Chapter 14 - as much as I've written to date
Hounds of Hell
Rising above Paris, its iron latticework garishly outlined in golden lights, the Eiffel Tower glowed in the distance. At midnight, as the iconic tower's beacon circled the night sky above the arrondissements, two bearded men wearing dark robes climbed out of a black, Mercedes limo and stood on the sidewalk of the still-bustling Champs-Élysées. Amjad Bin Hamza pointed at a pair of windows below two winged gargoyles glaring down from the rooftop and spoke in his native, Arabic tongue. "See the lights? Someone is up there, Abdullah."
Abdullah Abassa nodded in agreement. "Look," he pointed, "No doorman. No security guard out front. How can wealthy people be so stupid?"
Bin Hamza tightened his grip on the HK-417 assault rifle concealed beneath his robes. "I do not worry about such things, Abdullah. All I know is that we have a job to do." He nodded in the direction of the building's revolving front doors. "Let us get what we have come for."
Upstairs, her purple Pradas dangling from one hand, wearing naught but a skimpy, white thong, Delilah stubbornly refused to abandon her efforts to get what she came for. Standing between her and the door, Francois held out her ruffled tube-top and white, skin-tight pants, hoping she would put them back on.
"No way, Double-Oh," she vowed. "I'm not putting them back on and I'm not leaving — not until you help me put out this fire down below. Now, why don't you be a good little fireman and whip your hose out —"
"Delilah, if you're determined to play adolescent games, Henri's room is down the hall — third door on the right," With a soft, underhand toss, Delaflote threw the clothes to her, which she caught and held against her chest. She scowled at him as he pointed toward the hallway and said, "I'm sure he would be most happy to play 'fireman' with you."
Rather than heading for Henri's room, Delilah again dropped her clothes to the floor near the ficus plant and strutted past Francois to stand by the door. "Why don't I just slip out of these?" she suggested, sliding her thumbs beneath the narrow waistband of her thong, "I'm really getting bored with your devotion to duty. How can you stand there as indifferent as that damned bush?"
After a glance at the ficus and the pile of clothes, Francois shook his head like a weary parent with an unruly child.
"I know," Delilah persisted, reaching for the light switch by the door. "Perhaps it's the light. Maybe you prefer to perform in the dark?" She flipped the switch.
"Turn the lights back on, Delilah. I won't be more receptive with them off. You need to put your clothes —"
"Can't I at least have something to drink?" Leaving her clothes, she slinked past Francois in the dark, the only light bleeding in from outside through the closed blinds. "There should still be some champagne in the cooler," she said. "I don't think we opened all the 'Dom' at the last meeting."
Delaflote sighed. Lacking an alternative, he followed, reluctantly.
Delilah opened the mini-fridge, the small lightbulb inside casting a pale glow on her breasts and face as she reached for a bottle of Dom Perignon. "Come to Mamma," she crooned.
Francois lectured, "You know, when it comes to the libido, drinking alcohol is like throwing petrol on a fire."
Rather than responding, Delilah proceeded to untwist the wire that held the bottle's cork in place. Moments later, her disregard of the security chief's warning was confirmed by a pop, followed by the frenzied fizz of bubbly being poured into two glasses. "I adore the sound of champagne being poured," she exclaimed, "almost as much as the grunting and groaning of a handsome man, pounding away inside of me." Her body still highlighted by the dim light inside the refrigerator, she placed the two glasses on the counter, stuck the index finger of her left hand into one, and slowly rubbed the moistened fingertip around the areola and over the nipple of her right breast. "Ooooh," she cooed with pleasure, "just the right temperature."
Francois noticed her nipple pucker in reaction to the sudden chill and scolded himself for being so observant. He was about to reiterate his suggestion that a willing male waited down the hall, when his entire body jerked involuntarily to a sudden burst of gunfire.
The percussive blast sounded and felt like a jackhammer pounding at the front door. Rays of light appeared, beaming in from the hallway through the rapidly disintegrating barrier as chunks and splinters of wood tumbled through the air in the penthouse entryway. Delilah dove to the tile floor behind the bar's counter as the entire suite shuddered.
Attempting to reach the bar's protection, Francois slid on his belly as a spray of bullets whizzed by, shattering the tall vase and knocking the ficus bush to the floor. The scent of hot metal and gunpowder filled his nostrils while fabric from the sofa, chunks of sheetrock, insulation, and shards of glass from the mounted, framed artwork rained down upon him.
Round after round pierced the walls, penetrating thick, wooden beams, more than two centuries old. Like a crab on the run, Francois crawled on hands and knees over the toppled ficus and around the corner to the momentary respite of the horseshoe-shaped bar. He shut the refrigerator door and slid next to Delilah, who trembled at the far end, huddled against the cabinet where the mixers and utensils were stored. Her hands were pressed against her ears, knees drawn up against her chest.
Debris crunching beneath their boots, two men stepped through the gaping hole where the door had been. In the dim light coming from the hallway, Francois and Delilah stared silently at each other and listened.
One intruder headed for the bar, sure to discover them until the other shouted, having found something near the sofa. Excited words were exchanged in Arabic. Francois assumed his pistol had been discovered.
Having been in perilous situations before, Francois knew to remain cool. He could dive at the ankles of the first man who rounded the corner. He might knock the attacker off his feet, but if he didn't wrestle his weapon away fast enough, the other thief would probably kill him and Delilah.
Regretting his decision to allow Clay Wellington to wait another week before reporting to work, Francois worried about the other member of his security team. Has Henri been injured? If not, he would surely have attempted something by now. Wracking his brain for viable solutions, none came to mind.
Rushing the bandits would be suicidal. A comedic vision of the thieves cowering in fear as he threatened them with a corkscrew flashed in his mind. Smiling forlornly, he shook his head and reached over to offer silent support to his cell mate. When he squeezed Delilah's hand, her hopeless expression changed to one of concern, causing him to glance down. A nasty, four-inch-long cut oozed across his forearm. The injury, while ugly, didn't concern him.
"Where is The Book?"
Francois and Delilah both jumped, startled by the intruder who shouted in English. He spoke with a thick, Arabic accent; his voice deep and gruff. "All we want is The Book. Give it to us and we will spare your lives."
Delilah began to rise up, but Francois clamped his hand over her mouth and shook his head, no. Once they got what they wanted, these bandits would kill them. No sense in making their job easier. Soon enough, they would search Damien's office and discover the recently delivered copy. If the intruders entered another room, the opportunity to escape might arise. Perhaps they would walk right by the bar without ever. . . Those hopes went up in smoke as the robbers came directly towards the bar.
Delilah and Francois lowered their heads, scrunching down to make themselves less visible as a gloved hand reached over the countertop. Watching as the hand grabbed the opened bottle of Dom Perignon, they noticed the glasses Delilah had filled were gone; probably lying shattered on the floor after falling off the counter's ledge during the barrage.
"Champaign," announced the thief who shouted moments earlier. "Chilled," he added. His words were followed by a reply in Arabic from the other thief. Again, crunching glass on the tile floor broadcast each step of their approach.
Nerves on edge and pounding hearts in their throats, Francois and Delilah stared up at the harsh, bearded face of a man whose eyes flashed with purpose. "Get up," he commanded, his rifle pointed at Francois. His expression changed as Delilah rose. Realizing that she wore virtually nothing, he cried out, "Abdullah!"
Abdullah peered around the corner. His mouth fell open, eyes becoming large as they focused on Delilah. Rather than cowering behind Francois, she stood tall in the faint light; her shoulders thrown back, breasts jutting provocatively forward.
"We know what you want," Francois pointed in the direction of the office. "Let me take you to it." Let them take the copy and get out of here, he thought. Maybe they'll just leave and let us live, or maybe I'll get a chance to grab one of their weapons. But what about Henri?
"What's the rush?" Delilah asked, turning toward the cabinet where the glasses were stored. "You saw that we had just opened a bottle of champagne." She bent down, opened the door, and pulled out four glasses. "We can have a little party." She shook her shoulders, imparting a suggestive bounce and wiggle to her breasts.
Francois understood, but knew Delilah's plan wouldn't end well. She hadn't stopped to consider that they would become hostages if the police showed up before the bandits left. He shook his head and said, "Delilah, they don't have time to party. They're here for something extremely rare and valuable, and it isn't between your legs."
"Honey," raising an eyebrow, Delilah glared at Francois, "Nothing is more valuable than what's between my legs. Not money, not gold, not diamonds, and, for sure, not some old book."
Allowing no time to consider Delilah's proposition, Francois strode past the robbers. "Let's go," he said. "The police are surely on their way."
Abdullah gave Delilah a final glance and motioned with his rifle for her to follow Francois.
"Could you get my Pradas?" She asked.
His brow wrinkled. "Get your what?"
"My shoes," she explained. "They ought to be halfway between here and the front door." Pointing at the debris-covered floor and then her painted, pedicured toes, she added, "Broken glass - bare feet."
With a wave of his HK-417 Abdullah let her know he had no intention of fetching shoes.
Tip-toeing carefully, she walked past him following Francois, exagerrating the natural swing and sway of her hips. Looking back over her shoulder, she asked, "Enjoying the view?"
Entering the office, which showed relatively little damage, Francois flipped the lightswitch and pointed to Napoleon's desk where the Louvre's copy of The Book lay. "There it is, but be careful. It is possessed. If you attempt to open it, you could be pulled into it . . . pulled into hell."
"If it is so dangerous," Amjad Bin Hamza inquired, "why would you have it out on this desk?"
"Someone would have to be crazy to try to steal this thing. They'd be risking a lot - risking their life - maybe their soul . . ." Francois paused for effect and added, "But don't let that stop you." He stared at the two men, gauging their reaction. "You probably know what happened to the young Arabic man from The Louvre who tried to open it. I think his name was Mustafa..." When both bandits nodded, Francois continued, pointing at his hand. "The Book tried to pull him in. Mustafa lost his hand. It peeled the flesh off of it, up to the wrist.
The thieves glanced at each other. In Abdullah's eyes, a seed of apprehension sprouted, ready to blossom into a full-fledged doubt.
"We are protected by Allah," Amjad claimed. "We have nothing to fear." He flipped open the heavy cover of the Louvre's copy and riffled through the blank pages. Shaking his head, he voiced his skepticism. "There are no words, nothing but blank pages. This book possesses no supernatural power."
"That's what it's last victim said," Delilah butted in.
Unimpressed with Delilah's comment and the Louvre's copy of The Book, Amjad held up his hands to show Abdullah they were unharmed and growled, "This is a decoy."
"Why would you say that?" Francois asked, mortified by the insightful deduction.
"Because . . ." Cold and unemotional, Amjad replied, "I enjoy torturing and killing men and women like you . . . and I do not feel as if this book wishes to punish me for the lives I have taken." Slamming the cover shut, he confronted Francois. "Bring me The Book, now . . . the real one, or two more lives will be added to my list."
"Bien," Francois relented. "But don't blame me when something goes wrong."
Under the glare of the studio lights, the singer with the long, golden curls smiled warmly, removed his Foster Grants to reveal his dazzling, blue eyes, and read from the teleprompter. "This is Damien Faust. Join me and The Hounds of Hell at the Isle of Wight Festival for an unforgettable evening of music . . . and more. Sunday, July nineteenth. It's not TV, it's HBO."
"Not bad." Jonathon Fedwell, the portly, good-natured, British director emerged from the shadows behind the cameras and patted Damien on the back. "Let's see how that one sounds." He turned and waved to a man in a booth, visible through the large window on a wall covered with dull, white perforated sound tiles. "Bobby, play that back for us, will you?"
After listening, Fedwell shrugged and shouted to the man in the booth, "What do you think?"
"Sucks," a tinny-sounding voice replied. "Bland as Granny's oatmeal. It'd be okay if Geritol or Preparation H sponsored us."
"Right." Fedwell agreed, sounding disappointed. Brightening, as he turned back to Damien he said, "It's not you, governor, it's the script." To the man in the booth he shouted, "Have we got another spot written, then? Something edgier?"
"Give us a minute to download," came the thin-toned answer.
While they waited, Fedwell blew an inordinate amount of smoke up Damien's ass, suggesting that he ought to star in a reality show about the perils and pitfalls of being a rock and roll legend.
One of the assistant producers approached Fedwell, complaining that the reflection of the lights off the gold buttons on Damien's silk jacket ruined the picture. Fedwell asked Damien if he'd mind shooting the promo without his coat. Damien agreed, although Judas complained from the shadows behind the cameras, saying he looked better with the jacket on.
Finally, with the new script loaded into the teleprompter, Damien practiced reading it out loud. The words scrolled up from the bottom of the clear plastic screen.
"Groundbreaking, history making, rock and roll to shake your soul. A concert unlike anything you've ever seen or heard. Join me, Damien Faust, for an event that will change the world. The Hounds of Hell, live and unleashed at the Isle of Wight Festival. Sunday night, July nineteenth. It's not TV. It's HBO."
"How's that, Bobby?" Fedwell asked.
"Volume's a bit low, Jonathon," came the answer. "Let's have Damien sound more excited, shall we? It's fucking twenty-past-whatever and everyone wants to go home!"
"Damien?" Fedwell feared the mega-star might turn temperamental and refuse to finish the promo after Bobby's comments.
Showing no ruffled feathers, surprising everybody on the set, Damien waved good-naturedly. "Right, more excited," he promised.
"Good Lad," Fedwell breathed a grateful sigh of relief. "That's the spirit."
When the words again scrolled up, Damien delivered a sterling performance, throwing himself into the promo with a passion that pleased both Fedwell and Bobby. Fedwell suggested the promo would attract an extra million viewers. Hands were shook, backs were slapped and broad smiles adorned the faces of almost everyone in the studio.
The miserable exception sat on a stool, alone in the dark beneath a glowing exit sign. Judas shook his head, pressed a hand against his stomach, made a sour face and whispered, "Another million souls . . ." He tried to smile, but could only manage a grimace as Damien approached.
"What's wrong, Ju? You don't look so good."
"I don't feel so good, either, 'D'. Did I just hear someone say another million would see the concert? How many do they think will be watchin'?"
"Dunno," Damien replied and turned around to find out. "Hey Jonathon!"
The pot-bellied producer turned and shouted back, "What is it, love?"
"How many viewers is HBO projecting for the concert?"
"Not less than eighty - maybe a hundred million." Fedwell replied, and added, "Be sure to let Adolph know we'll be in Paris this weekend to film the special on The Hounds and how you blokes are preparing for the big show."
Damien turned back around and opened his mouth to speak to Judas, but stopped. An odd, troubled look came over him, as if he heard something; not clear enough to identify, yet unsettling.
"What is it?" Judas asked.
Damien shook his head and held up a hand, freezing in that position. His brow furrowed, eyes moving back and forth, as if trying to follow something that raced through his head.
Becoming impatient and concerned, Judas waved a hand in front of Damien's face. "Earth to Faust. Anybody home?" he asked.
Damien emerged from his trance and reached into his pants pocket for his cell phone. "Something's not right," he said. "I need to call Francois."
~ ~ ~
Back in Paris, Francois explained, "Opening a safe while an assault rifle is being pointed at you is not as easy as you might assume." Twice, he had tried and failed to execute the combination. He clearly recalled the numbers and his hands were steady, yet he had gone past the third number in the combination on both attempts.
"Want me to try? Give me the numbers," Delilah suggested.
