"Give me one reason I should not collapse your chest and run my heel straight through your black heart Deacon."
The dwarf fought for air, lungs burning as he sucked wind as best he could.
"Do your worse wench! But...you shall not gain entry...without my blessing."
She bent down, grabbing the Deacon by his collar, hoisting him up into the air and against the door. Every bone in his back shattered against the iron door, whatever air his lungs managed to take in had been knocked out of them by the blow. Her worse was still to come, but, first, she wanted to hurt him, punish him for his lack of commitment, judge him for being such an unforgivable Judas Priest and make him bleed from the ducts of his eyes.
"You will regret permitting me such guiltless access to do as I will."
She took his head, slamming it against the door. The world went dark for a moment, brought back to light by repeated slaps that stung each side of his face.
"God would never...allow such cruelty no matter the cause." He said weakly.
She took the beads from his hands and wrapped them around his neck, each pass around his head tightened the chain, cutting off the air, teasing death's doorstep.
"God is not here, Deacon. I will give you only one chance to open this door now stained with your own blood. Continue to stand your ground and I promise I will make you a temporary fixture."
The Deacon had reached the moment in life, when a split second determines whether you continued to live or die and your whole life flashes before you, where he must choose a path of the righteous or that of the spoiler. He had been sworn to secrecy and, more importantly, commissioned by the Patriarch as herald of the New Sun for his services. The Shad'villa would fall under his rule and, in doing so, he would become a bishop shortly after. The strain of his own rosary around his neck forced instinct to act where his will had finally broken. His hand moved across the iron door to a space where the facing of the door sunk in the shape of a hand. His fingers spread over the grooves in the door and with a final desperate act of survival, he pressed in on the grooves. There was a click somewhere inside the doors inner workings and a series of wheels turned, sliding the steel bolt from its post unlocking the door.
She held the Deacon's hand against the pressure plate, stabbing it with her sword, completing her promise to make the Deacon dwarf a temporary fixture. She left him to his screams outside silently agreeing with herself that, if he was still conscious, she would dress his wounds for his troubles upon her return. She stepped inside the dark church, fading into the grey darkness as screams pleaded with her to reconsider.
The door opened to a young man standing on Father Jessley's porch. He was dressed in plain clothing. His hair was pulled back into a pony-tail behind his head that ran down to the middle of his back. He wore a sleeveless, tie-dyed, shirt that exposed his long lanky tattooed arms that stiffened at his sides once the door opened. His right arm, he noticed, had a red, fire breathing, dragon inked onto his bicep, its tail coiling down around his forearm ending at his wrist where the word "rock" was also tattooed on each of his knuckles except for his thumb; this knuckle was branded with a star. His pants were torn and poorly patched and he was bare-footed and bleeding from the bottom of his feet. His skin was clammy and he was sweating profusely, even on a mild day such as this one. It was not in Father Jessley's nature to turn a blind eye, but this young man unnerved him, and the way he stood there eyeing him as though they knew one another only added to his jitters.
"Yes?" He said cautiously.
There was a slight pause in a reply. The young man was uncertain how to approach the priest. He had wanted to wait until morning, when the church opened its doors, but he did not have time to wait. The authorities were already searching for him and his was certain his friends had already ratted him out.
"Fff...father, I...I have come a long way to find you. You are the only one who can help me. Clear my name or convince the police-"
"The police?" This was something he was certain that he did not want to involve himself in, regardless of how he felt about helping others. "I'm sorry. I cannot help you." he said, shutting the door quickly and locking it.
"Please! I have nowhere else to go."
The Priest stood behind the safety of the door, waiting, listening, for the man to leave. He had hoped this would not result in him having to call the police, which he added from behind the door.
"Step away from the porch please and I will sit out some food and water for you, but that is where my charity ends. Understood?"
There was desperation in the young man's voice as he asked for just a moment more of his time.
"I know this will sound crazy, but...you must believe me Father. God...he...I was sent to you by God."
Another crackpot, he thought to himself. It was not uncommon to have a man or woman, down on their luck, show up at his doorstep every few months in search of charity or shelter, when the weather called for such measures. Generally, at the threat of phoning the authorities, they would leave or adhere to his offering of a quick bit to eat at a distance, but this was not so this time 'round. He heard something thump against the other side of the door, as though the young man had placed his head against it. If he was going to go to jail, he was going to go with a clear conscious, telling his story that began as he woke up in a hotel room the day before with a dead hooker in his bed and a world of trouble unfolding inside a drunken haze. The door unlocked again, opening slowly, to find that the young man had sat at the doorstep, his back against the door frame, as he continued with his story.
