The Secret Place of the Lord

by J.L. Royce


Armitach stood at the edge of a vast concrete plateau: the former McHugh Air Force Base. He was neither stooped, nor sagging, nor pot-bellied; yet all of that felt as near as the wind rising in this desolate place. He’d flown in from Kansas City, taken a very expensive hired car out to an airfield, but no one was there to greet him. No one was there at all.

Cracked pavement stretched to the horizon, a rectilinear garden of seam-bound weeds. It had been an airbase, once receiving dozens of flights daily returning the honored dead to their homeland. Bodies remained for a while, then were identified and sent to families, or if not, to the national cemeteries to join their comrades in final repose.

That was all before Armitach was born. When Vietnam escalated, the Defense Department created the cold storage facility for the returning dead. After the war, the base became a graveyard for decommissioned planes, left to sit in the sun and slowly weather or be pilfered to skeletons.

The day had started out nice enough. Early October was warm here. Armitach pulled his phone out of his pants pocket. The tiniest bar, the bar of last resort, was lit, but he’d learned from experience not to trust its hollow promise. He scrolled to the saved message and clicked the number anyway, cursing silently when, as expected, the call failed.

Armitach lit a cigarette and stared down the road, east then west, scanning the ribbon of pavement, debating which direction to walk: the desolation he had ridden through, or the miles remaining unexplored. He was about to flip a mental coin when a vehicle approached at speed from the direction of the unknown.

It resolved into a weary-looking F-150. Faded green, its rusting rocker panels had been spray-painted with brick-red Rustoleum in a pathetic attempt to forestall the inevitable.

Armitach stepped into the road, prepared to get a ride by any means necessary. While he debated whether to draw out his identification or his weapon, the question became moot when the vehicle slowed and the driver addressed him.

“Mister—ah, Agent—Armitach?” The driver was dark-haired and tanned, around his own age, but casually dressed in faded chambray and real denims.

“The same. You Father Jones?”

Reverend Jones.”

Armitach wondered if there was a Mother Jones waiting at home, but bit off the remark. It was that attitude, as they called it at the Bureau, which had earned him this low-cred assignment in the ass-end of the Midwest.

His supervisor’s advice had been simple. Keep your lip buttoned, do your penance, and don’t bitch about it.

“Well, I guess you’d like a ride?” The Rev (as Armitach christened him) was squinting through the windshield as if searching the speed limit sign for an answer.

“Sure thing.”

The agent stepped around and opened the passenger door, eliciting a painful shriek of metal. Armitach tossed his bag behind the seat and settled on the barely-sprung cushion. The Rev was staring expectantly at him.

“Uh—the Wenton Arms,” Armitach supplied, after fumbling his phone out and checking. “In… Wenton.”

The Rev nodded and slipped the pickup noisily into gear, rolling through the dying grass on the shoulder and into a U-turn.

“It was that or the truck stop cabins,” he observed. “Most visitors don’t know there are cabins.”

“I didn’t,” Armitach agreed. He’d ridden past the “oasis” full of semis and a handful of smaller vehicles.

“More for the convenience of the long-distance drivers. Ah, hourly rental, if you know what I mean…”

“Thanks. I’ll keep that in mind, if I get lucky.”

The Rev didn’t react.

“Where’s the, uh, storage facility?” Armitach asked. Past the window he saw nothing but concrete and weeds.

“Northwestern corner of the base, behind that bit of a rise. There’s a road north out of town that takes you there. It doesn’t go anywhere else.”

Cresting a line of worn hills, a grove of trees came into view, bisected by the highway. A half-dozen streets stretched out a few blocks before devolving into grass or gravel paths. The northern road intersected at the only stoplight.

“Sheesh,” Armitach remarked. The sense of punishment was growing.

“One hundred twenty-three souls, including fifteen teenagers and twenty-seven younger minors.”

A steeple poked its cross out of the southern side of the grove.

“Yours?” the agent asked. The Reverend nodded agreement.

“School?”

