From the first paragraph, readers are treated to the setting of Death Valley, simultaneously painting the harsh, dangerous environment with its most striking and breathtaking features. Soon thereafter, Cain Towers and his uncle Abel are introduced, celebrating Cain's 18th birthday with some wine. This moment of seeming normalcy is immediately shattered as Abel retells the story of he and Cain's father's lives growing up in an orphanage, engaging in sinister, ritualistic behavior after being adopted out by a preacher and his wife. As they put the finishing touches on a mass grave, Cain and Abel set out to murder Cain's mother and separated-at-birth twin brother Niles. Readers of the series will be immediately at home with the macabre storytelling and gruesome details, while those picking this story up for the first time will be shocked and drawn in as the details of Cain's life come to light. The level of surprise is exponential but does not put the pace of the storytelling at risk. Planting a number of suspenseful questions from the start, the story will be devoured more and more until readers get the answers they seek.
Death Valley, California
Furnace Creek, Death Valley, the hottest place on the planet, teems with uniquely tenacious life forms. Freed by luckless prospectors, thousands of wild burros roam the hills and valleys. Coyotes, sidewinders, lizards, and roadrunners leave grainy tracks in the desert sand. Sleek predator hawks soar overhead and strike silently and gracefully. Bald-headed vultures, their stomachs lined with corrosive acid to digest the bacteria and toxins of the dead, hover and patiently watch the flight of the raptors. On the desert floor, green cacti pierce the dry, dead air with prickly branches. Set deep and seductive in the thorn clusters, yellow blossoms buzz with insects and bees.
Shadows from a large cacti dropped over a shallow pit shaped in the form of a grave—a mass grave. Slanting out of the center of the pit, the handle of a shovel pointed a thin finger to a pile of branches. Hidden in the branches, a black-tailed jackrabbit, its 7-inch-long ears drooping on the sand, was motionless as a fringe-toed lizard sped across the grave. From the sky, wings spread wide and dark, a broad body glided toward the earth, changing the pattern of light and shadow on the desert landscape. Protective scales dropping over the its eyes, the lizard scurried wildly under the sand. Wings flapping, creating a cloud of sand particles and debris, the red-tailed hawk crashed into the grave. Its clawed feet dug deep, and talons closed around the lizard’s body. Slicing its sharp, hooked bill into the scales, the hawk began tearing apart the lizard. The jackrabbit remained motionless in the maze of branches, its heart thumping a drum-like cadence that echoed over the desert sand. As the hawk flew off, a kettle of vultures swooped swiftly toward the shallow pit. In the background, the majestic peak of Funeral Mountain was ablaze with sunlight.
Miles from Funeral Mountain, the dilapidated, wooden dwelling tilted low to the ground. Wind and sand had blasted away the paint, and the roof was bare of shingles. The window frames were nailed shut. The door hinges were rusted and bent.
Hidden by mounds of sand and brush, a smashed gate and fence posts marked the turnoff to the property. There were numerous “No Trespassing Signs” along the narrow dirt road that led to the dwelling. The sleek 1969 Poppy Red Ford Ranchero parked in front of the house was immaculate.
Much of the fence that bordered the house was buried in sand. Stumps of cacti, round clumps of chaparral, and a solitary Joshua tree constituted the backyard. The Joshua tree was burned and black and twisted in the form of a cross. Next to the tree, a wooden marker with a pointed tip protruded from the sand. Beyond the tree, the line of fence posts stretched into the desert. Two burros were tethered to the nearest post.
Except for a wide brown spot on its head, the smaller burro was entirely white. The larger burro was black. The ears on both burros pricked up when the screen door banged open. Abel Towers and his young nephew Cain stepped onto the porch. They walked to a narrow wooden table and the two wicker chairs. An old cassette player with a row of elevated silver push buttons was on the table.
Abel Towers carried a dark bottle of Moscato and two glasses. Abel was thirty-six years old. He was tall, had a muscular body, and a deep tan on his hands, face, and bald head. Abel wore jeans and a gray T-shirt that had an image of hands closed in a prayer position. Pray for Salvation was written in black, block letters under the hands.
