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Rated: 18+ · Novel · Dark · #1642921
Chapters 9-13
Hounds of Hell
                                           
  Chapter 9

      Already frail, Sister Marie Marguerite's health worsened. Her appetite, bird-like for as long as she could recall, had entirely disappeared. Tall at 1.74 meters, her physique appeared skeletal. She weighed only 41.3 Kilograms. Determined to leave her recovery in the hands of the Lord, she rejected all suggestions that she see a doctor.
        Father Laroche scolded her as she sat on the edge of the narrow cot where she slept. "I understand that you missed breakfast again this morning. Sister Marie, what has happened to you?" The priest stared, waiting for a reply.
        Sister Marie sat quietly, focusing on the floor, offering nothing in her defense.
        "I don't quite know what to say, Sister. As a bride of Christ you shouldn't need to be reminded that your body is the Lord's temple. There are doctors that specialize in the treatment of eating disorders, did you know that?"
        Remaining silent, the nun indicated her awareness with a barely perceivable nod.
      "You're only twenty-eight," the priest continued. "You have so much to accomplish, so much to look forward to . . . Do you no longer wish to serve our Lord?"
        Sister Marie looked up. Her sunken, sullen eyes peered out from pale, skull-like features. She knew not why she had been chosen to suffer, or how she might have contracted this strange affliction. She only knew that food had become an abomination. The sight of it nauseated her. "I have prayed, Father," she whispered, lacking the confidence or strength to speak in a stronger voice. Clasping her skeletal hands together, she continued, "Prayer is the only form of sustenance through which I find strength. I have prayed and continue to fervently pray for an answer, for a cure, if God so wills."
        The priest laid a sympathetic hand on her boney shoulder. Glaringly evident beneath the black sleeve of her habit, he felt an alarming absence of muscle and flesh. "Sister Marie, men are coming today. They seek a nun, someone to assist them in a worldwide broadcast they say will provide irrefutable evidence of our Lord's existence. I agreed to allow them to speak with one of our sisters. Since you are unable to attend to your duties in the kitchen, and others are doing extra work in your absence, I thought you might agree to meet briefly with these men? You needn't remain standing during their visit. Just hear what they have to say. After they leave, you can let me know if their plan is worthy of our participation. Can you do that?"
        "I will try, Father."
        "You don't feel as if you might faint or collapse while they are here, do you? We can't have people thinking we are starving you."
        "I will be fine."
        Getting up to leave, Father Laroche said, "You must get something to eat, Sister. Perhaps some broth, or a banana — they are rich in potassium."
        Sister Marie's face involuntarily twisted in revulsion. Embarrassed by and deeply ashamed of the weakness her reaction revealed, her gaze returned to the floor. "I will try," she promised.
        Sympathetically petting her her bowed head, Father Laroche assured her, "I will pray for you, my child."
                                   
    ~        ~        ~

        "Did you see her?" Adolph buckled his shoulder harness as Damien slid into his seat and hit the start button on the Bugatti's console. Excited to have found a suitable nun, Adolph continued, "Talk about perfect - those haunted, listless eyes. She looked like something out of a German concentration camp."
        "You would make that connection, wouldn't you? But you're right," Damien agreed. "Sister Marie is perfect. Spooky isn't it?" He turned towards Adolph. "Like someone is greasing the wheels for us. Like everything is preordained." He shifted the two-seater into reverse and glanced over his shoulder. As he backed away from the weathered, split-rail fence, better suited as a corral for livestock than a boundary for a parking lot, gravel crunched beneath the wide tires, which cost over €15,000. Once the distinctive grill of the red and black Bugatti faced the road, he shifted the semi-automatic transmission into first, but kept his foot on the brake.
        Turning towards his manager, Damien said, "I've noticed that when I get out in the country . . ." he paused collecting his thoughts, "When I'm away from The Book I think differently. I can focus on other things." He squinted into the cerulean blue sky, smiled and sighed. "Look at that," he marveled. His face lit up with child-like wonder. "The sky is like a painter's canvas, today," he pointed. "The clouds look like wispy, white brush strokes." 
        LIfting his foot off the brake, Damien's thousand-horsepower vehicle rolled forward. "When I'm in the office..." He shelved his thought as the Bugatti approached the edge of the convent's driveway. After turning to his left and right, checking for oncoming traffic, he pressed down gently on the accelerator, careful not to spin the Michelins on the gravel, and steered onto the pavement. Gaining speed, the car shifted into second. Already at sixty Km/h in less than three seconds, he picked up where he had left off.
        "When I'm in the office," the car shifted into third, "Some kind of tunnel-vision takes over. I can't think about anything but the concert and The Book. I can't be myself, there, anymore." Trees flew by, peripheral vision blurring as Damien added, "The further I get away from it, the more normal I feel. But, frankly, feeling like me . . ." Shifting to fourth gear, the pitch of the titanium exhaust and the engine's whine dropped a notch and then rose again. "Feeling normal, isn't nearly as exhilarating as feeling like The Messiah — the way I feel when I'm near The Book. Is that sick, or what?" Already cruising at over three-hundred Km/h, Damien pressed the throttle down further. Due to the vehicle's well-insulated cabin and meticulous craftsmanship, the thrum of the Michelins and the sound of the wind grew, but remained subdued.
        Unimpressed by the speed, having ridden with Damien many times, Adolph scratched absent-mindedly at the center of his toothbrush-styled mustache and commented, "Nothin' fazes me, D, but you've been freakin' Judas out, I know that."
        Keeping his eyes on the road, Damien sighed. "Yeah, I'm worried about Ju. He's trying to keep it together, but . . .  I don't know."
        "Precisely why I've got a backup for each of you," Adolph replied. "Someone who can duplicate anything we perform."
        "Maybe they can play the notes," Damien admitted, "but The Hounds are like a cake, you know? Our individual talents and personalities are like ingredients. Mixed together we create something unique. Who we are, and the way we interact, even when we aren't playing, affects how we sound."
        They rode in silence, kilometers whizzing by in a surrealistic rush until Damien said, "What about Delilah? You can't duplicate everything she brings to the group - her confidence, her passion."
        Adolph disagreeed. "She's just a hot-lookin' bitch that can sing."
        "Does Delilah's backup perform castrations?" Damien wondered, a wry smile appearing.
        "Not sure about that," Adolph chuckled and then got serious again. "I have dups for everyone, except you. Nobody sings like you, 'D'. Besides incredible range and tone, you project a bigger-than-life stage presence, kinda like Robert Plant or Ian Gillan. Deep Purple sounded totally different when Glenn Hughes and Roger Coverdale replaced him. They were still fabulous, but they were a very different band. I don't know what we'd do without you."
        "Ian Gillan," Damien nodded. He had studied the career of the man who sang Smoke on the Water, and then went on to portray the Messiah in Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's rock opera, Jesus Christ, Superstar. "He could wail, way into his sixties. What a voice."
        "What a voice, indeed. That's what everyone says about you. So stay healthy, will you? Damn, I hate seeing you go anywhere without Double-Oh. You probably shouldn't be out with me today, you know?"
        "Yeah, but Francois stayed at the office. He had to wait for the replacements from the Louvre."
        "I know. He forced me to load my Luger, today, just in case. . ."
        "You actually loaded that thing? It's real? Man, all this time I thought it was just a prop. Did you think Sister Marie would try to abduct me?"
        "Who knows? Sister Marie, or some nut-job posing as a fan. Accordin' to Double-Oh, you need to be protected at all times. 'Specially when we have a gig comin' up. All celebrities are susceptible to stalkers, but to make things worse . . . you had to go and purchase The Book. Now there's no tellin' who might be after you." 
        "At least I don't have to worry about anyone catching me from behind."
Glancing down, Damien saw the speedometer's needle sitting at three-hundred-sixty Km/h. He grinned and adjusted his grip on the leather-wrapped steering wheel.
                                       