“Not here. They’re bussed to Farley.”

The speed limit dropped precipitously as the highway became Main Street, as it had in a hundred places east of here and would a hundred places west. It was home to a handful of fading storefronts, a diner (closed until morning), and a gas station. The Rev swung the truck into a lurching left turn at the first intersection and pulled up to the curb.

The Wenton Arms entrance was at the chamfered corner, framed by painted double columns. At three stories it was the tallest building in town. Beyond the glass and wood doors lay the foyer, leading to a bar and dining room.

Compared to the motels he typically occupied the Arms appeared quaint, if not promising.

“Will they still be serving?”

“Oh, I’d imagine so. If not, there’s always a corn dog at the service station.” The Reverend grinned. “Check in; I’ll wait.”

Armitach retrieved his bag and slammed the truck door. Stepping through to the genteel foyer with its wooden wainscoting and tin ceiling, he confirmed the dining room was open late, and gave his name to a clerk.

Outside, he informed the Reverend, who replied, “When can I pick you up?”

Though he’d rather sleep in, Armitach offered eight o’clock.

“See you then.” The truck pulled noisily away from the curb, executed a squealing U-turn, and returned to Main Street.

***

The food was adequate, if uninspired. In the morning, the Reverend Jones turned down coffee, pressing for immediate departure.

They proceeded west, then north.

“Can I get a ride to the airport?”

“I suppose. Will you be handing the investigation off to your team?”

Armitach suppressed a laugh. “No, I’ll finish by end of day.”

Reverend Jones frowned.

“Why don’t you tell me about the first disappearance?” Armitach activated the recorder on his phone.

The driver leaned over the wheel, concentrating on the road but collecting his thoughts.

“Well, the first disappearance I discovered was probably the third one.”

“After?” he prompted.

“Yes—after the third incident, I recalled that a few days earlier I’d come in and found the hall light on.”

“And that’s suspicious? Couldn’t someone else—”

“No one else visits this place. The staff’s been cut to delivery contractors.”

Armitach almost made a snarky crack about Amazon but recalled the recorder, and his supervisor’s advice.

“And you couldn’t have left it on yourself?”

“Was it dark when you arrived?” the Reverend countered. “I’m there in the late afternoon, no later. It’s quite bright outside, so I don’t use the lights.”

“You mentioned the third incident. What was the second?”

“One morning, I was praying in the chapel we have—you’ll see it in a moment.”

He swung the truck up to a gated yard surrounding a low concrete building. A sign detailed restrictions on federal property use. Someone had commented on it with a shotgun.

Hopping out, the Rev lifted a heavy latch and slid open the gate. Back in the truck, he pulled through the empty parking lot and took a spot near the entrance.

“Come on.” He left the windows open, Armitach noticed.

The building dated back fifty years, at least, the interior more concrete blocks beyond a small, paneled foyer with an unattended reception desk.

The Reverend pointed. “The chapel’s down this hallway.” The hallway ran along the narrow front of the building, lined with dingy windows facing the lot.

“Near the end of Vietnam, they took in many bodies, so many that the ceremony was, well, curtailed. But this isn’t a forensic lab, so they only received identifiable corpses.”

He opened a double door graced with crosses cut in the wood to reveal a generic chapel with a few pews.

“I was praying here, almost a week after I found the lights burning, when I heard it.” He waved behind him.

“What, exactly?”

“It was a gurney being moved. I thought perhaps someone had followed me in. From time to time you’ll get the lost tourist on their way to the National Park. But there was no one in the hall, no vehicles in the lot.”

The Reverend led Armitach out, unlocking an inner door.

“The sound came from here.”

“Usually locked?”

“Yes. I have a desk here. A place to meet family, or law enforcement. Whoever is claiming a body.”

“Are there many claims?” Armitach asked.

“Not really. The oldest are cold cases—” he caught himself. “The more recent ones occasionally cross-match with criminal investigations.”

