When the cemetery at St. Katherine’s church is desecrated, ex-priest John Bengioni is asked to find out why. As former assistant pastor to the parish and a prominent author in the field of occult research, John’s insights could be valuable in identifying the perpetrators and allowing the police to apprehend them quietly. So thinks Fred Renson, chief liaison to the mayor and an old friend of John’s. But Fred has made it clear that City Hall wants to avoid any adverse publicity. Discretion is essential.
Unfortunately, Bengioni has a hard time playing by the rules. Especially when he uncovers clues that lead him to a ninety-seven year old jewel theft, the body of a recently killed art smuggler, and a talisman of incredible potency. His quest to unravel the mystery behind these phenomena will force John to question his ability to protect the people he loves, especially when he is confronted by a demonic entity of historic proportions.
Upon the Hush of Night
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The bones seemed dirty gray by candlelight, not at all like the white paper skeletons his mother used to hang on their door at Halloween. Nor had those cutouts ever given him the chills the way these brittle sticks did. Not that he feared a bunch of old bones. For Chrissakes, he was a grown man with sense enough to know that once a guy croaked, he was gone for good. Only the living were dangerous.
But this was grave robbing, pure and simple, and it carried hard time if they got caught. So, what if they hadn’t taken anything? Just opening the vault would’ve qualified, and he’d already helped this clown do more than that.
He stepped around the pile of bricks by the niche, sliding a stray back toward the others with his foot. The slight scraping noise was amplified in the near-darkness.
“Well, Sammy, is that it? Or are you gonna stay here and play with your new toys all night?”
The other man, crouched in the glow of a candle, raised his head slowly and stared at him. “Just wait at the top of the stairs, Mr. Rowe. I have a small ceremony I wish to conduct before we leave.” He continued to lay the bones into a pentagonal pattern.
Rowe started climbing the steps.
“Sick,” he muttered to himself. Halfway up, he turned around. “That’s sick, Samuels. You’re a goddam pervert, y’know?”
Samuels rose to his feet. “That’s just about enough, Mr. Rowe. You were hired to help me with some manual labor, not comment on my religious practices. Now wait at the top until I’ve finished, and keep your mouth shut. I will not be interrupted again.”
Rowe almost snapped back. He opened his mouth with an angry reply, but something in Samuels’ expression changed his mind. The guy was weird, and he didn’t want to find out just how far his strangeness went. Anyone who broke into church vaults to make magic was a psycho, and that meant danger. Not like the boogeyman crap that scared you when the other kids told you ghost stories on YMCA campouts. More like when some creep tried to stick a knife in your ribs to keep you quiet and save himself a few bucks after you’d done what he hired you for.
That’s the kind of weird this Samuels was. Dangerous weird.
Rowe glared down his disgust then turned and continued to climb. At the top step he sat and propped his back against the wall, dangling his legs over the edge. It wasn’t a long way down. About fifteen, sixteen feet was all, and the candles lit the chamber surprisingly well.
He grunted. Candles instead of flashlights. Samuels had insisted on that. He had insisted on a lot of things tonight. Maybe too many for a couple of crummy C-notes. But what the hell; it was his pony ride. He could hold the reins a little while more. Until he paid the stableman. Then Mr. L.T. Samuels could kiss his ass.
Rowe patted the .38 cuddled in his coat pocket. He’d be clear of this job soon enough, clear of the voodoo bunk and the uneasiness he’d felt all night long. Tomorrow he’d hit the track with two hundred mother-lovin’ bucks, courtesy of Sammy-boy down there. With that kind of money, he might hit big.
Rowe smiled to himself. He was beginning to feel lucky; very lucky. God help that bastard if he tried anything funny.
Father Michael Callahan woke in the middle of the night with the knowledge that something was wrong. How he knew, he could not be certain, nor did he bother to question his awareness in the first moments of consciousness. He realized his body had contracted into a fetal ball, and he shivered involuntarily as waves of nausea washed through his stomach. Whimpering noises escaped his lips; each breath increasingly shallow as his throat narrowed, choking off a would-be scream.
Some small part of his brain told him to act; to force his paralyzed limbs to come alive and get him clear of the unseen thing that threatened him. Nothing responded. He strained against his own constricted muscles, but the effort ended in a sudden spasm that pulled his scalp so tightly he felt as if his eyes would burst from their sockets.
A stench suddenly swept the room. It hung momentarily, an oppressive fog seeping through each crack and crevice, searching for some private place to gather itself into a more definite shape. There was a pause as the weight of the room’s atmosphere pressed down forcefully on the priest’s curled body. Then, the air audibly collapsed, and the odor vanished. Minutes passed, and his scalp loosened, as did his stomach, arms, and finally, his legs. He rolled weakly onto his back, too exhausted to sit up. A few minutes more and he was able to cry, and this time when he shook, it was with relief.
Callahan rose to his feet and swayed. He reached for the nightstand, bracing himself until the room ceased to spin. His head cleared slowly, and for a few seconds he thought he might have imagined the incident. Then the acrid smell of urine rose to his nostrils, and he knew that the terror had been real.
