She hadn’t killed anyone yet, but she might.

More chapters from ToxiCity

A VG Serial: ToxiCity

Episode 75

At first they looked like specks of black pepper drifting down from a leaden sky. As they drew closer, though, they could have been a squadron of fly-by jets, the kind that dove and twisted and turned tricks at summer air shows. Finally, they turned into what they were: vultures, scavengers intent on foraging the field beneath them.

But it wasn’t summer, and the field was mostly barren. Tufts of overgrown weeds swayed in a quiet wind. The air was heavy with impending snow, and the soil, as lifeless as a nuclear winter, was cracked and hard. Without warning a bird swooped down to the ground. Then, just as quickly, the bird shot back up into the air, something glinting in its beak, a shred of brightly colored trash, perhaps, or a scrap of metal from an old tin can.

In a far corner of the field, a human watched and waited. Bundled up against the cold, the figure stared up at the predators. Sensing the presence of live prey, the vultures organized and circled above. The human watched the birds. The birds watched the human. Then the birds attacked. The human threw up both arms to fend off the attack, but the birds were too strong. They dove down from the sky, collided with the figure and knocked it to the ground. As one, they began to claw and scratch and tear at the human, jabbing their beaks into the recesses of the body, shredding coat, muffler, and shirt, undergarments too, until they hit hair, flesh, and bone. The human couldn’t fight them off, and the vultures consumed their prey in a silent bloody feast.

When the last bone was picked clean, and the figure was just a carcass draped in scraps of cloth, the vultures fluttered their wings and lifted off to scout their next victim. But one of them took the heart of the human in its talons, and it was still beating.

 ***

Maggie woke up, bathed in a cold sweat. It was the same dream, and like the other times, it was already producing shivers. But this time, something was different. Something had changed. Something had been taken away. It took her a while to figure it out, but when it finally came, she was surprised it had taken so long. Her fear. It had vanished along with the birds.

Maggie quit her job, left the apartment, and slipped out of society. Dusty came too, and they moved to a farmhouse in rural Minnesota. Over twenty people were already there, but when Maggie asked who they were, she was told she didn’t need to know. It was too dangerous. She should call them the Family. Maggie would be one of Lucky’s wives, Dusty his surrogate son.

Maggie and Dusty learned how to shoot a M-16. It was light with virtually no kick. They also practiced with revolvers and pistols. She learned how to make other weapons too, all of them assembled from ordinary ingredients: Molotov cocktails, pipe bombs, even homemade grenades.

Within a month she discovered an even more powerful weapon. Poison. A silent, invisible killer, it was as lethal as a deep swimming shark. On the surface, death appeared peaceful, even sleep-like. It was only when you plumbed the depths of blood, bone, and tissue that you could see the utter devastation it wrought.

She experimented with cyanide, strychnine, and potassium chloride, when they could rip it off. And something new the Family was excited about: a substance extracted from castor beans. A tiny amount of it could kill thousands of people. It was effective. Cheap. Versatile. And best of all, available. You could get the beans at your local nursery.

Maggie saw the possibilities. Using glass and plastic bottles and tubes she stashed in a tool shed, she learned how to mash and cook and strain the beans into one of the most lethal toxins ever known. And with every batch she made, she siphoned off a tiny amount for herself.

She was diluting a batch with acetone one crisp fall day when a sheriff’s car pulled up to the house. She quickly covered the lab with a canvas tarp and set about sweeping the floor of the shed. The cops didn’t come near her, but after they left, she complained to the Family elders. They could have been busted, she said, everything in jeopardy. Not to worry, they assured her. Even if the cops found her lab, they’d think she was processing meth.

But weapons and poisons were only part of her education. She learned how to stage political assassinations—the Family never called them murders. They would be necessary to cleanse the system and establish the new order. She also learned how to break and enter, how to make a clean getaway, and how to wipe down a scene so there were no prints. She learned how to wear hairnets and special clothes to minimize trace, learned how to extract scrapings from victims’ fingernails.

When she wasn’t learning new skills, she listened. The Family helped her see it wasn’t just the utility or the developer who were responsible for her suffering, though, frankly, what did you expect from a Jew? The entire system was rotten, and the culprit was the State. They took the developer’s money and sanctioned Meadow City, knowing it was contaminated. The state had corrupted the system; they would be dealt with accordingly. The Book of Revelations said it best: war was coming. It was inevitable.

Maggie wasn’t much interested in the macro perspective. She wanted revenge on the people who had destroyed her life. That was understandable, the Family said. Vengeance was the first step toward consciousness. In time she would mature. That’s why Prairie State would be her first mission. It was downstate, away from the big cities. There would be fewer complications. If she succeeded, she could move on to the Jew. Once that was done, the Family would help her launch an attack on the utility and the state.

They started her on dry runs. Seven-Elevens, Mom and Pop stores. She broke in, took food and supplies, plus what she found in the till. But she didn’t kill anyone. There was no reason to, at least not yet, and the Family needed the money.

She turned out to have a flair for it. With Dusty as her partner, they made a good team. Fast. Thorough. Meticulous. They graduated to bigger places, even hitting a small county bank one summer afternoon. Meanwhile, she kept up on her poisons, studying information on the Internet and experimenting until she knew how to process some materials as well as a pharmacologist.

Episodes in the novel will be published on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

Please click the following title,ToxiCity, to read more about Libby Fischer Hellman’s books on Amazon.

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