Armitach recognized government-issue décor. Innocuous nature scenes and wildlife prints dotted the faded beige walls. A battered steel desk filled the space, with an office chair behind and a pair of guest chairs in front.

The Reverend stepped around and pulled open a desk drawer. He removed a toe tag he’d stored in a plastic sandwich bag and offered it to Armitach.

“I found this in the hallway, right outside.”

John Doe: dead many years. The attachment wire was twisted and bent: used and removed.

Armitach nodded. “And the body was missing?”

“Gone. The tags are coded to the location in storage and the files—such as they are.” He waved at a row of laterals. “Mostly not computerized. I went through our entire occupancy list, drawer by drawer, and found two more discrepancies.” The Reverend slid the file folders across the table.

“You mean missing,” Armitach grunted, sitting down.

“Unless it was a bookkeeping error, and they never—”

The agent cut him off. “Well, I’ll need whatever security footage you have.”

The Rev laughed. “The budget is barely enough to keep the refrigeration systems running. There’s nothing in it for security on a bunch of cadavers.”

“Yeah, things are tight everywhere,” Armitach admitted. “What about local kids?”

“They’re not bad, just bored. They sneak onto the base from time to time—there are miles of fence—just so they can race their bikes on the flats. The Vietnam-era planes from the bone yard have been sold off to collectors. Besides—stealing a corpse? If it were a prank, it would have shown up by now.”

“No break-ins here before?”

“No. Everybody around knows there’s nothing here but dead bodies.”

The agent leaned forward. “Have you seen any strangers around town, or anyone acting different?”

“Like how, different?”

“Well, perhaps extreme politics, or paranoid behavior.”

The Reverend’s eyes narrowed. “You’re thinking of someone trying to harvest, like, germs? We do still have some of the CDC’s AIDS victims.”

“It’s just a theory,” Armitach assured him. “Frankly, it’s a lot easier to buy a truckload of fertilizer and make a bomb than to create an effective biological weapon from a corpse. What happened when you spoke to the local authorities?”

“We have a sheriff, twenty-five miles away. He’s got a ‘real’ city with ‘real’ problems like opioids, and runs an understaffed department. He came out once, looked around, shrugged, and left.”

“Hard to argue with him. These are unclaimed bodies. Corpses are property, so they can’t be victims, and there’s no evidence the corpses are being put to illegal use. Any use.” Armitach stood, gathering the folders. “Look, I’ll rerun the prints to see if there’s any connection, or recent developments.”

“Aren’t you even going to look at the scene of the...”

“Sure.” Armitach thought it was a waste of time.

They proceeded through locked double doors into the cool and gloomy interior. Many of the overhead fluorescents were out or flickered fitfully. The air hummed, dry and tinged with a stale taste. Freezer units lined the half-dozen halls, each with a dozen metal drawers.

“This is a negative temperature facility, expensive to operate. We’ve merged somewhat, but then OD’s came in from the South.”

“No names,” Armitach noted. “No break-in at the office?”

The Rev shook his head. “I always lock it, for the confidential records.”

“Show me where the bodies went missing.”

The latches on the drawers the Rev indicated had all been broken. Armitach snapped pictures with his phone.

“Why this?” the Reverend complained, shaking the damaged hasp. “They could just snip the cable ties.”

“Criminals, by and large, are not geniuses,” the agent opined. “Any prints?”

“The sheriff collected several sets from each freezer, then ruled out myself and the delivery folks. He found some partials, none in the databases.”

Armitach sent a message to the sheriff’s department, requesting the investigation records. After examining each drawer and taking more photographs, he turned to the Reverend.

“That’s all I can do now. Drop me back at the hotel, so I can get online.”

***

The files revealed that the missing were all long-forgotten John Does dead of AIDS. It seemed an unlikely coincidence.

The sheriff’s email contained the latent prints from the freezers, with a terse note: Not sent to NGI due to budget constraints. With a snort, Armitach opened his portal and uploaded the images.

The missing corpses were long-term residents, with no apparent pattern to where or when they died, their race or religion. The only common thread appeared to be their diagnosis.

