Authors: James Byron Huggins
James Byron Huggins
Copyright © 1994 by James Byron Huggins
This eBook is licensed for personal use only. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights.
This is a work of fiction. Any similarity between characters or events in this story and with any other person or creature, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Cover Art by: Stanley H. Moore
Photograph by: Chris Darling
Westchester, New York
"Is he dead?"
Father Stanford Aquanine D'Oncetta shook his head patiently
as he casually removed a cigar from the darkly-illuminated Savinelli humidor.
"No, Robert, he is not dead," replied D'Oncetta calmly. "But there is no need for emotion. He will be dead soon enough."
"Not soon enough for me."
Stately and imperious, D'Oncetta laughed. Drawing steadily upon a vigilance candle to light his cigar, the priest leaned back against a mahogany desk, slowly releasing a stream of pale blue smoke.
Separated from D'Oncetta by the length of the library, Robert Milburn regarded the priest in the dim light. Reluctantly impressed by D'Oncetta's authoritative appearance, Milburn noted the deeply tanned hands and face of a man who had actually spent little of his life in dark confessionals or chapels.
The face of this man commanded true power and feared nothing at all.
Above the clerical collar and the black, finely tailored robe, D'Oncetta's straight white hair laid back smoothly from his low forehead, lending him the demeanor of an elder statesman. Everything about the priest was richly impressive, dignified, cultured and refined - an investment banker wearing the robe of a holy father.
"What are you so afraid of, Robert?" D'Oncetta laughed in his voice of quiet authority, a voice accustomed to controlling and persuading. "How many men is it that you have stationed outside?"
"Eleven." Milburn met D'Oncetta's steady gaze.
"And is that not enough to guard a single, isolated mansion in Westchester, especially with the noble assistance of New York's
vaunted police force that even now has a priority patrol on surrounding streets?"
D'Oncetta smiled reassuringly and exhaled again, savoring. Then he looked down at the cigar, turning it in his fingers with familiar approval.
"A Davidoff," he remarked fondly. "Rich and complex. Always the result of superior breeding. And it's not even Cuban, as one might presume, but a product of the Dominican Republic."
D'Oncetta's satisfied gaze focused on Milburn. "Would you like to try one?"
Turning his back to the priest, Milburn moved to the uncurtained picture window. He stared past the mansion's carefully manicured lawn and into the shadowed night beyond.
"I just want that old man upstairs to die so we can all get out of here." Control made his voice toneless. "I don't like this, D'Oncetta. If Gage is really out there, like your people say he is, then we should just leave the old man alone. Because if Gage claims the old man as family … If he's put Father Simon under his protection, then Gage will come for him. And if that happens..." Milburn paused, turning coldly toward the priest. "You don't have any idea what you're dealing with."
"But that is why you are here, isn't it, Robert?" D'Oncetta responded tolerantly, and Milburn suspected a faint mocking tone. "It is your solemn responsibility to deal with such matters. And there is much that remains, for this is simply the beginning. There are even more delicate tasks which will require your skills in the near future. Tasks which, through the centuries, have always demanded men such as yourself. Men deeply inured and intimately familiar with the higher arts. Men who can insure the success of our plans while simultaneously protecting us all from this individual that you seem to respect, or fear, so profoundly."
Milburn's face was stone.
"Yes, Robert, that is why we need superb field operatives such as yourself. And that is why you and your men will remain here, guarding us all so efficiently, until Father Simon is dead. We do not want him disturbed in his final, tragic hours, do we?"
Milburn took his time to reply.
"I'm retired," he said finally.
D'Oncetta nodded magnanimously.
Milburn looked again out the window. Shadows completely cloaked the darkened wood line, untouched by the security lights illuminating the surrounding lawn. Training told him not to look for the faint outline of sentries concealed within the obscured trees, so Milburn allowed his gaze to wander, unfocused, receptive to discerning movement where shape could not be seen.
But there was nothing.
He turned nervously toward D'Oncetta.
"How much longer will it take?"
Black and stately, the priest shrugged.
"An hour," he said with supreme composure. "Perhaps less. The chemical is quite painless and, I might add, undetectable. Not that we shall have to worry. Validating documents have already been executed. There shall be no confirmation of peculiarity. So it will be tragic, but natural. For, as you know, Robert, all of us are destined to die."
