A half dozen air-conditioning units squatted head-high on a plain of hardened black roof tar. The curved silhouette of a parabolic dish at the center of the building, elegant in comparison, pointed to the sky. The dish was designed to broadcast, but it wasn't Sunday sermons it beamed into space.
An unseasonably cool wind chilled the preacher through his nylon jacket as he looked across the dark, flat roof. On nearby Lamar Boulevard cars queued at the stoplight, bathed in a luminescent mix of the nocturnal urban spectrum. Tempered glass framed their occupants' heads, some lit orange by glowing cigarettes or green by cell phones.
The preacher's son extended his right hand toward the first car and curled back three fingers, shaping his hand into the form of a pistol. The cars began moving through the intersection, and Drago snapped his thumb downward as each passed by. The reverend watched his son and shook his head. The boy could bring down the whole plan if he didn't control himself.
Masking his concern, Reverend Lucas Ruthlier began stretching a black neoprene cap over his head. A dozen insulated wires attached to electrodes embedded in the cap snaked outward and connected to an electronic bridge. From the bridge, a braided steel cable plugged into the side of a laptop. The preacher paused to look over the edge of the building. A homeless man on the street below pushed a shopping cart toward the shelter of a nearby greenbelt. If the next phase of the experiment failed, they might need just such a person to refine their methods. Best if it were someone who wouldn't be missed.
Alex twisted the bare end of a copper wire around the terminal lug of a palm-size radio transmitter. He looked two hundred feet down the ravine at the pile of paint cans stacked neatly on the ground in front of a limestone cliff. He and Charlie had meticulously arranged the cans after filling each of them with a different-colored organic dye. His favorite colors were the primaries: fire-engine red, cadmium yellow, and cobalt blue. They would mix with so much more panache than the earth tones.
A half pound of C-4 explosive was taped to a receiver, a battery, and a detonator nestled among the paint cans.
"You want to be Picasso today?" Alex asked Charlie.
"I prefer Rembrandt."
"Whatever." Alex handed him the transmitter. "But this ain't exactly realism."
Charlie pushed the big round button. With a whoomph, paint cans full of dye smashed against the white limestone. Laughing, the men ran to the smoking ground in front of the cliff and beheld their newest creation.
"That's better than shit-throwin' monkeys!" Charlie said.
"Certainly more colorful."
The rock face was a kaleidoscope of hurled paint. But after a few rains the organic dye would wash away, and the limestone would be ready for another artistic assault.
"That was one fine explosion," Charlie said. "How much C-4 does that leave?"
"There's a couple of more pounds in the shed."
"We need to use it up. I still can't believe Jasper brought that stuff home with him when he mustered out of the Guard."
"Yeah, I know. And legal problems won't be my only worry if I get caught. Trina will explode worse than the C-4 if she finds out I have it." Alex looked at his watch. "It's getting late. We'd better get going."
They walked to Charlie's pickup, parked next to a stand of cedar. Charlie drove them out through the pasture, its rich brown winter grass anchored by live oaks. At the county road he turned toward Alex's ranch. After a minute on the blacktop Alex saw the fence line that separated his land from Charlie's. His cousin steered off the pavement and turned onto a narrow service road that wound its way to the top of the south ridge.
Charlie shut off the truck and they got out. Below, the canyon opened before them, and Alex gazed at his and Trina's ranch house at the bottom. A few hundred feet away from it lay the creek bed, with its perpetually gurgling spring. From the house, the driveway followed the creek out to the county road nearly a mile away. In the other direction was Charlie's house and his shop. Alex pulled his eyes away from the serene view and focused on the stainless-steel cable that stretched across the canyon in front of him.
He and Charlie had suspended the zip line in order to have a speedy route from the top of the south ridge to the canyon floor. Otherwise, the foot trail down the craggy side, with all its switchbacks, was a twenty-minute trek. They could drive down the back side of the ridge the way they had come, but that was a fifteen-minute pickup ride out to the county road, and then back along the gravel driveway into the ranch.
It was no secret, though, that the cousins also relished the heart-stopping entertainment.
Behind the north ridge were a dozen new homes on land Alex had once owned. When the county had installed a main water line along the paved road, families that had been living in the area for generations, including Alex's, had been forced to sell land to pay the higher taxes on its appreciated value. Alex had negotiated a deal with a developer, who promptly slapped up the new houses on five-acre plots behind the ridge. At least he couldn't see them.