Armitach called the Rev.

“How many of your bodies are AIDS deaths, do you suppose? Just a rough percentage.”

The silence stretched out. “Ten or fifteen percent, I’d say.”

“You realize that your missing bodies were AIDS-related, right?”

“Yes, but…”

“What?”

The Reverend’s voice rose. “It’s impossible to know that without accessing my files! I already said—”

“Yeah—locked door.”

Armitach glanced out the window at the dusty street.

“What’s a decent place for lunch—with beer?”

“I’ll be downstairs in ten minutes.”

***

“So I know why I’m here,” Armitach began, sparing the Reverend the details, “but why are you stuck out here? And what is your first name?”

“Michael”—pronounced in three syllables— “and I choose to be here.”

Theirs was the last occupied table of a sparse lunch crowd at Wenton’s only diner.

Mick the Mick,” Armitach declared. “What’s a nice Irish boy like you—”

“Just Michael, please. What makes you think I’m Irish?”

Armitach waited.

“Well, yes, on my mother’s side,” Michael admitted.

“And my first question?”

“It’s a ministry. I learned about the storage facility when I was working on state AIDS treatment legislation.”

“You minister to unclaimed bodies? Shouldn’t you preach to the living?”

“I have my church here, and I counsel an online community. Do you belong to a faith community?”

“Not anymore,” Armitach replied.

Michael offered, “If you’re still in town, you’re welcome to join us—”

“So, you’re gay?” Armitach interrupted.

The Reverend was unperturbed. “Not that it matters, but yes.”

“Does your gay-ness—gaiety?— better qualify you to pray over a bunch of corpses? Why can’t you pray for them back in, say, New York City, or Chicago?”

Reverend Michael hesitated. “I had a congregation, a big congregation. But a conservative one.”

“You were dumped, and here you are, in the sorry—”

“This is my home now,” the Reverend snapped, “and I respect these people. You should too.”

Armitach waved his empty longneck at the server, then added it to the barrier growing between them.

“Do you always drink this much?” Michael asked.

“Only when I’m working. And after, sometimes.”

An intermittent hum joined their conversation. The agent patted himself down, then searched the jacket slung over his chair.

“I’m feeling the payback of running off my fat mouth,” he explained, unlocking his phone. “Since we’re playing Truth or Dare.”

He scrolled through the phone, then swore, causing the shop-worn waitress to frown from him to the Reverend.

“Response from NGI. I sent the latents from the sheriff along with scans from your post-mortem records, and they came up with a match. Several, actually.”

He realized that the waitress was staring.

“Coffee, black,” he said. “Please.”

The Reverend nodded. “With cream for me.”

Armitach waited for her to saunter away.

“OK, Reverend. Your turn to tell the truth. What would you do to draw attention to the fat middle finger society gives anyone who stumbles off the straight and narrow? Like your flock in the freezers?”

“I don’t understand—”

“Simple question. What kind of stunt might you pull?”

“What did you learn from the freezer drawer fingerprints?”

“No names yet, just matches. To the John Does.”

The Reverend looked confused. “What?”

“Each set of latents matches the former occupant of the drawer. That’s what I’m saying.”

The waitress returned with two eroded mugs, steaming. When she departed, Armitach continued.

“Enough with the fun and games. I’ll leave tomorrow, and to save you any embarrassment, not tell them that the local minister is a publicity-seeking fool.” He sipped the coffee, grimaced, and lurched to his feet.

“That’s ridiculous!” Reverend Michael protested.

“By your own statements, no one else could have known who was HIV-positive in the freezers.”

Armitach tossed a bill on the table and stumbled out of the diner.

***

With nothing better to do on his last evening in Wenton, Armitach accepted the Reverend’s challenge: to stake out the base facility. He nursed a beer in the Rock Solid, Wenton’s only bar, until ten. A noisy exhaust announced the Reverend’s arrival.

The agent sauntered out and pulled the creaky door of the F-150.