"No, I can open it." Francois glanced up at Delilah and then over at Amjad and Abdullah. To the two bandits he said, "The Book can influence your thoughts," Looking back down at the large dial, he spun it to the right. "It can provoke mistakes you might not ordinarily make, but I don't think that is why I am having difficulty, now." Francois twisted the dial again towards the right and said, "Rather than suffering from a fear of being shot, I think the additional six eyes on me are hampering my concentration. After all," he stopped turning the dial and stared up at the two men. "It stands to reason that if you shoot me, The Book will remain in the safe. Delilah doesn't know the combination." Having said that, Francois redirected his attention to the safe.
Delilah shrugged and nodded, confirming the security chief's statement. "I don't have any idea what the combination is," she professed. "Cross my heart." She traced a slow "X" across her naked chest, obviously enjoying the opportunity to tease the intruders. Taking one, last shot at delaying the thieves until the police arrived, she asked, "Are you guys sure you don't want to open that bottle of bubbly? Surely you'll be in the mood to celebrate a little when you . . ." She frowned as the bandits failed to even glance in her direction. "Bet they're gay," she muttered.
"Finally," Francois sighed with relief as the antique safe opened with a soft click. Gripping the steel handle he pulled the heavy door.
Alone in the safe, The Book lay on the middle shelf. As human hands reached for it, upon the wine-colored leather exterior, the loops and swirls of intricate, gold-inlaid scrollwork glowed; brightening the way a lightbulb reacts to a power surge. Freed from solitary confinement, exposed to living souls, The Book's ravenous pages coursed with a power that Francois vividly recalled.
The audience of four jumped, startled as the cell phone in Delaflote's pants pocket rang. His fingers less than six inches from the ancient relic, he stopped and looked up. "Could be the police. My neighbors would have called about your. . . fireworks display. Let me see who is calling."
"Give me The Book," Amjad insisted. "Then you may answer the phone."
"You're the boss," Francois replied. He sucked in a quick, deep breath, lifted The Book from the shelf and handed it to the Arab.
"Handle with care," Delilah added, taking a step back. Seeing The Book for the first time, she marveled at how its condition seemed pristine; as perfect as a first edition copy of a new novel fresh off the shelf of a book store. It didn’t appear that scary, but it hadn’t been opened, yet.
As the bandits retreated to Napoleon's desk with their prize, Francois answered the incoming call. "Allô?"
"Francois? This is Damien calling from the HBO studios in London. Is everything okay?"
"That depends," Francois responded, staring at the barrell of a rifle pointed at his head.
"Be very careful," Abdullah cautioned. "Do not say anything that might convince me to pull this trigger."
"What do you mean?" Damien inquired. "Is something going on?"
"Yes." Francois wanted to elaborate, but figured yes-and-no answers would be more prudent than trying to disguise what he was saying with clever word games.
"Can you talk?" Damien asked.
"It's The Book, isn't it?"
"Oui." Francois groaned, figuring this wouldn't be the last.
"Are you going to be okay?"
"Are you sure?"
"Call me as soon as you can talk." Terminating the call, Damien turned to Judas, whose eyes were full of questions.
"Someone trying to steal The Book, again?" Judas asked.
"Yeah." Damien couldn't shake the strange feeling racing through his bones.
"Well?" His hands on his hips, Judas obviously expected more information than just a "yeah."
"Well..." Never had Damien felt such a connection with it while so far away from his office, but now...
"Well, what?" Judas was getting frustrated.
Like the tingle from a low-voltage electric current, The Book called out, clouding Damien's thoughts and vision; Judas's intense stare didn't help, either. In his head, Damien saw the ghostly images of two men dressed in robes. One held a rifle on his chief of security, while the other opened The Book. Damien saw the man open it and then shut it. He could see the man turn to Francois who pointed at The Book, insisting that the robed intruder take a second look. When opened a second time, large, Arabic letters that Damien inexplicably understood, appeared on the pages, telling a tale of depravity, deception and rage. The name of the individual who authored the lurid deeds materialized across the top of the first page, in bold, dark script; Amjad Bin Hamza.
"What kind of unholy devilment is this?" Amjad cried out. Sensation faded from his still-gloved, fingers and hands. At his wrists, where the gloves ended, his skin began to turn from the naturally dark tone of a South-Asian man who worked all his life in the burning sun, to a pale, sickly white. Like a strobe light at a night club, the office lamps and overhead lights flickered eerily as Amjad felt himself dragged forward, pulled by an unseen force. With tongues of fire, on the other side of the thin-milled pages that served as a portal between earth and hell, saber-toothed hounds licked Bin Hamza's wiggling fingers; the initial bites from their serrated, razor-sharp teeth shredded his leather gloves and burned deep, into the recesses of his soul.
"Help me," he wailed, as so many of his victims had cried out without hope of mercy or relief from pain. Deserted by Abdullah, who sprinted through the office door without looking back, Amjad’s resolve crumbled. Screaming, he stared in horror as his arms turned white. His hands sank into the pages and disappeared. The smell of burning flesh and sulphur permeated the room. Surrendering to the inevitable, the thief cried out to Allah and collapsed, face-first onto the desk. In less than half a minute, the last folds of his robe were pulled into the hungry pages and he was gone. As Francois stepped forward to close The Book he and Delilah heard a distant, but distinct sizzle, like the sound of a campfire being extinguished, ssssssss.
~ ~ ~
Having redonned her purple Pradas, tube-top, and white cigarrette pants, Delilah shook a menacing finger at Francois. “Don’t take that thing out of the safe again!" she shouted. "Not while I'm within ten miles of it, do you understand?"
Signalling the police Inspector that he would answer more questions in just a moment, Francois smiled and held a hand up. Replying to Delilah, he said, "But, I seem to recall that you had wanted to see it. In fact, I think you may have threatened me with castration for failing to show it to you. Is that not what you remember?"
"No," Delilah claimed. "That's not how it went. I said the next time you take me off my feet for something other than a good fuck I'd cut your cha-chas off. It had nothing to do with you not showing me The Book."
"Ahhh, yes, my cha-chaaaas," Francois nodded. "Thank you for refreshing my memory." Turning to the Inspector, he said, "Excusez-moi, monsieur, de l'interruption. Now, where were we?"
"Standing here, wasting my time." Inspector Gérard Ragout replied. A tall, plain, humorless man, appearing to be in his early forties, he wore freshly pressed, black slacks and a conservative, white shirt that he had personally ironed that morning. Beneath the bulbous tip of his prodigious nose, lining the top of his thin, upper lip, appeared his lone homage to personal style and fashion; a fastidiously trimmed, pencil-thin mustache
The Inspector examined his notes and expressed his considerable doubts. "I'm having a great deal of difficulty believing the story you and the mademoiselle have concocted."
"Concocted?" Delilah took immediate offense and stepped forward. Francois held his arm out, preventing her from coming nose to nose with the Inspector. Chest to chest she would have enjoyed an appreciable advantage, but not nose to nose.
"Your friend . . ." Ragout glanced down at his notes, "Ah, yes, by the name of Henri D'Aubigne was shot in the neck and critically injured by a bullet that passed through the walls when these terrorists, as you call them, shot their way through your front door, no?"
"Oui," Francois nodded.
"There were two of them?" Ragout's eyebrows rose slightly as he struggled to maintain a professional attitude and the appearance of objectivity.
"Oui, there were two," Francois confirmed.
"Both of them carrying HK-417 assault rifles like the one on the floor?" The Inspector pointed with the tip of the ballpoint pen he held.
"That is correct." Francois and Delilah nodded in unison.
"And you're telling me one of them was swallowed up by. . ."Ragout paused briefly, evidently having a hard time saying the words, “a book?” He stared at both witnesses for a moment before continuing. “This book devoured your attacker?" A smirk of blatant disbelief spread
across the inspector's face. "I smell a rat." He looked up from his notes and sniffed the air. "Actually, I do smell something." He sniffed again. "It smells like sulphur and burned flesh."
Francois and Delilah stared at each other and then back at Ragout, chewing on the end of his plastic pen, waiting for the answer they
already knew he would not believe.
"Show me this book," Inspector Ragout interrupted. "Show me this book, or you will both accompany me to the station for further questioning."
"We would prefer not to endanger you, inspector," Francois cautioned. "It is not safe to touch The Book."
"Yet, you can handle it without being harmed, eh? I am afraid you will have to do better than that, Monsieur Delaflote. if you prefer, I can obtain a warrant to have the vault removed and opened. We can have someone with a welding torch open it at the station."
"That would not be wise," Francois replied, imagining what might happen with a number of police gathered around, all trying to get a look at the mysterious book.
"Why?" Ragout wanted to know. "What are you hiding?"
Seeing no alternative, Francois relented. "All right. I will show you The Book, Inspector. But you must solemnly swear that you will not attempt to touch it."
"I will swear no such thing," The Inspector replied, indignant.
"Inspector," Francois pleaded, "too many people have been taken from this address, via SAMU, to the hôpital Hôtel-Dieu. I do not wish to see you join them." Still wearing no shoes, Francois turned and, attempting to avoid the twinkling crystals and shards of broken glass that littered the tile floor, walked in the direction of Damien's office with the Inspector hot on his heels.
Atop her stileto-heeled Pradas, Delilah clicked along behind the two men. "Oh, boy," she crooned. "This ought to be interesting."
French Inspector Attacked by Possessed Book. Plastered in bold type across the front page of every trashy tabloid and respected newspaper around the world, The Book became the hottest topic in print and on every internet blog. Gérard Ragout's harrowing experience appeared on every television and radio news network.
Dressed in a tailored, lemon-yellow pantsuit with three-quarter length sleeves, Oprah seemed more excited than usual as she introduced her guest. "We are coming to you today, live, from the city of lights, Paris, France. Anyone who reads the newspapers or watches TV is familiar with the bizarre story out of Paris about Police Inspector Gérard Ragout." She waved a hand in the direction of a man sitting on a couch behind her. "This man claims a demonically possessed book tried to devour him." While the audience applauded, Oprah turned and walked to the couch, sat down and reached out to shake her guest's hand.
"Inspector," she began, "first of all, thank you for agreeing to speak publicly, on our show, before going on any other talk-shows to tell about your ordeal."
"It is my pleasure," Ragout replied. "But also it is my duty to make sure the world knows what happened."
"Yes," Oprah nodded. "Would you tell everyone in your own words, exactly what occurred?"
"Two nights ago, at about twenty-five minutes after midnight, I arrived at the penthouse of Damien Faust, the singer for the Hounds of Hell." A few excited squeals from the band's fans rang out in the audience, causing Ragout to pause. "There had been a report of gunfire, but the intruders were gone by the time we arrived."
Oprah nodded and asked, "How long did it take you to reach the scene of the break-in?"
"The call came in at twelve minutes after midnight from the people that live on the floor below Monsieur Faust. So, we arrived in thirteen minutes. The head of security for Monsieur Faust, a man named Francois Delaflote, claimed that two intruders shot their way into the penthouse suite and that one of them ended up being swallowed by a book."
The camera panned away from Ragout and got a tight shot of Oprah, who appeared skeptical. "Swallowed by a book?"
"That is what he said. He claimed this book harvested the souls of those who committed mortal sins, such as perjury, or rape, or murder. Quite naturally, I thought the whole explanation sounded preposterous and insisted on seeing this book."
Oprah stared briefly into the camera, again. Her expression now implied a mixture of disbelief and awe. When she turned back to her guest, she asked, "Inspector Ragout, could you explain what happened when you opened The Book?"
"Nothing at first, Oprah. And, by the way, to those who think this is a hoax, or who think perhaps I was drunk or drugged when this happened, I swear that it is all true. I have taken three polygraph tests, one conducted by your own show's producers, and have passed them all with flying colors."
"Alright, alright, so tell us, what did you see?"
"At first, I saw this beautiful, wine-colored, leather cover, decorated with gold scrolling. When I opened it, the pages were blank, so I shut it. My fingertips felt warm and strangely numb, but nothing terrible had happened. Then, the security chief for Monsieur Faust, Francois Delaflote, convinced me to reopen The Book and look again. That's when it all happened."
Leaning towards Ragout, Oprah encouraged him to continue. "What happened?"
"The second time I opened The Book, words began to appear on the previously blank pages and I felt something tug on my fingers as if, and I know this sounds silly, but it seemed as if something wanted to pull me into the pages."
The camera panned away from Inspector Ragout to zoom in on Oprah, who looked horrified. "What happened next?" she asked, as the camera pulled back, making it possible to see both her and the Inspector.
Ragout leaned towards Oprah and said, "Delaflote must have known what would happen, because he and one of the band's backup singers, Delilah, grabbed me and pulled me away the moment it started to drag me in." In the upper right hand portion of the screen a picture of Delilah appeared, showing her singing during one of The Hounds concerts.
"Why do you think The Book started to drag you in?" Oprah inquired. "I thought you said it only attacked people guilty of mortal sins?"
As the cameras zoomed in, Ragout shrugged, "I have no idea. After all, I am a respected Police Inspector, not some common criminal, but I can tell you I didn't imagine the whole thing. It happened just as I have stated." Ragout held up his hands, displaying burned areas on his fingers for all to see.
With the cameras back on her once again, Oprah exhaled dramatically and said, "We have to take a break, but when we come back,
we'll talk to Judas, the saxophone player for The Hounds of Hell. You won't want to miss what he has to say about The Book, it's owner, and how it is going to be used."
The Aflack Insurance duck waddled off into the distance as Oprah's theme music returned and she introduced her next guest. "This is Judas, saxophone player for The Hounds of Hell and constant companion of Damien Faust, the band's lead singer. Judas is here today because he has serious concerns about the way Damien is planning to use The Book during the upcoming concert at the Isle of Wight Festival." From a closeup that showed only Judas, the camera pulled back to frame both Judas and Oprah as she asked, " I think that's on July nineteenth, isn't it, Judas?"
"Yeah." Judas's laid-back, gravelly voice and ethnically influenced elocution stood out in stark contrast to Ragout's thick, French accent and Oprah's polished delivery. "It's a three day event. We hit the stage Sunday night, July the nineteenth, barrin' nuclear war, or an assassination, or somethin' similar that might cause the festival to be cancelled."
The camera moved in on Oprah, whose face contorted as she reacted to Judas's word's. "Please," she exclaimed, "Let's pray nothing like that happens." Probing, to find out what had motivated Judas to make such a morbid comment, Oprah asked, "Have you heard anything to make you think something horrible might occur?"
Judas looked around, as if checking to see whether anyone might hear him; pretty odd considering he was being watched, worldwide. "There have been some pretty strange things goin' on," he professed. "Ever since Damien purchased The Book, people been tryin' to steal it."
"Yeah, that's how the Inspector got involved."
"Why would anyone want to steal it?" Oprah wondered. "My goodness," she professed. "If it were me, I wouldn't want to be anywhere near it. How many times have people tried to steal it?"
"Twice, that I know of, but as for why someone would want it, that's what worries me. That's the really scary thing, if you think about it."
"Why?" Oprah asked, her eyes getting big.
"Well..." Judas shifted his position on the large sofa, crossing one leg over the other before continuing. "From what I've been able to find out, this thing has the ability to suck people, body and soul, into hell. Anyone guilty of perjury or murder or rape is a prime target. Those that have taken pleasure from harmin' someone are 'specially at risk."
"Do you have any idea where this thing comes from? How long has it been here?"
Judas shook his head. "It's ancient, I think. I only know a little. Some CEO of a publishing company owned it before Damien. Timothy Lynch was the guy's name. He disappeared without a trace."
"The Book got him?"
"I guess so. The police investigated the incident and held the chief of security at the Lynch chateau for questionin', but they had to let him go. No evidence of wrongdoin' on his part ever surfaced."