“This is your night,” Abel said, giving a glass to his nephew. Cain’s chalk-like skin texture was in sharp contrast to Abel’s dark tan, but he had similar facial features and the same muscular build. Both men had piercing green eyes. Cain also wore a Pray for Salvation T-shirt. Abel filled the glasses; a musky aroma rose in the dry air. Raising his glass, he clinked it against Cain’s.
“Happy 18th birthday,” he said. They gulped the wine. Abel refilled the glasses, and they sat on the wicker chairs.
“Let’s have another toast,” Abel said. “To our Step-mommy Irene Towers and Step-daddy the Reverend Jeremiah Towers.”
“But this is their home, Cain. They built the Holy Redemption Church in town. They brought your dad and me to Death Valley.”
“No, we won’t ever toast them!” Cain said sharply. He sipped the wine. “Tell me about my grandma and my dad.”
“How many times . . .”
“Tell me again. Tell me everything.” Cain sat back in the wicker chair. In the distance,
heat lightning flashed thin, jagged lines through the darkening sky. The burros lowered their heads and were quiet.
“Your dad and I were bastards,” Abel began. “Your grandma was young. She was walking home from school when she was kidnapped by three men. They kept her a week and raped her when they felt the urge. Anyone of them could have been our dad.”
“The voices tell me two white men and a dark one . . . the dark one was a boy.”
“No one knows about that, Cain. Mom was blindfolded the whole time. When the three were done, they left her at a rest stop on old Route 66 near Barstow. A tourist family found her and took her to the hospital. Just dropped her on the steps.” Abel emptied his glass and refilled it.
“Later when Mom found out she was pregnant, she wanted an abortion. But her parents said, ‘You can’t be killen’ innocent babies.’ They rushed her to the Oasis of Hope Church where your dad and I were born. Mom didn’t want anything to do with us. She said we was cursed and left right after givin’ birth. The nurse told me Mom walked down the road in the heat of the day and never looked back,
“Your dad—he was named Cain just like you . . . he was handsome like you too—your dad and I, we grew up at the Oasis of Hope. There were thirty of us. But the number kept changin’. Couples came, paid a lot of money, and left with their new kid. Your dad and I caused a lot of trouble. Other kids got adapted, but no one wanted us.”
“The voices told me about the sidewinders.”
“Yeah, your dad could handle snakes; they never bit him. He had that gift with desert animals. When one of the bigger kids would push me around or call me a bastard, your dad looked out for me. He would put a sidewinder in the locker, and sometimes the kid couldn’t move fast enough and got the fangs in his hand or arm. Everyone knew Cain had done it, but no one talked. The Oasis leader tried to sell Cain and me cheap to anyone who came. But we scared the visitors.”
“What about Brother Saturday?”
“You don’t want to know ‘bout that.”
“Tell me,” Cain ordered. Abel filled his glass to the brim and gulped the Moscato. Red drops fell on his fingers. He didn’t seem to notice. His eyes were on the horizon.
The sun dropped a golden glow over Funeral Mountain. The gold slowly darkened to a sandy-brown. Then as the sun lowered over the mountain range, the sky burned a bright crimson. Within moments, the crimson melted into a purple haze that lifted shimmering waves of heat over the sand. The Joshua tree turned electric, its branches emitting sparks of light. The burros stomped their hooves in the sand and brayed a mournful sound. Crickets sounded in the yard.
“There’s no more beautiful place in the world,” Abel commented.
“Tell me,” Cain ordered again. Shaking his head back and forth, Abel spoke in a strained voice.
“Brother Saturday—that wasn’t his birth name—was a big man with big calloused hands. He was strong too. On Saturday nights—that’s why we called him Saturday—he would come for us after dark. He would take us—it didn’t matter boy or girl—to a hidden spot behind his hut. Then he did things to us, painful things. I remember when I was pressed down how the sand felt so hot on my skin and how the air around me was so cold. I remember the whole time watchin’ how the stars twinkled in the sky. Then I had to close my eyes so tight that I didn’t see nothin’ else.”
