“I don’t think so, better, I know so- not goin’ to happen…“
“It’s of utmost importance, if you please sir,” Agent Beaky said. He leaned forward across the grocery store counter over toward Virgil. He was wearing mountain hiking clothes, with modern light weight boots. “Again, if you please?”
“I ain’t goin’ up there,” Virgil said. He wiped his mouth with the back of his thick, hairy hand. “It’s dangerous, take a two handle just to build up the nerve.”
“Pardon?” Agent Beaky asked. He turned to look back at Artemis. “Two what?”
“Bourbon bottle, I think,” Artemis said. She shrugged back over at Agent Beaky. She then stared at Virgil. “Really?”
“She’s got it, right, that’s right,” Virgil said. He pointed over at Artemis. “I’d need to drank for a week, them people are crazed, you here me?”
“I do,” Artemis said. “But I think they killed a little girl, about Laina’s age.”
Virgil stood up, and closely stared over at Artemis. He poked his tongue down into the gap between his front bottom teeth and his jaw line where back in his youth he’d stuffed Red Man chewing tobacco, or dipped Skoal from a tin can.
“I ain’t got none,” Virgil said. He coughed to clear his throat. “But I recon I’d step in front of a bullet to protect a child, it ain’t right, you don’t pick at kids.”
“They murdered a little girl,” Artemis said. “Her name was, Lilly Ann.”
Agent Beaky leaned back, his hands to his sides. He turned to closely observe Artemis like any good detective who possessed ears.
“Pardon, me lady,” Agent Beaky said. He kept his gaze at Artemis. “How might you know this?”
Artemis avoided eye contact with Agent Beaky. She hated the idea of being untruthful, but she also held her gift as her one lifetime secret. She fumbled with a potato chip bag, and rearranged the grocery display candy shelf. She realized she had gotten sloppy with her thinking, with her emotions.
“Word on the street,” Artemis said. She pursed her lips. “You know how it works, I just overheard people talking, at the hospital. Picked up the name there, perhaps you can investigate the name?”
“Ah, I see,” Agent Beaky said. He opened a notepad, and scribbled on the paper. “I’ll do that, straight away, name again?”
“Lilly Ann,” Artemis said. She stuttered a muffled last name. “I’m not exact with the last name. Just heard nurses, I think it was the nurses gossiping, you know.”
“Right then,” Agent Beaky said. He snapped shut the notepad. “I’ll not look away.”
Artemis was certain Agent Beaky did not accept her response. She was confident Virgil knew of the girl, it was his clenched jaw, his narrowed eyesight that told his story. And Virgil was hip to Artemis’ cryptic response, he just kept quiet with his fingers on the counter top.
“I guess we’ll all be packing?” Virgil asked as he pulled out from under the check out countertop a heavy, well-used snubnosed .38 revolver. “This might slow one down, doubt it’ll do any killin’.”
“That won’t be necessary,” Agent Beaky said.
“You ever been up in these hills, alone?” Virgil asked Agent Beaky. He picked up the revolver pointing the barrel upwards toward the tiled ceiling. “This will only get you a head start.”
Agent Beaky opened his jacket to reveal his weapons.
“Very well, understand, I assume you’re permitted?” Agent Beaky said. He looked at Virgil, and back over at Artemis. “If you can take us there, I’ll be well prepared to deal with them, if need be.”
“Let’s go, I’m packing as well,” Artemis said. She huffed, and released the potato chip bag stuffing it back into the display. “It’ll get dark soon, I don’t want to get lost out there.”
“Not goin’ to happen,” Virgil said. He pulled up the grocery counter. “I never get lost up in the hills, this is my home. I could crawl home in darkness.”
Artemis, Agent Beaky and Virgil had trudged up into the gradual climb into the Appalachian hills. It was a dense thicket, with kudzu and during the coming springtime it would bloom into a greenish fairy forest.
“I can’t believe you got me out here,” Virgil said. He gripped a high beam flashlight.
“It’ll be all right,” Artemis said. As she stepped forward up the hillside. “You view everything based on bourbon?”