"And Damien ended up hiring that same man to do security for your band, isn't that right?"
"Yeah, that's how Damien ended up with The Book. Francois Delaflote had it, but then he sold it to Damien, for a tidy sum, I'm sure, and in turn, Damien paid a fee to those in charge of the Timothy Lynch estate."
"How much did he pay?" Oprah asked. "I don't mean to pry. I'm just curious and I imagine our viewers might wonder how much someone might pay for something like that."
"I don't know. Nobody ever told me. I imagine it cost a bundle."
"I'm sure it must have," Oprah agreed. "It cost a bundle for me to fly to Paris and get you two to appear on this show. Are either of you worried about being in danger, based on the things you've said here?" The camera pulled back again, far enough to show Ragout and Judas. Ragout shook his head no, confidently, while Judas rubbed his stubbly chin in thought.
"Sometimes you have to do things or say things, even if it places you in danger, because people have a right to know," Judas answered.
"To know what?" Oprah asked, an expectant look on her face.
"To know that Damien intends to expose the audience at The Isle of Wight and the worldwide audience watchin' on HBO to The Book."
"Why?" Oprah looked genuinely shocked.
"Somethin' to do with God's will, gettin' rid of bad influences around the world so that the meek can inherit the earth."
"Do you believe this thing could reach out and grab people at the concert or watching on TV?"
"I don't know... Maybe," Judas replied. Beside him, Ragout adamantly nodded his head in agreement.
"But, what if you were sued by HBO, or fired from the band because of what you've said here, today? Or," Oprah raised her right hand and pointed at Judas to better express the idea she had, "what if it affected your relationship with Damien?"
Judas thought about that as the cameras zoomed in again. "I've played in a lot of different bands. This is a really good one, but I guess I'd find another."
"But what about you and Damien?" Oprah wouldn't allow Judas to skirt around that issue.
Judas shook his head. His eyes watered and he stared at the floor. "That's private," he answered. "I won't talk about that, here." Reaching up, he brushed away a tear.
Self-appointed edifier and protector of her audience, the wealthiest woman in show business ended the program with a warning. Approaching the camera, she gestured towards the two men still seated on the sofa behind her, and said, "These men believe this thing called, The Book, is real and dangerous." Her carefully tweezed eyebrows arched as she shook a cautionary finger at her viewers, and said, "If I were you, I'd think twice about going to see The Hounds of Hell at the Isle of Wight Festival, and I would suggest you do the same regarding whether or not to tune in for the live broadcast, which is to be aired around the world on HBO."
~ ~ ~
Like a human pincushion with multiple intravenous lines delivering antibiotics and nutrients, Henri D’Aubigne stared up at his visitors, conscious, but unable to speak due to the tube in his throat. In addition to fatigue, his eyes conveyed a twinkle of gratitude for the show of concern and the diversion from the depressing routine of pain, drugged sleep, solitude and mind-numbing television. Delilah and Francois stood on either side of his bed in the private room, on the third floor of the hôpital Hôtel-Dieu.
After calling and learning from the nurses’ station that Henri would remain unable to eat or read magazines for a few more days, Delilah had insisted on bringing flowers. She walked to the far side of the sparsely furnished room and set a lovely arrangement of tall, graceful lilies above a ring of blooming roses on a ledge in front of the lone window. "It's like a dungeon in here," she complained, parting the curtains and opening the blinds that allowed sunshine to highlight the yellow blossoms. Immediately the room seemed more cheerful.
"Clay Wellington agreed to begin work today," Francois said. "He asked for me to extend his heartfelt best wishes to you, Henri. He promised to come see you in the next day or two.“
Henri nodded weakly.
"I brought the newspaper, Henri,” Francois waved the rolled-up paper in the air. “I can read some of it to you, if you like.”
Henri nodded again.
Dragging a chair next to Henri's bed, Francois unrolled the morning copy of Ouest-France while Delilah settled into a chair on the other side of the room. “What section would you prefer?" Francois asked. "The front page and world news, perhaps?”
Ever so slightly, Henri shook his head, no.
Brief consideration; still resulting in a no.
An apathetic no.
“How about the Entertainment section?”
Henri shrugged, as if to say, "Why not?" and managed a barely perceivable nod.
"Look who's on the front page, again." Francois exclaimed. "Adolph will be pleased, that's for sure." He held the front page of The Entertainment section up. The headlines read, "Hounds to Unleash Hell on HBO." A dramatic photograph of Damien appeared beneath the headlines, screaming into a microphone during the band's sold-out, tour of the U. S. A.
~ ~ ~
Standing in front of Napoleon's desk, Adolph screamed, "That mother fucker! I'll kill him!" He pounded his fist on the priceless antique with a vengeance. "I'll kill him if you don't! How fuckin' dare he go on TV without lettin' me know? And holy, fly-swattin' bull-puckey, how could he say what he said?"
Seated behind the antique desk, Damien rubbed his forehead and squinted as if in pain. "I don't know, Adolph. Judas has always been Captain- Nice-Guy, kind of a Dudley-Do-Right, you know that. He's been freaked out over this thing right from the start."
Pacing back and forth, Adolph continued to rant, not in his fake, Germanic accent, which he saved for the media and the public, but in his classic, Western, drawl. "Awww, bless his little freaked-out heart. Now, every fuckin' nut job under the sun is callin' me. This mornin' I've already taken calls from the Isle of Wight Festival promoters threatenin' to void our contract and cancel our appearance, and, oh yeah, did I mention that HBO is threatenin' to sue! A half hour ago I was on the phone with their blood-suckin' attorneys. I had to think pretty fuckin' quick, man. You know what I told 'em? I told 'em we put your boyfriend up to appearin' on that show and that this whole thing is just a publicity stunt we cooked up to cause a stink that would increase the audience. Can you believe that?"
"Yeah, well, you had to say something," Damien agreed and opened his mouth to say something else when the ringing of Adolph's iPhone interrupted him.
Adolph dug his cell out of his pocket, glared at the caller identity, which read, "UNKNOWN," and slipped into his Hitler impression. "Guten Tag?" He growled. "Ja, dis ist Der Führer." Frustration flared on his face as the caller gave a name that failed to ring any bells. "Tatsuo who?" As the caller's identity became clear to him, he listened for a moment before becoming annoyed again. "Dangerous? You don't say? Don't open it?" Agitated to the point that he dropped his Hitler imitation, Adolph waved his free hand in the air and shouted, "Great jumpin' horny toads, fella, do you honestly think we haven't figured that out? Hey, I'd love to chat longer, partner, but I'm kinda busy."
Panting, the band's manager stuffed his phone back into his pants pocket like a gunfighter from the old west, holstering his weapon after a shootout. Leaning forward, he planted his hands flat on the desk, supporting his weight with both arms, and stared at his star attraction. His face twisted as the anger welled up, reigniting and exploding again. "I'll stick my Luger up his ass!" He pushed away from the desk and mimed what he threatened to do. "I'll stick it up his ass and keep pulling the trigger until my finger cramps. I'll, I'll . . ." Cheeks crimson with rage, he started pacing again.
"Calm down, before you have a stroke," Damien urged. "I think you're right. You know how the public is when it comes to anything outrageous or controversial. They'll probably be more inclined than ever to watch."
Adolph stopped in his tracks and turned back towards Damien, his attitude doing a one-eighty. "You really think so?"
Three days after the failed attempt to steal The Book, Khalid Bahaji had grown weary of excuses. Rising from the chair of the Holy Imam, whose office he had confiscated, he wadded up a newspaper and threw it into the trash. "We do not require proof of what you have said, Abdullah. What happened to Mustafa showed us what The Book could do. That is why we want it. Its power can be used against certain members of the French government to obtain favorable concessions. We may even find a way to use it against the United States and the rest of the world."
Abdullah's brow furrowed. He dropped to one knee and bowed his head in subservience to his cell leader. He expected severe criticism for failing to retrieve The Book. Any form of ridicule and rebuke, short of execution, would be far better than the fate Amjad met.
Slowly circling the kneeling Abdullah, Khalid Bahaji made no secret of his disappointment. "Two of this community's young people tried and failed to steal the book. Unlike you, they were untrained and inexperienced, barely more than boys, which is why we were invited to step in. But when you returned without Amjad and without The Book, Al Qaeda lost a valued member of this cell. Furthermore, due to your failure we have suffered a loss of respect, not only from the local citizens but from those who fund our operations."
Abdullah raised his head and said, "I will accept any punishment you feel is appropriate."
"I promised the people, Abdullah." Shaking his head, Bahaji stopped circling and stood in front of Abdullah. "Standing before this community's leaders I promised that we could be trusted to achieve that which they could not. We cannot show weakness. We dare not fail. Failure to keep our promises will result in our neighbors losing confidence in us. They must trust us. But also, they must fear us if we are to maintain and expand our control in 'Les Cites'."
That night, in front of the Seine-Saint-Denis mosque, Abdullah Abassa's right hand was amputated in a public exhibition of Al Qaeda's
zero-tolerance towards failure.
Standing on the top step, not far from where large droplets of blood congealed on the granite surface, Khalid Bahaji shouted to the gathering of concerned community leaders, "Citizens of Seine-Saint-Denis, we are all tired of broken promises, tired of being lied to and then ignored. We are tired of living in a lawless, forgotten zone of despair, where our young people cannot find employment. They have learned to hate the police and the laxisme of the French criminal justice system! The police, who work for the government that has forgotten us, are afraid to even show themselves here." He gestured towards a corner of the mosque, where the favorite theme of graffiti writing Banlieusards had been spray-painted onto the pink granite wall in six-foot-tall, capital letters: "BAISE LA POLICE." In English it meant, “FUCK THE POLICE.”
"Is this how you wish to continue living?" Bahaji shouted.
The crowd shouted, "No!"
"Is this the environment you want your children to grow up in?"
The people responded with an even more passionate, "No!"
"I made a promise to you, once before, that we were going to do something about all of this. We haven't forgotten our promises. As you heard, earlier, we tried, but the men we sent were not successful. You saw how we dealt with their failure. You do not deserve failure, and we will not accept it. We will be successful on our next attempt!"
Like a seasoned politician, spreading his arms wide in conclusion of an important speech to his constituents, Bahaji reminded his audience of the upcoming national holiday and used what it represented to stir their blood. "Le quatorze Juillet, the two-hundred- twenty-seventh anniversary of Fête Nationale is almost upon us. The time has come for a new Bastille Day, a new French Revolution!"
As the throng clapped and voiced their approval, Bahaji raised his arms in appreciation of their support, yet would have preferred to raise them in triumph after having already obtained The Book. Soon, he believed, Al Qaeda would have it. After contacting his superiors, they had agreed to send four of their finest warriors from the mountains of the Pashtun Belt to the Isle of Wight. The planned theft of The Book would take place at a time when it would be exposed, far from the safety of the vault in Damien Faust's penthouse. The members of Faust's security team hired to guard the book would undoubtedly be on high alert, but the inevitable confusion and chaos of the concert audience would render the ancient relic far more vulnerable.
~ ~ ~
“Your Holiness, news of The Book is in every newspaper and on every TV station around the world.”
At his writing desk, The Supreme Pontiff set his pen down and turned to face his Cardinal Chamberlain. “Yes, so it would seem, Luigi. Isn’t it marvelous?”
“Marvelous?” The Pope's ebullience regarding the recent, unexpected developments mystified The Cardinal.
“Yes, marvelous. Any increase in the awareness of things related to The Lord’s existence and his will is marvelous, don't you think?”
“Yes, Holy Father. But, since we have assembled a formidable team, should we not move forward to stop what is being planned?”
“Why?” the Pope’s eyes were wide and round, his smile relaxed. “Why impede the elimination of evil? A sweeping change is coming, Luigi. We must embrace, rather than fear this change.”
“So, you wish to allow this thing to happen?”
“Yes, my friend. Consider how fortunate we are. The Lord has chosen us to play an important role in fulfilling a two-thousand-year-old prophesy. ‘Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.’” The Pope reached out and placed a hand on the Cardinal’s shoulder, “Luigi, this is the only way that the meek shall ever inherit the earth as foretold in the Holy Scriptures.”
Looking confused, The Cardinal asked, "Your Worship, if we do not intend to confiscate The Book, why did you have me assemble the team of special agents?"
"Oh, we will confiscate it, Luigi, but not before it serves its purpose. Once the world experiences the power of The Lord and his unique instrument of judgment, others will aspire to use it for evil purposes. As the concert at the Isle of Wight concludes, we will seize The Book. But once it is ours, we must accept the burden of ownership." Lowering his voice to a whisper, the Pope added, "We must guard it carefully. There could be problems."
"Problems, of what nature?" Cardinal Lubrano squinted. "How could there be problems once we possess The Book?"
The white eyebrows of The Pope arched and remained high on his forehead. He envisioned an international crisis. To what lengths might radical, religious factions and terrorist organizations go to possess The Book? Choosing not to put into words the perils racing through his head, he turned back around, picked up his pen, and resumed the nightly ritual of recording his thoughts and the day's events in his personal journal.
~ ~ ~
"Knock it off will you?" Adolph shouted and waved his arms, trying to get the attention of Pilot, who swayed back and forth over his Steinway, baby grand, his long hair falling down around his face, fingers flying up and down the ivories like a spider on crack.
His Les Paul slung low on his hip, pushing his Marshall amplifiers to earsplitting decibel levels, Lucifer paid no attention to Adolph's gestures.
Adding to the massive wave of sound, Dante's double-bass set of Ludwig drums and Zildjian cymbals thundered and crashed, while Cain laid down a complimentary bass guitar line that had everything and everyone on the stage moving with the beat. The band was jamming; creating new chord transitions and rythms to add life to tunes they had played a million times.
Delilah, Salome, and Jezebel were swinging and singing; doo-wopping in tight harmony, "We all have our cross to bear. Some things we can and cannot share. Nobody said that life is fair . . ." Delilah stepped forward and took the lead, singing the last part of the chorus in front of the other two girls, "We all have our painful cross to bear." Never sharp, never flat, like soulful clones of the big-band era's McGuire or Andrews sisters, the three sang intuitively, knowing what would and wouldn't sound right before they ever opened their painted lips. Seeing Adolph's face turning scarlet, Dante stopped pounding the drums and raised his hands high in the air, causing everything else to fall apart, one instrument and voice at a time.
"Where's Judas?" Adolph shouted, finally able to be heard. "For that matter, where's Damien?"
As if on cue, the tall doors to the practice barn parted, giving birth to a fully developed argument in progress; one that grew worse with each breath.
“Why can't you understand? I didn’t do it to hurt you!” Judas shouted. “I didn’t mean to hurt anybody in the band, Damien. How many
times do I have to tell you that?”
“And how many times did I tell you that this was something that just has to be done, and that you were either with me or against me? We all stand to make millions off this gig!”
“It’s not that simple! It never was!” Judas shouted. “You know there’s more to it than money!” Midway between the barn's doors and the practice stage, he stopped and shouted to the rest of the band, a group of not-so-innocent bystanders, gawking at the accident yet to happen. “Don't you guys realize what The Book is going to do? Don't you care? You can’t go through with this!”
Adolph, who hadn’t spoken to Judas since the Oprah appearance, screamed a blood-curdling scream, worthy of an Indian brave at the Little Big Horn attacking General Custer and the Seventh Cavalry. He leapt from the stage, stumbling and almost falling in the effort. Rushing towards Judas, he spat out such a long string of vile expletives that even the Republicans who censored the Nixon Watergate transcripts couldn’t have deleted them all.
