Valentine's Resolve CHAPTER ONE

Weathercut Manse, Iowa, November, the fifty-second year of the Kurian Order: A Hawkeye from the first quarter of the twenty-first century would hardly recognize his state in the snow-dusted fall of that year. The corn and soybeans, yes, the birches and willows claiming soggy land rimming the streams and lakes, and the majestic oaks, elms, and cotton-woods, the slopes and crests of the low rolling hills around the river basins, certainly.

The beef cattle in the fields give some hint that times have changed. They are undersized compared with the big steers of better times. A few cough; others have the strained look fan animal who has picked up a bit of wire or a piece of a can.

It's the architecture that's changed most, the roads and bridges and little towns in between. A well-traveled or imaginative Iowan might think himself in some quiet stretch of French or English countryside.

Instead of four-lane towns surrounded by farms with frame homes, barns, and silos rising nearby, or sometimes the newer Wal-Mart blisters girdled by paring lots and fast food stops and sprawling exurb, the new centers of public life are the Great Homes.

Like the French villas and English manses of old, the Kurian Order Great Homes are built to impress. Some are vaguely Alpine, with high-peaked roofs, elaborate woodwork on the overhangs, and two or three stories of glass window broken only by balconies; others mimic the heavy beams and plasters of Tudor dignity; a few seem to be almost brick-by-brick recreations out of a Jane Austen movie. But the most popular style might be called French modern.

Weathercut Manse is an example of the last style. A big, bold front of limestone and picture windows, shielded from the elements by a tall slate roof, grows a stablelike garage looking out over the gravel turnaround to the right, and a turret like a miniature castle keep to the left. The off-balance arrangement is pleasing in the daylight, when the sun lights the flower bed in the center of the turnaround, so that the manse seems to be reaching out to embrace visitors and present a bouquet in the day. However, at night the lanes resemble the arms of a boxer dropping into a defensive stance.

Around behind is a smallish patio, reached by French doors, flanked by the glassy refuge of the marbled indoor spa, and topped by a private balcony outside the master's bedroom, and the aviary-greenhouse locally famous for its lemons and year-round supply of plum tomatoes.

Gardens, wilder woods, and a nine-hole golf course surround the house. It is only once you get beyond the thick hedge to the east, the three rails of white fencing to the west, or the stone wall with iron gate running the road to the south that you reach the working part of the estate, a seventy-acre horse farm. There's housing on the grounds for the pigs and chickens, and a New Universal Church parsonage. A thick wood separates the Kurian churchman from a little square of prefabricated trailer homes, a repair garage, and a gas pump.

The Mansion is the pleasant face of the estate, the parsonage its conscience, and the barns and tenant homes its muscle. But next to the gate, built into that dignified wall, are a small stone house and garage that are the lizard brain of the estate, the security center. The workers cheeky in here each day and pick up a radiolocator watch that can be fixed to a beltloop; all traffic into or out of the estate must first pass through security, a sodium-vapor-lit double-basketball-court-sized stretch of pavement surrounded by chain-link fencing, where vehicles can be parked while their contents are searched and inspected.

The guards walk with a bit of a swagger in their camouflage and winter fur hats (in the summer they wear blacky pith helmets), carbines with telescopic sights and bayonets mounted as if to warn visitors that they are ready to deal with trouble, either at a distance or up close and personal.

They defer only to the master with his brass ring, and the parson with his white clerical collar, as they patrol the grounds on ATVs or, for the romantically minded security chief an ox-eyed Arab gelding and a silver-tipped riding crop that he uses as a pointer.

Not that there's much trouble in this quiet corner of northeastern Iowa,. far from the troublesome Grogs of the Missouri valley or the noisome guerrilla band that has recently sprung up in the Indian-head territory of Wisconsin. The security guards can joust on their ATVs with cattle prods - also used as nonlethal inducements for the tramps and "mexicretins" to move on down the road without applying for work or largesse at the manse.

Just that morning, as a new wind came along to kick up the remains of the previous night's snow, the security team rousted a tramp from his shelter in the rusted, weed-grown hulk of a sport utility, tire-less remains in the woods where it had broken down in 2022. They woke him with a cattle prod and sent him on his way, after a cursory search of the grubby little odds and ends he shouldered in edge-worn bags. He carried a Wisconsin work card indicating that he'd last been employed a year ago, and swore he planned to return to his home province of Eau Claire. A request for food brought the cattle prod up again and instructions on how to reach the nearest New Universal Church hostel eighteen miles away - the manse parsonage serving only the Weathercut grounds and its tenants.