      ~        ~        ~ 

        "Assalamu alaikum." In a small, poorly lit room on the third floor of the hôpital Hôtel-Dieu, Mohsin Hassan, a dark haired, bearded man, wearing a green turban, patted the chest of a patient whose mutilated hand had been amputated. Hassan was the Imam, a religious and political leader, respected as the head of the Muslim community in his zone.
        Weakened by his ordeal, a slightly groggy Mustafa Alhamzi recognized his visitor and responded by affirming that all good things come to man through God and the one God is Allah.
        After a brief conversation regarding the previous night's bizarre events, Hassan summoned an encouraging smile, a foreign expression compared to the harsh frown of concern he customarily wore on his weathered face. "You may have lost your right hand, but you have served Allah most admirably, my son. After prayers tonight, I will meet with a number of zone leaders. I will share with them what you have told me regarding the cursed book and what it has done to you. We will put this information to good use. Rest easy, Mustafa Alhamzi."
        Mustafa grunted with the effort to rise up on one elbow. Connected to the back of his remaining hand, intravenous medication lines dangled from clear plastic bags hanging from a pole beside his bed. Fearing the pursuit of Satan and his devil dogs, he asked for Allah's protection.
      "Do not trouble yourself about your future," Hassan assured Mustafa. "From now, until the day you consort with the virgins reserved for
you in heaven, you have my word, we will see to your every need."
      Powerless to do anything other than trust in his God, Mustafa sank onto the flimsy, hospital provided pillow and professed his faith in the strength and power only Allah could provide.
      In his native tongue, expressing approval of Mustafa's words and attitude, Hassan parted by praising Allah and again wishing peace to the brave young man. His face grim with determination, his heart filled with purpose, he navigated a maze of interconnecting hallways and took the stairs rather than one of the insufferably slow lifts.
                                   
~        ~        ~
     
        The celebrated French axiom, ‘Vive La Différence’ was not coined in reference to the dissimilarity between the inner city and the suburban zones surrounding Paris. Arranged in a clockwise spiral, the twenty arrondissements of Paris curl outward like the shell of an escargot, starting with the first arrondissement in the middle of the city on the north bank of the Seine. Decades ago, the French essentially banished the poor to low-income housing blocks outside of the arrondissements. Central areas of Paris, where tourists congregate, remain relatively crime free, but the banlieue, a French word for suburbs, especially those in the northeast, where unemployment figures surpass forty percent, teem with violence and criminal activity. The majority of the crimes in that area are committed by irreverent, young people — "banlieusards," primarily disillusioned, unemployed Muslims from North Africa.
        Like a lowly rat chased from a fine French restaurant into which he had briefly managed to squeeze, Mohsin Hassan left the city's fourth arrondissement and skittered back to the refuse and roach-infested sewers of Aulnay-sous-Bois in the Seine-Saint-Denis region. With each kilometer further from the City of Light, the I. Q. level and morality of the population faded. Entering the northeastern suburbs, a welcoming committee of desperation, depression, and depravity greeted him. Decay and despair hung determinedly in the atmosphere like the rank odor of a rotting corpse.
        After five decades of devotion to Allah and his fellow Muslims he had risen to become the respected leader of a disrespected, disaffected community. Unable to spit it out, the vile taste of resentment forever lodged in his mouth and throat. After prayers that evening, he would speak bitter words at the meeting. He would recommend a plan by which his community would force The City of Light, "La Ville-Lumière," to expedite its promise to shine more charitably upon this zone. Never had he condoned or suggested unlawful or violent action as a method of achieving gain, but tonight he would. He would propose that they should steal The Book. They should steal it and use it as a weapon to convince certain political luminaries to grant immediate concessions.
                                   
~        ~        ~

        Clear and businesslike, Francois Delaflote delivered instructions to the two replacements from the Louvre. "I need a copy of this book. It doesn't have to be perfect. Few have ever seen it. I want blank, gilt-edged pages. The leather cover should be the color of wine, although brown would be acceptable as long as it appears to be old. Also, the copy should be the same size as the original. Now, here's the hard part. I need it right away, and by right away I don't mean next month, or next week. I mean later today — no later than tomorrow."
        The two men looked at Francois, and then at each other as if they didn't understand. "Tomorrow?" One of them asked. The name patch, above the pocket of his uniform, identified him as Robert.
      "Oui. Demain — tomorrow." Francois crossed his arms. His right foot began to pat the floor. "Is there a problem?"
        The other man from the Louvre; Jacques, according to his name tag, held up a clipboard and read from an order form. "It says something here about constructing a reliquary. . ."
        "Yes, the measurements have been taken. I need that as well, but I understand its construction will take a few days."
        "A few Days?" Both men from the Louvre spoke in unison. Their owl-like, eyes would have been comical to Francois had he been in a mood to laugh.
        "A copy of The Book must be here by tomorrow at the latest. As I said, it need not be perfect. Must I call your —"
        "No, monsieur," Robert held up a hand to interrupt. "You do not need to make any calls." He bent to pick up The Book.
        "What are you doing?" Francois lunged forward to prevent The Book from being touched.
        "I was going to —"
        "You have your pictures and measurements. Bring me something similar." 
        Robert shrugged. "Do you require gold scrolling on the front?"
        "No."
        "But, you do still want the reliquary?"       
        "Yes, and I expect meticulous precision."
        "And when must you have it?"     
        "As soon as you can properly construct and deliver it."       
        Robert pulled a ballpoint from his pocket and scribbled on the order form. Jacques leaned over to see what he wrote and nodded in approval.
        "Are we finished?" Francois asked. "If so, you should be on your way."
        "Oui, monsieur," Robert replied. Jacques turned to leave. Reaching the opened door, he exited without stopping, but Robert paused in the doorway, looked back, and said, "We will return tomorrow with the copy. Bonne journée."
        "Later today would be better," Francois reiterated. Robert's raised eyebrow and a final nod served as his reply.
        Looking down at The Book, Francois grumbled, "Why couldn't you have burned when I threw you in that fire?"
        The frighteningly clear answer appeared in his mind, causing a cold chill that triggered an involuntary shudder. Goose flesh formed on his arms as the reply sank in. "Because more souls are to be taken. Many more."

                                       
Chapter 10


        "What did the men say, Sister Marie?"
        Staring up from where she sat on the edge of her cot, the rail-thin nun managed a wan smile, hoping Father Laroche would be pleased. "They said I was perfect."
        "Perfect?"
        "They said I am exactly what they were looking for."
        "What is it that they are trying to do, Sister Marie?"
        "They are musicians. They said they are going to perform a concert to be broadcast, worldwide."
        The priest's bushy, black eyebrows sank, forming a V over his nose. "I don't understand how you fit into that picture, Sister. Are you to sing, or perhaps deliver a speech of some type?"
        Sister Marie shook her head, "No, I don't have to say anything. All I have to do is stand in the center of a stage with a book, open it, and hold it so that cameras can zoom in on the pages."
        The V above the priest's nose became more pronounced. "This book you speak of, Sister, what kind of book is it?"
        "They said it is a very large book, and heavy, perhaps four and a half kilograms."
        "Yes, I see." As if his clerical collar had become uncomfortably snug, Father Laroche inserted a finger between his skin and the fabric, pulling it away from his neck. "Did you see it? Did they have pictures?"
        "They did not bring it. They had no pictures."
        "Did they say anything pertaining to what is in this book, Sister?" he asked.
        "What they said made little sense to me. Let me think for a moment."
She paused and looked down at the floor, gathering her thoughts. The priest waited patiently, leaning against the frame of the door to her tiny room. When she looked back up, her face reflected confidence in her recollection of what had been said, but confusion over the meaning. "They said it contains stories of the mortal sins the people in their audience have committed." The nun shook her head and asked, "Father, how could that be?"
        Father Laroche shook his head. "I don't know."
        "They gave me this." Sister Marie withdrew a business card from the pocket of her habit and offered it to the priest. 
        On the glossy, purple card the image of a three-headed, saber-toothed dog appeared with the words, Hounds of Hell, emblazoned in orange. Beneath the band's name it read, Adolph Stackhouse, Manager, and below that was a phone number. "Did I do well?" she asked. Father Laroche failed to respond at first, his eyes remaining fixed on the card, prompting Sister Marie to ask again, "Did I do well?"
        The priest looked up, his eyes filled with grave concern that he tried not to convey in his voice. "Sister, you did fine," he assured her, and headed to his office to make an important call.
                                     