Damien held up his hands and shouted, "No, Adolph, don't! This is our problem..." His plea had all the effect of a restraining order on a herd of stampeding buffalo. Standing his ground in the misguided notion that Adolph would come to his senses, Judas ended up on his back, gasping for breath after having the wind knocked out of him.
You stupid, unprofessional, son-of-a-bitch!" Adolph shouted. Straddling the saxophone player he leaned forward, spittle flying as he
screamed, "You damn near screwed the pooch! How could you go on a world-wide talk show with Oprah Winfrey without letting me know, without sitting down and discussing this thing? Have you got any idea what your little whiney-ass appearance accomplished?" Adolph paused to catch his breath as Judas stared up, unwilling or unable to defend himself. "I'm the manager of this band," Adolph roared, still seated on top of Judas's chest. "I'm supposed to know what the hell is going on! But I obviously don't, do I? Now, I look like a god-damned moron! I'm the psychotic, look-alike chancellor who can't control his troops! Thanks to you, through the eyes of the entertainment industry, the whole band looks like a bunch of fuckin' whacko, rag-tag hayseeds!" By this time, the rest of the band had gathered around.
"You sure lived up to your name," Lucifer sneered.
"How much money did you make from that appearance on Oprah?" Adolph demanded. "Since you didn't obtain prior approval, whatever you were paid, no matter how much or how little, that money has to be split between everybody here." Punching Judas in the chest with his index finger to emphasize his point, he said, "That's in your contract, Bubba."
The Hounds smelled blood. Like wild dogs attacking a wounded animal, they ripped Judas to shreds, emotionally, if not physically.
"I oughtta kick your ass!" Cain threatened.
"What made you think you could get away with doing something like that behind our backs?" Dante yelled. "That's fucked up, man!"
"Yeah!" Pilot wanted to know, "What'd you get, a cool, million Euros?"
Condemnation came from all directions, jumbled up and too fast to decipher as Adolph and the band's members ganged up on Judas. Erupting like a classroom full of petulant children venting their frustrations and disappointment, they spat out a bewildering assortment of bitter accusations. Finally, the coup de grâce came from the backup singers.
Jezebel's distinctive, Jamaican accent stood out from the jumble of insults hurled by British and American tongues. "Personally," her rope-like dreadlocks dangled about her face as she pointed down at the saxophone player, "I never did like you. I never liked your style, all that laid-back, Memphis-bluesy bullshit. But that don't matter, mon. What I can't believe, more than anything else, is that you betrayed Damien."
Adolph struggled to his feet, nodding in total agreement when Salome corrected her fellow backup singer. "No, Jez. He didn't just betray Damien." She declared. Her green eyes flashing with anger, she glared down at Judas, who still lay on the ground, blinking away big tears that rolled out of his eyes and down the sides of his face. With all of the fury and bitterness she could summon, Salome shouted, "You betrayed all of us, you bastard!"
After that, the members of the band fell silent. One by one they filed out of the practice barn, some still angry, some deeply saddened. Judas still lay on the floor, unable to find the strength or the courage to rise and face a new life; life after the band and without Damien. There would be no reconciliation. How could he ask to be forgiven for something he would do over, perhaps on an even grander scale, if such a thing were possible? Guilty of high treason in the eyes of Damien and the others, he knew his life in the spotlight, performing on stage with The Hounds had ended.
Wiping a tear away from his cheek, Damien allowed Delilah and Adolph to lead him away. He could have stepped in at any moment to defend Judas from the rest of his apostles. They would have listened to their messiah; but he chose not to. Salome's words rang in his head as he flipped the switch to turn off the overhead lights in the barn. She had been right. Judas hadn't just betrayed him; he had betrayed them all.
Staring up at the exposed network of circular vents and air-conditioning duct shafts suspended from the ceiling, Judas wondered how his eyes, which had been so wet with tears, could now feel so dry and itchy? Squeezing them shut, he reached up and rubbed them. If his clandestine TV appearance caused even one member of the band to decline participation in Damien's plan, perhaps a domino effect might ensue. With that spark of hope, he took a deep breath and let it out, yearning for the recuperative, soul-restoring properties that something as simple as a good, deep sigh sometimes brought. Rather than coaxing the spark to grow into a bright, warm, fire, the sigh extinguished the tiny flicker, resulting in a cold, unsatisfying emptiness that depressed him further. Nobody would listen to him; that ship had sailed.
In essence, after ascertaining its intended destination and deeming it to be a port-of-call not to his liking, he abandoned ship. The life he knew sailed away at full speed, leaving him floating in a derelict lifeboat with no oars. There would be no cries of "man overboard." The big ship would not come about to rescue him. Storm clouds of uncertainty gathered overhead as the winds of change reached gale force. Waves of despair crashed over the sides of his tiny boat. Besides the disadvantage of having no oars, he had no life jacket, no compass, no rudder, no rations, and the intensifying storm threatened to capsize him at any moment. The only thing that could conceivably save him beckoned from the stage - his saxophone.
Physically unharmed, yet kicked and beaten, emotionally, to within an inch of his life, Judas slowly rose and walked to the edge of the stage. Just beyond his reach, it beckoned - a gleaming, Selmer Paris, reference model 84, waiting to offer its unique brand of comfort. As fine a saxophone as he could ever wish for, Judas purchased it in Memphis, back in 2009, for sixty-two hundred dollars.
With what little energy he still possessed, he hopped up and perched himself on the edge of the stage. Seated so that his legs hung over the edge, he leaned over to lift his golden instrument from its stand. In the reverent silence, anticipating the mysterious angel of inspiration’s arrival, he closed his eyes and placed his lips on the mouthpiece.
The mere thought of bringing the instrument to his mouth usually triggered magic. Drugged, drunk, or stone-cold-sober, it didn't matter. Whenever he held his sax to his lips, all worldly thoughts, every concern, no matter how big or small, would vanish. His mind would go blank and the angel would descend upon him. This evening, however, his mind refused to go blank. Damien, The Book, The Hounds, and The Festival spun in his head like a carousel. Sitting on the edge of the stage, with most of the lights and all of the amplifiers turned off, the only sounds he heard were his own breath, the faint hum of the air conditioning system and the whisper of cool, dehumidified air issuing from the vents above him.
In the lonely, oppressive silence, his heart begged for the healing properties that the silky, sensual tones of his saxophone had always been so capable of producing. But, for the first time in the nearly thirty years since he learned how to improvise and create music, the sweet angel of inspiration and virtuosity refused to come.
Blowing experimentally into the mouthpiece, the resulting note mirrored the way he felt. It sounded more like a moan than music. A knot formed in his throat. Tears welled up in his eyes again as he turned around, pulled the instrument’s open case towards him, and placed his saxophone in it. Before closing it, he took one last look at his horn. The closing and locking of the case hurt. It felt strangely akin to closing a coffin's lid. The click of the practice barn doors proved equally painful, as they shut and locked behind him. Head down, saxophone case at his side, he walked away from the barn, got in his Peugeot, and drove off.
~ ~ ~
Gathered around the kitchen table at Damien's penthouse the next morning, Adolph, Francois, Cain, Pilot, and Lucifer shouted back and forth to be heard over the pounding of hammers and buzzing of saws coming from the den, where carpenters were repairing the damage done during the attempted theft of The Book.
Lucifer read from the front page of the Entertainment section, "Cincopation, Fat Whitey and the Premium Saltines, and The Hounds of Hell round out the final day of The Festival . . ."
"Who's Cincopation?" Pilot asked.
"That's the Latin rhythm quintet out of Mexico City," Adolph replied. "Very hot percussion, Dante loves them."
Nobody mentioned the moribund issue of the previous night's incident. They cursed the noise in the other room, noted the growing concerns over North Korea 's and Pakistan 's nuclear capabilities, and chuckled at Sarah Palin's announcement that she would run for the Presidency of the United States, but nobody said a word about Judas.
Clay Wellington, the newest addition to Delaflote's security team, appeared. Leaning against the frame of the doorway to the kitchen, he called out, "Francois?" but the security chief failed to look up from his plate, upon which were the last few bites of what had been a mound of sausages and scrambled eggs "a-la-Cookie." Wellington called out again, louder this time. "Francois?"
"Oui? Oh, bonjour, Clay," Francois beckoned. "Come and have some breakfast with us. Cookie gets frustrated when he has no one to cook for, and we have to keep you healthy until Henri returns."
"Are you saying you won't need me once he returns?" Wellington joked. He came forward and sat down next to his boss. "I can't think with all this pounding going on," he complained. "By the way, did anybody think to get Judas's keys to the office?"
The mention of Judas brought an immediate reaction. "Can we talk about something else?" Lucifer suggested; a sour look on his face. "Something that doesn't make me sick? I'm trying to eat, here." Cain and Pilot nodded in concurrence.
"Good idea," Francois replied to Lucifer. Turning to Wellington he spoke in a hushed tone, "We'll discuss the keys, later, in the office."
"What?" Wellington failed to hear the response, as the sound of a power-saw in the den drowned out the words.
Francois raised his voice. "Later." Raising an eyebrow, he gave a sideways nod towards Lucifer, indicating his preference to placate the natives rather than rile them up. Scooping up a final forkful of scrambled eggs, Francois prepared to lift it to his mouth, but stopped as Cookie approached Wellington to take his breakfast order. From the den, the sound of the power-saw subsided as Francois set his fork down in the center of the plate. "Where's Damien this morning?" he asked.
"Je ne sais pas. Je ne l'ai pas vu," Cookie replied. Seeing that Wellington didn't understand, he bowed apologetically and translated, "I said, I do not know. I have not seen him. Excusez-moi, monsieur, I did not mean to exclude you from zee conversation. What would you like me to prepare for you?"
"I'll take a bagel and some bacon."
"Surely that cannot be all. Coffee, perhaps?" The more someone requested, the happier Cookie became.
"The pleasure is all mine, monsieur." Cookie bowed, causing the floppy, upper portion of his white, Chef's tuque to fall forward.
As Cookie headed back to the stove, Francois commented, "When will you learn to speak French, Clay? You've been in France for two years, now."
From the den, the whack of long nails being driven into sturdy timbers by nail guns, accompanied by the high-pitched buzz of the power saw, forced everyone at the table to raise their voices again.
"When I get good and ready, Francois. I heard you ask Cookie where Damien is. Does anybody know where he is this morning?"
"Oh, I know where he is," Francois pushed his plate towards the middle of the table and leaned back in his chair. "I know exactly where he is. I was simply curious to see if anyone else knew. Do you?"
"No. So, where is he?"
"Out back, in the parking garage. In his Bugatti."
"What's he doing?"
"Avoiding the noise. Getting over a hangover and a splitting headache. Getting over what happened last night."
Wellington nodded and asked, "Shouldn't someone keep an eye on him?
Francois responded by shaking his head and saying, "He's not suicidal, if that's what you mean."
"What if he decides to go for a ride?"
"I have a tracking device on the Bugatti. I asked him to stay close to us, especially after the most recent attempt on The Book."
"You think he'll listen?"
Francois nodded. "Yes, I do. He hired me, didn't he?"
The racket in the den ceased once more, as Wellington shrugged. "Timothy Lynch hired you. Now he's dead. Maybe, for all I know, because he listened to you." The two men stared at each other. They looked like they might start throwing punches at any moment.
Everyone, including Cookie, turned towards the doorway as a member of the construction crew walked into the kitchen, accompanied by a policeman. The worker, a young, freckled, red-headed man in faded denim overalls, who spoke English with only a slight hint of a French accent, removed his hard hat and pointed towards the uniformed officer. "He came to the door and asked to speak to Monsieur Faust."
The police officer nodded, removed his blue cap, and stepped forward. He spoke softly, his nature apologetic. "Regrettably, I have been asked to inform Monsieur Faust of some bad news. Is he available?"
Adolph and Francois rose in unison. "What news?" Adolph asked. "I'm Damien Faust's personal manager. You can tell me."
Politely, the officer shook his head, no. "Please, I do not mean any disrespect, but I have been asked to personally deliver the message only to Monsieur Faust."
"But," Adolph appeared slightly flustered as he looked at the others around the table, all of whom were now standing. Failing to employ his fake German accent, he drawled, "I'm not even sure where he is..."
He flinched slightly as Francois touched him on the elbow and said, "Don't worry, Adolph. I know where he is." Turning to the police officer, Francois added, "I'll go get him, officer. Please wait here. I'll only be a few moments."
Francois left the kitchen, walking briskly, wishing that the rear exit to the suite wasn't blocked by the mammoth dresser at the end of the hallway. The metal stairs there, which barely amounted to more than a functional fire escape, led straight down to the parking garage entrance. He exited through the nearly repaired door frame at the front of the penthouse, where the new door, a heavy one, made of steel, leaned unhung against a wall.
Rather than waiting for the elevator, he pushed the emergency exit door open and trotted down five flights of stairs, walked through the poshly decorated lobby and out through the revolving door. He squinted as his eyes reacted to the brilliant sunshine that shone down and reflected off the wide sidewalk along the Champs-Élysées. Breaking into a jog, Francois made his way around the side of the building, weaving his way through the mid-morning parade of tourists and bicyclists, around to the back of the building where the garage sat. The twenty parking spaces were filled with everything from Bentleys and Rolls Royces to Alpines, Renaults, Alfa Romeos and, of course, Damien's red and black Bugatti Veyron.
Rock and Roll blared from the Bugatti as Francois entered the garage. He recognized the voices of Delilah, Jezebel and Salome, singing the closing lines to one of The Hounds biggest hits, "What price, betrayal, how much to kill a friend? Thirty pieces of silver, that's all it took in the end. Thirty pieces of silver, that's all it took in the end..."
Good, Francois thought. He hated the song, but figured it meant Damien's headache had to be better. Approaching the car, he saw the driver, eyes closed, head bobbing slightly to the beat, with the seat reclined as far back as it could go. Knowing a knock on the driver's side window would startle Damien, he tapped softly as the music's volume faded with the end of the song. Damien didn't move, at least not as far as Francois could tell, but the driver's side window suddenly began to slide down.
Damien opened his eyes and turned towards Francois. "World couldn't leave me alone any longer, eh?" He looked annoyed; annoyed and wrung out.
"Sorry to have to bother you," In the dark, covered garage, Francois winced, anticipating an angry outburst from his employer. "The police are here, asking for you."
"Fuuuuck. What'd I do now?" Damien complained. He brought his seat to its upright position and opened the Bugatti's door. A snakeskin boot and a blue-jeaned leg became visible below the door panel, the boot slapped down hard on concrete floor of the garage.
"I do not know," Francois shook his head. "The policeman said he had a message for you and that it was not good news. He would not speak with anyone else."
"Well, shit." Damien pressed the button on the console that raised the window and, with an irritated grunt, rose up out of the low slung racer, closed the door and then pushed the button on the key that locked the doors as well as the transmission. "Let's go see what he wants. Damn, I hope he's not about to haul my ass to jail."
When Damien and Francois reached the kitchen, the policeman stood in the same place, still holding his cap.
Looking nervous, as if he might have failed in his duties, Cookie spoke from the back of the kitchen, by the stove. "I tried to get him to eat something, Monsieur Faust, but he would not eat."
"He would not eat?" Damien turned and eyed the officer, suspiciously, "Really? Are you crazy? You haven't lived until you've had eggs a-la-Cookie for breakfast."
The policeman shrugged, uncomfortably. Clearly, he had not come to socialize, or to eat breakfast.
Turning back to the chef, Damien said, "He must have eaten a very large breakfast before he came here this morning. How else could anyone resist your cooking, my friend?"
