53 - Chicago
SEVERAL WEEKS AGO There was no way that Smith could have missed at that distance. His brother–or at least his brother’s form, I still wasn’t sure on the details–was standing no more than a foot away, directly in front of the gun. Yet when my eyes readjusted to the gloom after the brilliant flash of the gun, he was still standing there, looking none the worse for the gunshot.
“Did you really think that was going to do any good?” the boy–Alex? Not-Alex?–asked. There wasn’t much in the way of emotion in his voice.
John Smith stood there, his mouth hanging slightly open. From the look on his face, I could guess that yes, he had expected that shot to have a little more of an effect. Recovering from his surprise, he lifted the gun to point directly at his brother’s face, his finger tightening on the trigger.
But Alex wasn’t there.
He’d done that vanishing trick again, where he managed to skip across the space between one point and the next, all within a flicker of the shadows. There was no sense of motion; just one moment he was in one place, the next we was in another.
As he stalked through the shadows–they seemed almost to wrap themselves about him, moving as he moved, keeping him partially cloaked in darkness–Alex spoke in that same deadpan voice. “Did you really think that you could kill me?”
I couldn’t tell if it was a rhetorical question or if he expected an answer. The way that he was moving, I expected that it would take more than a bit of luck to hit him in the first place.
“After all,” Alex continued, “I’m already dead. How can you kill someone that’s already dead?”
“You can’t be dead,” I heard myself say. I wasn’t sure where the words came from. It wasn’t like this was the sort of situation that they covered in the seminary. “Jesus alone has the power over death. And it’s been a few years since he decided to bring anyone back.” Jesus himself had come back of course, and then there was the case of Lazarus, but still…
“Oh, I was definitely dead.” He looked down at himself. “And here I am, most definitely not dead.”
“That’s not possible.” After all, Alex had come to me and confessed to committing suicide–a mortal sin. Of all the people in the world to be given a second chance, why would this boy be the one to actually get it?
“Father, father. I find it ironic that you of all people would have so little faith.”
What did he mean by that? “This isn’t just a matter of faith…”
Very suddenly, Alex was standing there, right in my face, only inches away This close, the smell of him was almost overpowering. It was that same odor, the smell of wet leather, that I’d come to dislike. Things never made quite as much sense as I liked whenever that smell was involved.
“Oh yeah, Father? Then what is it?”
I didn’t have an answer for him.
54 - Rome
PRESENT DAY The lady with the bass voice and the sword didn’t seem to accept the idea that what she was looking for could both have been here recently but no longer be here now. Honestly, she seemed a little slow on the uptake, but I wasn’t about to tell her that, not with said sword in the mix. She kept it unsheathed the entire time which was mildly disconcerting–Had she just walked right down the street like that? Hadn’t anyone thought to stop her?
For several minutes, we went around and around, her repeatedly asking some variation of “where is it?” or saying that she knew that it was here while I vaguely tried to tell her that yes, it had been here but that no, it was gone now. Yet she didn’t seem to want to believe. Each time I told her, she’d take a big whiff of air and go right back to asking where it was. Finally, I began to despair of ever getting out of there in one piece. At least she didn’t seem too keen on actually putting that sword to use. Thank God for small favors.
I tried to distracting her by asking her name.
“It’s here. I know you have it.”
I tried asking what she’d do with it when she got it?
“Where is it?”
In desperation, I even asked about the weather. What possessed me to think that would get me anywhere, I couldn’t say. But all I got in response was her taking another big breath of the air and looking around, still trying to find what she couldn’t find.
She reminded me somewhat of a hunting dog, the way that she was smelling the air, but with how easily she’d gotten confused, it didn’t seem a particularly good analogy. I was just about to give up and just make a run for it–if she hadn’t gotten into a stabby mood thus far, it seemed fair to think that wouldn’t change too suddenly–when there came a knock at the door.
Perhaps a knock at the wall would have been a more accurate choice of words, as the door was barely hanging on as it was. A nice solid knock would likely have done it in. But what was far more important was the man standing in the doorway.
Tall and slender, he had on an impeccably tailored suit in a deep ash gray with a crimson tie that seemed to draw the light in on itself. His hair was slicked back, slightly oil in appearance and had a part so severe that it could have been applied with a straight edge. All together, the look was reminding me of something, but try as I might, I just couldn’t manage to put my finger on it.
The man in the doorway spoke, his voice as oily as his haircut. “Cerberus. Heel.”
The woman with the sword immediately turned on her heel and quickly crossed the room back to the exit. The man standing there held out a hand and she took it, bending over slightly. For one brief instant, I thought that she was going to kiss the back of his hand, but instead she stopped with her head just inclined, standing completely still.
“Good girl.” He took his hand back, pulling it from the woman’s grasp.
What was he doing? That was a woman–albeit a strange one–and here he was treating her like a dog? The night was just getting stranger and stranger.
The man took a step into the room, looking me up and down. “You must be Father Thomas.”
At this point, I wasn’t even surprised that he knew my name. Of course he knew my name. Why wouldn’t he know my name?
I just nodded. “And you are?”
“My name is not important. What’s important is why I’m here. You have something of mine.”
Of course I did. And here I’d thought that him calling off the woman with the sword had been the end of my discussion.
“As I was telling your… friend there. I don’t have it. Not any more.”
He blinked. Once. Twice. “Whatever do you mean?” His voice was soft. Calm.
I sighed. I just didn’t want to deal with this any more. “The Cup of Lazarus. I don’t have it anymore.”