“It was my dad who found out what Saturday was doing?”
“Yeah, I never told him. But he found out. He heard everything from the voices . . . like you do now.”
“You and Dad dug a hole in the desert?”
“Yeah,” Abel said. “When Brother Saturday came for me that last night, Cain was ready. Brother Saturday took me to his quiet spot. He pushed me on the ground, dropped down next to me, and Cain hit him in the head with a shovel. Hit him really hard. I can still hear the clunk and see the hurt look on Saturday’s face. Me and your dad got busy. We dragged the body deeper and deeper into the desert. When we were so far out we couldn’t see the lights from the Oasis of Hope, we dug a hole and buried Brother Saturday up to his neck.
“I hadn’t see it, but your dad had Brother Saturday’s straight razor in his pocket. Cain took it out and began to shave the hair off Saturday’s head. It was impossible to do it the right way because we didn’t have suds and water and Saturday had thick black hair. When Cain was done, there were deep gashes across Saturday’s skull. Blood and patches of hair were flowing down his face and dripping off his nose into the sand. We left Saturday with the top of his head sticking out of the hole. He was swearing’, threatenin’ us with hell fire, and cryin’ the whole time.
“The next mornin’ everyone at the Oasis of Hope heard the moanin’ noise during breakfast. To this day, I still remember that I couldn’t stop eatin’. I ate me stacks and stacks of pancakes. As the sun rose over the desert, the echo of noise got loud and scary. We all stayed inside, and although it was hot like we were in a furnace, we shut the windows and played games, mostly card games like War.
“Sister Beth came and told us that the vultures led the searchers to Saturday. His jaw was resting on the sand. Sister Beth said his brain was eaten by coyotes and then the skull was cleaned out by vultures. The coyotes had dug a deep hole trying to reach Saturday’s tasty parts. They dug all the way to his stomach. They ate his liver and pulled out most of his intestines. Sister Beth said she was sorry they didn’t dig lower and eat his rotten thing-ee.
“She was sorry but she was smilin’ and cheerful when she told us that. Even though I knew the facts of the story better than anyone, I enjoyed hearin’ the way Sister Beth told it. I looked at the faces of the kids that Brother Saturday had touched. None of them was cryin’. But you could tell they wasn’t happy either. They just sat there quietly tryin’ to understand. But there’s no way to understand people like Brother Saturday, is there Cain?” Abel waited, his mouth dropped open. “Is there?”
Cain didn’t answer. He had an amused look on his face. The burros started to pull at the tethers and stomp their feet, kicking up sand. Cain stared into the desert shadows. Three sets of coyote eyes stalked back and forth and then were motionless. Drinking some wine, Cain looked at his uncle.
“Why did you and Dad get cast out of the Oasis of Hope?”
“It was lots of reasons. Your dad was gettin’ into trouble every day. Once he enraged Sister Christian, who never got upset over anything. She was so angry she hit him with the ruler and sliced him above the eye.”
“What’d he do?”
“It was in Bible class. We had daily scripture lessons. Your dad liked the stories about the whale, about the great flood that drowned all men and women and even the animals. He especially liked the story about how Cain busted Abel in the head and kilt him. But this day he got real contrary with Sister Christian. It was when she read from the gospel: In the beginnin’ was the Word. Out of nowhere, Cain shouted out that’s impossible. Sister asked what was impossible. Cain said, ‘Word was impossible. He said men, not Gods, used words to lie and deceive. God and his fallen angel Satan did gigantic things that were beyond anything words could tell about.’
“Before Sister could speak again, Cain shouted that if God or Satan ever accidently or even purposely dropped a word upon a person, that person would be crushed senseless. This kind of talk bothered Sister Christian. She picked up the ruler from her desk, walked down the aisle, and smiled. She asked Cain, ‘If God didn’t use words, who were the great religious leaders and holy prophets talkin’ to?’ That’s when the whole classroom got real quiet.”