Now the tramp hobbles down the road in that toe-in, footsore fashion of a man who has gone too far on bad shoes. He wears a buttonless shirt held shut with stock twine wound round his waist crisscrossing his chest. His face, under a greasy thatch of tangled black hair, has a thick layer of dirt in permanent residence, and little can be read in his brown eyes, permanently downcast. It's a face that has seen its share of hardship; an old scar runs down from the right eye, and the jaw is a little off-kilter, though it gives his face a humorous set, as though he's turning up the corner of his mouth at a private joke.

The only piece of gear on him that might attract interest is his short walking stick, used to help mitigate the effects of his obvious limp. The twisting wood has a good steel cap where it strikes the road, a leather wrist loop, and a short handle projecting out of the knobby top.

One of the guards who questioned him looked like he was thinking of confiscating it, but the tramp told a convincing story of it being awarded to him after he was wounded fighting for the TMCC in Little Rock during Solon's brief tenure. The back his ID card did have a half-peeled old shining service star - the sort of thing elementary school teachers used to put on spelling tests - and a discharge stamp, and at a glare from the senior guard, himself a TMCC veteran, the stick was returned.

The road wanders up a little treelined hill - only a technically minded surveyor would call it a ridge - as it reaches the edge of Weathercut's lands, then down and over a stream.

The tramp checks a litter-filled hole in the bridge's armpit - the bundle is still there, and the little piece of paper set to dislodge if it's moved is still pinned to the bridges concrete by the pack - and then takes a long drink from the stream, lowering his face to the water as though he were one of the manse's horses, before settling down for a nap.

Had one of the guards followed to observe the tramp until he was off the grounds, he would have thought the last very strange. Travelers, especially vagrants, take care to travel only during daylight and hide deep and dark once the sun sets. Kurian Towers are few and far between in this part of Iowa, but their avatar Reapers use the roads as they go about their affairs, and are only too happy to remove a human mote like the tramp from the picturesque dells of this corner of Iowa.

* * *

David Valentine didn't rest under the bridge long. He got to his feet again well before dark, but not before he exchanged the flap-heeled road shoes for a pair of soft buckskin moccasins.

He was tempted to take one or two of the weapons from the cache under the bridge, but there was still a chance that he'd be observed sneaking through the estate's orchards. He could talk his way around a few pilfered late apples, but not a pistol.

Valentine carefully cut upstream toward the manse.

This was not his first visit to Weathercut Manse; he'd been on and off the lands a dozen or more times that November, getting a feel for

the rhythms of the estate and its personnel. Taking your time with this sort of thing made the results exponentially surer.

This being a Wednesday, F. A. James, late of the TMCC but now enjoying a comfortable sinecure courtesy of Crossfire Security and the Ringwearer of Weathercut, would be on the east side of the grounds from eight to twelve, after which he'd put in four more hours at the gatehouse, then sixteen in ready reserve in the security apartments next to the utility garage.

Not that Valentine intended for him to finish the shift.

Sometimes the captain or one of the older hands would accompany F. A. James on the field patrols, but tonight would be cold. He'd probably be alone, driving his ATV from point to point, possibly with a dog riding in the back, as he checked the fields and fencing, warming his hands over the engine whenever he paused.

Valentine had picked out the spot a week ago, spent two long cold nights, one watching it to get the lie of the ground and the guard routine down, especially where the headlights of the ATV would shine.

The east side of the estate ran down into a soggy streambed, rough and dimpled and thick with birches and poplars and a drowned oak that had fallen. The estate fence ran down into the bottom, probably to protect the pheasants that nested there.

The fence wasn't very formidable at this point: a chain-link barrier with razor wire strung atop in a Slinky-like tangle, a final fence for the estate's livestock and a serious warning to anyone else. But whoever had built it didn't account for smaller-animal activity, or simply didn't care. Prowling raccoons had dug under it and a dog or two might have expanded it, chasing the raccoons, for all Valentine knew. He'd opened it still farther on one of his scouts.