~        ~        ~

          The French Archbishop, Cardinal Jean-Louis Dubois, seemed surprised to learn that the Hounds of Hell sought a nun to assist them. "They were there today?" he asked, already planning to call Rome.     
        "Yes. A short while ago," Father Laroche replied. "They spoke to one of our sisters. They want her to stand on a stage and hold some large book up for all to see. As odd as that may seem, even more bizarre is their claim that this book contains stories about mortal sins that members of the audience have committed. Does that make any sense to you, Cardinal Dubois?"
        "Yes. Yes, as a matter of fact, it does," The French Archbishop admitted, but chose not to explain. "Has the good sister agreed to perform this task?" he asked.
        "Tentatively," the priest replied. "She told them she would do what they request, pending my approval. Should I allow her —"
        "By all means," Cardinal Dubois answered before the priest could finish. "Contact the band's manager. Offer him your full, enthusiastic support. I need you to ask if any practice sessions will be held with this book they speak of. Tell him you want to be sure the sister has a chance to become acclimated to the stage and accustomed to the weight she must bear. After you speak with their manager, call me again. I want a detailed account of the conversation, including Information about when and where any practices may be scheduled."
        "I'm glad I thought to call,Your Eminence. I hadn't realized you would take such an active interest. Now, about this book..."
        "I understand your curiosity, Father Laroche, and I promise to discuss this more fully with you, soon, but I have pressing business to which I must attend. Adieu."
        At his desk, Father Laroche sat, staring at the phone as if it might provide the information The Archbishop withheld. What is going on? he wondered.
                                   
~        ~        ~

        In Rome, Pope Pius XIII spoke again with the French Archbishop. "This isn't a Dan Brown novel, Jean-Louis. We aren't going to send in some sado-masochistic, self-flagellating secret agent from Opus-Dei to kill anyone."
        "But of course, Your Holiness. I never suspected you might employ violence. Still, if we could find a way, a legal reason to prevent this concert from taking place . . ."
        "Ah, yes, I see where you are headed." Sounding as if he might entertain the notion, the Pope said, "That might work. Perhaps a last
minute, health code violation could be found, based on an inadequate number of restroom facilities or something of that sort."
        "Precisely." Hope rose in Cardinal Dubois' voice. "Surely we have friends in that department on the Isle of Wight."
        "The Church has friends everywhere, Jean-Louis, but do we really want to stop this thing?"
        "What do you mean, Holy Father?" The thought that The Pope might condone the concert audience's exposure to The Book froze the Cardinal's heart.     
        "I mean that we need to pray about this before we proceed with any plan of action. The Book was placed on earth for a purpose. Could this not be it?"
        "Holy Father, are you suggesting we complacently allow the damning of countless thousands of souls?"
        "Would it be wise to intervene? Consider the alternatives, Jean-Louis. If we prevent this concert from taking place, who are we sparing? The meek and the chaste have nothing to fear. On the other hand, if we do not stop this event, virtually all of mankind will be presented with undeniable evidence of God's existence and his will. So much of the pain and suffering we see is a result of mankind believing they will never be held responsible for their actions, not in this life or the next. Do you wish to perpetuate that assumption?"
        What could he say? The Pope's feelings and intent were clear. Recognizing the logic to be alarmingly similar to that professed by Damien Faust, Jean-Louis Dubois shook his head and pressed the phone to his ear. "I only thought . . ."
        "Your concern was for the loss of human life, Jean-Louis. I understand. I experienced the same reaction, initially. Push aside matters of the flesh and concentrate instead on the spiritual aspect of this dilemma — souls. Pray on it, Jean-Louis. Pray on it and ask the Lord for his divine wisdom and guidance. We will speak tomorrow. God be with you."
        “I shall do as you wish, Holy Father.” Looking as if he had swallowed something that upset his stomach, Cardinal Dubois placed the receiver back in its cradle and settled back in his chair with a heavy sigh.
        Eleven hundred kilometers away, in the Pope's quarters, Pius XIII opened his daily journal, where he dutifully recorded his thoughts and actions. He wrote, Spoke to The French Archbishop at Notre Dame. He proposed finding a way to stop the Isle of Wight concert on June 19, 2016. A popular band is planning to expose the audience to The Book. It is the most important religious artifact not currently in possession of the Church. Once The Book's primary purpose is achieved, which I believe to be a precursor of The Judgment, The Church will obtain and guard this relic. The potential for abuse of its power is frightening.
        The Pope closed his journal and looked up at The Cardinal Chamberlain who sat on the other side of his writing table. "Luigi, I am intrigued and at the same time admit to being intimidated by the reputation of The Book.
        "Intimidated? Why, Holy Father?"
        "The Crown of Thorns is at Notre Dame. The Robe of Jesus is housed in the Cathedral of Trier, Germany. The torn remnants of an outer garment, possibly also worn by Christ, may be found in the parish church of Argenteuil in France. None of these important artifacts ever displayed the miraculous, animated properties attributed to The Book. Yet, somehow, this relic managed to remain a myth - its existence rumored, but unconfirmed for nearly seven centuries. I sense that we stand on the precipice of the greatest miracle since Christ walked this earth and the most tragic disaster in the history of mankind.”
        The Cardinal Chamberlain nodded, his eyes wide with anticipation. Eager to share the news of his progress in fullfilling The Pope's mandate to acquire The Book, he said, "Soon, Holy Father, The Book will be ours."
        Despite the fact that the two men were alone, The Pope leaned forward and spoke in a voice barely above a whisper. “Tell me Luigi, what has been done to facilitate its, shall we say, transfer of ownership immediately following the concert?"
        "We have enlisted the services of seven highly capable individuals, Your Holiness. All of whom come highly recommended. . ."
        "Highly recommended? By whom?" The pontiff asked.
        "By those active in covert acquisition."
        The Pope's eyebrows rose. "Professional thieves?"
        "Highly skilled men and women who understand our need for discretion. Six are, or were, employed by their respective governments in the fields of law enforcement, or intelligence. One is a freelancer, Sheldon Silverman, an archaeology professor from Boston University with a remarkable track record dealing with religious and historically significant relics."
        "So we've hired a Jewish equivalent of Indiana Jones?" The Pope chuckled briefly. "What about the others?"
        "There's a semi-retired secret agent out of Great Britain, named John Poindexter; and an Australian special ops agent, Sidney Danforth; a former CIA operative from the United States named Brandon Duke; Wilhelm Isringhausen, a retired German detective from Berlin; Chad Claiborne, retired from Scotland Yard; and Alyson La Carteloise, recently suspended from the French Secret Police for disobeying a direct order. She was ordered to kill a suspect in an international jewel robbery case, but refused."
        "Why?" The Pope asked.
        "She said she doesn't believe in assasination, unless it will save lives."
        "An appreciation for human life? The Pope nodded and then cocked his head to the left. "Ironic isn't it? he said. "I just urged Jean-Louis to push aside his concern for human life. Luigi, in many ways this parallels the decision Harry Truman made about the Atomic Bomb. Had he not authorized the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki the second world war might have continued for years. Hundreds of thousands more might have died before Japan's inevitable surrender." He shook his head and reminded himself, "But in this case, we aren't just talking about lives, and this isn't about a bomb that can kill two-hundred-thousand, or more. With the concert being televised, worldwide, millions upon millions could be lost."
        Cardinal Lubrano offered his opinion. "In the aftermath, God's existence would never again be questioned — of that we can be sure. The Church would become the center of each Christian family's existence, as intended."
        "But what of those who do not believe, Luigi?" The Pope asked. "What of those who believe Christ was nothing more than a profit? What of the atheists and agnostics? There are entire nations, powerful forces in world politics, that do not believe. Will they accept Christ and God almighty based on this display of The Lord's will and judgment, or will they see this event as an act of aggression? Will they blame The Catholic Church for the loss of loved ones? Could this incident ignite a religious war, such as The Crusades?"
        "Holy Father," the Cardinal stared into the eyes of the man who held the final say in matters concerning The Church, "Surely no one would dare stand against the power of The Lord?"     
        The Pope stared back and said, "History suggests otherwise, my old friend. A decision of this magnitude requires a meeting of the Holy See. Please make the arrangements. We must move, quickly."