“What’d my dad say?”
“Cain didn’t say anything right away. His face turned different colors. You could see he was gettin’ angry. Then he raised his voice and shouted, ‘There’s no way the church people and prophets were talkin’ to God. They were talkin’ to someone they loved more than God. They were talkin’ to themselves!’ That’s when Sister Christian charged his desk and hit him in the face with the ruler.” Abel gulped at the wine; Cain raised his glass.
“It’s crazy that a boy could use simple words to reason difficult stuff like that.” Cain laughed and drank Moscato.
“You’re like your dad. He laughed the exact same way you’re doin’ now.” Abel studied his nephew and asked in a low voice.
“When your dad and now you hear voices. Is it God’s?”
“Then it’s Satan’s?”
“Then whose voice is it?”
“I don’t know,” Cain said. “I only know it’s best to listen and do what the voice says to do. Tell me about the Reverend Towers.”
“The next day after the trouble with Sister Christian, Jeremiah Towers and his wife Irene drove up in a Holy Redemption Church van. The Oasis of Hope secretary filled out the adoption papers, and the Oasis of Hope treasurer put a hundred dollar bill in the reverend’s hand. But Irene wasn’t happy. She said, ‘It’s $100 for each one of them bastards.’ The treasurer made a fist and you could see he was mad. But he put another $100 bill flat on top of the first one. The reverend slid the bills into his wallet, slapped it shut, and pointed us in the direction of the van.
“So with no possessions at all—except your dad still had Saturday’s straight razor in his pocket—we left the Oasis and came here. We sat on the porch. The Reverend Towers and Step-mommy Irene sat in the chairs and looked down at us. The reverend had a determined look on his face. Irene looked just plain mean. She told us she knew how badly we had acted at the Oasis. That we were the worst kind of sinners. She told us we would be saved because we would pray together before bedtime. God would save us or He would kill us in our sleep. She said it was so simple that even we could understand. Then she played her cassette, and we listened for hours without eatin’ or drinkin’.”
On the horizon, flashes of lightning illuminated the grandiose peak of Funeral Mountain. Thunder cracked in the distance. Breathing deeply, sipping the wine, Abel hit the play button on the cassette recorder and leaned back in the chair. Gospel music drifted across the yard.
Sowing in the morning, sowing seeds of kindness,
Sowing in the noontide, and the dewy eve;
Waiting for the harvest, and the time of reaping,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
That was step-mommy’s most favorite hymn,” Abel commented, humming the refrain with sincere enthusiasm. The burros began to bray. Cain reached over, turned the dial on the cassette, lowering the sound.
“Tell me what happened when we went to Twin River.”
The burros quieted, their tails low, their ears pricked to the sky. Abel stared at the black cross of the Joshua tree. The hymn was soft and low but vibrant in the dry desert air: Fearing neither clouds nor winter’s chilling breeze, by and by the harvest, and the labor ended. Abel filled his glass with Moscato and spoke in a flat, emotionless voice.
“The Reverend Towers’s brother died and left him a mansion and all this land in Pennsylvania. So we moved to Twin River. Me and your dad Cain were having the best of times. We were just kids, but as we growed up, your dad heard stronger voices, and we began to do some animal sacrificin’. The Reverend Towers was real busy too. He built Commandment Road to the summit of Redemption Mountain. He built the Church of the Flamin’ Cross there. Then he built the Flamin’ Cross itself—which is like a giant replica of that Joshua tree we got in the yard. Back then, the cross lit up the same time every night. It could be seen for miles blazin’ and beckonin’ his followers. With his prophesizin’ and shoutin’ the damnation of the three horsemen killin’ everyone, the Reverend Towers had a big group of worshippers. Of course, Irene helped him with all the details.