"I ran. It was all I knew to do at the time, father. What else could I have done? I could not stay and explain to the police how a dead woman ended up naked in my bed. I could have told them the truth, which was I had been partying throughout the night, after playing a reunion gig at the Pony Express, and combined with the drugs and alcohol the whole blessed day is a total loss of memory. But, what authority would believe that as a defense?" The young man turned his tear-ridden face to Father Jessley and burst into a fit of emotion. "I could not bring myself to stay behind...and I set up the room to make it appear as though another man, who was passed out in the closet, was in the bed with that woman instead of me!"
Father Jessley was at a loss. For the first time, he did not know what to say or how to approach the grief stricken man before him. He did not need to rely on faith to know that his words were sincere and true. He reached down and placed his hand onto the man's shoulder.
"Come inside, my son. Allow me to address your wounds and provide you with food and something to drink."
He assisted the young man to his feet, helping him inside. He took him to the kitchen and sat him at the table, while he poured him some water, which he quickly drank. Father Jessley then took to his fridge and took form it a plate of assorted cheeses and deli meats, which he had brought home from the morning's mass, sitting it in front of the man.
"Tell me, what is your name?"
"Wade." He said reaching for a sliver of brie and a piece of ham. "Wade Keller. Please, you have to help me father. I did not kill that woman," Wade paused as he chewed, considering his own words, questioning them on the inside and hoping like hell they sounded honest enough on the outside, "I do not deny being there with her, only that it was not me who took her life."
Father Jessley was an older man, a man in his sixties who was nearing retirement from the cloth within the next few months, planning his life after his servitude to the LORD. His service in the church was long and fruitful with its spiritual wealth and existential prevalence within the church, serving as Parish Priest and Deacon to the Holy Simpatico. His role as both Priest and Deacon had provided a plethora of challenges, but none more plagued with moral obstacles than the one before him. If this were confession, he could deem the man's confession as spiritual guidance and remove any civic duties from his conscious. But the man was not sitting inside a confessional. This was a man sitting at the table of another man confessing his innocence to a murder and asking for God's asylum.
"Why are you telling me this?"
His question, as expectant as it should be to any man, came across insulting to Wade. His neck crooked and his bottom lip began to quiver.
"Have you not heard my words father? Because She told me you would help me."
"She who, Wade?"
"The Angel. She was the one who directed me here to you. I thought it was some kind of hallucination, an aftershock to all the drugs from the night before, but she was no hallucination or dream father. She was...surreal to be sure, but her touch was just as honest and real as this food I now eat, or the hurt from my wounds on the bottom of my feet. Her words were like my own thoughts motivating me, helping me clear my head and get off that bus, before the police caught up with me."
Father Jessley had filled a large aluminum bowel with warm water, sitting it at Wade's feet. He then took a towel from the cabinet, some antibiotic solution, along with some band-aids and gauze from the closet nearby. It was both a gesture of kindness and an act of his faith to help a stranger with his wounds as others had helped Jesus as he carried the burden of his cross. It was also to keep his mind from wandering into the realm of fear, for he was not convinced that his life was not still in danger.
"This might sting a little." He said as he moistened the towel and applied it to the bottom of Wade's foot.
His feet were mauled, cut throughout the pads of his feet and heels by rocks and sticks, with tiny blood clots forming beneath the skin. His wounds were concurrent with someone running without regard to the terrain, assisting with Wade's continued confession of how he ran into the woods, once the tour bus had come to a stop, never looking back as voices shouted for him.
"I must have ran for hours," Wade was saying, "I am not sure if it was drugs or a combination of drugs and adrenalin, but no matter how much damage I did to my feet, I still ran never feeling any pain, even now. When I was not able to keep pace, I refused to stop or address the wounds. I just kept walking. The Angel had told me that in order to redeem my soul and exonerate my spirit, I would have to find Father Jessley of Saint Patrick's Parish. As I walked, still coming down from my high, I found my way here to your doorstep." At this, Wade stopped and looked down to the Priest. "I have no earthly idea what state or city I am in, Father. How could I have possibly found my way here, without some kind of heavenly guidance directing me?"