Damien extended a hand to the officer and greeted him with a smile. "Bonjour. I understand you have a message for me. This wouldn't be about a couple of unpaid speeding violations, would it?" He smiled again, hoping that if the matter were about his driving habits the officer might relax and allow him to write a check to cover his transgressions.
Although the officer shook Damien's hand, he did not return the smile. Still sounding as if he felt guilty about something, he said, "There is a pauper's cemetery funded by one of your band members, Monsieur Faust, that is correct, no?"
"Yeah." Damien's smile faded.
"This morning in that cemetery, a man was found dead, hanging from a rope that had been tied to a tree limb."
"And how does this concern me, officer?" The jocularity with which Damien previously addressed the policeman had completely vanished.
"The deceased had written a note. It is addressed to you." The officer unbuttoned the top right pocket on his uniform, withdrew a folded piece of paper, and solemnly handed it to Damien.
Damien glanced at it and then stared at the officer. "What is it? Some kind of threat? Am I being blamed for this person's death?"
"Please," Obviously uncomfortable, the policeman pointed at the still-folded paper. "You must read it," he urged.
With everyone watching, Damien unfolded the paper, once, twice, and began to read, silently.
"To Damien Faust,
I want the press to know that my real name was Auguste Bonnier, not Judas. Tell them I was born in 1973 in Memphis.
Forgive me, Damien. Know that I loved you with all of my heart, physically, emotionally and spiritually. By appearing on TV, I hoped to stop the impending disaster at the Isle of Wight . Instead, I fear I have made it worse. To betray the only human being I ever truly loved, and in doing so, to have doomed even more souls to the fires of hell is more than my own soul can bear. I pray that God will understand and that heaven holds a place for me.
Believe in God. Believe in love. Believe in music.
Love, through all eternity, Auguste"
While he stared at the note, an odd sound, maybe a suppressed moan, escaped from Damien's lips. His hands began to shake. When he looked up at Adolph, his eyes were glassy with tears that spilled over his lids, down his cheeks, and disappeared into his beard. The note slipped from his fingers, floating to the tile floor a moment before he collapsed.
"Look out!" Cain shouted.
Francois lunged forward with catlike quickness and caught him before his head met the unforgiving tile of the kitchen floor. In his travels as a security chief he had seen people faint before. Damien had exhibited all of the classic symptoms.
Pouncing on the fallen note with equal alacrity, Adolph snatched it up before anyone else could get close to it. His brow wrinkled as he began reading, even before Francois rolled Damien over onto his back to check his pulse and respiration. Behind Adolph, Cookie and the present band members strained to read over his shoulders.
Appalled by the apparent lack of concern, the officer bent down to observe Damien's condition. "Is nobody concerned about Monsieur Faust?" he asked.
Francois glanced up at Adolph and the others, all of whom were completely engrossed in the note, and then back at the police officer. "They care," he professed. Looking down at Damien, he placed two fingers against the carotid artery of the singer's neck. "They assume he's okay. If he were not, you and I would be more alarmed. Since they figure he's all right, they want to know what the note said."
Reacting to the note, Adolph shouted, "God damn it!" In rapid succession, the audience behind him chimed in.
"Holy shit!" Pilot exclaimed.
"Mother fucker!" Cain whispered.
"No way!" Lucifer added. "I can't believe it,"
Cookie was the last to react. "Mon dieu!"
Understanding the reason behind Damien's collapse, the rest of the band bent down to check on him.
"Is he going to be okay?" Lucifer asked, and then voiced what the rest were thinking, "What if he isn't?"
~ ~ ~
When he regained consciousness, Damien's physcial condition proved to be of less concern than his mental or emotional state. Inconsolable for days, he wouldn't speak to Adolph or any of the band. He refused to leave the penthouse to attend the funeral, staying locked in the master bedroom with the curtains drawn and the lights off. In a prison, albeit a luxurious one, of his own making, he opened the door only to retrieve food, little of which he ate. After the fourth day, Cain and Pilot attempted to grab him when he opened the door, but he slammed it and locked it again before they could lay their hands on him.
"Leave me, the fuck, alone!" Damien shouted.
Frustrated, Cain threw his hands in the air. "Let him rot in there," he suggested.
"Yeah, fuck'im." Pilot agreed. "Let's go see what Cookie has to eat." Cain followed his twin to the kitchen.
With The Festival less than a week away, Adolph feared his messiah might not recover to the point where he would be able to perform. Summoned by the band's frantic manager, a world-famous psychiatrist from New York City, Dr. Julius Marx, agreed to fly to Paris and examine the distraught star.
Initially, Damien refused to allow the Doctor into the bedroom, until Adolph bellowed from the hallway, "Given cause, such as erratic behavior that could prove detrimental to the band's performance or image, I have the legal right to appoint a new lead singer for The Hounds if you refuse a medical or psychiatric examination and the recommended treatment." He paused and delivered his trump-card phrase, "It's in your contract, Bubba!"
After the examination, speaking to Adolph outside Damien's bedroom door, the high-priced shrink lit a cigar and in a classic Bronx accent, said, "Well, he's lost his best friend and lover, who also was somewhat of a father figure, so his juevos are a little scrambled. That's to be expected. But the kid's a trooper." Dr. Marx puffed on his cigar a couple of times and went on. "Yes, he is. You know what Goldilocks said to me?"
Adolph shook his head.
He said, 'Destiny is calling.' He said, 'The show must go on.'"
"You're damn right, it must," Adolph nodded enthusiastically, liking what he heard.
"He blames himself," Dr. Marx concluded, waving his cigar around as he spoke. "Says if he'd never purchased a certain book, his friend would still be alive." Wtih his cigar in his right hand, the Doctor used his left to remove his thick-lensed glasses while Adolph waited for him to continue. He held them up to eye level, squinting at them as if looking for a smudge. Not finding one, he placed them back on his nose and returned to his explanation. "He actually believes this book had something to do with his friend's suicide. He told me that he's some kind of Messiah." The Doctor's eyebrows arched as he paused, studying Adolph's reaction before asking, "Has he said anything like that to you?"
Adolph tilted his head to the right, responding with a non-committal, worried-sounding, "Maybe."
The band's manager winced. He didn't like the sound of that 'Hmmmm.'
"He says he believes he's been appointed by God to perform some kind of role in weeding out the damned."
"Really?" Adolph's voice cracked slightly. He worried that his star might end up being sent to a mental institution.
"Not the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard," Dr. Marx snorted derisively, "but it's not far from it. I've treated a lot of stars, you know. Most are a little strange, some more so than others. Years ago I treated Michael Jackson for a short while. Some are really sick, but the majority just require someone to listen and act like they care. Depending on how he continues to recover, he may require therapy, but I think he'll be able to perform at this televised concert you have coming up. I run a clinic in New York, you know. You might consider sending him to me for a couple of weeks, after the Festival."
Adolph breathed a sigh of relief. "When do you think he'll come out of his room?" he asked.
Pondering the question, Dr. Marx drew another deep puff on his cigar, blew it out, and said, "I think he'll come out today."
The words had barely escaped the psychiatrist's lips when the door to Damien's bedroom opened. Wearing striped boxers and a rumpled, Hounds of Hell T-shirt, the self-proclaimed musical Messiah mumbled, "Tell the tabloids I'm okay." Sounding as beaten down as he looked, his demeanor resembled a man on death row who had come to terms with his sentence. "The Book won't allow me to back out." Shaking his head, his golden curls drooping and dull, in need of a wash, he added, "I'm not in control. We're on a train with no brakes, headed down the side of a mountain. Besides, Judas isn't coming back, no matter what I do. Round everybody up for a practice session at the barn." With that, he walked, barefooted, past his surprised manager and the smug psychiatrist, on his way to the kitchen.
Having treated one patient, the Doctor wasted no time in identifying another. He smiled, took another quick puff on his cigar, and with an interested gleam in his eye, said, "Now, Mr. Stackhouse, let's discuss this Hitler fixation of yours, shall we?"
The smells of paint, freshly cut lumber, and dust hung in the air, irritating the eyes and nose of the man from the Louvre, who had arrived with the newly constructed reliquary. He sneezed as he stood in what once again started to resemble the den where the Hounds of Hell had often met to discuss business or write new music.
"I began to think you would never have it finished," Francois complained. There are only four days left before the band must appear at the Festival." From his jacket's breast pocket, the ringing of his cell caused him to shake his head, annoyed by the bad timing. Glancing at the caller I.D. he saw Clay Wellington's name. "I have to take this call," he said, raising a hand. Loud, distorted sounds greeted him as he pressed the phone to his ear. It was the band, practicing at the barn, and the slightly garbled voice of his security assistant.
"Yes, Clay. What is it?"
"Francois, can you hear me? Hello?"
Raising his voice, Francois said, "Yes, Clay. I can hear you. What do you need? Clay?"
"Clay?" Groaning, Francois walked out of the office, into the hallway. After reaching an ear-rattling crescendo at the end of the song being practiced, the band stopped playing as he shouted, "Clay, I hear you. Can you hear me?"
Sounding surprised, Wellington replied, "Yes, Francois. You don't have to shout. I hear you, loud and clear."
"Not now, maybe, but I . . . never mind. What are you calling about, Clay?"
"You asked me to call, to let you know how the rehearsal is going."
"And?" Francois patted his foot.
"Everything's fine, here. Well, not everything. R. J., the choreographer, threatened to kill one of the Centurions, but Adolph calmed him down."
"The band was rehearsing Thirty Pieces of Silver, which is introed by a theatrical scene, recreating Christ's betrayal. Anyway, Percy, that's the new sax player, planted the kiss of betrayal on Damien, and right then, one of the extras Adolph hired to play a Roman Centurion accidentally knocked one of the fake olive trees over, onto Lucifer's Marshall amplifier stack.
"Fortunately, no, but Lucifer blew a fuse and stormed out."
"Stormed out? What does that mean?"
"He just got pissed off, that's all. He went outside and sat under the oak trees until he calmed down."
"So, everything's all right?" Francois asked.
"Yeah, pretty much."
"Are your bags packed? We leave for the Isle, tomorrow morning."
"Packed and ready to go. Will Henri be released in time to make it there?"
"Not sure," Francois answered. "He's doing better, but he may not be up to working this weekend."
"Did you find anyone to take his place?"
"I talked to a couple of the old crew, but they can't come. Not enough notice."
"Just you and me, eh?"
"Oui, and Delilah."
"She said we could count on her if we needed any help. She said she was bringing her pruning shears, just in case..."
"Pruning shears?" Briefly in the dark as to what Francois meant, the light suddenly came on as Clay remembered Delilah's reputation. "Oh, yeah . . ."
"Listen, Clay, I have to go. The man from the Louvre is here."
"You mean there's only one this time? Try not to lose him, will you? The roadies are here to tear down and move all the equipment and the props. See you soon, at The Wellington on the Isle. By the way, about where we are staying... I like the name of the place."
"I had a feeling you would approve. Adieu." Francois placed his phone back in his jacket and resumed dealing with the man who struggled to get the large display through the office door.
"Monsieur," the delivery man pointed to a place on the office door's frame where he had scraped the wood with the five-foot-tall display
stand. "Please do not be angry," he pleaded. "Maneuvering this monstrosity through office doors may not have been taken into consideration during construction."
Francois read the embroidered name on the delivery man's uniform. "For what we are paying, Gilbert, " he complained, "I believe such
things should been considered. Where are Robert and Jacques? They were the last ones who were here."
Gilbert shrugged. He didn't appear to know either of the mentioned men.
After studying the reliquary for a moment, which resembled a sturdy preacher's pulpit, made of mahogany with a clear, wide, case at the top, tilted at an angle so that the cover of The Book could be displayed, Francois commented, "I can't believe The Louvre only sent one man. Even though you have it on a rolling dolly, that thing is too large for one man to deliver. Don't bother trying to get it in the office, for now." Francois recommended. "We're getting ready to leave, anyway." Reaching into his jacket for his iphone, Francois explained, "I have an important call to make, which will just take a moment. If you don't mind, before you leave I'd like to be sure The Book fits into the display case as intended. If the dimensions seem correct, I'll take a look at any documents I need to sign. You can come back next Tuesday to finish setting up the display case."
So many things to do and so little time to do them all. Francois still had to arrange Sister Marie's travel plans. Adolph had said not to worry about her; that he would tend to that detail, but Damien had overruled his manager's well-intended offer, saying he preferred to have Francois attend to the Nun's safety and transportation. To make matters more difficult, Father LaRoche insisted on going, as well.
"She is too frail," the priest maintained. "Someone must be there, not only to provide safe escort, but to make sure that she eats."
Rubbing his forehead with concern, Francois relented, "I understand. It might be best if you were to accompany her. Damien mentioned how thin she was. He thought she might be anorexic."
"She has lost even more weight," Father LaRoche claimed. "She is unable to stand for more than a few minutes."
"Do not worry. We will provide a wheelchair. I need to inform the band's manager of your need for a room at the Wellington, on the Isle. We have several set aside for last minute situations such as this. Our driver should be at the convent to pick you and the good Sister up, Saturday morning, at nine. Your flight will leave Charles de Gaulle at eleven-thirty. Please, let me know if there is anything else you require. Bonne journée"
When Francois turned back towards him, Gilbert stood, waiting patiently. "You said you wished to see if the reliquary's dimensions are correct?"
"Oui," Francois replied. "Wait here." He entered the office and opened the safe. So much easier, he thought, getting the combination right on the first try, when people are not looking over your shoulder with an assault rifle pointed at you.
As soon as he opened the door to the safe, before his fingers touched the rich, wine-red leather of the cover, he felt its power. The Book enticed him, filling his mind with the urge to expose the young man from the Louvre to its hungry pages. Dont you want to know if this young man is hiding a dark secret? Aren't you curious? it seemed to ask.
Francois recalled the days he spent in his own home, staring at The Book. Hour after hour he had sat, unshaven, unbathed, wearing a
sleeveless undershirt and pair of briefs. He had been drunk much of the time, not out of guilt, although he felt partially responsible for his empoyer's demise. The drinking had been an attempt to dull his own senses; to drown the unsettling notion that The Book could communicate with him, or anyone. There were never any audible words, nothing that he could claim to have heard, but ideas would form in his head. When he would make up his mind to leave the house he would be stopped by the belief that someone would come for The Book. He couldn't allow that. He had to guard against that. Why? he had wondered.
"Monsieur?" It was the young man from the Louvre. He stood in the office doorway, obviously wondering what Francois could be
doing. "Monsieur Delaflote, are you all right?"
Show it to him. As his fingers gripped the cover, concern grew in Francois' mind like a poisonous mushroom in damp, fertile soil. If he is clean and pure, there is nothing to fear, but what if he is really here with thievery on his mind? What if there is a connection between this young man and the one who lost his hand? Show him the pages . . . Fighting the urge to obey the suggestion, Francois lifted The Book from the safe.
"You should know," Francois cautioned Gilbert, "that I have a pistol concealed beneath my jacket."
"What?" Gilbert seemed baffled and intimidated by Francois' revelation.
"In case you are a wolf in sheep's clothing," Francois continued. "I carry it in case someone is not whom they advertise themselves to be."
"Why are you telling me this?" Gilbert asked, taking a backward step. "Do you think I have come to steal something? Why would you think such a thing? Are you insane?"
