Crusaders for Humanity (a Love Story)
Dedicated to Alan, aka “The Albatross,” aka “Z”
Today, she was going to do it.
Call him on the phone. Invite him him to her apartment — no, to a public place. A coffee shop. A park. It would be better that way, with other people around. Avoid a scene.
She gripped her phone tightly. I’m sorry, Oliver, she would say. I can’t do this anymore. No more secrets. It’s better if we go our separate—
The phone began to vibrate. It was Oliver.
She took a deep breath and answered. “Hello?”
“Come over tonight at seven,” he said. “I’ve been unfair to you lately, I know. But tonight, I plan to make it up to you. I’ll explain everything, I promise.”
It’s too late, she thought. “I’ll be there,” she said, and hung up.
Twenty minutes, she decided as she showered and shaved her legs. She would stop by for only twenty minutes. She would tell him that she could no longer trust him. For months, he had lied to her. Told her that he was going out with the guy, for “poker and beers.” But that one night, while filled with suspicion and jealousy, she had traced his location. It was surprisingly easy to do. A small, round disc, which she’d purchased on Amazon and hidden in his car, after she’d connected it to a tracking app on her phone.
His “poker night” was not at Patrick Harrison’s house, as he’d said, but in an abandoned warehouse somewhere on the seedy side of town. What he was really doing in there was a mystery. Was it a brothel? A meth lab? A squatting facility for druggies? Whatever it was, it couldn’t possibly be good.
“So, did you win big?” she asked the next day.
“‘Fraid not,” he’d said with a tired smile. “Chuck Riley was the big winner tonight. Wiped our pockets clean.”
“I see,” she said.
The warehouse wasn’t the only strange thing she’d come across. There was that mile-long receipt from the Home Depot on his kitchen counter, filled with lumber and PVC pipes and a load of other things she couldn’t identify.
“It’s for a project my humanitarian group is working on,” he explained. Ah yes, his humanitarian group. Crusaders for Humankind, they called themselves. A sort of mercy group, whose aim was to help humankind to thrive.
“So what do these crusaders do?” she asked him. “Help the poor and needy?”
“Something like that.” He didn’t offer any other details.
Lately, he’d been edgy. Distracted, too. The last time they’d met, his eyes kept shifting to his phone, to some invisible spot over her shoulder, everywhere but on her. He’d snapped at her, too, when she asked him what was wrong.
“Nothing’s wrong. Everything’s fine, okay?” He’d pounded a fist on the table, just hard enough to slosh their drinks. It filled her with unease. Either something was very, very wrong, or she was getting her first glimpse of a side of him she’d never seen. A side she wasn’t sure she liked.
So this was it. She would tell him before dinner. Before he could charm her into staying the night, distracting her from her purpose. She pulled on a dress — the purple one that he liked, and a pair of heels, then applied her lipstick. She may as well look nice for the breakup, right? Then she slipped her phone into her purse and drove across town. There was a lot of traffic, and by the time she arrived, it was already after seven.
Oliver’s house was dark. She let herself in, flicked on the living room lamp.
“Hello?” she called. No answer. Leaving her heels by the front door, she padded into the kitchen. On the counter was an empty crystal vase surrounded by a ring of flickering tealight candles. Next to this was a frosty cold wine goblet filled with rosé, her favorite. Despite her resolve, she picked it up, took a sip.
That’s when she noticed it.
A trail of soft pink rose petals led away from the kitchen, toward the french doors, which were open to the backyard. She followed it. The trail continued across the patio, into the lawn, toward the garden shed, whose door was wide open. She took another sip and smiled, then crossed the lawn, relishing the feel of grass beneath her bare feet.
To her astonishment, the shed was empty inside, except for a flight of stairs leading underground. Oliver had never mentioned that he had a cellar. Was it a wine cellar? More petals were sprinkled on the metal steps. Bright lights shone from down below.
“Oliver?” she called down. Then she descended. When she was halfway down the stairs, there was a loud, metallic bang from. Gasping, she turned around. A panel had slid shut behind her, sealing the opening she’d just passed through. She swallowed the sudden feeling of anxiety that bubbled in her chest.