Father Jessley was quietly shaken at this. He never told the man his name and there was nothing to indicate such outside the church. Even more unsettling was his tale about the Angel visiting him, both in his dreams and manifesting itself in reality as though he were talking to it as he now talked to him. There was an element of honesty with his story that disturbed father Jessley. Not because Wade had named dropped him, but because of how his story correlated to Deacon Jessley's affairs and not Father Jessley, Parish Priest. He moistened his towel in the crimson water bowel and addressed the wounds on Wade's other foot.
"Did the Angel tell you anything else?" He asked inquisitively.
"Only that you would know what to do."
Father Jessley rested on his heels.
"I do not believe your wounds need any stitching. You are very lucky not to have done any worse." He said taking the bowel over to the sink emptying it. "You will need to stay off your feet. I am not a doctor, but it doesn't take a medical degree to know that your cuts need to heal a little before you trample them again. Plus, maybe there are some fresh clothes and shoes that fit you in the donations room at the church. Finish eating your food and I will run over to the church to see about some clothes. What are you, 36, 34?"
"My mistake. I will see what I can do for you." He said starting for the door.
"Father...Can I trust that you will not phone the police and lock yourself away inside the church?"
"Trust not in me, my son. Trust in the LORD as I have by allowing you, a stranger, inside my home."
Father Jessley opened the door and stood for a moment.
"And, for you, I am not the Father Jessley. That title is for those in need of the Lord's forgiveness. You need something much more; therefore, you may call me Deacon."
"If I do not need forgiveness, Deacon, then what is it that I need?"
The door closed. Wade sat alone at the table, eyeing his surroundings. By all accounts, it was a simple house whose kitchen came with simple instruments; a blender, a toaster; a kettle on the stove; a microwave and a wall phone with a Post-it note stuck to the receiver. On the Post-it note were the words "take out" scrawled beneath an 800 number. Wade closed his eyes only for a moment, which was all the time his body needed to shut itself down and fall asleep. His fate was now literally in God's hands
The nun stood at a stairwell that spiraled down into a dark shaft located inside the church's northern transept, which was not a part of the church's original blueprint construction and only known by the Deacon and his Major Bishop. Knowing the layout of The Seven Churches of Sodom as they were known, was part of her training and taught to her by Mother Strange. Moments ago, she had slid her finger along the marble flooring, finding the small groove within the marble, lifting it to discover the stairwell. Her sense of smell was instantly bombarded with the scents of Jasmine and a faint odor of death that quickly permeated the transept, flooding the Crossing and into the Nave and Chancel. Knowing what waited for her, she covered her mouth and nose with her hand and pressed onward into the darkness below, carefully finding her way in the dark one step at a time. It felt like she had traversed a hundred steps or more, before she had to stop and control her gag reflex from failing. What she first thought to be the smell of death was actually Sulfur that was now burning her eyes the closer she came to the dining hall. Her training came to mind, hoping this would detract her from the fact that the smell was beginning to sicken her beyond her means. The Rite of Cleansing. A sacrifice in His name for the sins of man against his only son, and part of the Dead Sea scrolls recovered inside long forgotten caves along the West Bank.
The scrolls told of the Last Rites of Man, which were then sent to the Vatican and sealed by order of Pope John Paul I, along with the Secrets of Fatima. The Rites of Man, as memory served, were translated and preached as the Seven Deadly Sins. To the masses, these were biblical lessons of morality, individual riches that never fulfilled God's desires for man, providing comfort to the wicked where only praise and faith were needed. But, to the threefold order of the church, it meant something far more sinister and unkind. It was the undeniable truth behind the veil of lies the church had spent two thousand years trying to bury. She only understood bits and pieces of it, containing this knowledge because those who pulled the strings and worked the levers behind the curtain had employed her to carry out their will. Then, one week ago, everything changed. A chink in the armor of God was exposed and the enemy of good had taken advantage of the moment. As she understood it, the line between good and evil was slowly beginning to blur. An Angel had appeared to her parish, cutting the throat of its bishop, bleeding him like swine. It had spoken in tongues she did not understand, but Mother Strange understood all to well. She was protected, while her home burned to the ground and by the hands of an Angel. Everything she knew about her faith had been turned belly-up and exposed. She recalled the words Mother Strange had spoken to her that morning, before mass was to start.
"Do not question these words child. If the first snowfall bestows an early winter, you will go to Alexandria. There you will find the Rite of Cleansing and begin to walk your chosen path."