Charlie kicked a stone over the cliff's edge. "What's Trina got to say about selling more land? I know money's tight, but that's a pretty radical solution."
"She's against it, so that's a showstopper," Alex said. "I just need to sell more paintings instead. Or sell them for more money." He ran his hand through his sandy, windblown hair. "I wouldn't try to make any land sale without Trina's okay," he said. "Otherwise, I'd be sleeping with Mangy."
Charlie laughed. "Even in a mood, Trina wouldn't make you sleep with that pathetic coyote."
Alex stepped into the shade of a massive live oak tree whose thick, stubby trunk was twisted a half turn from five hundred years of Texas wind. Its dark gray bark spiraled upward to muscular limbs supporting a dense canopy. It guarded the canyon that divided the Twisted Tree Ranch, and it was the defining landmark for miles around.
"Help me get this harness rigged up," Alex said. "I'm ready to fly."
Charlie handed Alex a climbing harness with nylon straps sewn to steel buckles. Alex stepped into it and cinched the apparatus around his waist and thighs. He stepped closer to the base of the big twisted oak and looked out along the descending length of cable stretched across the canyon.
Charlie rubbed his chin and looked toward the horizon with a vacant look in his eyes, as if he couldn't focus.
"Are you okay?" Alex asked.
Charlie rubbed his chin again. "I'm okay. But I just had a weird vision--a cedar tree on fire."
Alex gave Charlie a hard look. He'd learned to pay attention to the strange visions that popped into his cousin's head. They had started when he and Charlie were children, and came infrequently, but some of them were prescient. Aside from Alex, Charlie was reluctant to share them. Too many people had ridiculed him with the accusation that he had an overactive imagination.
Alex pulled on cowhide gauntlet gloves. Charlie stepped onto an exposed tree root to raise himself, and he grasped the line above his head. He hung on it like a side of beef with a Stetson and a mustache, trying to pull the line lower so Alex could reach it. Charlie's two hundred pounds lowered the taut cable just a couple of inches, but it was enough for Alex to reach the roller assembly and snap the lanyard onto it.
Attached at the waist of his harness, Alex half hung from the line and half stood, trying to balance himself. He faced the edge of the limestone cliff. Satisfied that he hadn't forgotten anything, he focused on the impending thousand-foot ride across the canyon. The end of the trip was the scariest. The cable was tied around another oak tree near the bottom of the far ridge. A few yards before it, a bungee-cord braking system would save Alex from a disastrous impact with the tree.
High above the creek in front of him, three black vultures soared in lazy circles, looking for a meal. What are they waiting for? Why don't they just land and eat, or else move on? He was agitated, but didn't know why.
Alex knew without asking that Charlie had also scrutinized the harness attachments. Charlie was the most reliable person Alex had ever known. Whether it was a routine chore at the ranch or a calamitous personal crisis, Charlie was there.
"What are you and Trina doing for your anniversary?" Charlie asked as Alex prepared to launch.
"Oh, crap! I completely forgot." Alex's shoulders drooped. "Now I'm in deep shit. I forgot last year, too. Trina will be steaming. Man, as much as I'd like to, I can't seem to get it together when it comes to her.
"Well, at least you won't have completely forgotten. You've still got a little time to plan something. Maybe you could cook dinner and then watch for another meteor shower tonight."
"Yeah, maybe. Things have been rough with Trina and me lately. Actually, more than lately. We had hoped Seven would pull us together, but I think there's even more friction since she was born."
"Yeah, I can kinda sense it sometimes."
Alex bobbed up and down like a dangling marionette as the tension of the zip line lifted him in the harness. He sighed and said, "I'm outta here. See you later, Charlie." He clasped his gloved hands over the top of the roller assembly, found purchase on a jutting rock with his right foot, and launched himself into the realm of vultures.
The zip line was steep and fast. He hurtled forward, already fifty feet above the rocks that had broken away from the limestone cliff over eons and settled into a craggy slope. The line sang with a tearing buzz, like a tent ripping apart in a Texas hurricane. As Alex picked up speed, the pitch of the line's banshee scream rose.
He looked down at the fast-approaching L-shaped house his parents had built in the sixties to shelter the inhabitants of the Twisted Tree Ranch. The wind whipped his hair across his forehead as he gained speed down the zip line. Irritated that he had forgotten his anniversary, he felt nauseous.
