The sky outside was the dark green color of sick. Dark clouds were moving faster than they had been throughout the stormy afternoon, churning in on themselves in thick waves.
A chunk of hail bounced off the window of the small police station. Viv, who had been standing and staring at the horizon, flinched and then rubbed her left arm.
“Yeah, we’re getting one,” she called out to Sheriff Porter. “My joints never lie. Not since the accident. I told you we were getting one, didn’t I? Wonder when they’re going to sound the – “
A sharp blast of sound in the distance cut the dispatcher off and shut her up. The tornado warning. The fifth one that year. Telling people to go hide in their basements and bathtubs and hope for the best.
“Downstairs, Viv!” the Sheriff instructed, making his way to the door.
Viv grabbed her beaten up brown purse from beneath her desk and was about to follow when the red light of the phone caught her eye. Line One was live.
Probably just another person calling about the tornado, she thought. There wasn’t much the boys could do until the twister passed. People should have learned to be prepared by now. Humans couldn’t beat tornados. Still, something told Viv to get the call.
“Linden County 911. What’s your emergency?” Viv spoke loudly over the urgent whine of the siren.
“Hello? Viv? This is Jenny at Honeycutt Farm.”
“Jenny, darling. We’ve got a tornado breathing down our necks,” Viv said breaking her usual professional protocol. “You’ve got to get your kids and get to safety. Is Dan home?”
“Viv, I wouldn’t be calling if I didn’t need help. There’s a man outside the house. He’s knocking on all the windows and the doors and he’s telling me he’s here to take the kids away from me! He’s out there, just circling the house. I don’t know who he is or where he came from!”
“A man?” Viv repeated. “What does he look like?
“I can’t tell!” Jenny cried. “The lights have gone out over here and the sky’s dark. But I know it’s a man, I can hear his voice and he’s banging around the property, yelling for the kids to come out so they can meet their God. Viv, I need help now, please, before he busts in!”
The dispatcher’s stomach dropped. She could practically taste the terror in Jenny’s voice. Across the room, Sheriff Porter was standing still, staring at Viv with bloodshot blue eyes, waiting for information.
“You hang on, honey,” Viv said firmly into the phone. “Porter’s on his way.”
“Aw hell, Viv!,” Sheriff Porter took off his wide brimmed hat and wiped his brow, “There’s a twister coming. I ain’t got time to go out to check on a farm.”
“And Jenny Honeycutt ain’t got time for you to whine about a tornado when the Kiddie Crusader is beating on her door looking to bring her kids to God.”
Viv’s hand went to her mouth, her eyes widening as the words escaped her lips.
The color drained from the Sheriff’s face, “Take a radio and get downstairs, Viv. You hear
me? And call for backup!” he hollered over his shoulder as he sprinted out the front door.
His cruiser was parked right outside, idling. He threw it into drive and peeled out, speeding down Highway 79, lights and sirens. Sweat poured down his face and back, dampening his shirt. He looked down at the speedometer: 102 miles per hour. At this speed, he could outrun the tornado, but would he get there before Kiddie Crusader attacked? The newspapers started calling him that after the third murder, but Sheriff Porter never liked it. It made a serial murderer sound like a good guy. He wasn’t a good guy.
The radio crackled, “294 to Sheriff Porter. What’s your 20?”
“Two miles from Honeycutt.”
“Step on it, Porter,” Viv’s voice cracked, ‘He’s building a fire.”
“I wish I could have sent someone else.”
“10-4,” he said softly.
He took his fingers off the radio’s talk button and said to himself, “Me, too.” He pulled down the driver’s side visor and looked at the battered photograph stapled to the fabric. His wife Lori smiled back at him. So did his teenage daughters, Jill and Tina. This photo was uploaded to Facebook about an hour before the Kiddie Crusader first knocked on his front door.
The driveway to the Honeycutt Farm was up ahead on the left. He slowed and veered off the road.
He picked up his radio, “Porter to 294.”
“Go ahead,” Viv responded.
“I’m parked at the end of the driveway. I’m going in on foot.”
Sheriff Porter yanked the photograph free from the staples and kissed it before putting it in his chest pocket. He climbed out of the car, service weapon ready, and headed toward the farmhouse.
By now the sky had meshed an angry purple with the splotched green that had otherwise decimated its normal canopy. “Hell and damnation,” he said to himself. He tried not to let it distract him.
Honeycutt had been a proud staple of Linden County in its heyday, but now it was just another half-dilapidated piece of a fading country. If the tornado touched down within earshot of the farmhouse, Porter was convinced the entire building would fall over like a kid crumpling in front of a bully.
The sheriff held his gun in front of him, as much a reaction to the wind whipping around him as to the looming threat of the man that had already taken three children away from this town. He didn’t have to search hard.
With his back to Porter, he looked like a preacher from a Steinbeck novel - clad in black, bent over with age. His hair was gray and sparse. The sheriff pointed his gun at the man’s back, deciding whether he should just pull the trigger or give the man a chance to surrender. There was a roaring in his ears like an ancient tree being slowly ripped from the ground. Porter shouted out to his quarry.
With surprising quickness the man the media dubbed the Kiddie Crusader whipped around to face Porter, and smiled as he looked at the gun. “Man of the law!” he cried joyfully, throwing his arms in the air. The wind looked about ready to tear the few meager strands of hair from his head. “Assist me!” He gesticulated wildly to the window behind him. “These sinners won’t listen to me. We must save their children.”
“You’re not saving anyone,” said Porter. “Come with me.”
“Sheriff,” said the Crusader, stepping closer. “You don’t understand. This is godless country and these are godless people. The storm is coming, can’t you see? I’m just the messenger!”
He stepped closer and reached out his right hand. “You can help me.”
Porter thought of the bodies of three children. “I can help you,” he echoed. He fired two shots point-blank into the Crusader’s chest. The body fell to the ground with barely a whisper.
The door to Honeycutt flew open and Porter holstered his gun. Jenny, a lean woman with a firm set to her features, eyed the body on the ground and then gestured for the sheriff to get inside.
Porter raced into the farm and followed Jenny into the storm cellar. There was a small window in the basement, and he peered outside as the sky turned from purple-green to a deep, foreboding black. He could feel the wind approaching, the mists beginning to form into a single, angry apparition that spelled righteous fury for so many believers.
The twister formed not far from the limp form of the Kiddie Crusader, as though born of his dead body, and as it raced toward Honeycutt Farm, Porter thought fleetingly of his brief exchange with the killer.
He gathered Jenny and her children in his arms and told them to pray. He watched the twister approach at full blast, as though aimed directly for the farm. He thought of his children. And he bent his head to join the others in prayer.