                                         
  Chapter 11


        A group of business leaders from the troubled, northeastern suburbs, frequently referred to by the Police de Paris and the French gendarmes as "Les Cites," gathered around the Holy Imam, Mohsin Hassan, who stood on the limestone steps outside of the mosque in Aulnay-sous-Bois. After prayers, the meeting proceeded as Hassan anticipated. He explained what happened to Mustafa Alhamzi and waited for the right moment to suggest The Book might be put to good use if it were in their hands.
        Curious community icons wanted to know more. "And you say this boy lost his hand?
        “All the way to his wrist,” Hassan confirmed.
        A voice from the outer edge of the gathering asked, “How can a book do this?" 
        Before Hassan could respond, a respected neighborhood grocer inquired, "What makes it do these things?"
        The Imam replied, "According to Mustafa, this book knows things. It knows your past. It punishes those who have sinned, greatly."
        "What had this boy done?" someone else asked.
        "His transgressions warranted punishment. The nature of his sins, which occurred years ago are between him and Allah. He has carried the burden of guilt for many years, but never confessed his misdeeds to anyone."
        Zaid Hamed Ali, a successful jeweler, well-known for his mistrust and lack of respect for the French government, spoke up. "Are you saying this book is possessed?"
        Mohsin Hassan nodded. "So it would seem."
        "Possessed by a devil?" Ali inquired.
        "That, I cannot say," Hassan admitted. "Since it seems to punish sinners, it may be that this book is controlled by Allah. After all, would a devil punish sinners? It would make more sense, would it not, if a book possessed by a devil were to grant favors, like a genie, to those who have committed evil deeds?"
        A sense of agreement rippled through the gathering.
        "I should like to present an idea to you, my brothers. I believe we may find a way to benefit from the power of this book. Allah may have provided us with a way to open doors long shut to us."
        The neighborhood grocer who asked a question earlier, spoke up again. "This book does not belong to us, Mohsin Hassan. So how can we benefit from it?"
        The jeweler, Zaid Ali, spoke before The Imam could reply. "We steal it! We steal it and use it against those who turn a deaf ear to our pleas!" Excited voices rose in agreement as the businessmen rallied around the idea of wielding a supernatural weapon.
        Mohsin Hassan stood quietly on the steps of the mosque, admiring his work. Words to further incite this group would not be required. Nodding, he whispered, "The Genie is out of the bottle."       
                               
    ~          ~          ~

        The sound system in Damien's office blared, causing the glass panel in the door to shake. Adolph was listening to RAZZ, a cross between RAP and jazz.
        Gonna get me a bitch, but she can't be white. Gonna strap her to the bed mos' every night. Gonna slap her around, gonna nibble and bite . . .
        Francois stood in the doorway. In his customary, starched white dress shirt, black jacket and slacks, he wore an expression fifty kilometers beyond disgust. Seated in Damien's chair, behind Napoleon's desk, Adolph noticed the security chief, picked up the remote to the stereo and hit pause.
        "What, in God's name, are you listening to?" Francois demanded.
        "Fat Whitey and the Premium Saltines," Adolph answered. "C'est de la bombe bébé, dat's da bomb, baby! They're the group that goes on right before us at the Isle of Wight. Pretty hot, huh?"
        "You cannot be serious." Delaflote walked in, sat down and stared at the band's manager as if he had lost his mind.     
        "They're number one on the European charts, man," Adolph commented. "Biggest draw on the concert scene these days, them and Suprême NTM. What's the matter, don't you like it? I've already told 'D' that the The Hounds need to do some Razz, or maybe some hip-hop. It'd make 'em even more poplular." Adolph chuckled, appreciating Delaflote's dismay.
        "I prefer the timeless classics," Francois professed. "Maurice Chevalier, or Frank Sinatra. I don't even like rock and roll. What makes you think I might enjoy that?"
        "Maurice Chevalier? Who's that? Sinatra was okay, but that's ancient shit. I thought you weren't that old." Adolph chided. "Isn't that what you told Damien?"
        "Where is he?"
        "He and Judas took off, together."
        On Francois' face, exasperation replaced the remnants of disgust from his reaction to Fat Whitey. "I've told him it isn't safe for him to go places without me."
        "Yeah, I've told him the same thing," Adolph insisted. "Really. You're his nanny. I'd suggest you spank him, but he might like it."
        "You have no idea where they have gone?"
        "No, no idea. Judas can't stand the way 'D' acts when he's around this thing." Adolph pointed to the leather-bound book, lying on the desk. "You really shouldn't leave it out like this, you know. It could get stolen. You're supposed to think of things like that, being the big security chief and all."
        "Really?" Rather than taking offense, Delaflote appeared to be pleased.
        "Gotta go," Adolph rose from the big leather chair behind the desk. "Gotta go meet with the bitches. They're practicin' out at the barn. Whenever they get together, Delilah always fills their heads full of crap - tells 'em they oughtta get a bigger cut of the gate receipts and shit like that. I'd fire the whole damned lot of 'em, but they can sing their asses off. Oh, they get stoned and drunk from time to time, but none of them are addicts. Where can you find people like that in this business these days?" He shrugged. As he reached the door he turned, offered a half-assed Nazi salute and said, "Auf wiedersehen, heir nanny."
        Francois replied, "Au revoir." When the door closed, he stared down at the big, wine-colored book and spoke to it. "He had no idea you're the copy, rather than the real thing." The corners of his mouth turned up as he admired the Louvre's reasonable facsimile and their expeditious delivery. If not for the absence of the gold scrolling, it would have been difficult to tell the copy from the original. As his smile faded, he spoke to the copy, again. "I wonder how long it will be before the first attempt to steal you is made?"
                                 
    ~        ~        ~

        At La Banane Mûre, the most popular and most expensive club in Paris, Judas and Damien whirled and laughed to an onslaught of powerful, sensual music. Nothing appeared too decadent at The Ripe Banana. Nothing seemed taboo. Outrageous was the theme du jour, carried out with amazing flare for the well-heeled gay and straight Parisians and tourists who came to celebrate and exhibit their zest for life and sexuality. 
        "This has been so much fun, tonight!" Judas shouted. "You're a different person when you're away from the office." He and Damien whirled around, their arms in the air. When they faced each other again, the saxophone player turned serious as the giddy buzz of liquor began to wear off. "You mean so much to me, 'D'. Don't I mean anything to you, anymore?"
        "How can you even ask?" Damien scolded. "You know how much I care for you, Ju. I love you."
        "You used to, but not anymore. If you loved me, you'd listen. Why can't you just sell The Book?" Judas pleaded. "It's too dangerous and you're not the second coming of The Messiah. You're a singer, you're a rock star!"
        Damien shook his head. "Don't go there," he begged. "Let's just have a good time tonight, okay?" Holding his hands high in the air, Damien spun around again, slowly this time, hoping Judas would revert to the carefree attitude he projected earlier. The face he encountered when he finished his circle seemed even more somber. "Ju," lowering his arms, Damien pleaded, "snap out of it."
        "That's what I've been trying to get you to do." Judas countered. "We need to talk. Let's go sit down."
        "No," Damien refused, "We've been over this and over this. Either we can dance and be happy tonight, or we can go home, and I don't mean both of us to my place. It's up to you. You're either with me, or you're against me, Ju. Which is it?"
        The hurt and desperation in Judas' eyes was pathetic. "I could go to the networks . . ."
        "What?" Due to the music's pounding bass lines, felt as much as heard, Damien just caught a piece of what Judas said. Anything not being shouted wouldn't be understood, and Judas hadn't shouted that last remark. "What did you say?" Damien asked, again.
        "Nothing," Judas stared down at the floor, his shoulders sagging as much as his spirits. "Never mind." When he looked up again, a tear trickled down his cheek from his right eye.
        "Awwww," Damien grimaced. There was no way to argue with tears. Unflappable with everyone else, Judas always went to pieces when they argued. Damien reached out and took him by the hand. "C'mon," he sighed. "Let's go talk." 
        Judas allowed himself to be led from the dance floor, up the ramp that took them out on a balcony overlooking the Seine. Damien closed the glass paneled, French doors behind them for additional privacy. With the bass from the powerful speakers still vibrating the floor of the balcony beneath their feet, the man who Rolling Stone described as the most enigmatic singer since Elvis prepared to unleash the full measure of his charm on a man who could be as stubborn as a mule, but always had his best interests at heart.
        "What's up Ju? we were having such a ..."
        Judas pushed Damien's hand away, too upset to accept a gesture of tenderness.   
        Surprised, Damien stepped back. "For God's sake, we can't keep doing this."
        "I can't help it. I don't like where this is leading, 'D'. Stop going with the flow and think about the future. Think, damn it!"
        Damien cocked his head to one side, unsure of what Judas meant. "About us? About our future?"   
        "Ours and everyone's," Judas replied. "That book is gonna cause people to go crazy."
        "How so?"
        "This world is filled with fanatics, man. Religious, militant fanatics. Haven't you noticed how worried Delaflote is about someone stealing it?"
        "That's his job, Ju."
        Judas grabbed Damien by the shoulders. "Look," he said, "once the world sees the power of this book, if it really can do what you say it can do, the nut jobs out there who don't have much mind to lose are gonna lose the rest of their minds. Some, maybe a lot, are gonna want to destroy it. But others might want to use it as a weapon. This thing could lead to the fit hitting the shan on a large scale, man." After releasing Damien's shoulders, Judas carressed his right cheek softly and added, "Think about it, please. Now that you're away from The Book, and can think without it influencing your thoughts, I want you to stop and think about it, real hard."
        As he peered into the eyes of the only man for whom he had really ever cared, Damien knew he wouldn't be able to convince Judas; not tonight, not ever. Beyond that, he needed to be sure Judas wouldn't sabotage the show. "Ju, when we were dancing, you said something. I didn't catch it because of the noise, but it sounded like you said something about networks."
        Judas turned away and looked over the balcony's ledge to the the river below. "Yeah," he replied after a few moments of silence. "Yeah, I said if you don't stop this thing I might go to the networks."
        "And do what?"
        "And warn them, warn everyone of what this book can do. Maybe they'll cancel the broadcast of the show."
        "You wouldn't do that, would you?" Damien asked. "I mean, with what HBO is throwing in, you stand to make a million Euros from the gig. That's almost one-and-a-half million in American money."
        Dismissing the importance of the amount, Judas shook his head and said, "Money doesn't matter to me, 'D'. You know that."
        "Well, it should. One of these days you won't have any, again, if you keep thinking that way." Damien knew Judas didn't live for the Euro. He had about choked when Judas donated millions toward establishing the pauper's cemetery on the outskirts of Paris. Judas always did the right thing; so much so, that Damien often questioned his sanity. "If you screw this thing up, Ju, we'll be finished. It's one thing to tell me you think I'm making a mistake. It is entirely another thing to go out and try to sabotage something that I've committed the band to."
        That lit a fire of resolve in Judas's heart that burned visibly in his eyes. "I've given it a lot of thought, D. If you go through with this it would mean more than the end of you and me and the end of The Hounds. It might mean the end of Rock concerts forever, and that's the very least of it. Is that really what you want?"
        "You're like a broken record, man. You've said all of that before, Ju. I'm sick of hearing it."
        "The problem is, you ain't heard it. I'd stop sayin' it if you'd listen."
        Through the dissapating haze of alcohol and the rising flames of anger the two men glared at each other.
       