A soaring vulture flapped in panic to escape from the human creature on the screaming contraption invading its tranquil airspace. Alex was close enough to see where its neck feathers stopped, and the gray, wrinkled skin of the bird's head started. Damned ugly bird, he thought. He removed his right hand from the top of the roller housing, reached around his rib cage, and withdrew Sweet Pea - his dearest weapon: a Taurus 9mm semiautomatic pistol camouflaged with olive green handle grips - from its holster. He flipped off the safety and fired repeatedly, but the unharmed bird kept flapping.
The front door of the ranch house exploded open as the last shot echoed away. Trina stepped onto the porch. Alex waved at her, pistol in hand, as he whizzed by high overhead. She didn't wave back.
The downward slope of the zip line flattened as he flew at the anchoring oak tree. Alex braced himself. Twenty feet from the tree the screaming roller assembly slammed into a hard plastic block that slid along the line. A thick bungee cord attached to the block stretched to its limit, decelerating Alex with stomach-turning quickness. He lowered his legs to the ground and dug his heels into the dirt as the stretched bungee then dragged him backward. Spent, the bungee cord relaxed to its normal state, and Alex stood, wobbly, on solid earth.
He waved at Charlie on top of the far ridge on the other side of the canyon. Charlie waved back, and then climbed into his pickup truck.
Alex unhooked the lanyard from the roller assembly, loosened the buckles and straps, and stepped out of the harness. He slung it over his shoulder - the Texas equivalent of a cardigan sweater draped around the neck of an Ivy League preppie. As he walked toward their house with his gear, he could see that Trina, her arms crossed, waited on the porch. Her brown hair hung straight to her shoulders on one side, but curled down the other side, as if she had been interrupted using the hair dryer.
"I heard shots," she said as he neared.
"Yeah, I took a few shots at a buzzard as I went by it on the zip."
"Why would you do that?"
"Because they're flying vermin?" He phrased it as a question, because he knew that he didn't have a sensible answer. "And it just kept circling."
"That's what vultures do." Trina pointed skyward. A half dozen vultures, black against the dusk sky, glided with motionless wings, surveying potential roosts for the night. "They're everywhere. They belong here. I know you know that, so why shoot at them? You're on a wildlife refuge - our wildlife refuge. What were you thinking? You can't shoot straight on solid ground, let alone on that contraption." She pointed overhead.
Alex sensed anger at more than his gunplay.
"I aimed where I wasn't." Alex knew his reply didn't help his cause even before Trina exploded.
"Sure, you aimed elsewhere - like maybe toward our house, with Seven and me in it?" she shouted. "Or over the ridge, where there is a whole subdivision of houses and people? Are you crazy? You can't control that kind of shooting."
Trina placed the palm of her hand on her forehead and then slid it back over the top of her head. "This is a pointless conversation, Alex. There's no way you can convince me or anyone else that shooting a pistol from a zip line is not unsafe. Please don't do it again."
"You're right. It could be dangerous."
"Okay, it's dangerous."
"Like pulling teeth," she said wearily.
Alex figured it was better to bluff his way through a bad situation than admit that he forgot their anniversary. "Look, what do you say we go into town and have a nice dinner to celebrate our anniversary?"
Trina's expression hardened further, and she gritted her teeth.
"Please don't insult my intelligence by pretending that you didn't forget again, Alex. It's almost six o'clock, for God's sake!" Trina's ears were crimson. "Is it too much to ask that you remember something so important? At least, important to me."
"It's important to me, too, Trina." I'm an idiot... "I'm sorry I forgot. You and Seven are the most important parts of my life." Alex shook his head.
"I'm not sure what to say to you, Alex," Trina said as he followed her into the house. "You're considerate when you remember to be, but you don't remember often enough. I know you love life. I just want you to bring some other people along for the ride. Me, especially. Take some responsibility."
Trina's spontaneity was the trait that had drawn Alex to her when they first met. That and her beauty. She was quick to laugh and quick to anger, and she never lied. Her volatility never ceased to attract him.
"Let me try to make it up to you tonight," he said. "I'll grill a couple of steaks and make a salad. We can have a nice dinner and talk."
"I can't. Jennifer called a little while ago. Steve has the kids tonight, and she's really bummed out. Since we didn't have any plans I told her I'd stop by and hang out for awhile." Trina's eyes said the rest: What do you expect when you don't think about me until the last minute?
Alex sighed and said, "Will you hang out with me later, when you get back from your sister's?" He tried to put his arm around her, but she pulled away.
"'Hang out'?" she said, frowning. "'Hang out' is what Jennifer and I do. What you and I do is something else. Don't wait up for me."