“But step-mommy never stopped houndin’ Cain. It finally got to your dad. One evenin’ when we were at the Flamin’ Cross prayin’, he nudged step-mommy from behind and sent her flyin’ off the mountain. It took days to find her body. The Reverend Towers put her remains in the Catacombs of Rapture. He grieved her passin’ and spent a lot of time in the catacombs listenin’ to the sheaves.
“But your dad didn’t care about none of that. He was all fixated on this sweet girl Becky Wilson. I think the voices had picked her for the special ceremony. The voices also said she had to be pregnant, so you dad got her with child. But he done more than that. We found out that she had two babies in there. She had twins. It was time for celebratin’ and getting’ on with the ceremony, but your dad suddenly disappeared. I was alone for the first time. It was a real bad time for me.” Abel gulped the wine; the hymn continued: When the weeping’s over, He will bid us welcome; we shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves. Abel refilled his glass; Cain spoke in a strained voice.
“Growing up, the voices showed me pictures of wild dogs pulling apart my dad’s flesh. What happened to my dad?”
“The Reverend Towers kilt him. I don’t know how. As soon as the reverend told me what he had done, I knocked him off the cliff right there at the cross. The next mornin’ I found what was left of his body on the rocks. I stuffed him ‘tween two big boulders. As far as I know he’s still there in the shadows of the Flamin’ Cross.” Abel nodded his head and smiled.
“You did good,” Cain praised. “Now tell me about Mom and my twin brother in Twin River. Explain to me why they’re still alive.” Cain hit the silver stop button on the cassette player, bringing a sudden silence to the porch.
“Sure, I’ll tell you about Becky your mom and your twin who now calls himself Niles. I’ll tell you about them, but you ain’t going to like what you hear.”
“I get all the current news from Stephon. I left him as caretaker for the reverend’s mansion and church.”
“Don’t you mean our mansion and church?”
“Yes, we have ownership now,” Abel said. “But Stephon watches everything for us. He lives in the small room above the garage. It’s right next to the mansion. I told him to get the electric fixed and the lights ready on the Flamin’ Cross for our return to Twin River. He’s workin’ on it.”
“He’d better have it ready. We’re lighting the Flaming Cross the first night back.”
“Very soon,” Cain said.
“After we finish the mass grave we dug in the desert?”
“Yes, we’ll finish digging the grave. Then we’ll fill it with bodies. After I build the Prayer Board in the bedroom, we’ll go to Twin River.”
“I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout those plans.” Abel pouted.
“You’ll know when it’s time.”
“I’m wearin’ the Pray for Salvation shirt same as you. I can help build the Prayer Board.”
“No, I’ve been told to do it myself.” Cain sat quietly for a moment. “Tell me what happened with my mom and my twin brother Niles.”
“What happened was none of my fault. You and Niles were born eighteen years ago this day in the catacombs. You were fightin’ hard and kickin’ and your head popped out first. You were a big, strong baby. Niles came out later. I had Nurse Shelly there to help Becky. I had to lock her in the tomb next to Irene’s when I took Niles to the river for the sacrifice. That’s where Becky’s brother Wayne Wilson came out of the darkness and took Niles. I hurried back to Redemption Mountain for you and the nurse. I made certain Shelly—she had wet all over herself in the tomb and she was real scared—but I made certain she fed and took care of you. Then when we got here and I didn’t need her anymore . . . well, Shelly’s buried under that marker at the Joshua tree.”
“What about my mom Becky?”
“That night at the mansion I had my hands full with you and Shelly so I left Becky locked in the catacombs. I planned to get her the next day. But when I woke up, I seen this truck barrelin’ up Commandment Road. I jumped in the Ranchero, followed it to the summit, and hid. There was a gang of them in the truck. There was Wayne Wilson, Matt Henry, and Conner Brooks. And there was another person I ain’t never seen before. His face was all busted up and covered with bandages. He didn’t do much but stand there like a guard. Wayne had a crowbar and pried the door open. They went in and got Becky.”
“You didn’t stop them?”
