Within minutes of checking into his motel room, Daekkin learned of the county fair. Smiling at the discovery that his work had just been made easier, he quickly put his bags in the room and headed over. In farming communities, county fairs tended to be the pinnacle of entertainment for the year. Since Justin worked on a farm, Daekkin knew that he would most likely find the boy there. His assumption proved correct.
Fifteen minutes after arriving, he struck gold.
No sooner had he entered the livestock barn, than he spied Justin and Samantha in one of the stalls, hanging crepe paper in preparation for the decorating contest. A quick look around told Daekkin that their stall would be the winner. Unless someone else got a move on, nobody else would come close. Though no one else would understand, this simple act spoke volumes to Daekkin. These two were creative, as he had thought. Others may not have seen this as anything more than decorating a cow stall. However, Daekkin knew that those who paid attention to little things, also paid attention to the bigger things, and that those who were creative in the little things, were also creative in the bigger things. He was like that himself. Perhaps he would find some way of letting them know of his admiration for their creativity before he brought their lives to an end. Regardless, whatever plan he came up with for terminating them, it would be clean, simple, and as close to perfection as humanly possible. Daekkin considered himself to be a kind man. Where others in his profession might enjoy inflicting pain and misery before killing, he saw absolutely no sense in it. He got no pleasure from witnessing human suffering, and thus did not inflict any himself. Occasionally, a client requested that a person be made to suffer before dying, but he always refused the request. If the client offered more money as an inducement, he suggested that they consider hiring someone else.
Besides not inflicting pain, he had another code he always followed: death must come without warning. As he saw it, too many in his profession made the mistake of informing the victim, or victims, beforehand of their impending death. Besides being unprofessional-in his opinion-it was also totally stupid, because all a warning did was give the victim time to come up with something. He suspected that such was the case with the first two failures Cerberus had informed him of. Deep down, Daekkin knew that he was probably one of the best in the business at what he did. Were there others who had his same track record of no failures? Possibly, but if they had been in the business for as long as he had, their numbers would be few. Very few.
Pulling himself from his musings, he debated the wisdom of going over and speaking with the boy and girl. In all the what-if scenarios he had imagined during his planning, speaking with his victims beforehand had never occurred to him. But then, he had rarely been this close to anyone whose life he was about to end. He knew he was rationalizing, but he decided that, just this once, he would deviate from perfection. After all, they didn’t know him, nor had they ever seen him before.
“Can I congratulate the winners now?” he asked them, smiling. “I’m not a judge, by the way.”
As soon as they at looked him, he had an uneasy feeling that he had made a mistake by approaching them. Each of them, and the young man especially, tensed momentarily at the sight of him. The reaction was so fleeting, though, that he wondered if it was nothing more than simply being startled at the sound of his voice.
“Sorry to bother you,” he apologized.
“No problem,” they both replied.
“I guess I wasn’t paying attention to what was going on around me,” joked the boy.
“I do that occasionally,” said Daekkin. “Nice looking stall. Much better than any of the others.”
With a parting nod, Daekkin turned and walked away.
“Thank you,” Samantha said cheerfully to his back. “You just made our day.”
Daekkin considered her statement, then mentally snorted. Just made their day my butt, he thought. They were on to him. He didn’t know how, but intuition told him that they were on to him. They might not know what he was here for, but they were wary of him, and that was not good. He had sensed it in their initial reaction, and he trusted his intuition.
In planning his missions, there was one what-if scenario he always considered: what-if the entire mission crumbled and headed south on him? Obviously, since he had never failed, that particular scenario had never occurred. Could his victim’s reaction to him be the beginning of that scenario? He didn’t know. What he did know, was that he had to get back to his motel room and think things over. His strong reaction over a simple startled response needed some thought given to it. A lot of thought.
Justin and Samantha watched the man until he had left the barn.
“Trouble,” sighed Justin, staring at the crowds of people the man had disappeared into.”
“I felt it too,” Samantha told him. “The question is, what kind of trouble?”
Justin and Samantha had become experienced enough at reading auras that someone with Daekkin’s dark personality immediately aroused their suspicions.
“He knows we’re wary of him,” said Justin. “I wish I knew what it is we are wary of. Did you imprint his aura?”
“Of course, Knight of mine. The question is, do we need to do anything about it?”
Thinking for a moment, Justin shook his head. “No,” he said, “I think that if he really meant to harm us, he wouldn’t have shown himself. Besides which, the fact that we know he’s a less than upstanding citizen doesn’t mean he’s got something going against us. We’re probably still jumpy because of what’s happened lately-I know I am, anyway. But I don’t plan on going through the rest of my life shying away from my own shadow.”