Cradling The Book in his arms, Francois replied, "In my profession, those that trust too much, become unemployed or die too
Standing beside the new reliquary, Gilbert stared, open-mouthed, the way children sometimes stare at an adult whose explanation leaves them more confused. He shook his head, ran a hand through his straight, black, shoulder-length hair and bent down to punch a five number combination into a keypad, imbedded just above the wooden podium's baseboard. The locking mechanism of the clear, display cover emitted a crisp, click as it opened. Standing, the young man pointed at the keypad and said, "The default setting is one, two, three, four, five. You can program your own code to unlock the case by entering the pound sign, followed by the asterisk, and then any five number sequence you desire."
The Book's guardian lifted the top of the clear cover and gently placed the ancient tome in it, like a parent laying a baby in its crib. "A perfect fit," he nodded with fatherly approval. Relieved, he breathed a heavy sigh and offered an apologetic smile to Gilbert. The expression faded with the erruption of what sounded like automatic weapons fire coming from the den. Pointing in the direction of the noise, Francois yelled, "Nail guns." He shrugged and said, "Sorry if I upset you with the mention of the pistol I carry, but this is a very valuable religious artifact. There have been several attempts to steal it, the most recent resulting in the death of one intruder.That failed attempt is the reason for the renovation work you hear." The air resonated with the high-pitched whine of a buzz saw cutting through lumber. Wincing as the noise grew louder, Francois spread his arms wide in a wordless expression of how he felt.
Vacancies were nowhere to be found among the island's hotels and B&B's. They were booked at premium prices as much as a year in advance. Shortly after two, Clay Wellington opened the door to his room, flipped the light switch in the sparkling white bathroom, and placed his leather travel kit on the edge of the porcelain sink. He had been looking forward to staying here. After all, the establishment bore his family name, a point he emphasized to the clerk when checking in.
"Oh really?" The busy clerk replied, seeming unimpressed.
Small, but efficiently designed to make the most of the available space, the room was tidy and cheerful. The pulled back curtains afforded a panoramic view of Ventnor Bay. It would have been a soothing setting, except for a rhythmic, thumping against the wall, accompanied by lustful male grunts and sporadic squeals of female passion coming from the adjacent room. Wellington scowled, "If that’s not the yin and the yang, then what is?” Glancing to his left, he said, “I’ve got a Priest and a Sister from a convent on one side. . .” He looked towards the right, staring at his bed’s shaking headboard, “and a couple having wild coitus on the other.” Recalling an embarrassing injury he sustained several years earlier, Wellington rubbed the small of his back with the palm of his right hand, and commented, “He’s going to wind up in traction if he’s not careful.” After a few more minutes of watching the quivering headboard he shrugged and spoke to the bed. “Maybe they'll be worn out by tonight. Regretfully," he sighed, "I shouldn't think you'll be getting a similar workout from me."
Further north on the island, in room number 16, at the George Hotel in
Yarmouth, two of The Pope's secret agents were engaged in a workout of their own.
"You like that, do ya?" Sidney Danforth paused, a trickle of sweat running down the side of the Aussie's face.
"Mmmm-hmmm." The muffled reply came from Alyson La Carteloise.
On her knees, she mumbled into a goose-down pillow. Turning her head slightly to the left, she panted, "Don't stop."
"And what if I did stop, my pretty?" He gazed down, admiring the petite policewoman before him; the disheveled mop of dark brunette hair, her strong shoulders, the small of her back, her nicely rounded, yet firm, rear end to which he gave a playful slap.
"Don't play games, Sidney," Alyson pleaded as the rosy hue imparted
by the light blow faded, Pressing herself back, against him, she moaned, buried her face in the pillow again and said something that sounded like, "Just keep doing what you're doing."
The sense of urgency in her voice and the growing pressure between his legs provided all the persuasion Danforth needed. He placed both of his large hands on her hips and did as commanded. "Right. Steady as she goes, Captain."
In room number 17 of the centuries-old, converted farmhouse, Wilhelm Isringhausen unpacked and hung his clothes in the armoire, unaware of Alyson and Danforth's presence across the hall. "Not bad," he remarked, satisfied with his room's furnishings. He picked up his Glock 9, which lay on the edge of the double bed and smiled, stroking it as if it were a pet for whom he possessed great affection. Speaking to the weapon, he said, "Ve vill make zem sorry zat zey laughed, ja? Zey vill all be sorry, especially ze Australian and zat French policewoman. Ve vill have zis book und ve vill sell it to ze highest bidder." He picked up the remote control to the flat-screen television and began flipping through the channels until he came to a World War Two documentary on The History Channel. He sat on the end of the bed, mesmerized by a grainy, black and white film clip of a triumphant Adolph Hitler, dancing in front of the Eiffel Tower after the fall of Paris.
Holding the remote in his left hand while still clutching the Glock 9 in his right, Isringhausen began to sing in a hoarse whisper, "Deutschland, Deutschland über alles, über alles in der Welt . . ."
Sheldon Silverman loved a challenge. Sitting at the small desk in his room, he held the hotel phone in one hand and mumbled as he waited for the front desk to answer, "This is like a Milton Bradley board game. Find The Book. Will it be with the nun, or the lead singer, or his security guard?"
"Sheldon Silverman, here."
"Yes, Mr. Silverman, may we help you?"
"Yeah," Silverman replied. "I'm curious, do you have anyone staying here with The Hounds of Hell? Damien Faust, perhaps?"
After a brief pause the voice on the phone came back, "No sir. No Faust listed. Like everyone else, we're booked solid through the end of the festival. I don't see that name, or anyone listed as being with that group."
"Oh. Well, thank you." Silverman hung up. "Couldn't have been that easy," he shrugged. Flipping through the Lodging section of the local phone book, he dismissed Castle Lodge and The Wheatsheaf Hotel as being a tad small and lacking the amenities to attract a millionaire, rock and roll icon. He continued going through the ads until The Fountain Inn caught his eye, advertised as being next to Cowes Marina on the Medina River and only 20 meters from Red Jet service to Southampton. "That's a possibility," he murmured.
~ ~ ~
"Are you sure?" Damien asked. Seated behind Napoleon's desk in his
office, he leaned forward, surprised by his security chief's idea. Francois had proposed that they delay their arrival at the festival until only a couple of hours before the band's scheduled appearance.
"We can arrive by helicopter," Francois suggested. "There is a helipad
nearby where a limo will be waiting. I believe this will reduce the chance of
someone attempting to steal The Book before the concert."
"I like it," Damien nodded. "But what about Sister Marie and Father LaRoche? I asked you to be sure nothing happens to her."
"Clay Wellington is in the room next to her suite. I've asked him to keep an eye on her."
"And Adolph is okay with this?"
"I'm sure he will be."
"You haven't told him?"
Francois shook his head. "He seemed in a hurry to leave. He'll support anything you approve. From what I've seen, you run the show around here. Everyone seems to do whatever you say."
Damien thought about that for a moment and nodded. "You're right," he agreed. "Everyone except you . . ." he paused; his thoughtful expression changing to one of regret and pain as he added, "You and Judas."
~ ~ ~
The cries from a small flock of seagulls floating on the breeze greeted
Father LaRoche and Sister Marie as he wheeled her out, onto the wooden deck of the balcony. "Look, Sister, is this not an insprational view? Feel that breeze!" He walked around her wheelchair, gripped the recently painted, white metal rail with both hands, and sucked in a deep breath. "Smell that fresh air. Fresh air and sunshine." Turning his head towards Sister Marie he said, "Fresh air from the sea is good for the appetite, you know." The priest's words of encouragement lacked authenticity, sounding forced, like lines delivered by a bad actor auditioning for a part in a play.
The frail nun replied, "As you say, Father," seeming to possess neither the will nor the strength to lift her head or object to the attempts at bolstering her spirit and appetite. Rather than gazing out, across the whitecaps of Ventnor Bay, Sister Marie stared absently down at the boards beneath her wheelchair, rolling rosary beads between her boney fingers.
John Poindexter remained calm and reserved as the man behind the desk searched for confirmation of his reservation. Acting as if he were the one being inconvenienced, the desk clerk inquired, "Is there a possibility you've come to the wrong hotel? We don't make mistakes of this nature at The George."
"Not until I came along, perhaps. But you have, now." Poindexter glanced down at the dark blue, coat sleeve of his pin-striped suit and casually brushed away a piece of lint. Looking back up, he said, "I'm part of a group that should include six others. Alyson La Carteloise, Sidney Danforth, Wilhelm Isringhausen, Sheldon Silverman —"
"Silverman? I just spoke to him," the clerk admitted.
From behind Poindexter, another gentleman in business attire strolled up and asked, "Problem, John?"
Turning around, the well-tailored Brit smiled at the sight of Chad Claiborne. "Yes, Chad. Seems they can't find my reservation."
Claiborne stepped up to the counter. Leaning against it he said, "Don't allow this gentleman's reserved manner and fancy clothes fool you, my young friend. He's a semi-retired, double-oh agent from His Majesty's secret service. That means he's licensed to kill. Your life may well depend on your ability to find a room for him." His eyebrows rose as he stood silently, letting his words soak in.
Behind the check-in counter, the young man appeared frozen by indecision, struggling between fear and disbelief.
"Oh, for goodness sakes, Chad, now see what you've done."
Poindexter turned to the clerk, attempting to calm him down. "Don't listen to him," he nodded in Claiborne's direction. "He's ex-Scotland Yard, terribly given to exaggeration." Raising his right hand, with two, then three fingers extended, attempting to duplicate the Boy Scout pledge, Poindexter promised, "I wouldn't kill you, Scout's honor."
"Pistol whip, maybe," Claiborne suggested; a twinkle in his eye.
~ ~ ~
By the end of the day, The Vatican's band of thieves were settled in except Brandon Duke, the American who formerly worked for the CIA. Parked along the curb of the Champs-Élysées, he sat in a rented, four-door Renault, within sight of Damien's five story, gargoyle-topped building. He waited for Faust or his security chief to emerge, carrying anything that large enough to contain The Book. The German is a menace, he thought, while munching on one of the croissants he purchased at a nearby bakery. I Don't want to be anywhere near him when the time for action arrives. And Silverman is a loose cannon. Sharp enough, perhaps, but he's no team player . . . won't follow orders.
He called Alyson La Carteloise, getting her voice mail for the fifth time.
Dialing Sidney Danforth's number produced the same result. Frustrated, Duke stuffed his iphone in his jacket and swore, "Shit! Does anybody answer their phones, anymore?" Close to admitting the idea of an old-fashioned stakeout had been a stupid one, the former CIA agent blinked in surprise as the nose of Damien's red and black Buggatti poked out from behind the side of the building. Fishtailing as it left the driveway, the two-million Euro vehicle began to disappear, accelerating in and around the Champs-Élysées traffic.
Nearly choking on a bite of croissant as Faust and his bodyguard sped away, Duke turned the ignition key. He shifted the automatic transmission into drive and slammed his foot down on the rented Renault's gas pedal. Realizing the utter futility of trying to catch the Bugatti if its driver were in any kind of a hurry, he flinched at the sound of horns beside and in back of him. He shrugged off the finger displayed by two, outraged drivers as he nearly caused a pile-up in the process of changing lanes. "Where'd you learn to drive?" he shouted, "France?"
The woefully underpowered engine strained as Duke focused on the Bugatti receding in the distance. They're probably headed for the airport, he assumed. Glancing up at his rear-view mirror, he saw the blinking lights of the police coming up fast. Justice! Duke nodded enthusiastically. Go get him, guys! He slowed down, expecting the traffic cop to zoom by, and shouted at Faust, "That's what you get when you drive like a maniac on a crowded street, you rich bastard! I hope they suspend your license!" But the police didn't pass. Instead, they slowed down behind him and motioned for him to pull over to the curb. "What? Me? You're pulling me over?"
Fuming, Duke slowed down, pulled over to the curb and placed the Renault in park. Anticipating the officer's request, he flipped open the glovebox, retrieved his passport and rental car papers, and lowered the driver's-side window.
Thursday morning, the day before The Festival, Wilhelm Isringhausen caught a shuttle to the concert site planning to learn the layout of the festival grounds. A brown paper sack containing sausages and a loaf of sourdough bread swung from the German's right hand as he ambled across the rolling, freshly mowed field. In the distance, hammers and electric saws whacked and buzzed as a host of contracted workers swarmed over the nearly completed framework of the stage. Shielding his eyes with his left hand he scanned the entire site. He wanted to know where the performers might congregate before and after their appearances. If he hadn't already stolen it, when The Hounds left the stage with The Book he wanted to know exactly which way they would go.
He hadn't invited any of the secret agents with whom he found himself enlisted. He hadn't previously known them and he didn't like them, especially that French bitch, and they didn't like him. Good. He didn't need to be liked . . . not by them. They would only get in his way. Someone wanted The Book so much they paid a sizable sum for this team of thieves, so it stood to reason that someone else would be willing to pay as much, maybe more, to anyone who stole it.
A half-dozen men grunted and groaned, hoisting The Festival's two sound mixing boards from the rear of an eighteen wheeler's long, black trailer. After gingerly setting the fragile equipment on several large, rolling platforms, they pushed their cargo to a point approximately two hundred yards in front of the stage's center. Flowing around them, a meandering stream of men came and went, trundling back and forth between the stage and a second black trailer with the sound company's name, Canegreen, stenciled in white, through the middle of a large, lime-green capital C. The scene resembled ants at a picnic, but instead of crumbs, the workers carried components of the speaker system that would soon hang from erected cranes to cast the sounds of rock and rap across a sea of music lovers.
Continuing towards the stage he stopped when a thin man with a graying beard and shoulder-length hair called out, "Oy, you!" In bright orange letters across the front of his black T-shirt, the word, "SECURITY," stood out almost as noticeably as his Cockney accent.
Isringhausen glanced around. Perhaps the Brit meant someone else.
"I mean you," the man called out again.
The guard nodded, held up his wrist and pointed at a green, plastic bracelet. “Where's yours?" he asked.
"I dont haf vun."
"You gotta 'ave a bracelet."
"Das ist vat I told zem, I haf to have a bracelet, but zey said zey ran
"Ze guy zat vas gifing out ze bracelets."
"No, I mean who’re ya workin' for? Are ya with HBO? We screwed up and didn't give ‘em enough."
"Ja, ja, das ist vat zey said. Somebody screwed up."
"So you're with HBO, are ya?"
"Ja." To get out of this jam he'd have claimed to be part of the Mickey
Mouse Cartoon Club. He and his fellow thieves had orange-colored bracelets that were good for the entire three-day event, but he hadn't known he would need a green one before it opened.
"Right," the security guard beckoned. "Come 'ere."
Reluctantly, Isringhausen obeyed, unsure of what might happen.
"Whataya got in your sack, there?" the guard pointed.
The Pope's rogue agent raised the sack and held it out.
Peering into the paper bag, the guard got a whiff of fresh bread and liberally seasoned pork. "All I 'ad this mornin' was a biscuit and a cup o' tea,” he complained. “You wouldn't be willin' to part with one o' them sausages, now, would ya?"
Seeing no alternative, Isringhausen sighed, "Go ahead. Take vun."
Nodding gratefully, the guard reached in and pulled out a fat six-incher, the biggest one. Admiring it, he said, "Now, then, 'bout your bracelet . . . I just took a box of 'em to the HBO trailer, back 'o the stage."
"Zat is vere I vas going - back behind ze stage."
"Anyone stops ya, tell 'em Ziggy said you're okay. Sorry 'bout the shortage. They just got misplaced, mate. You know how it is, right?"