It did not mean much to her at the time, but now they fused to her psyche like barnacles on the bottom of a cruise ship. She reached the last step and stood in the darkness, wishing she had kept her sword and its security. There was nothing on the walls around her to indicate a switch to bring from the darkness the light of sight, recalling the zippo she had swiped from Detective White. She reached into her habit and found the cold metal casing, pulling it from her pocket. Unsure of what to expect, she steadied herself, flipping the top of the lighter, thumbing the wheel that sparked a small flame. For the first time, she recalled that fear she felt each time her father came into her room as a child.
"What in God's name."
It looked like a scene plucked straight out from Madame Tussauds Wax Museum, except not as sculpted and chiseled down to its most minute detail. This monstrosity was demented in its construction and morbid and, even more unsettling, self-inflicted. All of the men were sealed from head to toe in wax, some of which dried as it repelled from the chandeliers above, like frozen stalactites found inside limestone caves. Their skin had fused to the wax, turning it pink in color that bubbled and blistered as the wax dried. Their grief stricken faces captured, like fossilized creatures encased in amber, some moaning and others caught within a scream. There was one, in particular, whose face was calm, free of surprise and guiltless, whose head was straight, but his eyes looked up to the ceiling. His body was unique, relaxed, unlike the others. He sat at the head of the table, one hand gripping his chalice while the other clutched at his pectoral cross to the point his hand had bled, but it was his headdress that captivated her the most. It was large, dome shaped, with three separate rows of diamonds and jewels encrusted into its base and had a single golden cross adorned at the top. To her own eyes, it was a crown of crowns, one resting atop the other, mended by its gems and forged by its gold that was the massive crown of wealth sitting upon his head, slightly polished by the wax now covering it. She did not recognize the face below the crown, but recalled where she had seen the crown itself in a painting that hung in one of the adoration rooms in Saint Thomas Parish, which had been reduced to ash last time she saw it. As she moved the lighter closer to the man's face, she fought desperately with her memory to recall the name associated with the painting. Was this man the same man in the painting? An impossible question to ask, yet one that warranted an answer she was not yet prepared to accept.
"Clement?" She heard herself say.
Was this Pope Clement VIII? If this were true, it would make him 475 years old, simply an impossible number regardless of the miracles she had seen. As the flame neared, the eyes of the man turned to her, causing her to lose balance and fall backward onto the ground. The lighter top had snapped shut and fell from her hand as she tried to stop her fall, throwing her back into darkness, echoing across the concrete. Her breathing picked up, her heart raced inside her chest, as she searched the floor around her for the lighter. She tried to tell herself that it must have been a trick her mind played on her that it could not possibly be whatever crazy concocted story her mind made it out to be, but a lot had happened over the past week and she had witnessed things no one could relate to in any way, unless they had seen the same things. She focused on her breathing, slowing the pace of her heart, regaining her composure in the darkness, only to lose it again when the lighter clicked open. The flame illuminated an area about four feet in front of her. The hand that held it was, she could see, bloodied and dripping onto the floor.
"Novice." The voice said. "Have you learned nothing in all your years of marriage to your spiritual husband? You do not force your way inside another man's dwelling without knocking first. You do not rummage through his things and you certainly do not have your way about his home coming and going as you please."
The flame lifted to the end of a cigarette, tucked into the mouth of the Deacon dwarf. The end of his cigarette caught fire, ignited in a bright red glow, for a brief moment, showing part of a man's face and part of something else far from human. The sight of the Deacon sent chills up and along her spine. He then showed her the sword she had run through his hand, inching it in front of her face, growling like an angry volcano from his throat.
"I am not...afraid of you, demon."
"An unwise thing on your part bitch." The Deacon snapped, inching the end of the blade closer to her throat.
"Why are you even here? You cannot possibly understand what you see before you, for it dates back to a time when humans were just elaborate skin suits for those of us who walked among this realm. You were nothing more than temporary vessels then. A temporary rental car for us to utilize, while applying the finishing touches to what is rightfully ours." The Deacon said.
It was all she could do not to break down and forget all of her training. the sight of the demon was a reality she had only been told about, warned in how to avoid, given the tools needed to survive when possession was threatening; but this, this was flesh and moved in the same existence she occupied. She did not think or have the will to ask if she would ever be confronted by another human, possessed by a demon, and have the right to murder it in cold blood. And the demon knew this.
"Still on about the War in Heaven? I feel like this story has been told already and it has humans reigning as the victor, if memory serves."
"Another invalid tale, spawned by monkeys to inflate their own egos. I suppose you believe a talking snake cast your mother and father from the Garden of Eden too." He mocked.