“Me either,” replied Samantha. “Now, let’s get a move on with the decorating before the judges show up.”
“Yes, Lady Fair,” said Justin, bowing grandly. “Your wish is my command.”
“Really? I wish you would loan me some money.”
“Well! This is really looking good!” Lloyd stood and surveyed the decorations in the stall, then turned around and gave the rest of the competition a cursory glance. “I’d say we’ve got this thing in the bag,” he commented confidently as he looked again at the stall Samantha and Justin were just finishing.
“What do you think of our sign?” asked Samantha.
“Barber Farms,” Lloyd read slowly from the poster board hanging in the back of the stall. “Wow,” he said. “Farms. I didn’t know I was such a big-money land baron.”
“Well, you know,” said Samantha, “the plural version of the word just sounded more impressive.”
“Excellent idea,” he said, winking at Samantha. “And instead of Justin here being a mere hired hand, perhaps we’ll promote him to foreman.”
“Cool,” said Justin, enthusiastically. “Now I get to give orders to myself.”
Daekkin lay on his bed in the motel room, hands clasped behind his head, staring at the ceiling. He realized now that he should not have approached Samantha and Justin and spoken to them. They still did not know who he was, however. All they had was a face, and possibly a voice to go with it. They might suspect that he had an interest in them, but they couldn’t know for sure. If they never saw him again, they would soon forget their initial wariness-in which case, he could still complete his mission. Leaving the bed and going to the table, he went over his plans once more. Instead of watching the Samantha girl’s house when she was there, he decided he would concentrate his attention on the boy. Justin’s house was outside of town a few miles, on the main highway, with no other homes near it. This would mean more leg work for him, but that was nothing new. Going to his suitcase, he laid it on the bed and opened it. Besides a change of clothing, he pulled out a longhaired wig, a collapsible cane, and a pair of sunglasses. Unlike what the movies would have one believe, a disguise did not have to be elaborate to be effective. For him, the wig, cane, and sunglasses always did the job very nicely. Making the change, he examined himself in the mirror. This person was not the one who had rented the motel room. Satisfied, he left his room, locking the door behind him. Before returning to the county fair in his new disguise, he had one more vital part of his plan to complete.
Following the information he had, he found the pasture road Justin and Samantha used for entrance into the forest, stopping where it was obvious that the Hicksville Beater stopped. The foot path that Justin and Samantha took was also obvious. He followed it slowly, looking for any adequate observation places from which he could get a clear view of the trail. He spied several he thought would do. However, he knew it would be better if he could find something that gave him a clear view of where ever it was they stopped. He had not walked long when suddenly, the trail disappeared. Stopping just as suddenly, he turned and looked the way he had just came.
“What the…?” he said to himself, startled. The trail behind him had disappeared also. He felt a chill of a thousand needles going up and down his back. He had just been walking on a trail that he could no longer see. “Okay,” he said to himself. “Let’s try walking back the same way we came.” Determined, he took half a dozen quick strides, then stopped-more surprised than ever. The trail had reappeared. Turning back around, he looked down at his feet, then moved his eyes slowly ahead. Roughly three feet in front of him, the well-tramped path blended with the rest of the forest into nothingness.
“If this isn’t the darnedest thing I’ve ever seen,” he said. Walking up to where the path ended, he slowly turned in a complete circle. Creative in the big things, too, he thought to himself. Maybe this part of the trail was a diversion. He would retrace his steps, looking for any jumping off point that led to another trail. Every possibility must be considered: low hanging tree branches that would bear the weight of a human body; a creek; even a dry creek bed whose trampled foliage would not be easily noticed from the main path. Even with minute examination, he ended up back at his car with no explanation for the mysterious end to the path. These kids were more than just creative in the big things, he decided, they were very creative in the big things. The only other possible solution to the puzzle was that there was no other path. This path went into the forest for a ways, then just…ended.
For the second time since arriving in Prospect, he had come up against a what-if scenario that he had not thought of when planning this mission. What-if…the path didn’t go anywhere? A scenario with no answer-and one that he was not going to waste time trying to find an answer for. This place still had the ingredients for success. An obviously used path existed, and he had spotted several higher vantage points from which he could do the job. That’s what he had to work with, and that is what he would use. Examining his options once more and satisfying himself that they would work for him, he walked back down the path. This time he climbed up to each vantage point to see which one offered him the best view of the path. Thirty minutes later he was back in his car again. He may never solve the mystery of the disappearing path, but by Saturday afternoon at the latest-if Justin and Samantha kept to their Saturday morning schedule-he would be looking at the city of Prospect as it faded into the distance in his rearview mirror.