"Ja, alvays it is somezing, isn't it?" Isringhausen's cheeks quivered with the effort as he forced a cheerful smile and held it for an eternity - two seconds. He flinched slightly, accepting a good-natured slap on the back, and then headed for the HBO trailer, waving half-heartedly. "Aufweidersein, Ziggy." Saying the man's name bothered him. Ziggy sounded too much like Izzy. He hated being called Izzy.
~ ~ ~
Easing the Bugatti into the plaza in front of Notre Dame, Damien lowered the driver's-side window and asked, "Do you have a five for parking?"
"Are you serious?" Delaflote sounded surprised.
"Yeah, I don't have a five on me." Damien reached for the parking ticket that popped out of the entry gate tower.
Reaching into his back pocket, Damien's security chief shook his head. "You don't have to pay upfront. They accept credit cards, you know."
"I don't like to use credit cards for little things."
Fumbling in his wallet, Francois questioned his employer, "Why not? It makes more sense than —"
"Look," Damien snapped, "I just don't, okay?"
Francois shrugged and handed over the five-Euro note. "Okay, here." Studying the grim look on Damien's face, he asked, "Feeling uneasy about Cardinal Dubois?"
Pulling into a parking space at the end of a row, separated by several spaces from the nearest car, Damien replied, "The Archbishop didn't exactly ask for an autograph the last time."
"True," Francois nodded. "But you didn't seem to care. If I may ask, why have we returned?"
"I know they want The Book."
"What?" Delaflote shed his shoulder harness and turned toward Damien.
Calmly unbuckling, Damien remained silent for a moment. He leaned forward and punched the button that killed the engine before turning to face Francois. "The Catholic Church - I know they want it. I know they intend to steal The Book. I'm here to tell them they don't have to."
"But, but . . ." Francois sputtered. "What about the concert? What
about your plans to —"
"I'm going to let them have it - but not until after the show. Not until I've played my part - fulfilled my destiny. No offense to you, Francois, but eventually it would be stolen.
"I would not allow it!" Francois vowed, shaking a fist. "They would have to kill me first!"
"Simmer down, Double-Oh. They would kill you - I have no doubt of that. They would kill you - and me - and maybe some of the other members of the band. Judas knew." Damien took a deep, calming breath, let it out slowly, and continued. "At first there will be panic and outrage, but after the world begins to understand the power of The Book, some will want to use it against their enemies."
Damien and Francois opened their doors and slid out of the low-slung two-seater. "What about the reliquary?" Francois asked and added, "You paid seventy-thousand Euros to have it constructed."
"I’ll sell it with The Book.” Damien locked the Bugatti and headed in
the direction of the cathedral's entrance.
"You are going to sell it?"
"Sure," Damien stopped long enough to turn to Francois and say, "You didn't think I'd give it away for free, did you?"
Matching Damien's quick pace, Francois asked, "Do you have a price in mind?"
"May I ask what price that might be?"
"You may ask . . ."
From high atop the cathedral, stone gargoyles and grosteques in the forms of griffins and chimeras stared down as the two men crossed the sun-bathed plaza and melted into the shade of the western facade's world-famous towers.
Tired of waiting for an answer to his question, Francois turned to Damien as they shuffled along in a line of visitors waiting to enter the Church. "So?"
"So, what?" Damien seemed to enjoy making Francois work for the answer.
"So what? What do you mean, 'So what'? Monsieur Faust, if you do not wish to tell me, then say so, but I am curious as to what price you are going to ask for The Book and the reliquary."
"It all depends," Damien replied.
"On how much The Pope is willing to pay."
As they came to the door, a young man reached out and said, "Seven and a half Euros, please."
Damien smiled. Pointing at Francois he said, "He's paying for both of us."
Francois' expression said all that needed to be said.
~ ~ ~
Once his guests were seated The Archbishop walked slowly around to his own chair and sat down. After scooting up, he leaned forward, clasped his hands together on top of his desk and sighed heavily. "Monsieurs Faust and Delaflote," he nodded to each, "to what, or, to whom do I owe the, uh . . ." he conspicuously cleared his throat, "pleasure of your company today?"
Damien made no attempt at small talk. "The Book sent me, Cardinal Dubois."
Francois leaned over and whispered into Damien's ear, "You should refer to him as Your Grace, or Your Eminence . . ."
"I didn't do that the last time we were here," Damien whispered back.
"I know," Francois replied. "I don't think he liked that very much."
"He's a big boy, he'll get over it."
"Is it wise to offend those with whom you negotiate?"
Damien shrugged and nodded. "Perhaps not. But he won't throw his arms around me and call me 'Bro,' no matter what I do."
The Archbishop waited patiently, his head tilted to the left, his eyebrows raised. When the whispering subsided, he said, "Please, explain. What did you mean when you said The Book sent you?"
Damien settled back in his chair, crossed his left leg over his right and said, "The last time we came here, we talked about how The Church's views have changed on some fundamental things, like affairs of the heart. Do you remember that?"
The Archbishop nodded. "Yes, Monsieur Faust. I recall our previous conversation."
"I paid a lot of money for The Book, Cardinal Dubois. It's mine, legally. So let me ask you another question regarding The Ten Commandments." Damien fixed the Archbishop with an icy stare. "How does The Church feel these days about the commandment, 'Thou shalt not steal?'"
"The Archbishop stared back. "Why do you ask?"
"Because - I know. I know The Church is planning to steal, or should I say pay someone to steal The Book. If you try to steal it, people are going to get hurt. Because I don't want anyone to get hurt, I thought it might make more sense if I sold it to you."
"Where did you get the idea that The Church might try to steal from you, Monsieur Faust?
"The Book speaks to me. It reveals things. You were the one that said it could influence my mind . . . You were right."
Leaning further forward, his eyes narrowing, The Archbishop asked, "What makes you think that The Church would have any interest in purchasing this artifact?"
"Maybe you don't," Damien shot back. "Let's find out." He uncrossed his legs, stood up abruptly and pointed towards the door. "C'mon Francois let's go."
"Go?" Francois rose from his chair, clearly not understanding why they were leaving so soon.
"Yeah, we're leaving." Damien gave his security chief a gentle push towards the exit. "My bad. The Archbishop says they're not interested, so we might as well take our business elsewhere."
They were almost at the door when The Archbishop called out, "I didn't say we weren't interested, Monsieur Faust."
Placing a hand on Francois' shoulder, Damien said, "Wait a minute. For a moment there I could've sworn I heard something." He turned around and looked back at The Archbishop. "Did you say something, Cardinal Dubois?"
"Yes, Monsieur Faust. I didn't mean to imply that we are not interested in obtaining this artifact of yours."
"No . . . I didn't. Come back in and sit down . . . please. Have a cup of coffee with me while we discuss your terms."
Damien wanted to drag it out. He wanted to savor the moment - make it last." Really? You mean you want me to come back in - sit down - and have a cup of coffee with you while I share my thoughts about what might constitute a fair price for this - priceless treasure?" Damien turned to his bodyguard, smirking ever so slightly. "Café, Francois?"
The Archbishop reached over to his phone and punched a button to summon one of his assistants.
"Yes, Your Grace?"
"Three coffees, please."
Francois came back and sat down, followed by Damien, who suggested, "Something to eat might not be a bad idea. Negotiating always makes me hungry. Maybe a nice chicken-salad sandwich on a croissant?
What's good here, Cardinal Dubois?"
Leaning over, Francois whispered, "You are treating The Archbishop like a waiter."
"Yeah, I know, but Cookie was off this morning," Damien explained. "I didn't have any breakfast."
Again The Archbishop reached for the intercom button. The same voice as before sprang from the speaker. "Yes, Your Eminence?"
"In addition to the coffee, bring us three, chicken-salad sandwiches, please, on croissants, and three slices of lemon cake for dessert."
Amazed, Francois shook his head. He had seen it happen so many times. Damien always got his way.
~ ~ ~
As soon as Damien popped the last bite of cake into his mouth, the
French Archbishop asked, "Finished?"
The dessert's lemony tang and moist texture faded into a sweet memory as Damien smacked his lips and brushed golden crumbs from his blonde mustache. "More like ready to get started," he replied, pointing at the Archbishop's desk phone. "Get The Pope on the line."
Stunned, Francois turned in Damien's direction. "Did you just say what I thought you said?" he asked.
The Archbishop reacted similarly. "I beg your pardon?"
"No offense intended, Cardinal Dubois, but I'm sure anything you and I
might agree to would have to be approved by The Pope." Turning to Francois, Damien shrugged, "No sense in dealing with a middle-man if you don't have to."
Slowly and deliberately, as if creating a brief diversion to maintain his composure, The Archbishop moved his dessert plate, coffee cup and saucer to the far left side of the wide desk. Having made room, he leaned forward, laying his forearms down and interlacing his fingers. "Monsieur Faust, The Holy Father does not sit around all day waiting for me to call. He is a very busy man. I'm sure you can understand that."
"Doesn't hurt to try, does it?" Damien reasoned, and pointed to the phone again. "And be sure to let him know that I want to deal directly with him, rather than through you, Cardinal Dubois."
" . . . in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti, amen." In Rome, the phone began to ring as Pope Pius XIII traced the sign of the cross, concluding a fervent prayer for guidance regarding his ordered theft of
The Book. Thinking perhaps Luigi Lubrano, The Cardinal Chamberlain, might be calling from The Isle of Wight, he picked up the receiver and informally greeted the caller in his native language. "Pronto."
"Holy Father, forgive me for this unscheduled interruption . . ."
"Jean-Louis?" The Pope sounded surprised to hear the voice of the French Archbishop. Only members of The Holy See and a handfull of other carefully chosen individuals possessed the telephone number that rang the phone in The Pontiff's private quarters. "You need not beg forgiveness. You know I am always happy to hear from you."
"You are most kind, Your Holiness. I am calling with matters related to The Book. I have with me —"
"Ah yes, The Book. That is no long a concern, Jean-Louis. We have taken the necessary steps. When the sun rises on Monday morning, The Book will have a new home - a safe and permanent one, here, in the Vatican's archives."
"Yes, well, that is the reason I am calling, Holy Father. Your plan may no longer be necessary."
"What are you trying to say, Jean-Louis?"
"Damien Faust is here with me. He says he wants to sell The Book."
"He wants to sell it?"
"Yes, Your Holiness, but he will not sell it to me. He will only deal directly with you."
"Really? And he is not of the faith, not Catholic?"
"No, Holy Father, he most certainly is not."
"Yet he desires an audience with me on the phone?"
"Yes, Your Holiness."
"How curious. I wonder why? Ask him, Jean-Louis."
The Archbishop lowered the phone and asked, "Monsieur Faust, why do you insist on speaking to The Holy Father?"
Damien replied without hesitation. "Because, Cardinal Dubois, while you are a man of the cloth, he is the man with the clout."
The Archbishop considered the explanation, nodded, and raised the phone to his mouth once again. "Your Holiness, he said —"
"I heard what he said, Jean-Louis. Put him on the phone."
"Are you sure, Holy Father?"
"Go ahead," The Pope insisted. "I am interested to hear his proposal."
The Archbishop's face paled slightly as he held the phone out to Damien. Francois held up his hand and said, "Un instant, s'il vous plaît." He pulled Damien aside. Grasping him by the shoulders like a coach giving last-minute instructions to his star player. "You are about to speak to Pope Pius the Thirteenth, the leader of the Holy Roman Catholic Church. Please, Monsieur Faust, I am begging you... promise me you will exhibit restraint. You must show him the proper amount of respect. Don't try to get familiar - you must remain formal. Refer to him only as Holy Father, or Your Holiness."
Frowning, Damien said, "Give me a little credit, Francois. I know how
important the guy is. I'll be on my best behavior."
Francois stared into his employer's eyes, detected what he perceived as a spark of sincerity, and stepped aside.
Taking the phone from The Archbishop's hand, Damien perched casually on the desk, and offered a melodic, "Hellooo." Close to hyperventilating, Francois listened intently as his employer said, "Yes sir, this is Damien Faust. I'm the guy with The Book and you're the guy with the authority to pay me what I want. So let's see if we can come to some sort of an agreement, okay?"
Francois had begun to breathe easier when Damien said, "So, Pope Pius, I'm kinda wondering why you chose that name. To me it doesn't sound all that humble, you know. I mean, like, you had a pretty wide variety of names to choose from, didn't you? You could have picked Linus or Lucius. Did you know there really were Popes with those names? Oh, you did, huh? Well, all right, but did you know that the famous comic strip, Peanuts, had a character named Linus? Yeah, it did - really. No, I don't know if the guy who wrote it was Catholic or not, but I thought you'd get a kick out that little piece of trivia. And… what's up with Lucius? Was he like the first Black Pope, or what?"
The Archbishop's jaw dropped in disbelief. Francois sat down, bent forward, and buried his face in his hands.
~ ~ ~
Prompted by Ticketmaster's announcement that all available tickets were sold for the Isle of Wight Festival, Jonathon Fedwell, the chosen director of the HBO broadcast, texted Adolph from the trailer behind the festival concert stage. "You're a genius. Call me."
Sitting at the Wellington Hotel bar with the band's backup singers, Delilah, Jezebel and Salome, Adolph reacted coolly. "U call me," he replied.
Moments later, Adolph's iPhone rang. He considered letting it go to voice-mail, but answered with a half-hearted, "Heil Hitler."
"Adolph, Jonathon Fedwell here. How do you do it?"
"Vould zis be ze Fedvell, mit HBO - ze company zat threatned to sue me?”
Fedwell coughed and denied culpability. "It's those corporate lawyers, Herr Hitler, what can we do?”
"Maybe ve do vhat Shakespeare suggested four-hundred years ago, Ja?"
"Right.’…kill all the Lawyers.' By the way, you were spot-on about the Oprah show. Her warnings not to watch the broadcast have been like throwing petrol on a burning fire. We've expanded coverage to include the internet and cell phones, so we're expecting two hundred-and-fifty million viewers, the largest viewing audience in concert broadcast history. Sorry 'bout Judas, though. What're you going to —"
"Ve haf it covered, Fedvell." Adolph interrupted. Now, quit yankin' mine
schlange, und tell me vhat you vant."
"I wanted to interview Damien. I hear he's still in Paris with a broken heart, seeing a psychiatrist."
"Nein. No interview. Damien ist verboten."
"Because, das ist da-vay-der-Führer-vants-it. Verstehen?"
"Verstehen? I don't spriggin the friggin' German, Adolph.
Adolph didn't either, but over the past couple of years he had added a few words to his German vocabulary that sometimes required translation. "Verstehen means understand - understand?"
Adolph knew the director wanted the dirt about Damien's emotional state and why he hadn't arrived on the Island, but he didn't intend to shed any light on the subject. "Damien vill arrife ven he needs to, und not before."
Fedwell groaned. "Then, can I at least interview R. J. Penny, your choreographer? I hear a lot of theatrics are planned."
"Vunderbar!" Adolph heartily approved of that angle getting extra play. Before hanging up, he provided Fedwell with the choreographer's contact info and offered a final, "Zeig Heil."
After slipping his iPhone back into its holster, Adolph picked up his martini. His lips were pursed, prepared to take a sip from the wide-rimmed glass, when Delilah voiced a concern that she and the other girls had pondered for days. "Adolph, what's going to happen once The Book is
exposed? I mean, right now everyone's joking about it, but I've seen this thing. They all think this is just a bunch of hype to sell the show, but if it does what Damien says it will, won't people go bat-shit crazy?"
"Don't you worry your pretty little heads," Adolph replied to all three girls. "By the time the herd gets spooked, Seaclose Park won't even be visible in the rear-view mirrors of our limos. By then we should be purty dang close to hoppin on our helicopter."