He looked at the fence one more time, and checked the distinctly nontrampish timepiece he kept in a tobacco pouch in his pocket. Made of steel thick enough to cause sparks if struck against flint, it was a soldier's wristwatch long bereft of band; it had a magnified bezel so the big white-painted numerals and hands could be easily read at night.

Stalking makes one feel alive and focused, yet it is oddly calming

in the stretches of idleness. This night provided a little extra frisson of excitement for Valentine. F. A. James would be the last. He didn't know what he'd do after this one.

Tomorrow would take care of itself.

He took a breath and extracted the red balloon he'd found near Carbondale, Illinois, and carried around knowing he'd find a use for it sooner or later. He'd slipped a rolled-up piece of paper into a tiny white-capped orange plastic container, the kind Kurian-issued aphrodisiacs and fertility enhancers usually came in, and attached it to the lip of the balloon with a bit of wire. He put just enough breath in it to make it look like it was on its last legs, then added a knot in the bottom. Then he reached up to hang it on the razor wire where he was sure the ATV's light would hit it as James turned along the path.

He examined the ground around the thick oak on the manse side of the fence, picked up a few twigs, and tossed them back over the fence. No telling just where he'd have to drop and how far he might have to run.

Valentine patted the small knife in the sleeve sheath on his forearm and gripped the legworm-leather handle of his hatchet-pick. It was a handy little tool of stainless steel used by the legworm riders of Kentucky to mount their forty-foot-long beasts. This one had a pry blade at the other end of the slightly curved pick with its nasty fishhook barb, great for popping small locks and a hundred other uses, urban and rural.

Including lifting yourself up into an oak.

Valentine hooked a limb and swung his legs up, crossed his ankles around the branch, and was in the leaves and branches as neatly as a retreating cat. In his last scout he'd even found the branch he wanted to rest upon.

He passed the time thinking about Mary Carlson with her currycomb, or giggling at the dinner table.

He didn't doze, but fell into a mental state that lowered his lifesign, a form of self-hypnosis. He doubted there would be any Reapers prowling the estate; they were scarce in this bit of brass-ring-thick

Iowa outside the bigger towns, but it was still good to stay in practice. Even if the fleas and ticks on his body helped obscure the signal humans gave off.

The blat of the ATV lifted him half out of his trance, the way a mouse's tread might cause a rattler to open an eye even as the rest of it remained quiescent.

Valentine tensed. There was always the chance that F. A. James wouldn't see the balloon. Then he'd have to drop off the tree and knock him from the saddle with a body blow, and that could be chancy if James was alert.

No dog in the back of the minibed. A bit of his neck relaxed. He hated killing dogs, even when famished.

James directed his ATV slowly along the fence. Part of his job was to check its condition. Cattle rustling was not unheard of in Iowa even among the estates; an ambitious young Grog could easily lope off with a couple of prime calves or a young bull tied across his shoulders and paddle them back to the Missouri valley in a canoe.

And at the back of the estate owner's mind there would be old sins, walled out of the manse but still lurking there like Poe's telltale heart. Most Ringwearers had made enemies on their way up. The fence was Weathercut Manse's outermost layer of skin protecting the vitals at the great house.

Unfortunately for F. A. James, the skin could be easily gouged if that's all an intruder wanted. He was protecting the house and its lands. Nothing but a handlebar-hung shotgun and a cattle prod at his waist protected James.

F. A. James must have seen the balloon as soon as his headlights hit it. He slowed and then stopped his ATV.

He turned off the motor and Valentine silently swore. The idling engine would have covered his footsteps. James warmed his hands on the engine and climbed off.

F. A. James' fur hat, its security badge at the front glowing dully like a third eye, tilted upward as he examined the balloon. A message in a tiny plastic jar - the old prescription label had been stripped off so

the paper curled within could be more easily read - would be tempting. It was traditional in Iowa for brides and grooms to loose balloons on their wedding day, usually with messages of good wishes - "sky cheer" was the phrase - but it was always customary to send one off with a large-denomination bill inside.

What's given up to the world is returned hundredfold, read the New Universal Church bible.

For the past two years Valentine had been in the karma business. After tonight he'd close up shop.

He tightened his grip on the hatchet-pick.