Just then, Oliver appeared at the base of the stairs. “Hayley,” he said. He was smiling, happy to see her. He held out a hand, and she took it, trembling.
“What is this?” she asked. They were in a large, bright room filled with comfortable seating. A kitchen area took up one corner of the room, including a large dining table, where a number of people were gathered. The walls were covered with a combination of beautiful artwork and large TV screens, each of which was playing a different movie. There were doorways, too, branching off toward hidden areas of the cellar. If you could call it a cellar.
“We call it The Retreat,” he said, leading her to a couch, where she sat and took another sip of wine. “Those people,” he said, motioning toward the dozen or so men and women gathered around the dining table, “are my fellow Crusaders for Humanity. We are preparing to launch the world’s largest effort to save humankind. And I’ve decided to include you in our effort.”
“Me? But…” she gaped, unsure how to tell him that she really just wanted to call it quits. It was over. They were finished.
He sat beside her and took her free hand in his. “I know that I haven’t been open with you. But I’d like to change that, beginning right now. You see, the Crusaders and I have been working very hard to do the right thing for all of humanity. And we decided together that the thing that humankind needs most is less humankind.”
She frowned. What on earth was he talking about? “Oliver, I need to talk to you in private.”
Just then, one of the men jumped up from his seat at the table. “Oliver, sir. It’s beginning.”
Oliver rubbed his hands together and turned toward one of the TV screens. Hayley turned, too. This was not a movie, she realized, but a camera trained on a plaza filled with real people.
“Ten thousand capsules,” said Oliver. “Planted in strategic locations by fellow Crusaders, all around the world. Each containing a deadly toxin. Once released into the air, the toxin will attack the vital systems of every unprotected human. Not pets. Not animals. Only humans.”
Hayley stared at him in horror. “What will it do to them?” Her voice cracked, throat dry.
“Kill them, of course. Except for us. And other Crusaders. We are all safe in our various retreats. We have enough food, water, and supplies to sustain a small community of people for the next five years. By then, the toxin will have become inactive. And we—” Again, he motioned toward the group of Crusaders, all of whom were smiling and nodding. “We will repopulate the planet. But this time, we will get things right. Humanity will thrive, and the world will become a much better place to live.”
Hayley felt like all the air had been sucked from her lungs. She set her glass on the small table beside her, then bent forward, resting her head on her knees.
“Are you okay, sweetheart?” Oliver’s hand stroked the back of her neck.
Hayley sat up and looked at him, eyes wide. “So then, you’re not a drug user? You don’t run a meth lab?”
He gave her a quizzical look. “No, of course not.”
“You don’t engage in human trafficking?”
“God, no. You know how I feel about such vile practices.”
She stood, waving her arms toward the TV screens, which flash to scenes in India, China, Australia. The invisible toxin is beginning to fill the air. People are choking, clawing at their chests, dropping to their knees. “So this is how you’ve been spending your time when you said you were going out to poker night with the guys?”
He hung his head, expression sheepish. “Yeah. I’m sorry I lied about it. That was pretty crummy of me.”
The cameras show London, New York City, Rio de Janeiro. Panic fills the streets. People are screaming, trying to outrun an enemy they can’t see. More bodies drop to the ground.
“It’s just, you know, a relationship can’t thrive when two people can’t be honest with each other.”
“She has a point, Oliver,” a woman piped up from the dining table.
Tokyo, Berlin, Stockholm.
“From now on, you have to open up to me. Share your hobbies with me instead of hiding everything. If you don’t talk to me, then I’m left to wonder what you’re up to, and I might jump to the worst conclusions.”
Oliver stood and wrapped his arms around her. “I promise, from now on, I’ll do better. I’ll be your dream boyfriend, okay?”
Hayley cocked her head to one side, considering. Then, over the terrified screams and gagging sounds of most of the world’s population dying at once, she said, “Okay. I’ll give you a second chance. Don’t blow it.”
“I won’t.” He kissed her then, and for that one brief moment, life was perfect.