He grinned–but his grin was completely devoid of mirth. “Who said anything about the Cup?”
55 - Baghdad
SEVERAL YEARS AGO In the end, I did manage to find a young man willing to go with me back to the museum. Private First Class Carter, he was short and stocky but what he lacked in height he more than made up for in attitude. He varied from almost indescribably cheerful to manically intense, depending on the situation and he’d saved my life at least twice since we’d first arrived in Iraq.
At first, it hadn’t looked like we’d be able to get off of the base and back out into the city at large. With the heightened security after the most recent attack, movements were being restricted. Yet just when it looked like we were going to have to sneak away–and I doubted that Carter would have been up for that–I bumped into the same Sargent who’d first questioned me about my involvement with Amira. I still wasn’t thrilled with the way that he implied–all without saying so much as a word–what there was between the two of us, but at the moment, I wasn’t above using that to my advantage.
Hey. It worked.
He ended up relenting, ostensibly under the guise of sending us out to make sure that there wasn’t a new force taking up refuge in the museum as they had when we’d first come into the city. He okayed the outing, actually sending two more men with us–Lee and Rush–with the latter of those officially in command. Officially, were to check the museum and return immediately at any sign of trouble. Unofficially, we had a little more leeway to look into the shooting and try to determine who was responsible.
Quite frankly, I was surprised at how easy it was to get the Sergent to go along with it. Whatever idea he’d gotten into his head about Amira and me, I would have thought that it would have just been a hassle to him. But for whatever reason, it was working to my advantage and I wasn’t going to let that opportunity pass by. I didn’t have time to let that opportunity pass by.
So we left, the four of us. Heading back out into the city.
When we neared the museum, Rush stopped us several blocks out. So far as I could tell, there was nothing out of the ordinary ahead. The doors were closed tight and there didn’t appear to be any movement inside, but it was later in the day. One of the few other remaining staff had probably locked up after they’d heard the gunfire and then cleared out. But then again, if the others had actually set up snipers, they wouldn’t want us to see them, now would they?
So we stopped and waited while Rush and Lee scanned the area ahead with their scopes. When neither saw any sign of movement. we moved forward, foot by foot, block by block. Finally, we were right on the edge of the courtyard in front of the building. It was the moment of truth. If there were snipers, there was no way that we were going to get any closer, not without attracting fire.
“I’ll do it,” I said before I could have a chance to chicken out. “Hopefully they’ll see that I don’t have any weapons and show some mercy.”
“Padre?” Lee asked. “Have you been fighting some other ware while I wasn’t looking?” He gestured around at the city. “You’re a priest. Your sort doesn’t tend to go over so well in this part of the world.”
I wanted to disagree with him, to point out that the majority of the local people had no more problem with me and my faith than did the people back home had with Muslim immigrants. Less even than some parts of the United States. Still, he did have something of a point.
“Well, if that’s the case, then I’d better hope that these vests work as well as advertised.” Underneath my fatigues, I wore a military grade suit of Kevlar plates. I actually knew that if there really were snipers up there and that if they decided to take a shot at me that the Kevlar would be next to useless. But at the moment, i couldn’t think of another way.
Besides. I didn’t just have the Kevlar on my side.
I had God.
56 - Baghdad
SEVERAL YEARS AGO Sometimes I think that God has a rotten sense of humor.
None of the other three had a better plan for making it safely across the square, so a few minutes later I set out across the square, my pace measured but brisk. It was one thing to trust in God’s plan. It was another to not at least try to make things easier on him.
I made it perhaps a third of the way across the pavement when the shot rang out.
I thought that it came from the top of the museum, on the tower to my right. Directly in front of me.
When it hit, it felt like someone had just swung a two by four into my chest.
All of the air rushed out of me. I was flung several feet back, landing hard on my backside.
For a moment, I couldn’t even think about what had happened.
It was all I could do just to breath.
Then a second shot hit the ground mere inches from my hand. Shards from the brick tore into my hand as the bullet ate into the pavement.
That was more than enough to shock me back into action.
I thought I heard the men back at the edge of the square firing back. I couldn’t be sure though. My world was narrowing down to just the few feet surrounding me.
At that moment, there were only two thoughts going through my mind. That there were people trying to kill me. And that I had to move, had to get back into cover.
Not necessarily in that order.
Forcing myself to my feet, I almost blacked out. The lack of oxygen made it hard to stay on my feet.
My hand jumped up to my chest, certain that I would feel that same warm sticky sensation like when I’d carried Private Jackson. But nothing. There was a ragged tear in my jacked, right over my heart, but no blood.
I didn’t have time for that. I had to move.
Half running, half stumbling back towards where I’d come from, I gasped for breath. My lungs felt like they were burning. The closest I could remember to that sensation was being force to go running during training one night when the temperature had dipped well below freezing. Our gear was more than enough to keep us warm, but each deep breath cut like a knife straight to the cut.
Only I couldn’t even take the deep breaths this time. Even shallow gasps hurt.
I was only a few feet away from the other men when the next shot came. I will never remember the look on Carter’s face, calling out to me, almost cheering me on.
And then the impact, dead in the center of my back.
The horror on his face as I started to stumble.
The last thing that thing that I remember seeing was Carter in what seemed like slow motion. Mouthing the word ’no’ in that same stretched out manner you see in all of those movies. If I’d had the time to react, it might even have been funny.
But then I hit the pavement and everything went dark.