     
Chapter 12
       

        After a long day, during which he tracked down several reliable

employees from the security team at the Timothy Lynch estate, Francois

Delaflote dozed on the sofa in Damien's den, where the band had first

learned of The Book. Dreaming fitfully, he imagined a large pair of wire

cutters severing security system phone lines and distinctly heard the

cracking of wood as the front door gave way to the applied pressure of a

crow bar. Opening his eyes, he realized the sound had been real. He lay

very still as two shadowy figures crept past him. Instinctively, he reached

under his left arm and winced. His shoulder holster and the gun it held hung

from the tall, wooden coat rack in the office.

        With The Book safely tucked away in the vault, the newly

delivered copy would probably be the only thing taken. Francois waited for

the sound of the door to the office being opened before he threw back his

blanket. Wearing a sleeveless white undershirt and a black pair of silk

boxers he got up from the sofa. Tiptoing on bare feet to the empty fireplace,

he selected the ball-handled, wrought iron poker as a weapon, and then

made his way to just outside the office door where he crouched down to

listen and see what would happen.

        The thieves whispered in Arabic, a language Francois did not

understand. The office remained dark, indicating that the two men had found

what they sought and weren't interested in anything else. They sounded

confident and relaxed. One of them grunted slightly as he picked up the

heavy book and placed it in whatever they brought to carry it.

        Tensed for action, Delaflote promised himself, "I'll give them

something to grunt about." Hearing the thieves approaching, he swung the

fireplace poker with all of his might. The first man through the door let out a

blood-curdling scream and reached for his injured shin. The second thief,

the one carrying the copy, panicked. In his haste to escape, he tripped over

his partner, who lay on the floor, writhing in pain. Francois pounced on the

stumbling man like a tiger on a gazelle. In less than thirty seconds, both

intruders were unconscious.

        After returning the copy of The Book to the office, Francois flipped

on the lights and dialed 1-1-2 for emergency medical assistance. Between

the second and third ring, he spotted blood pooling beneath the leg of the

man whom he had nailed with the poker. "No, no, no," he complained. "Do

not bleed all over the floor! Sacre bleu!" Shaking his head at the

inconvenience while holding his I-phone to his ear, waiting for an answer, he

ran down the hall to get some towels. He had bound both robbers wrists

behind them with thin cord, and had finished speaking to the SAMU

dispatchers and the Police, when Damien and Judas walked in.

        "What the hell happened here?" Damien asked, staring at the two

men. "What did you do to them?" Francois was busy mopping up the

mess. Judas shook his head, reacting to the smear of dark, red blood on

the white, tile floor as he peered over Damien's shoulder.

        "I hit that one on the leg with your fireplace poker," Francois

pointed. "The sharp edge caught him on the shin. "I knocked the other one

out by pounding his head on the floor a couple of times after he tripped over

his accomplice." He paused to glance at his knuckles before

adding, "Although he wasn't going anywhere, a couple of straight rights

quieted the one with the injured leg. I think he's going to be okay. The

bleeding seems to have stopped." Bending down, he lifted the unconscious

burglar's chin to study him for a moment. "Hmmm, just a boy. One of the

banlieusards, no doubt. Probably not even twenty." He withdrew his hand,

allowing the chin to fall against the chest, eliciting a weak groan from his

captive. "As thieves go," Francois summarized the incident, "these were

amateurs, not much of a threat."

        Damien shrugged and said, "Well, you were right. You said someone

would try to steal it, and they did. I assume The Book is okay?"

        "They never touched it. It is safely locked away."

        Judas continued to cast a wary eye at the two bandits as the sound of

approaching sirens below, on the Champs-Élysées, signaled the arrival of

the police, followed closely by the SAMU. Initially, the police were prepared

to arrest and incarcerate both men, but before they could take them away,

the SAMU medical technicians stopped them, advising that the one whose

head had been banged on the tile floor should first be transported to a

hospital. An MRI would have to be performed to rule out a potentially fatal,

subdural hematoma. 

        "This won't be the last attempt," Francois assured Damien. "And the

next attempt won't be made by such bunglers."

        "What makes you say that?" Judas wondered.

        "The nature of the prize, mon ami. To the religious fanatic, interested

in acts of terror, The Book may be more attractive than the Mona Lisa

would be to an art collector. With each failure, the level of expertise and the

sophistication employed by the perpetrators will rise."

        ~        ~        ~

        In a large conference room, located on the second floor of the UBS

head offices in Zurich, Switzerland, Wilhelm Isringhausen, a retired

detective from Berlin's police force, made his preference for simplicity

known. Reaching up to rub his shaven head, a habit he repeated with

annoying regularity, he said, "Ve take it. Ve do vhat ve have been hired to

do, ya?. Take it, und if anybody offers resistance, ve vill kill zem, ya?"

        "What is this talk of killing?" Alyson La Carteloise, on leave without

pay from the French Secret Police, disagreed. "What is with this man?"

She gestured toward the German. The petite brunette fingered the string of

pearls that hung around her neck as she scanned the eyes of the others

gathered about the table. Believing she detected agreement in all eyes,

except Isringhausen's, she continued in her French accent, "We have been

hired to obtain a rare book. We are not paid assassins. If we ascertain what

kind of security team we are up against, and cover all of the exits, we

should be able to achieve our objective without bloodshed."

        John Poindexter, semi-retired from Her Majesty's Secret Service,

nodded and offered his thoughts. "Quite right. No sense shooting up the

place and causing a riot." His hands folded upon the table in front of him,

diamond cufflinks twinkled on french cuffs protruding from the black jacket

of his perfectly tailored suit. Calm and reserved, he said, "Nobody need die,

unless, of course, they make the mistake of threatening me." Displaying a

thin, confident smile, he turned to the gentleman on his right. "How about

you, Sidney?"

        Australian special ops agent, Sidney Danforth, stared across the table

at Isringhausen and said, "Last thing we need is a trigger happy Heine

among us, mate. Stay low, get in, get out. that's my motto. Don't go

muckin' about and get the rest of us in hot water."