The priest crossed to the bathroom, peeled off his shorts, and washed himself in the basin. An uneasy sensation still gnawed at his insides, but fear was beginning to yield to an aggressive curiosity. He had always believed in a rational universe, a cosmos through which the Deity revealed Himself gradually to His created beings according to their capacity to comprehend His nature. That he had experienced some severe physical shock was to him merely an indication that some manifestation of the Divine had occurred. The Bible often described the first reactions of holy men to the appearance of the Lord or His minions as one of fear. Why should it be different for him? In any case, it was his duty to try to understand what had happened. His faith was in the power of God Almighty manifested through the saving grace of His Son, Jesus Christ. He must, on the strength of that belief, seek an answer.
Callahan slid into his bathrobe and slippers and rummaged through the nightstand drawer for a flashlight. Not that he’d need it in the house. After twelve years, he could walk through the rectory blindfolded. But outside—
He descended the stairs to the front hall and reached for the porch light, then hesitated. Whatever had passed him by was well beyond the reach of a forty-watt bulb. All he’d accomplish by flicking the switch would be the destruction of his own night vision. Callahan pulled open the front door and stepped onto the walk.
He paused, listening, feeling the rise and fall of a cool breeze coming from the direction of the forest preserve. It carried the sound of the waterfall by the millrace, barely trickling this time of the year; the muted cascade clear and distinct against the near hush of the night. He turned on the flashlight and played the beam along the sidewalk, watching dried leaves tumble and swirl across the lawn. No; nothing by the woods. It was at the church. He felt it. Something by or in it.
Callahan padded quickly to the side entrance near the sacristy—the little door he had not once locked in all the time he had served at St. Katherine’s. He touched the handle and froze. It was wrong. Inside it was wrong. Again, he knew it, could sense the fear knotting his stomach.
“God, come to my assistance” he whispered under his breath as he began to turn the knob. Cold waves started to crawl up his spine, and he spoke rapidly. “Lord, make haste to help me. Send us your strength, O’ God, from your holy temple in Jerusalem, and perfect your work in us—”
He was sweating now, and somehow the door had grown too heavy to move. He was straining to pull it open, wasn’t he? He could feel a massive resistance pulling from the other side, making it impossible for him to budge the wood on its hinges. Or was it merely his own subconscious holding him back; a gut-level denial of his professed beliefs?
He could not—would not—accept that. Callahan tucked the flashlight under his arm and grasped the latch handle with both hands, straining with every ounce of force he could muster.
Through gritted teeth, he intoned, “The just man will never waver: he will be remembered forever. He has no fear of evil news—”
The muscles in his neck tightened into cords, and his words came out in rasping breaths.
“—with a firm heart he trusts in the Lord. With a steadfast heart he will not fear; he will see the downfall of his foes.”
Then the wind shifted, and he gasped and went slack. From the direction of the cemetery came the smell of freshly dug earth, like the scent of a newly prepared grave. Only there were no graves being opened this week. There hadn’t been any in a month.
His breath grew shallow and quick as he ran the flashlight down the walk toward the far end of the building. Just beyond the reach of the beam he could make out the dim shadows of the first rows of monuments, the taller obelisks and crosses providing a darker backdrop to the smaller stones. He had walked among them so often in the past that he knew without looking what markers belonged to which families and who was laid next to whom. Certainly, everything looked normal.
But the breeze was gusting more briskly now, and with it came an increase in the stench. Mixed with the dampness of soil was the heavier tinge of decay. Not the rot of leaves. He knew that smell. This was stronger, like animal putrefaction, with a touch of something old and musty and perhaps even chemical mixed in. And it was out there among the sleeping dead.
Callahan walked toward the graves, softly, listening intently to the night sounds, almost expecting to hear the disturbance of grass or the crunch of gravel in the driveway. But only the crickets sang, and even their chirps seemed muted by the pounding of his heart.
Sweeping the flashlight back and forth among the rows of marble, he crossed the drive where it passed behind the church. Still, there was nothing unusual. The ground sloped steeply as it approached the trees, until it disappeared behind the private mausoleums that separated the older section of churchyard from the more recent burials.
He sniffed the air again. Down there. That’s where he needed to go.
Yet, he didn’t want to. Images of grotesque, crouching things hiding behind the vaults flashed through his mind, making him shiver. He caught himself in mid-thought and shook his head angrily. What kind of child was he being? Conjuring monsters in dark places, the way he used to after sneaking a peek at Shock Theater on Friday nights. Thought he was being smart back then, disobeying his parents just to catch a glimpse of Frankenstein and the Wolfman stalking their victims across the screen of the black and white set. Now, forty years later, those old creatures were coming back to haunt him. That’d teach him to break the Fourth Commandment.
Besides, he no longer felt afraid. Not the way he did a few moments ago at the sacristy door. Whatever had threatened him then wasn’t waiting below the hill. At least, he didn’t think so. That only stood to reason. Nothing could be in two places at once.
The wind gusted again, and he suddenly gagged.
What in God’s name could stink like that?