“It helps me manage my stress,” Virgil said. He coughed. “You should try it, next thing you know it’s the next morning.”
“No thanks,” Artemis said. “You smell something?”
“Yeah,” Agent Beaky said. He sniffed. “Like smoke from a fire, looks like about couple hundred yards up ahead, see, it’s glowing just above the crest of the hill?”
“Yes I do,” Artemis said. “Think we can get closer?”
“Let’s just keep it slow, and real quiet like,” Virgil said. He knelt down on one knee onto a limestone rock outcropping. He scanned the area like a hunting dog. “They been known to have big boys roamin’, lookin’ for interlopers like us. They get all wacky about their meetings from what I hear.”
“Sorry?” Agent Beaky asked Virgil.
“Security detail,” Artemis said. “Let’s keep it slow.”
“Very well,” Agent Beaky said. He help up his hand. “Wait. If we get separated, what’s the plan?”
Virgil scratched his unshaven chin.
“Run back to the grocery,” Virgil said. He pointed down the hill. “Run to the road, turn left and you’ll find it, it’s maybe half mile, maybe less.”
“Very well,” Agent Beaky said. “Artemis?”
“I got it,” Artemis said. “Let’s do this.”
Virgil turned and continued to saunter up the traversing old, bare dirt path that was carved from a time when the area was inhabited by Scot Irish coal miners, and gold prospectors. It weaved between ancient oaks, birch trees, and jagged blue gray limestone out cropping. The forest floor was eternally moist and smelled earthy and dank and bore grass shoots wherever nature allowed. The tall trees and barrel chested rocks where partially blanketed with greenish moss, mushrooms, and ferns with flowers interspersed where sunlight rays provided just enough warmth and photosynthesis to defy winters late season grip.
“Here that?” Virgil said. He wiped his sweating face with his Carhartt coat sleeve. “Sounds like a party or something, but it ain’t a party, I’ll guarantee.”
Agent Beaky crawled facedown past Virgil, and made it to the crest of the hillside. He hid behind a sturdy oak tree trunk. He pulled from his coat pocket a small binoculars, and squinted through the eyeholes. For a few moments he inspected the area through the looking glasses.
“They’ve gathered near a large tree, maybe twenty or so,” Agent Beaky said. He waved Virgil and Artemis forward. “Just look forward, they’re not far, limit your movement, keep hidden.”
“What’s that,” Virgil said as he pointed forward.
Beneath the massive tree a partially naked young woman appeared escorting a pure whited furred lamb. The lamb seemed oblivious to its situation fixated on the sparking fire.
“A lamb?” Artemis said, curiously.
“That’s one giant tulip poplar,” Virgil said. “Bet its close to hundred feet high.”
“What do you guess,” Agent Beaky said. “Twenty five, thirty foot diameter?”
“I’d say,” Virgil said.
“It’s not the tree,” Artemis said. She huffed as she gripped her hands into the dark, moist soil. “It’s the mushrooms, look around the tree, they are everywhere.”
And from another universe hidden from human existence Artemis heard a playful whisper. “Artemis, Artemis… I can see you Artemis… look for me, down near The Profit Higgs Boson, see me, holding a torch. This dude thinks he’s a god.”
Artemis glanced over at Virgil, he seemed focused on the scene down near the tree. Agent Beaky appeared to ignore them. But that voice whispered again.
“Artemis, remember what I told you? What did I tell you… Artemis … Artemis … say it.”
Artemis squinted her eyes, and scanned near the tree. A man only wearing a white ritual robe poked the torch he was holding upwards, thrusting again, and again as if to draw her attention. She then knew it was Satan.
“They are going to sacrifice a lamb,” Virgil said. “Big dudes got a fancy lookin’ knife.”
“I know,” Artemis said. She stared down behind her at the forest floor. She wondered if the worms remained hidden through winter, and emerged from the soil during springtime. She wanted to hide with them, but it would have been pointless. “They know I’m nearby.”
“Pardon?” Agent Beaky asked. “How might that be?”
“Don’t eat the mushrooms,” Artemis said. She shut her eyes remembering the Lilly Ann. “Don’t eat the mushrooms.”