“Get some WD-40,” he complained.

The driver had dressed in black jeans and a hoodie.

“What’s with the outfit—you undercover? We’re not breaking in.” He waved away the Reverend’s explanation. “Let’s just get this over with. Come dawn, I’m going back to the Arms for a few hours sleep. Don’t forget, you promised me a ride tomorrow.”

“Of course.” The truck lurched down Main and out of town.

The building was dark, the only lights within coming from the dim red glow of Exit signs. Reverend Michael drove past the entrance, around the building, and into a narrow alley leading to a loading dock. “We’ll leave the truck out of sight,” he suggested.

Armitach shook his head in disbelief. Michael led the way along the back of the building.

They took up position in the small grove of trees at the edge of the lot, with a view of both the front door and loading dock.

“We picked a good night,” the Reverend whispered.

“Yeah?” Irritated, Armitach used a normal tone of voice.

His companion gestured east, at a glow: the rising moon.

“Great—very romantic.”

“Didn’t you notice? From the files?”

“What?”

Reverend Michael frowned. “The full moon. These incidents all happened at the full moon.”

Armitach stood. “What a load of crap. Now they’re vampires? Werewolves? I suppose you find it funny, dragging a Federal agent out to the ass-end—”

“Look!” the Reverend hissed, pointing.

The shadows in the entrance were fleeing the moonlight.

The door slowly opened—from within—but no one appeared. Someone had pushed the power assist button.

Armitach peered through the pale light, heart racing. There was no other sign of life around the building.

“Should we—”

“Stay here,” Armitach directed, stepping out from the trees. He flipped open the holster of his sidearm and drew it, held at his side, as he approached the black rectangle.

“Federal agent,” he announced, and peered inside.

A figure huddled in the back of the small reception area shrank back at Armitach’s entrance.

“Stand slowly. Show me your hands.”

The man on the floor was clutching a sheet, his chest bare beneath it. He spread his fingers.

Armitach relaxed, drawing an obvious conclusion.

“Rough night?” he asked. “How did you get in here?”

The man seemed to consider the question, shaking his head and finally rasping, “I don’t know.”

Armitach’s breath caught in his throat. He’d smelled death before—fresh and hot, fetid and cloying—but this was something else. He stepped back, breathing through his mouth.

“Where am I?” The man wobbled to his feet.

“What’s your name?” Armitach demanded.

“I… George,” he replied. “I live in the city. But I was sick. I was on a lot of drugs.”

“I’ll bet you were,” the agent muttered. “What city would that be?”

He stared at Armitach. “Minneapolis. You’re not a doctor.” Questions tumbled out. “Is this the hospital? It doesn’t look right. Did I get better? I feel better.”

“Well, George, I don’t know,” Armitach replied. “Maybe we can ask your sorry-ass friends, the ones who left you here after you passed out? Any idea where we might find them?”

“My friends all died.”

The bleak expression brought Armitach up short.

“Where are your clothes?” A voice from the doorway: the Reverend.

George offered no explanation. “Why is it so warm?”

“It’s called summer,” Armitach snapped.

“Where am I? It was cold in Minneapolis, it was winter. Freezing cold.”

The Reverend rummaged in a closet behind the reception desk and produced a raincoat.

“Why don’t you put this on until we find your things?” He approached the man cautiously.

“We need to check him in somewhere, maybe pump his stomach,” Armitach suggested.

George took the coat without comment and slipped it on, balling up his sheet and laying it beside him on the floor. “Did you say I had friends nearby?”

The Reverend stepped past the agent. “Why don’t we get you somewhere comfortable, where we can talk?”

As Michael led George through the door, Armitach noticed the tag attached to the man’s foot.

“Sick joke,” he muttered. Kneeling in front of the swaying man, he unwound the wire. “Some friends.”

“They were all I had,” George replied, pulling his foot away. “My parents…”

“Can you walk?” Reverend Michael asked.