The blue ribbon for first place in the decorating contest looked quite nice on the lower right hand corner of the sign Samantha had made, Justin decided. Turning to her, he said enthusiastically, “You know, between my idea for the crepe paper and your decorating abilities, I think we’ve just set the standard of cow stall decorating around here for years to come.”
Samantha doubled over in laughter.
“What’s so funny?” asked Justin.
“My Knight in Shining Armor,” said Samantha when she was able to catch her breath. “Cow stall decorator extraordinaire and proud of it.”
“Okay, so maybe I was overreacting,” replied Justin. “But look at the other cow stalls. None of them even comes close.”
“Okay,” said Samantha, humoring him. “I agree with you that we waxed everyone.”
“Okay, team, if we could come to order please.”
Senior Angel Aaron stood before the Guardian team, debating which agenda item to begin with. Perhaps the more humorous news first, he decided. Serious business could wait until after.
“You will be interested in knowing that our Guardian team, complete with two mortals, has gained some notoriety here. I’ve received a somewhat amusing communication from the council. They say that other guardian teams want to follow our example. However, as Leland suspected, a resolution was passed very quickly after Samantha and Justin were made official team members. The resolution states that from henceforth, no mortal can be a member of a Guardian angel team-honorary or otherwise. So…we’re unique.”
“Woo-hoo,” said Sister Charity in delight. “Fame and fortune, here we come!”
“Ah, fame perhaps,” said Leland, amused. “but what good is fortune in heaven? We’ve got everything we need already.”
“Just a little earth humor,” replied Sister Charity. “You know the saying about habits being hard to break.”
“So we’re famous,” commented Brother Lynn, dryly. “How much more trouble and work is that going to cause us?”
Laughing, Aaron said, “Right on the head, Brother Lynn. However, we’re under the microscope now, so we’ll just have to get used to it. Besides, if this works out like I think it will, the council may rescind the resolution. As you all know, I occasionally tend to think outside the box. I’ve often thought that having a mortal or two on each Guardian team would be very beneficial in the long run. Naturally, the selection process would have to be very strict and controlled. So, depending on how things work out for our team, I may suggest to the council that they put together a pilot project.”
“I have an idea,” said Sister Isabelle. “if the council does take your suggestion, they could call it the ‘Heaven on Earth’ pilot project.
“Not bad,” said Aaron after some thought. “Not bad at all. I will certainly recommend that to them if and when. Now, to the next item of business. As you know, we’ve been pretty busy up here lately, and it has kept us from our normal Guardian duties. That is about to change. Because of our unique status of having two mortals on the team, the council has decided to assign some of our duties to other Guardian teams. Just between you and me, and despite the fact that they expressed displeasure over our appointment of two mortals to the team, I think that the council is very interested in seeing how this all works out for us. On to my point: we have a situation developing involving Justin and Samantha. There is a man on earth by the name of Artimus Daekkin. Has anyone heard of him, by the way? No? He kills for hire, and he’s one of the best there is. As you know, Cerberus has made two attempts on the lives of Justin and Samantha. Both attempts failed. This has not exactly brightened Cerberus’ day. So, he’s hired Daekkin. I just said that Daekkin was one of the best. I may be wrong in that assessment. He could very well be the best. Regardless, Daekkin is at this moment in the city of Prospect. And, in case you’re thinking that Justin and Samantha will pull another rabbit out of the hat, I have to tell you that Daekkin has never failed. Never.”
Brother Lynn, who usually did little talking during meetings, raised his hand. “How much help are we allowed give Justin and Samantha?” he asked.
Senior Angel Aaron’s reply was short and simple. “None,” he said. “I have been told by the council that we are to stay out of it entirely.”
“Wait a minute,” said Lynn in confusion. “Justin and Samantha are official members of this team, and the council is telling us that we can’t help them?”
“That’s about what it amounts to,” injected Leland. “Keep in mind that the worst thing that can happen-if you can refer to it as worst-is that Cerberus finally achieves his desire and Samantha and Justin end up here with us. I realize that might sound a bit cold, but facts are facts.”
The two sisters raised their hands. “Does this mean that we can’t even go down to observe?” they asked.
“Yes and no,” said Aaron. “Would you like to tell them, Brother Leland?”
“All the team brothers will be going down as observers,” Leland informed them. “You two sisters will remain here. I know that it may not seem fair, but the council has decided that the Sisters will sit this one out. They never gave me a reason why. However, Brother Lynn will be allowed to establish an impath link with you two, so you will be kept up to speed on what’s happening. That’s the best I could wring out of them.”