"Your blasphemy will be your demise!" She spat, daring the blade to touch her skin.
"And yours will be key in opening a new door for all of us!"
"Go on then, coward! Slit my throat and bleed me where I sit."
"Oh, how I wish it were that easy." He said, lowering the blade. "My role is one of far greater importance than to bleed you dry, but, I promise you this, I will eat your heart soon enough."
With this, he tossed the sword to her and flicked the lighter shut, casting them in the darkness again. With her security policy back in hand, she swung blindly in the dark, slicing through the air, finding nothing. She sat still, listening for any sign of a footstep, ready to cut through it the moment a noise registered. What had the demon deacon meant by "rightfully ours" and how did this have anything to do with the Rite of Cleansing. She closed her eyes tightly shut, trying to find that moment where all things were safe from harm, her personal get-a-way from the outside world, where she first met the Angel. She had not spoken with him since she was a child and wasn't even sure if he was real or just a figment of her own creation.
Her skin warmed under the bright sun. Waves rushed up onto the shore tickling her feet as she sat on the beach, digging her fingers into the sand, grounding her spirit inside this moment. Her eyes remained closed, fearful that, if she opened them, she would lose sight of the beauty around her and, for the moment, she needed something bright and beautiful in order to face that which was dark and ugly.
Father Monroe had not been called "father" in some time now, as Patriarch to the North American Parishes his role in the Catholic faith had reached its highest order. Everything that happened inside any church within the thirteen colonial states did not happen, unless he authorized them too. His territory was the oldest in the country, therefore, the earliest settlers brought with them the history and traditions of the church from the motherland, which also contained the secrets of all the brotherhoods. During his time as Patriarch, he had managed to remove most of the stain of history from his churches, but not all things could be easily removed by order alone. There were those who still believed in the old Orthodox ways, preaching the gospel as it was intended, by men who no longer lived in such times yet still force fed the masses with old ideals. He first received word about the burning of Saint Thomas less than a month ago, after a lengthy telephone conversation with the local authorities and Father Tremble, who had explained how four others, Father Nieght, Father Sims, Father Day and Father Emilio had left the church at the Angel's request.
"I beg your pardon, Father Tremble, but did you say Angel?"
"I have asked myself that repeatedly and can honestly say I am still unsure of what it was that I witnessed."
"I want you on the first flight to Philadelphia. Do not speak another word of this to anyone else, do you understand?"
And that was that. He would meet with Father Tremble and take his statement to the Vicar of Christ for further council. Until then, he would do all he could to keep the events at Saint Thomas between the church and the local authorities. Which is exactly what had happened since, the police were no longer investigating the arson, a false report was put out for the media to consume and any other deflection would come straight from the church, which was quite skilled in such public matters. Then he received a letter, addressed to him personally, with his civic name and not that of Patriarch. It was addressed to him by an individual who went by the name, Marquis Sabnock. The name instantly brought a cold fevered sweat to his forehead. He sat back in his chair and read the note;
My firm is very interested in a certain plot of land your Parish holds title over. I believe it was once home to Saint Thomas' parish, which, regrettably, burned to the ground. I have on good word that you do not plan on rebuilding the church and wish to be the first to offer you a sum in the range of five million dollars cash for development rights to this land. My firm is very excited about this opportunity and wishes to advance this purchased as quickly as possible. If you are interested, feel free to contact me at the number listed on the enclosed card.
With your blessing,
Patriarch Monroe scratched at his bearded chin. Real Estate was a lucrative business and there was a lot of money on the table for 6 acres of land, scorched by fire and painting black where only green grass once grew, which sounded too good to be true. Still, he thought as he eyed the pile of folders on his desk, each one a different lawsuit, a separate but equally embarrassing class action against his division all asking for money from his Parishes already tapped bone dry from out of court settlements. In his heart, he knew there was something nefarious about the letter, especially with a name like that belonging to the one who penned it. There were whispers among the Episcopate and Presbyterate and Diaconate orders of a unholy uprising unfolding like a ladder, section by section, reaching all the way up through the hierarchy, some had said in the quietest of shadows, even to the Pontiff himself. In any case, there were pressing matters that needed his attention now. It had always amazed him, as both a participant and witness to the influential pressures of Greed and how its reach penetrated even those hearts of men who proclaimed to be next to godliness. With a single phone call, Patriarch Monroe distanced himself even further.