Warren Murphy: Prophet Of Doom

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    Prophet Of Doom
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Where There's Smoke... Everybody with a spare million  is lining up at the gates of Ranch Ragnarok, home to Esther Clear Seer's Church of the Absolute and Incontrovertible Truth. Here an evil yellow smoke shrouds an ancient oracle that offers glimpses into the future. But when young virgins start disappearing, CURE smells something more than a scam. Here in Wyoming, East and West are about to fulfill an ancient prophecy. For Apollo himself, Zeus's own wild boy, is set to unleash a power greater than any seen in two millenia. He's got a score to settle - and Remo is the lucky sacrificial vessel.

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Remo slammed the phone down, not even waiting for a response. Placing his hands on either side of the squat upright phone stand, he ripped the entire booth from the pavement and sent it skipping down the street like a flat rock on a placid pond.

"Connection severed," he announced to the empty night.

Chapter Three

Esther Clear-Seer couldn't believe her luck.

She had been in the religion business for nearly twenty years and in all that time she had never experienced a genuine miracle until the day late last summer when Mark Kaspar showed up on her doorstep.

The Biotechnics stock deal had pulled in nearly five hundred thousand dollars in three days before the little man had instructed her that it was time to pull out. She had wanted to let the money ride, but Kaspar had been firmly insistent and, reluctantly, she had acquiesced.

The next day the bioengineering company had gone down in flames after a patent dispute with a larger pharmaceutical conglomerate. By then Kaspar had dumped half the cash in a five-hundred-acre parcel of land abutting the Ranch Ragnarok property, thus doubling the Truth Church's real-estate holdings, and invested the balance in a relatively safe soft-drink company. The money didn't explode like the initial investment had, but its value continued to grow stead-ily.

Which was just fine with her. If there was one thing Esther Clear-Seer could appreciate, it was the enrichment of Esther Clear-Seer. Especially if she didn't


have to do anything to earn it. The land, however, was another deal entirely.

When she first learned about the property purchase, she had marched angrily over to confront Kaspar and to explain to him, in no uncertain terms, the Ranch Ragnarok pecking order.

The Truth Church ranch had been established by Esther on the grounds of a former industrial complex, and Kaspar and his silent female friend had moved into one of the many vacant cinder-block buildings that was set apart from the communal buildings where the rest of the faithful worked and lived.

As Esther approached the large building, she noticed a strange cloud of yellow smoke rising from the central chimney.

She sniffed the air like a hound on the scent of a fox. A smell like rotten eggs wafted through the afternoon breeze.

What was he cooking?

Esther stormed over to the building.

She had barely raised her hand to knock before Kaspar called out for her to enter. It was as if he anticipated everything. Shrugging, she pushed the door inward.

There was a communal fire area in the center of all Truth Church disciple buildings, and in this one, Kaspar had started a modest blaze out of sagebrush and broken fir twigs.

Over the flames he had set up some kind of staggered scaffolding system out of heavy barbecue cooking grates. A long pan of water shivered on the lowest rack. The water boiled relentlessly, bubbling up against the heavy stone bottom of Kaspar's mysterious


urn, which he had placed on a thick steel grate above the pan.

The lid was off the urn now. Esther caught a glimpse of a granular yellow substance just below the rim.

Kaspar's female companion sat on a simple wooden stool next to the fire, her frail arms stretching a blanket up over her head. The woolen blanket caught the noxious yellow fumes that poured freely from the ancient urn, and the girl inhaled greedily as if it were steam from a vaporizer.

The rotten-egg smell was stronger in here. As Esther studied the glazed look on the girl's face, she assumed that the yellow smoke was some kind of narcotic.

Kaspar was seated in a plain wooden chair, stoking the fire with a simple metal rod. He looked up wordlessly at Esther Clear-Seer, fixing her with his dead-serpentine regard.

Esther's smoldering anger was quenched by the unexpected strangeness of the scene within the building. She pointedly ignored the girl, who was gulping ecstatically at the smoke issuing from the pot, and focused her attention on Kaspar.

' 'Why did you buy that damn land?'' Esther asked.

"There are hot springs on the property," Kaspar explained.

"I already knew that," Esther told him. "That's why I didn't want it."

"The springs are crucial to our venture."

Esther hesitated. "How crucial?"

"They will make the difference between success and riches, and abysmal failure."


"Well, okay," Esther said grudgingly. "Just check with me next time."

Kaspar nodded agreeably. "Of course," he said.

And that was that.

What could Esther say? The strange little man deferred to her nearly every time she challenged him, and even when he didn't—as in the real-estate matter—he didn't strike up a bold or defensive posture. He merely stated his position quietly, almost subserviently, and half the time Esther walked away thinking she had come to the same conclusion herself.

Besides, the money Kaspar brought in was nothing to sneeze at. To Esther Clear-Seer, any business partner who swelled the coffers of the Church of the Absolute and Incontrovertible Truth and asked for next to nothing in return was the business partner for her.

The property Kaspar purchased had once housed a modest crop-dusting and stunt-flying business back during the 1930s. Today the only visible sign of that long abandoned enterprise was a rusting corrugated tin hangar squatting at the far end of a sage-covered, crumbling concrete runway. Kaspar had gone to work, refurbishing the structure and altering the basic design of the vacant building into a sanctuary for special worship.

At first Esther resisted the idea of using Truth Church funds on such an outlandish project. But after Kaspar had made her an additional four hundred thousand investing in a Texas cable company, Yogi Mom found her resolve weakened. The man did have a way with money.

"Besides," Kaspar assured her, "fabulous wealth


will begin rolling in just as soon as the temple is completed."

"How soon?"

"Very soon."

Esther was shocked at how soon.

It was the day after construction was completed, nearly two months after Kaspar's arrival. The night was hazy, and thanks to the nearby hot springs, humid for Wyoming in autumn. Esther fell sound asleep the moment her head touched her pillow. She dreamed of gold and greenbacks. A soft yet persistent tapping at her front door awakened her after midnight.

Esther was half-asleep when she answered. One of the female acolytes who was part of the compound's nightly patrol stood nervously on her front porch. She remembered the woman's name was Buffy something. An airhead, though she looked deceptively intelligent with her crystal blue eyes behind horn-rimmed glasses and her raven hair.

"What is it?" Esther asked. It was obvious by her tone that she didn't like being disturbed at such an ungodly hour.

"Zen and Gary are here!" Buffy Braindead whispered urgently.

Esther blinked sleep from her eyes. Beyond the young woman she could see a rickety old Volkswagen van parked in the washed-out light of the Ranch Rag-narok compound. It was stenciled with daisies.

"What are you talking about?" Esther demanded groggily.

"You know, the ice-cream moguls," Buffy whispered. She shot a dreamy glance at the van.


Only then did Esther notice the two men standing near the rear of the vehicle.

One was thin and reedy, with a mottled gray beard, thick glasses and a green snap-brimmed golfer's cap. The other was about five feet tall, 250 pounds, with a balding pate fringed by about a yard's worth of stringy graying black hair. The sheen of sweat on his scalp twinkled in the moonlight.

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