“Just ducky,” said Brother Lynn, his words sprinkled with sarcasm. “I get to send back glowing reports of the other side winning.”
“At least we’ll have that much,” said Sister Isabelle, turning in her seat to look at Brother Lynn. Then, to Senior Angel Aaron: “So when are the guys going down?”
“Leland will be leaving when we’re finished here,” said Aaron, assuming control of the meeting once more. “The rest of us will follow when he calls for us.” Aaron paused, looking at the other team members. “Any other matters of business? Okay then,” he said, “let’s get to it.”
After scouting the mountain trail and deciding on it as the preferred site for his job, Daekkin had gone back to the county fair, this time as a longhaired gent with a bum leg and a cane. He had seen Justin and Samantha from a distance several times, but had made every attempt to stay as far away from them as possible. If he had to wait until Saturday to do his job, he reasoned that he might as well enjoy the county fair. That option was certainly more appealing than sitting in his motel room watching who knows what on television. By Friday evening, it became obvious to him that Saturday morning would be the appointed time for him to fulfill his contract with Cerberus. Though he would have preferred to arrive at the site before Justin and Samantha, the problem of what to do with his car had forced him to modify his plan.
Thus, Saturday morning found him parked on the side of the highway about one-half mile from Justin’s home. He had arrived early enough to assure himself of not missing the appearance of the Hicksville Beater when it pulled onto the highway and headed for Samantha’s house. Several hours later-which amount of time was nothing to him compared to some of the waits he had endured in the past-his patience was rewarded. Because he already knew the route Justin and Samantha would take, he didn’t bother following. Instead, he drove to the pasture road and parked far enough away that he could still see the road, yet remain unseen by the occupants of the pipe truck.
This time his wait was relatively short. Fifteen minutes after the Hicksville Beater disappeared into the forest, Daekkin followed them in. When he reached the end of the pasture road, he pulled his car to the side and parked it. Opening his trunk, he reached in and removed a not too large oblong case. Closing the lid of the trunk and laying the case on it, he opened the case. Satisfying himself that everything was as it should be, he closed the case, continuing the remainder of his journey on foot. When he drew within sight of the Hicksville Beater, he stopped, listening intently. Hearing no human produced sounds, he proceeded cautiously to where the path began. Again he stopped, listening carefully. Assured by the quietness, he began his short climb to the vantage point he had selected several days ago. The mystery of the disappearing path had pretty much dictated his choice. Reasoning told him that no matter what Samantha and Justin’s destination was, they would eventually return to the truck. He had worked from more ideal conditions, but in situations such as this one, you made use of what you had. The spot he had found did not offer as much cover as he would have liked, but it did offer a very clear view of the area the truck was parked in. Settling down behind a few bushes, he opened the case and began assembling his weapon. Thirty seconds later, he was set. All that was left now, was waiting.
“You know,” said Justin, as he brought the Hicksville Beater to a stop in the forest, “coming here with you every Saturday morning has become the highlight of my week.”
“Coming to a clearing in the forest is the highlight of your week?” said Samantha, teasing. “What do you do for a life, Billings?”
“I hang out with you as much as possible,” said Justin as they both got out of the truck.
Talking in her queen Samantha voice, she said, “I commend you on your wise use of time, O Knight.” Samantha held out her hand then, a silent invitation for Justin to take it. He did so, pulling her close to him.
“You realize,” he told her, “that your announcement to the Barbers of our forthcoming marriage completely did in all your when-the-time-is-right excuses?”
“That’s exactly what I intended it to do,” she said, placing her arms around his neck and pressing even closer to him. Raising her head, she kissed him softly under the ear.
Justin held her even tighter for a few moments, before releasing her and taking her hand again. “You really caught me by surprise with that one,” he said, shaking his head and laughing. “So if I act a little giddy once in awhile, it’s not me who’s to blame.”
“You should act giddy over me,” she said a happily, as they began their walk to the clearing. “Acting giddy means that I’ve got you exactly where I want you.”
Ever since Samantha’s announcement to the Barbers, Justin had been struggling mentally to come up with an idea for a proposal that would, literally, be the best marriage proposal in the history of mankind. Obviously, anything involving money was out- as was anything involving long distance travel. As of this morning, he had no ideas whatsoever. Strangely, as he and Samantha walked along the path to the clearing, a line from the first Star Wars movie popped into his mind: “Use the force, Luke.” He was wondering what that had to do with marriage proposals, he stopped suddenly, surprised and excited.