Reverend Ruthlier settled into a reclining lawn chair and clasped his hands over his stomach. Drago lit a nearby propane heater and settled into the other recliner, facing the opposite direction. Together they could view the entire night sky, as they had for weeks, impatient for results. The city's light pollution was insignificant; they were looking for something bright. Across a background of stars, the dot of a communications satellite crept eastward.
Drago pointed it out and said, "What if we snag it?"
"Impossible. Too much mass."
"You look like Medusa with all those wires coming out of your head."
"What I look like doesn't matter." Drago blinked at the snub. "It's time for the dish," said his father.
The reverend rubbed a small plastic figure with his thumb and then stuffed it back into his pocket. Drago typed a command into the laptop, and the parabolic dish whirred into motion. When it stopped it was pointing directly overhead.
"Yes, Father." Drago tapped the enter key on his laptop. The shopping center's parking lot lights dimmed, then recovered as Austin Energy's utility grid compensated for the surge of current. The reverend quieted his mind and concentrated, staring into the edge of the Milky Way. A shooting star streaked toward the horizon, and both men jerked upright in their loungers. Another meteor flashed a trail, brighter than the first.
"This feels promising!" said the elder Ruthlier. "Look for a lavender tail."
Drago began to drum his fingers on the arm of his recliner, catching his father's excitement. They stared upward, eyes straining into obscurity. Reverend Ruthlier relaxed again and focused his thoughts.
The night sky flared with the incendiary brightness of a dozen full moons. Streetlights shut off as pinkish purple light flooded the cityscape. Out of the sky glow emerged a fireball, its lavender tail sizzling from the stratosphere. Descending in the west, it punctured a few sparse clouds and blazed out of sight below the horizon.
The preacher bolted out of the recliner, ripped off the neoprene cap, and rushed to the roof hatch. Drago followed his father to the steel-caged ladder that led down into the guts of the immense building.
"You first," Ruthlier commanded, and Drago scrambled down. The preacher started after him, then reached back to pull the heavy roof hatch closed as if it were weightless. He continued down, grasping the rungs of the ladder like an excited bear descending through the branches of a tree.
The men ran across an elevated second-story platform inside the cavernous building. The polished concrete expanse of main floor extended below them. The church's congregation would be down there in a few weeks, riveted by the reverend's sermons.
"Don't forget the radio!" Ruthlier shouted. The two men rumbled down a metal stairway from the elevated platform and piled into the reverend's Lexus parked on the concrete. Drago tossed the radio in the backseat and slid behind the wheel. He activated the building's articulating steel door to the outside loading ramp, and gunned the car out of the building. As they pulled away, Ruthlier looked with fondness at his new church that was taking shape in the shopping center.
Sheets of plain brown paper taped to giant windows thwarted scrutiny from the curious, and the building appeared as just another real estate relic in transition. But each day as the stores in the shopping center disgorged sated customers, the church's interior was forming. And each night the experiment progressed on the roof.
Drago headed toward the hill country west of Austin. Reverend Ruthlier flipped the switch on the police-band radio. There was nothing but the usual chatter about speeders and other Austinites behaving badly. It was too soon for reports.
"The tools are still in the trunk?" Ruthlier said.
"Yes, they are."
"If there's a crowd when we arrive at the fall zone I'll distract them with the word of God."
"And if there are only a few people at the site?"
The reverend opened the glove box and removed a Smith and Wesson .357 revolver. Its dark metal glinted in the dashboard light. "Then we improvise." He released the cylinder and rotated it to make sure it was fully loaded, then snapped it back into place.
Ruthlier turned the pistol over in his right hand and looked at his little finger. He thought about the silver ring with the lavender crystal that he had worn there for so many years. The crystal was now wired into the circuitry of the electronic bridge that controlled the parabolic dish. Working through the array of sensors in the neoprene cap, it had just delivered the greatest achievement of Ruthlier's life. Men had died for that crystal. Ruthlier suspected that still more would follow. Perhaps even himself and his son. But the deaths were inconsequential compared to the importance of the crystal, he mused. Its technology had finally been proven.
Ruthlier glanced at Drago. He could see the tattoo on his son's throat even in the dim light of the car. It never ceased to irritate him. "I've worked too many years not to come back with that meteorite, Drago. We cannot leave without it - no matter what it takes to recover it. It's essential for the next phase."
"I understand, Father. Stay on Highway 71 west?"
"Yes. As spectacular as that fireball was, people will report it. We will figure out where to go when the news comes across the radio."