And Artemis heard Satan’s laugh. “Good girl. Those two cannot hear me, it’s just you and me, what a great show I have for you to see. This humanoid thinks he’s a god, Profit Higgs Boson, it’ll be a hateful day he dies, and really meets me.”
The lamb was lead before the big man wearing a demonic long horned goat mask. He was dressed in a similar white robe, but it had a golden sash. He held forward a small bowl as dutiful followers picked the forest floor for mushrooms, and placed them inside, and then backed away into their pre-determined positions. The lamb casually sniffed, it looked up at the large man with its innocent black eyes, and then bit at the brown grass.
“A knife, exactly right,” Agent Beaky said. He methodically refocused the binocular lens. He grunted. “That’s a Kris, it’s quite decorative, the blade was made wavy on purpose, it’s for rituals. I suspect it’s about to be used. If you have never experienced this sort of practice, feel free to turn away.”
“They know I’m here,” Artemis said, ruefully. “They’re going to put on a show for me.”
“How you know that?” Agent Beaky asked. He did not stop observing the scene from his binoculars.
“Oh, it’s a hunch,” Artemis said. She sighed. “That’s all, maybe my brain is playing tricks on me.”
“Might you be a clairvoyant?” Agent Beaky asked, curiously.
“Ah, now what ya callin’ her?” Virgil asked. He stared back and forth at Agent Beaky and then Artemis. “Never heard about a family up here named that.”
“A bit,” Artemis said. Her gaze locked on the doomed lamb. “Just instincts, the hospital, it’s part of this. It has to be, my stomach is in nots.”
Artemis, Agent Beaky and Virgil kept down low, and close together. They watched as the large man sang what was likely a satanic chant, or some form of demonic worship. The symbols were all there in front of them. Artemis was the only human aware that Satan was really in their midst.
“Show time for the lamb,” Agent Beaky said. He looked over at Virgil and then back over at Artemis. “Turn your heads, if need be, I’m required to develop evidence, its my job.”
Artemis heard the lamb baaing as if a child was poorly blowing through a plastic flute in music class. The lamb was tugged over toward a bowl full of mushrooms. It carefully sniffed the fungi. It started to nipple the mushrooms.
“Don’t eat the mushrooms,” Artemis said in a whisper. “Oh, god, don’t eat them.”
“Well,” Virgil said. “That’s weird, I thought they’d have don’t something worse.”
“Wait for it,” Agent Beaky said. “They are all watching the lamb, they took it off the leash, letting it roam among them, very strange indeed.”
“Jokes on that lamb,” Virgil said. “Wouldn’t mind getting walked around by a rope with some them honey’s, lands sake.”
“Focus,” Artemis said.
And as the lamb seemed to enjoy its freedom, it began to wobble, and it squealed as if questioning the humans for what they had just fed it. It wobbled like a drunken Halloween guest, until it finally flopped onto the ground, writhing in tremors and then just as quickly, it stopped. It was dead still.
“Those mushrooms, that only took a few minutes,” Agent Beaky said. He squeezed off some photo from his smartphone. “This group is up to something bad. I’ll need more evidence.”
“You all notice something weird,” Virgil said. He coughed. “Now that apes got that fancy knife back out.”
Artemis heard the whisper float over from Satan. “Artemis, this is so wicked, but, you must wait for it, it’s about to get better, and better. And these women cannot wait take me, the lamb sets them on fire, you’ll see.”
The large man wearing the demonic mask started to take the Kris dagger and he ritually carved the dead lamb into bloody chunks with random sized pieces. The group members were then served the pieces into small bowls. The members then started to scatter the bloody meat and bones around the base of the tall tree in a crisscrossed pattern and then in a larger and larger circle until the animals remains were gone. But for the severed head that was placed next to the tulip poplar trunk.
“Why are they stepping away from the tree?” Artemis asked. “This is so weird.”
“Notice,” Agent Beaky said. “They all seem to understand their role, this ritual is not random.”