George nodded, walking unsteadily across the foyer. Armitach looked around, and finding nothing to further inform his opinion of this prank, flipped off the lights and closed the door behind him.

“Wait here. I’ll bring the truck around,” the Reverend offered.

“Yeah, sure,” Armitach replied. George stared around the parking lot and the abandoned airfield beyond.

“This isn’t Minnesota.”

Armitach bit off another sarcastic remark. “When did you last see your parents?”

George’s gaze drifted back to the agent. “The summer of ’91. I had come out, and told them I had AIDS, wasn’t doing well. They told me they wanted nothing to do with me.”

“That’s a long time ago.” Armitach considered. “Have you told them you’ve gotten better?”

“There’s no ‘getting better’,” George said bitterly.

“Sure there is,” Armitach argued. “I’ve heard the drugs are really effective.”

George stared. “A long time ago?”

“So, do you remember what drugs you took?”

“In the hospital?”

“Not in the hospital,” Armitach said, annoyed, “tonight. Recreational drugs. It’ll help the doctor.”

“No—I was hospitalized.” George peered at the agent. “I’m not dead, am I? I thought there was a white light.”

“You don’t look dead, though you might feel that way. See that?” He pointed at the approaching truck. “Just headlights, probably.” He took George by the arm. “We’ll figure out what to do—”

George’s eyes widened. “This is the other place! I’m in Hell, and you’re—”

Breaking free, he darted into the path of the Reverend’s truck.

The vehicle shuddered to a halt, barely missing George, who ran across the lot and into the trees beyond.

“Come back here!” Armitach shouted. “Stop!”

“What happened? What did you do?” the Reverend called out of the vehicle.

“Nothing! We were just talking. He said something about Hell and bugged out.” He trotted around the truck. “Go—maybe we can catch him.”

But the Reverend sat motionless behind the wheel. “No.”

“What do you mean, no? If nothing else, he was trespassing on Federal property!”

“I want to check something first.” He took the tag from Armitach.

***

Another line of beer bottles grew. They sat in the same booth, staring at the body tag.

“It proves nothing,” Armitach argued, “other than this gang of body-snatchers has a weird sense of humor, tying this on one of their own.”

“You took the prints—”

“And I’m sure they’ll match the former tenant perfectly, because they pressed the corpse’s fingers…” He trailed off: frozen fingers didn’t leave such clear latents.

“The drawer, yes, but what about the crash bar on the storage room exit? What if they match?”

Armitach considered the cardboard tag. It was real. The shivering slob they’d encountered was real, and gone. The rest…

“Be reasonable. If some confused corpses were walking around in their winding-sheets or what-have-you, why haven’t you seen them? No reports of the wandering undead, I suppose?”

“No,” Michael countered, “because they don’t look like corpses, or zombies. They act as alive as you or I.”

“They’re disoriented, make irrational statements—”

“Sure, and every day, in every city, they’re ignored on the street. Right?”

Armitach took another sip from his bottle, waiting for the inevitable leap of faith to land.

“It’s a miracle,” the Reverend breathed.

Armitach guffawed, causing a few lethargic patrons to gawk. “You’ve been wandering the corn fields too long. We have cult experts, shrinks. I can put you in touch with one of them.”

The Reverend looked stubborn and offended.

“Oh, think,” Armitach pressed. “Where did they go? Surely you’d notice a fresh face around town.”

“They’re all around you.” The Reverend waved airily. “All around.”

“What are you saying?”

Reverend Michael leaned forward. “Nobody could see them before they died. They were nameless. We couldn’t see them until they died. Now that they’re living again…”

He stared at Armitach with raised eyebrows, waiting.

***

Armitach delayed his departure by another day, and spent it waiting at the E-Z-Go Truck Palace, east of Wenton. He had hired a car to get there, without telling the Reverend where he was going, or why.

He knew how undocumented people got by. His patient surveillance paid off.