Valentine dropped out of the tree when he saw James yank on the pill container, popping the balloon not quite at the moment his feet hit the ground. Valentine softened the landing with a roll, came lightly to his feet, and took two quick steps to the ATV's saddle.

The shotgun was locked to its bracket, so he sprang up on the saddle and used it to vault toward James, who'd finally reacted to the noise behind and turned to be struck across the head with the blunt side of Valentine's climbing pick.

Valentine cuffed his prey and gagged him with a bit of his hat, so that this quiet corner of Iowa might remain so.

He checked the stout laces on F. A. James' tall combat boots and wondered how best to secure his captive to the cargo basket of the ATV.

* * *

Empty silos are not difficult to find in Iowa.

Empty, of course, as in "not containing corn or feed". Nature abhors a vacuum, especially when that vacuum cuts the wind and keeps out the snow, so the silo Valentine had chosen a week ago contained a good many creepers, spiders who ate the creepers, mice who ate the spiders, and barn owls who ate the mice.

And bats. Their guano added a fragrant decoupage atop the rusting chute gear and old feed sacks at the base of the silo.

F. A. James hung upside down by a single line of nylon cord, dangling from rigging far above in the black top of the silo. His slightest movement caused him to swing extravagantly, like the pendulum in a grandfather clock.

Valentine squatted atop the rusty mechanical rubbish, sharpening a short, thick, curved blade with a sturdy handle.

The security man's features were hidden under a white pillowcase, tightened about his head with a bit of the same nylon cord. Inked-in eyes and mouth made him look as though he were wearing an abbreviated Halloween costume. The effect was more for those who would find the body than for the benefit of the pair in the silo.

"Gate codes", F. A. James said, his voice stressed and cracking. "Is that what you want?"

Valentine kept sharpening the knife.

"There's a spare back-door key..."

"I don't want access to Weathercut", Valentine said, deciding the knife was sharp enough. "I wanted you out of it, Franklin".

"But I'm nobody important", F. A. James squeaked. "I don't even have my own room".

"That's the problem with being a Nobody Important. Someone might decide you're disposable. Kind of like that teenage girl back in Arkansas. The one you, Bernardo Guittierez, Tom Cray, and Sergeant Heath Hopkins raped and then killed".

Valentine smelled urine leaking.

"No! I mean, you've got the wrong guy".

Valentine was a little relieved that F. A. James kept talking. He hated the ones who just blubbered at the end. Cray had spent the last five minutes screaming for his mother.

"Her name was Mary Carlson. Ever catch her name? Bother to remember it? You must remember her face. What did it look like at the end? Now, I figure four guys, maybe ten minutes each - that was a long forty minutes at the end of her life. About as long as the next forty minutes are going to be for you".

James was panting now, and the pillowcase went in and out of his mouth like a flutter valve.

"Mary was into horses. Loved them to death - good at taking care of them too, once she learned what was expected".

Valentine drew the blade across the whetstone. The sound echoed off the cobweb-strung walls of the silo like a cat spitting. "This is a hoof knife", Valentine explained. "Horse hooves are tough to cut, and you need a short, strong blade to get through them. Hoof is way tougher than, say ... the cartilage in your nose and ears, Franklin".

James spoke again from beneath the ghost mask: "Captain Coltrane over in Yaseda, he's got a whole jar full of ring fingers off of girls he collected for the Reapers. You should be going after him".

"I never knew the owners of those fingers".

"I didn't even come. I just did it 'cause the others did, and Hop killed her before I knew he'd drawn his pistol".

F. A. James' story didn't quite jibe with what the others had said. According to Guittierez, the corporal had demanded that the girl be "flipped over" to escape the indignity of "sloppy seconds", then made her...

But Valentine didn't care about the details anymore. The investigation and hunt were over. Now there was just duty to Mary Carlson.

"You see a white collar? The time to confess passed with the investigation. I read the documents. Consul Solon, for all his faults, didn't like civilians mistreated. You could have admitted it. You would have gone to prison, probably, but you wouldn't be hanging here now".

Valentine selected a spot for the first knife cut.

"This is just to scare me, right? You're done... I'm scared. What do you want? What do you want?"

Valentine never remembered much else that F. A. James said during his final moments, cut short, as they always were, because the screaming got to him. Part of him was distracted, puzzled by that last question.