This is the prologue to a novel I started some years back as a sequel to The Armageddon Strain. I may eventually rework both books for future publication, but for now, you get a sneak peek. The cover idea is my own. If I decide to publish Death Mask (working title), then I’ll ask Jeffrey Mardis to do the cover, because he’s a genius.
Tom Pritchard had ten minutes to live. At half past six, the Missouri farmer had enjoyed a leisurely breakfast with his wife of thirty-three years – fried bacon with her special egg casserole and toast. He’d skipped the shower; choosing instead to pull on last night’s overalls and flannel shirt, clean socks and boots from the mud porch. Gotta milk Sassy and fix the gate on that fence first. I’ll take a long bath after I finish up in the field.
Thirty-six degrees of wind chill slapped the farmer’s unshaved cheeks, causing his eyes to water a bit. Pritchard pulled the stained, quilted coat collar up tightly around his earlobes. His right glove had a large tear in the little finger, so he kept that tucked warmly into his jacket pocket, while using his left to shield his eyes against the bright morning sun.
“Morning, Dad!” a lean teenager called from the south side of a brightly painted barn. “I already milked Sass for ya’. I figured I’d have breakfast myself, and then I’d head on out to the fields and check the corn. Abe Nelson is coming out this afternoon. I think it’s just about dry enough to start harvest.”
By now, father had caught up to son, and Tom clapped his only child’s broad shoulder with his left hand. A ghostly chill ran along Pritchard’s fifty-one year-old spine, and he nearly stumbled.
“You okay, Dad?” the nineteen-year-old asked. “You look sort of flushed. Maybe you got that flu, huh?”
Pritchard glanced up at the clear blue skies and shook his head. “Helluva day,” he whispered to the glaring sun above them.
Ken Pritchard, named for his mother’s grandfather, looked long into his father’s aging gray eyes. Thomas and April Pritchard had married on a rainy day in May, ten months before their first child was born and mercifully died. Born with neither arms nor legs and with an underdeveloped brain, the boy would have spent his entire life in institutions. Thomas had blamed April, for the young mother had smoked the entire pregnancy. April had blamed her beer-guzzling husband. Both had blamed God.
Only the shame of facing small town gossips had kept the couple together. The death of Tom’s father a year later, had left them with a farm to tend, and April soon conceived again. Careful monitoring found a flaw with this child as well – a genetic deletion that would have repeated the horror of that nightmarish first birth. April chose to abort rather than gaze upon another limbless victim with her eyes and Tom’s chin.
Then, twenty years ago, April had admitted herself into Boone County Hospital for a tubal ligation – Tom had refused to even consider a vasectomy – April learned that once again, she had conceived. Coincidentally, or perhaps by design, a new pastor had moved into their small farming community, and he had convinced the couple to leave it to God. After much prayer, she and Tom canceled the amniocentesis, took to their knees, and left it to their faith to bring them through.
And now – Tom Pritchard stood in the bright sun with his miracle boy on a clear autumn day.
“I’m fine, son. Helluva day.”
Ken’s gray eyes, mirrors of his father’s own, widened. “What do you mean, Dad?”
“I wish it didn’t have to be like this,” the older man muttered, withdrawing the blood-stained right hand from the warm pocket. “But I have to, you see? We’re all gonna die sometime,” he continued, wiping his forehead with the bloody glove. “It takes sacrifice to make a farm work. That’s what we gotta give it. Our sweat, our tears, and most of all – our blood.”
For a split second, Ken Pritchard assumed the blood staining his father’s right came from a wound – but then the young man saw the nine-inch switchblade, winking at him in the sun’s warming rays.
It happened so fast – his father’s arm swung up rather than inside – and Ken reacted in pure preservation mode.
The knife’s tip entered half an inch below the farmer’s sternum and punctured the cardiac wall – stopping Tom Pritchard’s heart. Ashen-faced, the farmer’s eyes widened, and he smiled. “Thanks,” he whispered, and his knees collapsed beneath him.
Tom Pritchard’s warm blood poured out onto the dry, rocky ground. In the last second before his brain stopped functioning, Pritchard caught sight of a jet airplane, high and distant, crossing the enormous blue sky from east to west – fair salute to blood well spent.
“Bird,” he mouthed to his only son. “See the bird?”
Ken Pritchard, aged to ancient in the space of seconds, glanced upward. “I’ll get Mom!” he screamed, his feet pounding hard toward the farmhouse’s back door.
Inside, the mud porch welcomed the boy with streaks of red where a shiny, mopped tile floor should be. The streaks deepened to a blazing red as he followed their design, shaped like church camp arrows pointing visitors to the dining hall or cabins.
“Mom!” the boy called out in a panic. In the enormous porcelain sink, breakfast dishes soaked in water – still warm and sudsy. Ken could still smell the home-cured bacon his mother had been frying when he’d gone out to do his morning chores. “Mom!”
Into the living room — here and there, blood spattered against a wall, a lamp, a light switch. Ken ran upstairs – taking the steps three at a time.
“Mom!” he screamed, insisting she answer. Insisting she appear and put an end to what he feared he’d find.
Within the small back bedroom, shared by his parents since their second year of marriage, Ken found his mother’s body. April Pritchard’s white form, dressed in a flannel nightgown and a bloody chenille bathrobe, lay daintily posed beneath two of Grandmother Ida’s hand-stitched quilts, her dead eyes closed by a bloody hand, and a silk rose laid carefully upon her breast.
Ken stared as grief, disbelief, shock overtook him. Numb, the teenager collapsed beside the wrought-iron bed and began to weep uncontrollably.
Outside, his father’s corpse stared up into the October sky. A second jet had joined the first, and both began to crisscross the expanse of robin’s egg blue, a fine white trail widening behind each. Within a few minutes, the jets had formed several x-patterns, and the plumes fattened into a hideous shape. Had he been able to see, Tom Pritchard would have recognized the symbol as one his pastor had shown them only two weeks before. A symbol of evil.