        The clearing of a throat at the end of the table turned everyone's head

in that direction. Sheldon Silverman, the famous professor of archaeology

from Boston University had his hiking-boot-clad feet propped up on the table

in an irreverent display of disregard for any danger they might encounter and

disrespect for those gathered about the table. With an amused smirk on his

face he said, "Personally, I can't believe someone felt compelled to hire all

of you. This isn't like trying to break into a sacred tomb, protected by a

cannibalistic tribe of pygmies. There aren't a thousand poison-tipped darts

being aimed at you. This is child's play, grade school stuff. Why don't the

rest of you just go home and let me handle this?"

        Chad Claiborne, retired from Scotland Yard, took offense. "Grade

school stuff, you say?" He removed his glasses, pulled a handkerchief from

the breast pocket of his jacket and proceeded to clean them as he lectured

Silverman. "See here, I think it a bit premature to assume that. You never

know what you're up against 'til you properly investigate everything. This

could get sticky. We won't know--"

        "Oh, I'm certain this will get sticky," former American CIA operative,

Brandon Duke, interrupted. It'll get downright messy, mark my words. All

we know is that somebody wants this book, and my guess is that they

think others want it, as well, or we wouldn't all be sitting here in Zurich

wondering who, exactly, hired us. Let's be practical about how we approach

this job. What we need to do is infiltrate the security team that's supposed

to be protecting this book. Right now, all I've been told is that some heavy

metal rock band, I think they're called The Hounds of Hell, are going to

show this book to the concert audience at the Ise of Wight Festival. On

Sunday night, June nineteen, some nun," he glanced down at a sheet of

paper on the table, "a Sister Marie, it says here, is supposed to stand on

stage and open it up not once, but twice, exposing it to cameras that will

project the image onto big screens on either side of the stage, as well as to

viewers around the world watching HBO. Has anyone else heard anything

different?"

        "Crikey," Sidney Danforth exclaimed. His irrepressible Aussie spirit

injecting life into an atmosphere of gloom. "Suckin' souls into hell? Does

anybody here really believe that?"

        Poindexter replied before anyone else. "Somebody does. Whoever's

paying us believes it. That's all that matters."

        From the end of the table, Silverman chimed in. "Anybody paying me

a hundred-thousand Euros can believe E. T. is going to fly his bicycle over

the show with Kirk and Spock, or Luke and Leia — whatever floats their

boat. Let's all sign that check," he pointed towards the middle of the table,

where a check for seven-hundred-thousand Euros waited to be

authorized, "and then you can all take your cut and go back to wherever

you came from, and I can —"

        "You can go to hell," The French policewoman interjected. "For all we

know, you're planning to take The Book and sell it to the highest bidder.

That would mean we'd never get the second check our benefactor promised

once we deliver the prize." She looked around the table and presented an

unsettling theory. "I think most of us have the ability, with a little creative

financing, to come up with seven-hundred-thousand Euros. How do we

know that one of us, or one of the governments we work for, isn't hiring all of

us to steal this thing so they can either make millions selling it, or use it as

some kind of weapon?" Looking for expressions and reactions indicating

guilt, agreement or disagreement, her eyes scanned the six other faces at

the table. The majority stared back, coldly, judgmentally, with the

exceptions of Danforth and Duke, both of whom appeared sympathetic and

willing to listen.

        Isringhausen broke the silence, offering his unique solution to all of

life's problems. "If anybody tries to take it, ve kill zem, ya?"

        "Now don't go takin' this the wrong way, Wilhelm," Danforth

suggested, "because I say this with the greatest amount o' respect and

admiration, but why don't you hop on a train and get your bloody, one-track

mind out o' here?"

        Isringhausen stood up and threatened Danforth. "Maybe I kill you." He

looked around the table. Failing to detect an ounce of sympathy or support,

he said, "Maybe I kill all of you, ya? Maybe I rip you to shreds and valk out

of zis room covered in your blood."

        The Australian waved a hand as if shooing a bothersome fly away and

said, "Lighten up, Wilhelm."

        "Fine example of a team player, isn't he?" Duke commented, not

overly concerned, perhaps because they'd all been searched and scanned

for concealed weapons before entering the conference room.

        "Gets my vote for Miss Congeniality," Danforth agreed.

        "Still," the practical CIA veteran reminded the Aussie, "we need him to

endorse that check before things get nasty."

        "Right," Danforth agreed and turned back towards Isringhausen. A

snapshot of jangeld nerves, the German rubbed his palm back and forth

across his scalp's emerging stubble. Had he been an actor, the curious

affectation might have won him an oscar for portraying a mentally ill patient,

such as those in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Pointing towards the

elegant pen and the check that lay in the middle of the conference table,

Danforth said, "Listen Yobbo, be a good crout. Pick up the Mont Blanc and

endorse that check. Then slide it down to me and I'll do the same. After

that, we can kill each other with our bare hands, if you like. The rest of the

dingoes won't mind as long as they're able to cash it."

        "Wilhelm," Brandon Duke raised a hand to get the German's

attention. "Not that it would make any difference to you, but the four

security cameras in this room are recording your every move." He pointed

up to one, mounted high on the wall in a corner. "I wonder if our benefactor

might have second thoughts about you being a part of this team. I'm sure

he's watching, right now." Duke turned toward Sheldon Silverman and

added, "He might not appreciate loners, or those that approach this project

with a cavalier attitude. Who knows what he might be thinking? He might

even be offended by seeing a pair of feet propped up on a table." The

American agent stared at the hiking boots.

        "Who says he's a he?" Silverman countered from the end of the table,

peering around his boots, which he waggled at Duke. "He could be a they,

or a she. Or, as our French police-hottie has pointed out, he could be one

of us, right here, right now," he pointed at Isringhausen. "Maybe even our

Joseph Mengele, wannabe."

        "He's too stupid," Alyson La Carteloise shook her head. "He's too

stupid and you're too outspoken. So are our Australian and American

agents. It's never the ones with the big mouths," she opined. "It's the silent

ones you've got to watch." Turning her attention to John Poindexter and

Chad Claiborne she added, "Like the two of you."

        Claiborne responded right away. "Sorry," He reached up and adjusted

his blue silk tie. "Didn't know we were being judged based on how chatty

we were."

        Poindexter just sat there, hands folded, looking slightly bored. Finally,

with all eyes on him, he sighed and said, "Look, whether the person behind

this is one of us or not, we have a job to do. We need to get down to

business and plan how we're going to get things done."

        "Here, here," Claiborne applauded Poindexter's opinion. "I say Let's

sign that check and get to work." He reached for the Mont Blanc and the

check, but before his hand could grasp either, Isringhausen's hand came

crashing down and snatched both articles away.

        "No!" he shouted. "Zere vill be no signing of ze check!" He clutched

the pen and check against his chest, shielding them like a petulant child,

reluctant to share a prized toy. "Not until ze Australian and American

apologize."

        "You want us to apologize to you?" Sidney Danforth's eyes were wide

with shock at the request.

        "Seems reasonable to me," Duke said. "Anything's fine as long as we

get this show on the road." To Danforth he said, "You'll go along with me on

that point, won't you, Sidney?"

        Seeing the logic, but not liking it, Danforth agreed. "Right," and turned

to the German. "Sorry 'bout that. Guess I just got carried away there, mate.

No hard feelings, eh?" He turned towards Brandon Duke and

said, "Brandon, here, feels the same, don't you, sport?"

        "Oh yes, without question." Duke pointed towards the Australian and

said, "Mr. Danforth was way out of line there. The whole thing was

embarrassing."

        "Me, out of line?" Danforth turned around and glared at Duke.

        "Yes, you just admitted as much."

        "What about you?"

        "Well, I suppose I could have done more to try to stop you, but—"

        "To stop me? You were practically applauding. Given a pair of pom-

poms you could have been a cheerleader!"

        "All I said was that Wilhelm wasn't being much of a team player. I

didn't call him a yobbo, whatever that is." He turned toward Silverman and

added, "The Joseph Mengele comment came from our Jewish Indiana

Jones, down there." He nodded towards the end of the table. "I think, Izzie

and I are okay," he turned back towards Wilhelm and smiled. "Aren't we,

Izzie?"

        "No," Isringhausen pointed at the American, "You apologize too. Don't

try to act like you are not guilty. And don't call me Izzie."

