Like I said no one else should hear about this, because there's always the chance of a leak. Ms. Danbrook was going to go to the compound unaccompanied by police--"
"What do you mean?" Damien squawked. Felman put his hand on his gun again; Danser waved a hand at him in annoyance, obviously so used to the gesture he didn't even have to look. "No cops? I don't like cops too much, no offense to any of you, but I think it's your job to protect and to serve, right?"
"Let me just give you a see-nair-ee-oh, shall I?" Danser said. "Ms. Danbrook shows up at the Scorpio compound to ask to be let back in. 'Gee,' says the high priest, 'we could always use another member, except for the fact that there's a squad car sitting out there behind you.' What do you think happens next?"
Damien was silent.
"Exactly," Danser answered for him. "The priest pulls out his gun, blam, Ms. Danbrook is dead before she even sets foot inside the door. Or worse yet, he puts the gun to her head and takes her in alive. What he does with her next I'll allow you to figure out."
Damien didn't want to figure it out. He just gave Elise a pleading look. Danser's words had sparked a memory in him, a memory of his sister, which he would have done better without. Elise turned away so she didn't have to look at him.
"As I was saying," Danser went on, "Ms. Danbrook shows up alone. We could put a wire on her but I don't recommend it. Her showing up after all this time is bound to arouse some suspicions. Scorpio isn't that stupid."
"Then what are we going to do?" Father Damien asked. He didn't sound as upset as Damien, but he was starting to feel that way. "Sit and wait?"
The cop shrugged. "It's the best thing I can suggest. Her job is to get in, find out what she can, and get out. Alive. Her main objective? Find out where Damien's parents are." He looked in Damien's direction. "The mother should be in this 'common room' she's told me about. It's Lucifer she'll have to look for. How she'll do that is up to her."
"I could try a couple things," Elise murmured, looking out the window and hugging her elbows.
Damien didn't want to think about what "things" she'd have to try to get into the high priest's favor. "Elise, please," he pled, stepping forward. Felman blocked his path; the officer was shorter than he was but he did have the gun, and it was as if Damien could feel it pointing at him even in its holster. He backed away slightly and glanced down at him. Felman's eyes held an odd mixture of I'm sorry and Don't even try.
"Once she finds this information out she 'falls from grace,'" Danser continued, as if not having heard him at all. "She did it before, I'm assuming; she can do it again. The trick is to do it without being suspected."
"There's no way to do that!"
The policeman shrugged. "That's up to her to find out."
He was making it sound as if he were doing all this as a favor to the singer and his family; however, Damien knew he had another agenda. That look he'd gotten in his eye when Elise had first suggested sending herself in told him everything; Danser couldn't care less how Elise ended up, just as long as he got any relevant information he could about the cult itself. In short, Elise was his guinea pig.
And Scorpio was his testing ground.
There was nothing he could do about it, however, short of punching the sergeant again, and a lot of good that would do when the first strike didn't seem to have accomplished much. He let out his breath, shakily, and stepped back toward the door. Elise glanced up at him one last time, and now he could read her eyes as well: Let me do this. Let me be something important. Even if it is just as Sergeant Danser's guinea pig. Just let me do it.
"If no one has anything else to say, I suppose that's it," Danser broke through his thoughts, getting up. He touched his jaw and flinched slightly. "This'll go down day after tomorrow. Ms. Danbrook has to prepare herself for whatever might come. It's not like you can just enter a cult with your blanket and your toothbrush on hand. Now I'd better get home and put some ice on this."
Everyone moved out of the way to let him exit first. Felman followed close behind, as if not wanting any of the others near him. Elise went out third, and even though Damien was staring right at her and willing her to look back she didn't lift her head as she passed.