“They all had rifles. I had nothin’ but my Sharpfinger knife.” Abel looked at his nephew, saw the bitterness flash across Cain’s face. “I swear I did all I could. I took a step out and shouted at them they were trespassin’. I had the Sharpfinger ready, but they began shootin’. I got in the Ranchero and raced off the mountain. I grabbed you and nurse Shelly and drove all night and all day. Finally, I reached the desert, and we’ve been here in Death Valley ever since.”
“What does Stephon say about Becky and Niles now?”
“They both live with Wayne Wilson in the family house at Polecat Hollow. Niles, he’s a senior at Twin River. He’s a big man now.”
“What’d you mean by big man?”
“Stephon said Twin River High School won the Pennsylvania football championship. Niles was 1st Team All-State. Famous universities are wantin’ him to go to their school.”
“Good for Niles,” Cain said. “He might be a big man, but he won’t be attending any big university.”
“You got plans for him?”
“I got plans to kill my brother and my mom,” Cain said. “Let’s do the burros now.” Cain stood and stared at the dark clouds forming over Funeral Mountain. “There’s a bad storm coming tomorrow. It’ll give us the confusion we need to get the bus and the kids.”
“What bus?” Abel asked. “What kids? I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout that either.”
“That’s right. You don’t know nothing. When I explain things to you tomorrow, you’ll be real excited.”
Cain went inside the house and returned with a small gasoline chainsaw. He and Abel walked across the yard to the burros, that were agitated and stomping around. The black burro bucked, its hooves slicing through the air. The white burro brayed loudly.
“We only need one.”
“Which one?” Abel asked.
“Cut the black one loose,” Cain said. Abel slid out his Sharpfinger and sliced the noose around the burro’s neck. The black burro thudded hooves across the desert sand and disappeared. Moving quickly, Abel stuck the Sharpfinger in the head of the white burro. As all four legs collapsed, Abel held the burro upright. Cain pulled the cord, started the chainsaw, and stepped toward the burro.
“You got him tight?”
“I got ‘im, chokin’ tight.”
“Okay.” Cain leveled the saw on the burro’s mane and sliced cleanly through the neck. Blood from the whirring blade sprayed in the air, dropping dark splotches over their arms and across the prayer hands on their T-shirts. The burro fell heavily to the ground.
“Slick,” Abel said, removing the Sharpfinger. “Real slick.” He lifted the head in the air. “Now what?”
“Bring it over here,” Cain said, walking to the Joshua tree. “Stick it onto the marker of the nurse that fed me her milk. That way she’ll be remembered. Also visitors will be scared away until we come back.”
Abel turned the burro’s head toward the desert shadows and shoved it onto the pointed marker. The neck sank low, the tip of the marker snapping the jaws shut. Abel laughed and walked to the porch with Cain. As they finished the wine, they watched the coyotes gather and circle the bloody body of the white burro. In the distance, the black burro brayed loudly and was suddenly silent. Cain sipped the wine and turned contemplative.
“Soon both burros will be skeletons,” he said to Abel. “Tomorrow their bones will turn brittle and white. It is the nature of things and the mixing of life and death. Matthew tells us, Look at the birds of the air . . . your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value then they . . . Therefore, do not worry.
“So I don’t worry about nothing, Abel. And neither should you. Just this morning I saw a hawk swoop low from the heavens and snatch a white-winged dove in flight. It is clear the Father nourishes predators. We survive because we kill and feed off the weak.” Cain watched as the coyotes bared teeth and snapped savagely before they ripped into the flesh of the burro. One large brown coyote, its eyes red, its jaws dripping blood, trod wearily toward the head tilting on the marker. As it approached the crossed branches of the Joshua tree, the coyote made a whimpering noise and retreated.
“You and I will be the predators tomorrow,” Cain commented. “We got to get the school bus and bring lasting salvation to the children. It will be strenuous work. We should rest.” Cain placed his empty glass on the table, and he and Abel, warped boards bending and creaking under their weight, entered the house.