Almost immediately, Samantha noticed that he had fallen behind. “What’s wrong?” she asked him.
“Nothing Lady Fair,” he replied, catching up to her. “Absolutely nothing all.”
Yesterday Justin had decided that even if he couldn’t come up with the best proposal in the history of mankind, he could still surprise Samantha as she had surprised him, and propose to her in the clearing. He doubted that she would be expecting it so soon after her announcement. He hoped that he could pull off what he had, just a few moments go, decided to do. As they walked into the clearing, Justin took Samantha’s hand and led her to the log. When she was seated, he took a place beside her.
For a minute or so, neither of them spoke. Sensing that Justin had something to tell her, Samantha remained silent. After another minute or two of quiet, Justin spoke without looking at her.
“I’m going to propose to you, Samantha,” he said, “today, in this clearing.” Another minute of silence occurred, and he spoke again. “Ever since I came here with you that first time, I’ve known that this is the place I would bring you to when I asked you to marry me.” Turning his head towards her, he bathed her in his warm, chocolate brown gaze. “I’ve had a hard time coming up something that you would rate as the greatest proposal in the history of mankind.” Before she could protest that it wasn’t necessary, he raised his hand slightly, a silent signal to please let him finish. “I know you didn’t really expect something like that, but I wanted to give it to you anyway. And I decided that perhaps my proposal didn’t really need to be the greatest in the history of mankind. What it needed to be, is what you would consider the greatest-kind of like your opinion of Lady Fair as an endearment. So with that in mind, we’re going to sit here in silence for a little while, and hope that what I have planned, works out. Oh, and if you feel the need to communicate, just impath me.”
Samantha sat silently beside him, wondering what he had planned that required nothing more than sitting on the log and being quiet. She found out less than a minute later. As she was about to impath Justin to ask him what she was suppose to be looking for, the first event happened.
From out of the forest and into their little clearing, came a doe and her fawn. As she watched in fascination, and a little awe, the two approached to within 15 feet of her. The doe stopped, but the fawn continued walking towards her until it was close enough that she could have reached out and touched it. It looked at her with wide, innocent eyes for a few moments, then rejoined its mother. To her surprise and delight, instead of going back into the forest, they the doe and fawn stayed-as if waiting for something.
You did this for me? she asked, impathing Justin.
There’s more, he replied, impathing her back.
The next visitors were a couple of tree squirrels. Unlike the mildness and hesitancy the doe and her fawn had shown, these guys came romping in as if this was their chance to make it into the big time. Leaping up onto Samantha’s lap, they made her a gift of a couple of acorns before scurrying down. As with the doe and her fawn, the squirrels also did not leave the clearing.
For the next 30 minutes, a variety of forest wildlife came in. Most of them did not leave, waiting patiently along with the fawn and its mother.
What do you think so far? asked Justin.
I’m…speechless, replied Samantha. I can’t believe you did all this for me.
Get ready for the grand finale, he replied. This one’s going to be a doozy.
For several minutes nothing happened.
Keep your eyes on the sky, prompted Justin. I think they’re coming.
Taking his advice, Samantha looked up. Perhaps Justin had arranged some kind of fly over-so many birds that it would blacken the sky. Or maybe-
At the first sight of them, she felt thrills of excitement going up and down her spine. Justin’s grand finale was exactly that. From very high in the sky above the clearing, but dropping lower by the second, circled three of the most magnificent eagles she had ever seen. Lower and lower they flew until they were even with the tops of the trees surrounding the clearing. Then, flapping their wings to slow their decent, they gracefully dropped into the clearing, finding perches on trees close to the log Justin and Samantha were sitting on. They also seemed in no hurry to leave.
Justin arose then, and held out his hands to Samantha, helping her to stand also. Keeping hold of her hands, he spoke, quietly but clearly.
“Samantha McCallen,” he began, then paused, getting control of his emotions. “I’ve struggled these last few days, trying to come up with something that would come close to expressing how I feel about you. I finally decided that there is no way-not with words anyway. Nor could I get close to expressing my gratitude to you for accepting me, for believing in me, and most of all, for loving me. So, I came up with the only way I could think of: inviting some of our forest friends to witness my proposal. I want to marry you, Samantha. I want you to be my wife-Mrs. Samantha Billings. I promise that I will always be faithful to you. You will always be number one in my life. You will always be at my side, my wife, my team mate, and my best friend. Whatever problems or hardships we may go through, we’ll go through them together. That is what I promise, and that is what I will do.” Justin paused, then asked simply, “Will you marry me, Samantha?”
Her answer was just as simple. “Yes, Justin. I will marry you.”