The trio remained hidden behind tree trunks and evergreen bushes, but a hush descended over them as if their collective instincts had formed into a singular understanding that something unexplainable was about to happen, as if something almost supernatural. The only sounds from below were the crackling fire, and the soft breeze nudging the tree limbs. The demonic worshiping group was now holding hands in a large circle around the Yellow Poplar, but instead of looking up at the beautiful tree, they were all staring down at the ground. And after a few moments, the earth’s soil began to shift beneath their feet.
“Ah, what’s that there doin’?” Virgil asked. “That ain’t normal like, never seen this.”
“Ground is cracking open,” Agent Beaky said. He started to now video tape the scene using his smartphone. “Artemis, if you have your smartphone, perhaps you can video as well? Always good for a backup.”
“I’m with you,” Artemis said.
Artemis pressed her thumb against the smartphone icon, as she videoed the scene. Before the group long fishers opened the rich soil to reveal beneath them a white skeleton like network that sucked the animals flesh and bone down into the crevices. And then the earth healed over the openings until it had completely digested the lamb including the severed head. And tiny mushrooms began to appear just sprouting around the tree, as if pushed up from a hidden world beneath.
“There are things you see in life,” Virgil said. He covered his eyes with his hands. “You can’t forget, but wish you hadn’t seen, geez.”
“I did make me warnings to you,” Agent Beaky said. He grunted, and blew a whoosh from his lungs and out his open mouth. “Let’s move along before they notice us.”
“Great idea,” Artemis said. “I don’t understand what just happened, that tree, or it’s roots ate the lamb?”
“Artemis,” Satan whispered. “Don’t leave, maybe you should join us, come enjoy our celebration. The new mushrooms will take you on a magical trip, I promise.”
“Just give it second,” Artemis said. She stopped moving, and she started to take another video. “I have a hunch.”
“Very well,” Agent Beaky said. He remained resolute and focused on the scene. “
“Ah, them girls all got naked, like, now,” Virgil said.
And then the young women were debased and used by the men into performing debauchers acts. The large man chose his partners first, and the others followed his lead. The woman appeared to happily comply, induced from mushroom consumption. Artemis shook her head, and she turned away.
“Lust, not greed,” Artemis said. “Let’s go, that’s disgusting, nothing more to see.”
“Indeed, typical carnal activity,” Agent Beaky said. He and Artemis started to crawl away from their vantage point. It was pointless to remain watching human degradation, but they stopped and realized Virgil was still observing the show. “Virgil?”
“Wha?” Virgil said. He appeared glassy eyed. “Sorry, I’ll stay if need be, just investigating things, right?”
“Come, or you’ll go blind,” Artemis said. “Besides, you need to get us out of here, right?”
“Ah, yeah,” Virgil said. He pushed back and down, and along the leaves and dirt. “Good idea, I guess, I was just a bit hypnotized.”
And from over the hillside, Satan whispered again to Artemis. “Oh don’t leave now, the fun is just beginning. But you got it right, my second favorite, lust. Oh, these humans do like lust. And these girls are just getting warmed up for me.”
“Please leave me alone,” Artemis said. She wiped sweat from her eyebrows. “You’re not real.”
“Pardon?” Agent Beaky asked Artemis as they both methodically moved down the steep hillside.
“Nothing,” Artemis said. “Just talking to my self, you know, bad thoughts, negative energy.”
“Ah, after what we saw,” Agent Beaky said. “Much agreed.”
“Now Artemis,” Satan said. “To think these fools worship me, and someday when they die, I’ll remind them I don’t care.”
And Satan began to laugh, and laugh, as its laugh resonated through the trees and within the forest until Artemis made it back to the road.
“I don’t want any part of that place again,” Virgil said. He unlocked the metal grocery door, and opened it.
“Don’t worry,” Artemis said. “I’ll leave you alone. I’ll keep you posted about Laina, cool?”
“That’d be appreciated,” Virgil said.
“Ms. Lamb,” Agent Beaky said. “Let’s drive out of here, perhaps we should get back and have a moment to go over our findings?”
“Y’all go do that,” Virgil said. He shook his head and his shoulders. “I need to go find me a handle, and some ice.”
End. Chapter 16.
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