The man in a faded t-shirt and worn jeans was seeing off an adolescent girl boarding the daily eastbound bus. She waved shyly at him through the broad bus window as it pulled away. Strolling back to the mini-mart, George caught sight of Armitach and beamed a smile. He looked fit—for a corpse.

“Hello! Ah… afraid I didn’t catch your name last night… Tall Blond and Handsome.”

The agent accepted the outthrust hand. “Armitach.” George had a healthy grip and solid build.

“You look… different,” Armitach noted.

“Yeah, clothes make the man. I do remember you’re FBI, though. Not here to bust me, are you?”

“That depends. How did you come to be on the base last night?”

“Not sure. But I can tell you, I didn’t go there under my own power.”

Armitach considered this. “Buy you a cup of coffee?”

“Love it.” They headed across the lot to the diner.

“It’s a fine day!” George exclaimed, taking a deep breath. “I can’t remember when I’ve felt this good.”

“Who’s the girl?” Armitach inquired. “A friend?”

“On the bus? Oh, no. Just a wayward kid. Runaway, no money to get home. She would have turned tricks to earn it. So, we talked, and I bought her a bus ticket home.” He shrugged and held the door for Armitach. “There goes my first day’s wages. So many of them, lost to themselves. Nobody seems to notice.”

Armitach led them to the quiet end of the counter, ordering two coffees.

“Sorry I ran away,” George said. “But once I started moving, I felt better and better—just running—and I ended up here. I waited at the service entrance until morning. They needed a dishwasher, so they offered me clothes from the cast-off bin at the truckers’ rest. I guess I can earn another bus ticket tomorrow.” He peered into his black coffee. “I’ve got a little catching up to do, it seems. Terrorism, wars—and what’s going on in Washington? At least there’s progress with AIDS.”

“So, you believe you were, like, in a coma?”

George looked at the agent. “I think you know better.”

“Will you try to get your life back?”

“Can I?”

Armitach considered. “Someone may have petitioned to have you declared legally dead, to get at your estate.”

George snorted at the word estate.

“You should be able to go back to Minnesota, or wherever, and prove who you are by fingerprints. Get a birth certificate re-issued, then a driver’s license. Check your Social Security status. Start over.” Armitach considered the man across the table. “Your prints are in the Federal database, so the FBI couldn’t object.”

“But you could.”

Armitach sighed, considering how to shape his next field report.

“I’ll tell them the facility has a record-keeping problem dating back years. It’s not missing corpses; it just never received them. Reverend Michael will concur.”

“Thanks.” George smiled. “Would you happen to know if he’s, say, involved?”

“You’ll have to ask Michael that. What will you do, with your identity back?”

“I’m not sure. My family would be shocked if I just appear, and hardly any older.” He studied his hands. “Same with friends, if any survived.”

“Well, you’ll have a lengthy bus ride to think it over.”

“I’m in no hurry.” He stretched, locking his fingers behind his head. “Maybe I’ll stay here a while and help. Lots of people drift along the highways. I’ve got a second chance at... this. Maybe I can help them.”

Armitach considered George. “It must be nice, having no one setting expectations. Freedom.”

“Freedom.” George chuckled. “Sure—all you have to do is die.”



Author’s note: “Towns are strung along the roads of America, very familiar, hypnotic in their repetitive fashion. The extraordinary may be hiding anywhere in plain sight. It takes a liminal moment when the light shifts and the shadows move to reveal itself.”

J.L. Royce is a published author of science fiction, the macabre, and whatever else strikes him. He lives in the northern reaches of the American Midwest. His work appears in Allegory, Ghostlight, Love Letters to Poe, parABnormal, Sci Phi Journal, Utopia, etc. He is a member of HWA and GLAHW and was a finalist in the Q3 2020 Writers of the Future competition. Some of his anthologized stories may be found at: Amazon.com/author/jlroyce.

Find him on Twitter at @authorJLRoyce, at Facebook.com/AuthorJLRoyce, and at http://www.jlroyce.com/.


“The Secret Place of the Lord” by J.L. Royce. Copyright © 2021 by J.L. Royce.

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