        Duke shrugged his shoulders and complied. "Fine, whatever you say,

heir Isringhausen. I do humbly apologize. Now, how about signing that

check?"

        "No," Wilhelm persisted, still clutching the pen and the check to his

chest. "One more. I vant an apology from her." He pointed a finger of

accusation at Alyson La Carteloise. "You zink you are so smart, ya? So

much better zan me. But you are not. You are veak, veak like all ze

French.  Ze French are all pussies. Zey always have been, ever since zey

surrendered to ze fatherland vithout a struggle."

        "I don't think I'm better than you," Alyson objected, her eyes

narrowing as she continued to twist her string of pearls. "I know it." She got

up from her chair and walked around to face Wilhelm who stood at the other

end of the table from Silverman. The German towered over the diminutive

gendarme, looking amused until, without warning, she reached down and

grabbed him by his testicles. Judging by the veins sticking out on both

sides of his neck, the bulging of his eyes and the tension on her face, it

must have been a vise-like grip. The pen and the check catapulted into the

air; the pen clattering upon the table, before tumbling onto the floor. The

promissory note glided halfway down the length of the conference table and

slid to a soft landing near where it had originally lain.

        Isringhausen screamed something in his native tongue and reached

down with both hands to try to dislodge the surprisingly powerful fingers that

threatened to render him sterile. Without exception, each of the men seated

around the table squirmed uncomfortably and squinted. The brief struggle

ended when Alyson withdrew her talons from Wilhelm's scrotum and

delivered a wicked karate chop to the larynx. The bald Bavarian went down,

choking, gasping, clutching at his throat; unable to breathe.

        With eyebrows raised, Danforth turned to Duke and said, "Crikey, if

she ever pisses me off, remind me not to ask for an apology." 


        Chapter 13


        Watching the Al Qaeda spokesperson speaking to Zaid Ali and a

gathering of community leaders, a feeling, not unlike that of an unsettled

stomach, materialized within Mohsin Hassan. The Imam wrung his hands.

He didn't relish the idea of turning this operation over to angry militants who

were likely to use The Book for their own agendas. When he allowed Ali to

arrange the attempted theft of The Book, he relinquished any control he

might have wished to exert. Gazing down at his sweaty palms, Hassan

feared he may have set something in motion, something very dangerous,

which he could no longer stop.

        Showing respect to the Imam and Zaid Ali, Khalid Bahaji bowed and

said, "We are pleased to take up the fight on your behalf, but you should

have come to us, first, rather than attempting to take matters into your own

hands. Now, two of your fine young men have been injured and arrested."

Bahaji turned to the rest of the community leaders, spreading his arms wide

in a gesture of acceptance. "You will see, your trust in Al Qaeda is not

misplaced," he professed. "We will take this thing, this book of which you

speak, and we will use it to open the eyes of the world. We will strike fear

in the hearts of those who fail to acknowledge Allah as the one, true god.

Before we are through, the world will bow to our will. We will restore

morality and the holy order of things as they should be."

        The Imam took a step forward and asked, "Could we, perhaps, focus

first on improving conditions here, in Seine-Saint-Denis?"

        Bahaji frowned and replied, "Don't be selfish, old man. You must

understand that Allah will deliver The Book into our hands for the greater

good of Islam, not simply for one, small area."

    ~        ~        ~

        In Damien's office, where The Book remained locked in the large

safe, Clay Wellington and Henri D'Aubigne, both of whom had worked with

Francois Delaflote at the Timothy Lynch chateau sat across from him now.

They had searched the chateau and the grounds of the estate the night that

the CEO of Pierson - Thompson Publishing and his head-manservant

disappeared. Wellington ran a hand through his shortly cropped, blonde hair

and complained, "You never explained what happened, Francois." Tall and

thin, but miles from frail, Wellington's face and voice reflected

disappointment. "You never returned my calls."

        "Or mine," D'Aubigne added, his manner accusatory and angry.

        Sitting in the large chair behind Napoleon's desk, Francois nodded

and replied, "I didn't know what to say. How do you explain such a thing?

How do you tell your security team that the owner of  the chateau and his

head-manservant have been devoured by a book? I stayed drunk for nearly a

month after they vanished."

        "I still don't believe it," D'Aubigne professed. "I never have and I never

will."

        "Then you should leave, Henri. Go," Delaflote insisted, shooing

D'Aubigne away like a bothersome fly.

        A stocky, barrel-chested man with a thick neck and a perpetual five

o'clock shadow, D'Aubigne shook his head. "Fairy tales are for fools," he

said. "I am a grown man, Francois. When I was a child, I did not believe in

monsters under my bed. I do not believe in the boogey man, or in heaven

and hell. I suspect that you may have killed Monsiuer Lynch and Bradley

Herrington. After all, you were the one who sent me and Clay outside after

we searched the chateau.

        Insulted, but aware of how things had appeared, Delaflote remained

calm and asked, "Henri, what would I have to gain?"

        D'Aubigne answered without hesitation, "The Lynch mansion was a

veritable museum of rare and valuable items. I think you could have been

stealing for some time. Maybe Herrington or Lynch found you out."

        "What about you, Clay?" Delaflote asked. "What do you think?"

        "I don't know what to think. I'd like to see The Book, I know that. I

mean, if you're going to ask us to guard it, I think we should at least know

what it looks like." Wellington glanced toward D'Aubigne to see what he

thought of that suggestion, and got a nod of approval.

        "It looks about like this," Francois shrugged and pointed at the copy,

which lay on the desk, "except it has a more elaborate front cover, with

inlaid gold scrolling."

        Wellington shook his head, no, and said, "I didn't ask for a

description. I want to see it. I want to open it and look inside."

        D'Aubigne nodded. "I, too, would like to take a look at this supposedly

supernatural book," he sneered. "I think, perhaps, it is being made out to be

more than what it is."

        Francois leaned back in his chair. Having run new background checks

on both of them, he knew these men had never been guilty of so much as

running a stop sign. Their grades and school records were exemplary. But

something told him there would be a problem if he allowed them to examine

The Book. The screams of Mustafa Alhamzi, the young man who lost

his hand, came to mind. He recalled the smell of sulphur and burning,

human flesh; the charred muscle and skin, hanging in gorey strips as

Mustafa's hand reappeared, rescued from the pages of The Book,

requiring the strength of three men. "No," he shook his head. "The risk is

too great. We three have worked well together previously, please listen to

what —" 

        Henri D'Aubigne waved a hand in the air and interrupted, saying, "If

you will not show me The Book, then I will listen no further." He rose

from the chair where he sat and prepared to leave.

        "What about you, Clay?" Francois asked. "Are you going to let Henri

speak for you? What about the time I took your wife to the hospital when

you could not be reached? Have you forgotten that?"

        Rising more slowly from his chair than Henri, Wellington shook his

head, and said, "No, I haven't forgotten that, Francois. But, even people you

respect the most, really good people that you have known for a while, can

change."

        "I agree, Clay. That is exactly why I cannot risk allowing either one of

you to open The Book. I never suspected Bradley Herrington had done

anything terrible in his life, either. Sometimes we do not know as much as

we think about others, but I know this, for sure. There will  be another break

in. While the last one was by amateurs, I expect the next one will be by

professionals who may be heavily armed. I need your help and you can

name your price, up to a point. Monsieur Faust is very generous."

        "Generous enough to pay one-hundred-thousand Euros for a month's

work?" Henri asked from where he stood by the door.

        Francois stared at D'Aubigne for a moment before saying, "I thought

you said you would not listen unless I agreed to show you The Book."

        D'Aubigne stared back and replied, "If money talks, I listen."

      Francois pulled his iPhone from his jacket and beckoned, "Come back

and sit down, Henri. I will call Monsieur Faust and inform him of your

demands. He and Judas are in London, promoting the upcoming

appearance on HBO. We will test his ability to speak the language of the

Euro."

      ~ ~ ~

        "No, no, no!" At the practice barn, R. J. Penny, the frustrated

choreographer, shouted through his bull-horn and pumped his free fist in the

air. "Can we at least get in step, people? Is there something confusing

about left, right, left, right?" Pointing at a group of costumed men gathered

near the foot of the stairs on the right side of the stage, he raised his bull-

horn and shouted again. "All Centurions use the stairs on the left side of the

stage!" Thirty spear-carrying extras, outfitted with shields and wearing

lightweight, plastic breastplates made to resemble real metal, milled about,

looking confused, waiting for instructions.