Jezebel glanced at Delilah and then back at Adolph. In her Jamaican accent she asked, "So, mon, for sure, you tink dere will be a riot?"
"Oh, yeah," Adolph nodded and sighed. "But the crowd won't rush the
stage. They'll be runnin' away from it - like stampedin' cattle."
~ ~ ~
Sitting in his room at The George Hotel, The Cardinal Chamberlain,
Luigi Lubrano, listened, shocked by The Holy Father's revelation. "You have already purchased The Book?"
"I have, Luigi. Damien Faust suggested this might reduce the likelihood of violence… and I agreed."
"And now you want me to tell the six agents who have shown up that their services are no longer required?"
"Six? I seem to recall seven."
"Brandon Duke, the former CIA agent has not arrived. I don't know why and I don't know where he is. He should have been here by now."
"Perhaps he chose not to participate," The Pope surmised. "These are mercenaries, Luigi. When you pay them, I'm fairly certain they will have no problem with leaving."
"That may be true of the majority, Holy Father, but I am concerned that two of the agents may still try to take The Book for themselves."
"Tell me why you feel this way, Luigi. Who do you suspect?"
"The Jew and the German. I wonder, Your Holiness, if our Jewish professor from Boston University has the willpower to walk away from such a treasure. Rather than money, Sheldon Silverman pursues publicity and the admiration of his peers. If he acquires this relic, he'll undoubtedly turn it over to The Smithsonian, or The Louvre."
"And the German?"
"Holy Father, I fear I committed a grievous error in judgment when I hired Wilhelm Isringhausen. It is entirely possible that he will try to steal The Book and sell it to the highest bidder."
"Luigi, I am not pleased - yet I acknowledge that you were not afforded the luxury of adequate time to assemble this team. I think you should retain the services of the two agents you feel would be most able to stop these two men. Damien Faust assured me that he employs two very capable security agents. They will see to it that The Book is handed over to us at the end of the show, but I wish to provide them with additional backup, just in case. We cannot allow The Book to fall into the wrong hands."
~ ~ ~
On his way through the lobby of The George Hotel, Cardinal Lubrano stopped and stared at his reflection in a full-length mirror. How can that be me? He neither looked nor felt like the Camerlengo of the Holy Roman Church. Instead of his customary black cassock, he sported tan slacks and a white, tropical linen shirt. A brown leather belt replaced the scarlet sash normally worn around his midsection. Reaching up, he pressed a hand against his chest, which felt bare, unadorned by the pectoral cross that normally hung from a chain around his neck. Somehow, even his hair, as short as it was, looked wrong without the scarlet zucchetto perched on his head. He felt uncomfortably vulnerable without the psychological shield his clerical garb provided.
Having knocked twice, he waited, fidgeting in the hallway outside of room number sixteen, trying to adjust to his under-cover role as a common parishioner. He leaned forward, bowing slightly when the door cracked open and then stopped himself. That is the body language of a priest or Cardinal, he realized and reminded himself, today I am just Luigi Lubrano. "Allyson La Carteloise?" he asked.
"Oui?" Exposing only disheveled hair and a wary face, she peeked around the corner of the door, suspiciously eyeing the stranger; an olive-complected man of medium heighth wtih closely cropped, black hair and a large nose.
"I have been asked by your current employer to inform you of changes regarding your objective here on the Isle of Wight." His accent pinpointed his roots as Italian.
"Changes?" She unlatched the security chain and opened the door a bit further, adding a neck and a shoulder, bare except for the thin white strap of her slip, to the already visible hair and head.
"Yes, an agreement has been reached with Damien Faust. The Bookis to be to handed over by Sister Marie Marguerite on Sunday evening, at the conclusion of the performance by The Hounds of Hell. Your job, now, is to make sure that transaction takes place."
"And to whom is this book to be given?"
"To me," the Cardinal Chamberlain replied, "in the center of the stage at Seaclose Park."
"And who might you be?"
"I am the one chosen by your benefactor to deliver this to you." The Pope's right-hand man held out an envelope, large enough to contain unfolded legal documents. Allyson stepped out, barefoot, from behind the door, far enough to reveal that she wore only a short, white satin slip, which came to mid-thigh.
"What is this?" the petite brunette inquired. She reached out, extending her slender arm to accept the envelope.
"Perhaps you should open it," Cardinal Lubrano suggested.
"Allyson, who is it?" A male voice called to her from somewhere inside the room. The accent branded the concerned speaker as Australian.
Partially closing the door, Allyson turned away and answered. "Some man with an envelope. He claims to represent whoever is paying us - says we have a new objective."
Moments later, as the door swung open again, the unshaven face and bare chest of Sydney Danforth appeared behind the French Policewoman. "Here, now, what's this about new objectives?" he demanded.
"The plain clothsed Cardinal greeted him affably. ”Good morning Mr. Danforth. You'll find everything you need to know, along with a cashier's check, in the envelope I've handed to Miss Carteloise. A similar envelope, containing the same information and a check, is waiting for you at the desk of the hotel's concierge. I became concerned when I knocked on the door of the room assigned to you and got no answer. I'm relieved to find you here." Cardinal Lubrano smiled.
"But, the job isn't finished. Why are you paying us now?" Allyson wanted to know.
"You are being paid the remainder of the amount owed for the job you originally agreed to do. Additional compensation will be provided when you satisfactorily complete your new task."
"How much?" Danforth asked.
Cardinal Lubrano reached into his shirt pocket. He withdrew a small, folded slip of paper and held it out. "If questions remain after reading the information within the envelope, call me at this number. Danforth, reached over Allyson's shoulder to take it. The Cardinal nodded to both, wished them a pleasant day, and added, "I hope you've found the accommodations to be acceptable."
Glancing at her shirtless guest, Allyson smiled and said, "No complaints here." Turning back to the man at the door she asked, "How did you find rooms this close to the beginning of the festival?" .
"We were most fortunate," Cardinal Lubrano suggested. "Call it divine intervention."
Coming out of the bathroom, Allyson Carteloise stood silently for a moment, admiring Sydney Danforth's powerful frame. Absorbed by what he read, he sat on the corner of the bed, going over the recently delivered information from their benefactor. Unaware of being watched, he wore a look of concern and nothing else. When he became aware of her return to the bedroom, he smiled and flipped the last sheet of paper aside, onto the twisted pile of bed linens.
"Hey, careful - I haven't even read that, yet," Allyson pointed. "You barely missed the wet spot."
"Wanna make another?" Her amorous visitor suggested.
"You couldn't possibly. . ."
"That's the thing about us Aussies."
"What do you mean?" Allyson came closer, unassuaged desire danced in her eyes as she reached out and carressed Sydney's strong shoulder.
"We do love our wrong-side business, you know."
"So when people call it 'The land of down under', they're not simply referring to the country's location?" Allyson pulled her slip up, over her head, tossed it onto the back of the chair at the writing desk, and crawled onto the bed as Sydney lay back.
Not far away, Cardinal Lubrano continued his rounds. Only two agents remained on his list of those to be sent home; Sheldon Silverman and Wilhelm Isringhausen.
Silverman opened his envelope immediately, glanced at the check and scanned the letter. Suspicion in his voice, he asked, "So, cut a deal already?"
Without replying, the Pope's messenger turned and proceeded down the hall, but paused as Silverman leaned out of his room and called after him, "I cancelled a dig in the Valley of the Kings to join this little band of thieves. I didn't do it for the coin. This artifact isn't just historically important, it's particularly dangerous. You're aware of that, aren't you?"
Cardinal Lubrano turned back around, studied the frustrated professor for a moment and replied, "The only thing of which I am aware, professor, is that I thankfully have but one more envelope to deliver. Have a pleasant day."
The Cardinal Chamberlain expected Wilhelm Isringhausen to be the most disturbed of the recipients on his list. In that regard the German did not disappoint. His angry eyes burned a hole in the back of the man who delivered the bad news and walked away. He shouted and shook the envelope high in the air, "Vas ist das? Zey can't do zis! I vas hired to do a job, und I vill do it!"
(This chapter is not intended to follow the previous chapter. It should appear near the end of the novel, but I simply had to get this idea out of my head and onto a screen or paper while it remained fresh in my mind.)
After the final encore of their planned set, The Hounds of Hell waved to the crowd and exited the stage as the spotlights went dark. None of the band members returned for what was planned and proved to be an unforgettable "curtain call."
Illuminated by a single shaft of light, Sister Marie Marguerite struggled to rise from the wheelchair that brought her to stage-center. Having survived Herr Isringhausen's attempted theft of The Book she summoned the remainder of what little strength she possessed. Staring at the steel girders supporting the lighting system above the stage, she prayed silently, Help me, oh Lord. Grant me the ability to complete this task in accordance with thy will.
~ ~ ~
Believing the show to be over, the audience trudged toward the exits. Following each other like cattle, they discussed the merits of the evening’s show and their shared experiences during the three-day festival.
“Faust can really sing, you know?" A young man in a Hounds of Hell T-shirt professed. "My dad says Robert Plant was the best lead singer ever, but Faust kicks ass . . .”
In front of the young Hounds of Hell fan, a tall lad, wearing no shirt so as not to obscure his tattoos, turned around and said, “The Hounds are too theatrical - too staged. I liked Fat Whitey. So raw, so spontaneous . . .”
The unique sound of church bells, prerecorded by Pilot’s PZM mics, stopped the entire herd. Collectively, they turned and stared at the strange and pitiful sight on stage as a sudden, stiff breeze brought a precipitous chill and whispered a warning that no one understood.
In addition to the drop in temperature, the deep-throated base of the baroque pipe organ recorded at The L’église Saint-Eustache added to the dramatic change in ambiance that preceded the haunting words, written and recorded for this moment.
Harmonizing with the bells of the Perpignan Carillon, the recorded voices of a chanting choir provided a fitting background for Damien's voice. “Satan's hounds grow hungry, of these words take heed. For those who are guilty, beware what you read. Beware of The Book. . . on thy soul it will feed.”
Illuminated on the darkened stage by a single shaft of light, like a ray from heaven above, a living skeleton in a nun’s habit lifted something from the seat of her wheelchair. Jumbo screens on either side of the stage displayed a pair of emaciated arms, little more than flesh-covered sticks, trembling with the effort required to lift and open what appeared to be a large book.
Nobody gazed skyward, where the clouds came to life. Rolling and tumbling above the Isle of Wight, they billowed like steam over a boiling cauldron, smothering the full moon and its comforting glow. As the first rumble of thunder blended with the ground-shaking power of the pipe organ, serpents of electrical energy whirled and writhed within the bowels of the storm brewing above Seaclose Park.
The HBO cameramen obeyed Jonathon Fedwell’s direction and zoomed in for a close up. “I want to be able to see that book as if I stood on the stage with a magnifyin’ glass! Get it in focus, did you hear me, you buggers? I said get in tight and get it in focus!”
Capturing the attention of every pair of eyes, the image of The Book loomed large, although slightly out of focus, on the giant screens adorning both sides of the stage. Even blind concert goers, shuffling along with the aid of friends, guide dogs, or white canes, turned and stared, their sightless gaze drawn to the precise spot where Sister Marie raised The Book above her head.
The sick were not healed, the dead were not raised, neither did the lame rise up that night. A few, however, did experience a miracle. Among the visually challenged, some gasped at the sudden return of sharply defined images. Within seconds their blossoming joy withered and they wished, deep within their souls, that they could blot out what their miraculously restored eyes beheld. Inscribed in the great book of judgment, they saw their name. In agony, each guilty man and woman wept as they viewed the list of transgressions for which they would be eternally damned.
Among the blind music fans whose vision did not return, some found themselves abandoned. Bewildered, they cried out in vain for companions who vanished without warning or a final word of goodbye.
Color faded from skin of all shades. Faces twisted in horror, as random individuals transformed into wisps of white. They rose into the air and hurtled in streaks of pale light, like shooting stars, toward the magnified images of The Book.
For the first time since the humble shepherds of Judea harkened unto the news of Christ’s birth, mortal ears perceived ethereal notes, sung by a heavenly host. In the flashing skies above the Isle of Wight, the voices of angels, pure and clear, rose above the tuned bells of the carillon, the fearful cries of the crowd, and the rumble of thunder.
Rather than salutations of joy and good tidings, the angels delivered a mournful dirge of judgment and eternal damnation. Pierced to the depths of their souls by profound feelings of loss and compassion, the meek and innocent watched in wonder and horror.
The Cardinal Chamberlain fell to his knees, his tan slacks stained by the green grass, dampened by the evening dew. Staring into the sky, he wept. No longer would God's existence be debated.
In Rome, alone in his private quarters, The Pope trembled as he viewed HBO's broadcast. “The power of The Lord’s judgment is upon us,” he whispered. “This world will never be the same."
~ ~ ~
Seven million people, gone. Six thousand disappeared while attending the annual music festival on the Isle of White. The rest vanished while watching HBO's live broadcast of the concert, distributed around the world via satellite and internet. Imagine millions of people watching televisions, wireless laptops, and fancy cell phones of every description, in hundreds of different countries around the world. One minute they enjoyed the broadcast, and in the blink of an eye they were sucked into the screen they watched.
Reacting to what occurred during the headlining group's finale, as the dark of night gave way to the light of day on Monday morning, every Christian congregation around the world reported astonishing, standing-room-only audiences.
Kings, Queens, Presidents and Prime Ministers were awakened to news of the catastrophe. Pope Pius XIII moved with unprecedented diligence in declaring the previous night's incident a miracle. A press release from The Vatican stated, "With fresh evidence of God's will made manifest on the Isle of White, no longer must devout Christians depend solely on faith and the 2,000 year old written testimonials of Christ's apostles."
Leave it to the TV news networks to fan the flames. In their efforts to drive ratings and cover the phenomenon, they re-broadcast, not once, but time and again, the final, dramatic segment of the concert that resulted in the mass disappearances. In the process, another million souls were lost before they realized the harm they were doing.
In Atlanta, Georgia, during an emergency meeting at CNN Headquarters, in what network executives referred to as their "War Room," Bob Stockbridge, one of the most popular morning news anchors, was harping about the out-of-focus, blown-up images they were replaying. As cathedral, pipe organ music played, the band deserted the darkened stage, leaving only a pitiful, anorexic Nun, illuminated by a single, vertical shaft of light. She was holding a large, leather-bound book. From the back of the room, Stockbridge stood and raised his voice in an effort to get something done, "That camera work is pathetic!" Gesturing toward the big screen at the other end of the room, he complained, "Can't our people clean up and sharpen these images?"
When the cameras zoomed in on the book, the Nun opened it to reveal what seemed to be nothing more than blank pages. Nobody else in the room seemed shocked, but Bob must have seen something as scary as hell. In the dimly lit room, everyone saw his face turn white as a ghost. In the blink of an eye, as his fellow newscasters gaped in horror, his body rose off the ground and flew forward, into the fuzzy picture he criticized. After that, they stopped showing reruns of the incident and focused on interviewing eyewitnesses to the bizarre disappearances.
Around the world, law enforcement officials, ambulance drivers, and medical personnel found themselves overwhelmed, not because of looting or violent crimes - criminal activity came to a stand still. In the United States there were no mass suicides, as had occurred when the stock markets crashed. No angry riots took place in the streets of Detroit as there were when General Motors and Chrysler closed their doors and shut down the factories. The problem was the sudden increase in major accidents involving everything from motorcycles and mini-Coopers, to 18-wheelers driven by distraught individuals racing to reach their homes or the nearest place of worship.
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