Our Daily Bread Online - Lauren B. Davis

CHAPTER ONE

Satan draws the soul to sin by choosing wicked company. “Do not be deceived; evil company corrupts good habits.” Corinthians 15:33. I say to you, you shall not suffer yourself to dwell among the wicked, nor shall you permit them to dwell among you, lest you become one of them. You shall cast them out, as you would a wolf among the sheep. Send them out, I say, to live in the wild places of their wickedness, like wolves in the barren mountains. Suffer not the sinners to taint the peaceful valley, where the righteous dwell.

—REVEREND EDWARD JOHNS, GIDEON,

CHURCH OF CHRIST RETURNING, 1794

NEAR THE TOP OF NORTH MOUNTAIN a tumbledown shed leaned against an old lightning-struck oak at the edge of a raggedy field. Inside, Albert Erskine bent over a sprouting box and gently, methodically, planted the marijuana seeds he’d soaked last night. He placed each one half an inch deep in the soil-filled paper cups, pushing the seed down with his index finger, the nail black-rimmed. The air, hazy with dust motes, smelled of warm mouldy earth mixed with the fertilizer he used in the sprouting mix. The seeds had been perfect, virile, and had given off a good solid crack when he’d tested them on a hot frying pan. Once the seeds were settled in their nest of humus, soil, sand and fertilizer, he’d water them and leave them in the locked shed under a grow-light fuelled by a small generator. Later, in a couple of weeks, he’d plant the seedlings out in the field. In the meantime he’d prepare the field with hydrated lime and a little water-soluble nitrogen fertilizer.

Growing a good cash crop of marijuana took smarts and Albert was well aware of how smart he was. He knew, too, the power of his physical presence. He would have been called handsome in another place, with the cleft in his chin and the furious shine in his brown eyes. Even as a whip-thin, lock-jawed boy there had been something to notice about Albert, some flash of sinewy grace.

Albert finished up, locked the shed with a bicycle chain and combination lock and headed back to the compound. It was a couple of miles through the woods, up and down and slipping sometimes on the spring-mucky ground, but he didn’t mind. It was quiet out here, except for the song of the cat-bird and the early robin.

Halfway to the compound he skirted around the slope, coming up on an old trailer from the low side so he wouldn’t be as easy to spot. He paused at the edge of a clearing. The uncles, Dan, Lloyd and Ray, were paranoid bastards at the best of times. Albert knew he should just keep clear of whatever they were up to in there, but yesterday his little brother, Jack, told him the uncles had started a cooking operation. Albert couldn’t believe even they would be that stupid; he had to see for himself.

The rusty, partly-yellow trailer tilted on its blocks. The windows were covered with tin foil. The breeze shifted and the scent of something sickly sweet wafted toward him. And something else . . . ammonia? Jesus. Albert crept to a stand of trees closer to the trailer to get a better look. A small pile of rubbish lay half-hidden under some branches. Used coffee filters. Part of an old car battery. Drain cleaner. Dozens of empty cold remedy packets. If things had been bad on the mountain before, Albert suspected they were about to get worse. Much worse. Meth made everything worse.

“What you doing up here, Bert?”

Albert swung round. At the edge of the treeline, Ray, a shrivelled, short man smiled at him over the barrel of a rifle. His teeth were brown stubs, and his close-set eyes glittered with malice. Uncle Ray might not be a big man, but even among the Erskines his temper was legendary. He’d beat his wife, Meg, so bad she had convulsions, and when his son, Billy, didn’t have a black eye, he had a split lip or another missing tooth.

“Just getting my seeds ready for planting.” Albert made sure he kept his voice steady. “Good day for it.”

“Field’s nowhere near here, now is it?” Ray shrugged the rifle closer in on his shoulder.

Behind Albert, the trailer door opened. “What’s this then?” It was Lloyd’s voice. “Ray, now, put that rifle down. Ain’t nothing but Bert.”

Ray did not lower the rifle. “He’s spying on us.”

Although Albert didn’t like the idea of turning his