        R. J. set his bull-horn down and pressed his left hand flat, against his

chest. On the verge of tears, he turned to the band's manager, and

wailed, "They're killing me, Adolph!"

        "There, there," Adolph patted the distraught man's back. "Plenty of

time. We have plenty of time before the curtain goes up. They'll be fine."

        A young, black man interrupted R. J. in the midst of his lament and

inquired, "Who am I supposed to kiss? Damien isn't here. Does he have a

stand-in?"

        "Are you the stand-in for Judas?" R. J. asked.

        "He is," Adolph answered. "Name's Percy. He knows his parts and

favors Judas enough to fool you, if you don't get too close."

        "Where do you want me to kiss him?" The young man asked.

        "On the cheek," R. J. replied.

        "No, I know that," Percy gave R. J. a slightly annoyed look and

dropped his hands to his hips. "I mean, where on the stage."

        R. J. pointed, "Near the front, slightly towards the right, there, where

the bass player —"

        "Cane." Percy interjected the proper name.

        Nonplussed by the interruption, R. J. stopped to think. "Is that his

name? Yes, I think it is. Anyway, okay, where Cane usually stands."

        "Oh," Percy nodded, "you mean down, left-center?"

        R. J.'s eyes opened wide in surprise. He clapped his hands together

like an excited child. "Oh, my lord! Thank you! You understand stage

position terms? Well, you are the first and only one of this group."

        "Don't encourage him, R. J.," Adolph cautioned. "He'll ask for more

money."

        "Can I get more?" Percy asked, pouncing on the perceived

opportunity.

        "See? Like a duck on a June bug." Irritated, Adolph shot an

accusatory glance at R. J.

        "You're the one that mentioned money," R. J. defended himself.

        ~ ~ ~

        Near midnight, Henri complained, "I would have asked for more

money from Monsieur Faust had I known I'd be expected to sleep

here."       

        Standing in the kitchen at the refrigerator, holding a red can of Coca-

Cola in his right hand, Francois asked, "Is the guestroom not acceptable?"

        "It isn't so much the furnishings, or a lack of comfort that bothers me.

I prefer to have my privacy, that's all."

        Francois nodded. He would have preferred to be able to stay in his

own home as well, but things always seemed to happen at night. He shut

the door and left the kitchen with Henri, the two men walked barefoot

through the dark rooms of the penthouse towards the large living area.

        "You actually sleep on the couch?" Henri asked.

        Francois replied, "I prefer being near the only possible point of entry or

exit."

        "What about the fire escape in the back? Someone could come in —"

        Francois shook his head. "Blocked by a huge cabinet," he explained.

        "What about the fire codes?" Henri asked. "Isn't that against the law?"

        "So, arrest me." Still holding the can of coke, Delaflote held out his

arms out, wrists together, as if inviting Henri to apply a pair of handcuffs.

        The two men were only a few steps from the entryway when they

heard the safety bolt in the door turn and click and saw it begin to swing

open. Francois dropped to the floor and rolled behind the sofa without

spilling a drop of his soft drink. Henri squatted down behind a tall vase near

the bar, from which emerged a bushy ficus tree. Without warning, light

bathed the room, as whoever opened the door flipped the switch on the wall.

        "Anybody home?" a female's voice called out.

        Francois peeked out from behind the large sofa and saw a

statuesque, black- haired beauty, dressed in a ruffled, iridescent purple

tube-top, and sparkling white, skin-tight, cigarette slacks. It was Delilah.

        "Double-Oh? You here?" She called out.

        Rising up from behind the sofa, Delaflote replied, "Right here, Delilah."

        She flinched, not expecting anyone to have been behind the

couch. "What the hell were you doing back there?"

        "Staying concealed until I could identify whoever opened the door."

        Henri appeared from behind the vase, startling Delilah again. "Holy

shit, you guys," she complained. "How many more of you are hiding in

here?" She took a second look at Henri and asked, "Who are you?"

        "My name is Henri. I have been hired to assist Francois with his

security duties."

        "Looks like you might be doing more than that," Delilah replied,

eyeing Henri suspiciously and then turning back to Francois. "You guys

gay?" she asked, seeming not to care if the question offended either of

them.

        "Why do you wish to know?" Francois inquired.

        "Because if you are, then I've wasted my time coming over here."

        "Why is that?" Henri asked.

        Delilah placed her hands on her hips and stated, "Because I'm horny,

that's why."

        The two men stared at each other. Henri seemed pleasantly surprised

while Francois shook his head with disapproval.

        "I'll go get some wine," Henri suggested.

        "Good idea," Delilah agreed. "Get a couple of bottles if you want, but

don't come back. I'm not here to play your skin flute."

        Francois shrugged at Henri, who stared at him, apparently hoping for

an invitation to stay. "Sorry Henri. The lady seems to know what she

wants."

        "You'll never know what you're missing," Henri exclaimed.

        "Yeah," Delilah agreed. "Sucks for me, huh?"

        Muttering his disgust, Henri turned and stomped off down the hallway.

        "Delilah," Francois raised his hands as if to ward off potential

blows, "You should know, I don't mix business and pleasure."

        "Niether do I," Delilah replied. "I'm here for pleasure." Stepping

forward, she brazenly pulled her tubetop up over her head. Her body was

unblemished by tan lines and, though exceedingly perky, her breasts

appeared not to have been augmented by cosmetic surgery. Closing her

distance from the band's head of security, her blouse dangling from her right

hand, she said, "Before I joined The Hounds, I ran a business that was all

about pleasure. Pleasure is a business I understand. I'm very good at

it, Francois, very good indeed."

        "Really?"

        "Yes, really." Delilah came forward, a lioness on the prowl.

        Having retreated to the edge of the couch where he slept each night,

Francois found himself forced to either surrender or make a stand.

Determined not to allow their business relationship to become one of a

personal nature, he said, "Please, DeliIah, I am flattered and you are

amazingly attractive, but I can't allow my professional standards to be

compromised."

        Delilah stopped, kicked off her purple Pradas and professed, "I assure

you, the word, 'compromise,' is not applicable when describing my talents,

Monsieur Delaflote. I guarantee this will be the most physically satisfying

and memorable encounter of your entire life."

        "Put your shoes back on, Delilah," Delaflote commanded.

        "Oh? So that's how you like it? With heels on? Okay, but first..." She

dropped her tube-top to the floor, slipped her fingers beneath the elastic

waistband of her pants, and began to slide them down, over her hips.

        "Stop!" Delaflote insisted.

        "No." Delilah replied, pulling her skin-tight pants down over her thighs,

past her knees. She stepped out of her pants, leaving them on the floor,

turned and picked up her shoes, making sure that as she bent over, she

provided Francois with a good look at her firm derrière. Shoes in hand, she

resumed her attack, wearing only a tiny, white thong.

      "Mon Dieu," Francois declared, "You are like a division of Panzer

tanks in the German blitzkrieg. But you are bearing down on Francois,

rather than France, and you will find that unlike France, Francois will not

surrender."

        Less than an arm's length away, Delilah stopped and said, "I'm not

like the Germans, Francois. I'm more like the cyborg's in one of those old,

Star Trek movies - the ones that said, 'Resistance is futile.'"

        "Ah, yes. That one featured Jean Luc Picard as the Captain. I much

preferred him over Captain Kirk. Picard came from a family that owned a

winery in northeastern France, in the county of Haute-Saône. Did you know

that?"

        Annoyed and indignant, Delilah huffed, "Here I am, standing virtually

naked in front of you, and you want to discuss Star Trek?"

        "You brought it up. Besides, I told you," Francois shook a finger at

Delilah, "I don't plan to jeopardize our professional relationship. Additionally,

there is your reputation for castration."

        "Losing your family jewels shouldn't bother you. You don't intend to

use them, anyway . . ." Cupping a hand beneath each breast, Delilah

juggled them and asked, "Or do you?"

        Ignoring the provocative overture, Francois proceeded around Delilah,

stopping where her tube-top and white, cigarette pants lay crumpled on the

floor. Bending to pick up them up, he maintained, "Not with those who I am

paid to protect."

Ready to read chapter 14?
 Hounds of Hell (Chapter 14 - 22  (18+)
Chapter 14 - as much as I've written to date
#1573003 by George R. Lasher


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