D'Oncetta released another draw from the Davidoff and smiled again, this time plainly amused. And Milburn made a decision, releasing some of his tension by taking a slow and threatening step across the library.
The priest watched Milburn's measured step with calm detachment. And when Milburn was face to face with D'Oncetta, he stopped as if he had always intended to stop, emotions tight once more. But as Milburn stood close to the priest he felt a sudden strangeness in the moment, in the tension, and he heard the question coming out of himself before regret could silence it.
"Who are you, D'Oncetta?" he asked quietly in a voice of unbelief no matter what the answer.
D'Oncetta laughed indulgently.
"I am a priest, Robert."
Milburn's face was a rigid mask. Slowly he turned away and lifted a small radio from his coat: "Command post. Perimeter check."
One by one, unseen guards responded.
"Position one, Alpha clear ... Position two, Epsilon clear," until finally the code words, "Position eleven, Omega clear," emerged from the radio with startling clarity.
"Command clear." Milburn lowered the radio to his side, refusing to look at D'Oncetta again. But he knew the priest maintained his air of amused calm.
"There, you see, Robert. We are all quite safe."
* * *
The pale figure lay silently beneath the white shroud that stretched, thin and veiled, from the vaulted ceiling.
Darkness cloaked the room, leaving the dying man within a single white space claimed by the lampstand, a separate light that removed the old man from the shadows with a deep and glowing authority.
He laid with eyes closed, as motionless as he would lay in true death. But he was not dead, for the ashen face would sometimes tighten, stirred from within some abysmal pain, to release a low moan.
Watching in silence, the stranger stood in the shadows, far from the dying man, sweat glistening on his darkened face. Only moments after the priest had departed the room, he had stepped from the curtained balcony, moving without sound to shut the wide double doors behind him.
Now he studied the room. And after a few moments he slowly removed a thick, black visor from his waist-length coat and raised it to his eyes.
His head turned with a mechanical, trained precision as he scanned the room, concentrating longer on areas that separated him from the dying man. Then he placed the visor again within his coat and eased into a crouch, feral
and wary; an animal approaching a trap baited with what could not be resisted.
A long time he poised, as if searching for something that should be feared but could not be seen. Then in a slow, fluid movement he rose and stepped lightly upon the floor. At home with the darkness, he threaded a careful path through the shadowed furnishings to approach the dying man.
With reverence, with tenderness, the stranger reached down to clasp the man's trembling hand. The dying man weakly turned his head to behold the ghostly image and through clouded eyes, he smiled. Then he returned the stranger's grip with a strength that made death seem suddenly more distant. For the briefest of moments the hands held strong, encouraging, delivering and receiving with the familiar measure of firmness known only to old friends. And the weakened eyes looked up warmly into the shadowed face.
"I knew you would come. My son
... I knew you would come ..."
Silently the stranger nodded. Then he lowered his head even more, his face close to the dying man, a strong hand on the white softness of the bed.
"I'm taking you out of here," he whispered.
The old man shook his head. "No, no
, it is too late for me – far too late." He drew a painful breath. "Quite effective, this pestilence. And …" He laughed softly, "I am too old to run."
The stranger searched the fading eyes. Then he shook his head and moaned softly.
"I know ..." The old man squeezed the stranger's hand. "But you will do well without me ... You are strong, now ... Strong! ...
You are not the man you were!
After a moment the stranger raised his head, but his countenance was changing with each breath, eyes narrowing slightly with a bitter frown turning the corners of his mouth. He gazed upon the pale hand held within his.
"What is happening?" He leaned closer to the old man, eye to eye. "Why have these people done this to you?"
The dying man shifted suddenly, remembering something that resurrected horror in the unseeing, widening eyes.
"It has been taken!" he rasped. "They have stolen the prophecy!" He rolled his head from side to side, grieved. "I cannot believe they would commit such sacrilege! Surely it is mortal!" Trembling, he paused. "Clement would have destroyed it in time. He scorns their secrets and has always stood against them." A mournful breath escaped the sunken chest. "
They will destroy us all
are they? Tell me! Who are these people?"
The old man stared blindly into the surrounding darkness. "No, no, I do not know who they are
... But I knew you would come ..." He focused again on the stranger. "Yes, it was ordained long ago ... And now the Hour of Darkness has come – the Hour where
must take your place!"
The stranger's brow hardened in concentration. "What would you have me do?"
"Destroy the prophecy!" the old voice hissed. "Destroy it! It has cursed us for too long!"
With compassion the stranger's hand settled on the old man's chest.
"Rest, old friend," he said.
"No, no, there is no time," the dying man whispered. "I wish I could tell you more. But there is no time
... no time. But I knew you would come, so I prepared a letter for you. It is hidden in the cathedral. You know where to look." A sudden thought and he found a defiant strength, struggling to rise. "Ah, only know this, my son. Their victory is not complete. For Santacroce repented of his sin! Yes! He repented! And he buried … he
the prophecy in the tomb of his father! You can find it before they do! You can destroy it before their Evil claims it once more!"
The stranger gently pushed the old man to the bed.
"Rest. I know what to do."
The dying man hesitated, staring, and was quiet.
And the stranger watched as the thin, dry lips moved in an unknown supplication, before the prayer fell still.
"I've loved you like a father," the stranger said.
Old eyes laughed. "And I have loved you as a son. I am sorry that I did not tell you more. I feared that this would come one day. But I wanted you to forget that world. To forget ... I know you have seen too much ..."
"I have forgotten," the stranger said.
The old man shook his head. "I know better. I know the faces still come to you in the night. But you are not what you were! The Dragon is dead, my son ... He is dead."
Abruptly the old man stiffened, face pale with pain.
A frown hardened the stranger's face.
"Do what you can for Sarah," the old voice whispered, and the stranger perceived that he heard a faintness behind, or within, the words, as if they were spoken from within some invisible mist. "Malachi is prepared to die. He is a good man. But Sarah has done nothing! She does not even know their secrets!" He shook his head. "She was there when we found it.
But she does not know what it contains!"
"No one else will be hurt, my friend." The stranger placed a hand upon the old man's brow, gently pushing back the wispy, white hairs now damp with sweat.
"I'll bring an ending to this."
Nodding, the old man began to speak again but the thought was lost as the clouded eyes saw something in the surrounding shadows. The stranger didn't turn; he knew there was nothing there that
human eyes could see.
"Yes... an ending," the dying man whispered. "At last ... an ending."
It happened quickly, peacefully. The stranger knelt in silence, waiting, holding the weakened hands until softness faded from the pale face beneath him and a brittle coldness settled upon the brow. Then, breathing deeply, he slowly rose, stepping back from the light to gaze mournfully upon the still shape.
A long moment passed before the first, violent shudder stiffened him and his fist clenched. Though his gaze remained focused on his silent friend, his fist clenched tighter, trembling, bloodless, a force struggling to find release and he shut his eyes, fiercely resisting a hated passion.
Then, after a moment, the cold gray eyes opened again and turned to gaze, malevolent and measured, upon the bedroom door that led to the hallway, and to the stairs beyond that led downward.
To the library.
And finally, though the stranger continued to stare at the door, the trembling fist slowly relaxed, was lowered to his side. Frowning, breathing heavily, he turned back to the still form on the bed.
He nodded; "An ending."
Shattering the solemnity, static emerged from the radio concealed within the stranger's coat. An authoritative voice, tense and harsh, requested yet another perimeter check and unseen guards responded with clearances and codes.
Impassive, the stranger reached into his coat and removed the radio, along with the bloodied headset that he had chosen not to wear during the final, cherished moments with his friend. And he remembered the shocked expression of the guard now lying coldly beneath the shadowed wood line.
When it was the guard's turn to respond, the stranger engaged the device, speaking softly.
"Position eleven, Omega clear."
"Command clear," came the reply.
The stranger waited, gazing quietly upon his friend. Then he slid the radio into his coat, wearing the small, wireless earphone for silent monitoring. From his side pocket he removed a pair of black gloves and put them on, tightening a strap at each wrist. When he finished he was again completely cloaked in dark, somber hues.
He crossed the shadowed room with movements made profound by sadness, solid with purpose until he reached the balcony doors.
Was lost in the night.
* * *