The same smell of copper and echoing drips of blood from Mr. Booker’s farm now filled the church’s nave. The scene was gruesome as they come: Father Jonathan’s green robes ripped open and nailed behind his blackening pierced palms like wings. That encircled star the detective had seen too often lately was carved on his chest from shoulder to shoulder down to the umbilicus. His feet were also nailed to one another at the base, or what was now the ‘top’ of the upside-down cross. Blood dripped from every wound and gash in the priest’s body, riding his saturated robes like an expressway to his chin, then around his rolled-back bulging green eyes just before maneuvering his swollen temple and pooling on the floor. The black cross creaked, still swinging from a rope attached to the rafters. The body didn’t smell. It had all been recent – not minutes ago.
Buck stepped foot over foot, rounding the hanging priest with a pounding in his heart he struggled to conceal. His boots creaked the old floorboards and pounded in echoes off the church’s vaulted ceiling. He bit his tongue. Loudly the slain priest’s words rang that Buck most wanted to discredit. Crimson Dawn…the book of Malachi…the blood of a child…sacrifices…ritualistic suicides…the Cave of Horror. Buck cleared his throat.
When he first arrived at the scene there were many gathered around, but nobody seemed to see anyone go inside. Wilma Potter was across the street, holding her necklace close to her chest and struggling for breath, Deidra Evans was shopping at the boutique next door, Ellie the cashier saw nothing. Sam Livéd was there as well, but was nothing but a grinning mute that day. The one living person Buck found inside was little Patrick Evans, the boy he had promised to protect, dropped to his knees before the swinging cross and mumbling to himself, covered in the Father’s blood.
“The one holy place left in this town and this is what they do to it,” Buck muttered.
“I thought you didn’t believe in that kind of thing,” Mayor Stevens said.
The detective grunted, his eye caught by the rusty six-inch nails burrowed through the priest’s hands. He thought of how it might have happened, how the priest yelled out in agony, for eternal forgiveness while his assailants nails pierced his palms and the hammering and chanting cultists drowned him out.
Mayor Stevens got closer to Buck and whispered in his ear. “The kid’s here, bloodier than the body, and you’re not going to question him?”
“Give him time,” Buck coolly replied.
“Time? We don’t have time and I sure as hell don’t need to tell you why. I mean look at this? Our priest? How did this shit happen this side of the wall? Again!”
“Because it’s one of our own. Probably more than one,” he postulated.
“Question the kid,” the mayor demanded. “He knows something. He has to.”
The detective followed the rope to the ceiling and tried to reason with Mayor Stevens as much as himself. “He didn’t do it. Not alone at least. Kid couldn’t take down a grown man, never mind nail him to a cross and hang it from the rafters. He’s twelve. Doesn’t have the strength.”
“Talk to him.”
“And say what?” Buck scoffed. “Who do you work for? He’s a kid for crying out loud.”
“We need answers. You’re the detective.”
“And answers I don’t got,” Buck whimpered. “How am I supposed to protect this town if I can’t even protect that boy. I couldn’t even protect my own daughter.”
“That was years ago,” the mayor’s tone shifted.
Buck shook his head, his jaw hinged back and forth. “You know what else Father Jonathan told me?”
Buck pointed at the hanging priest and caught his breath before finishing his thought. “He told me after the sacrifice of that prominent person came the sacrifice of a child. One about Pat Evans’s age. If I can’t even keep him away from a scene like this, how am I supposed to save him?”
Mayor Stevens looked to the traumatized child and nodded. “We have to try.”
The detective nodded as well, dropping his head. “At all costs.” He then looked to what should have been the top of the cross which nearly touched the ground. About eight inches beyond the priest’s dangling black and red bloody hair hung a small paper sign from a single nail. It read ‘HENRI’. “What you reckon that means?”
“It’s been a minute since I went to Sunday school,” the mayor admitted, “but there’s supposed to be an inscription on a cross with letters, but those ain’t them.” She pointed to the cross above the alter – the wooden one with a model of Jesus nailed to it, knees bent to the side and head tilted. “You see how that one says INRI?”
“That’s what it’s supposed to say.”
“What’s it mean?” Buck asked.
“It’s an acronym. Stands for Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews in English.”
“You know Latin?”
The mayor shrugged, examining the inscription on the black cross again. “Not enough to decipher an acronym,” she admitted. “HENRI. That could mean anything.”
“And it’s not a name?”
“Aren’t you supposed to be the detective here?” Mayor Stevens snapped. “A display like this is common in cults, I think. It’s supposed to make a mockery of the crucifixion. And in that case, I’m betting HENRI stands for something, just as INRI does.”
“But what?” Buck stared at the piece of paper with her as if the answer would soon make itself known.
Peter mumbled something indecipherable, but at the same time coherent. It was the first words he’d said since Buck found him. He looked absently between his blood-soaked hands, the crimson rivers now caking into the creases of his palms.
“Did you say something, son?” Buck called for him.
The boy repeated the same words, slightly louder this time.
“Is that English?” the detective asked.
Mayor Stevens ran over to Peter, knelt down and held his hand tightly. “Pete, honey,” she said sweetly. “What are you saying? Can you repeat that please?”
Peter’s lips moved stealthily, but his words were piercing. “Hic et nunc raptus incipit.”
“What is that?” the detective muttered.
The boy repeated those words, over and over again as if lost in a trance. “Hic et nunc raptus incipit. Hic et nunc raptus incipit. Hic et nunc raptus incipit…”
“It’s Latin,” the mayor gasped. She stood, shaking all the way.
“What does it mean?”
“Hic et nunc raptus incipit,” her lips trembled. “HENRI.”
The detective shook his head, puzzled.
The mayor gulped, grabbed at her collar. “Here and now the rapture begins.”
Needless to say, Frank Evans wasn’t the biggest advocate for his son’s placement under surveillance. “You told my boy you’d keep him safe and he almost gets killed along with that priest of yours. You’re just a bunch of incompetent commies! What makes you think you can do a better job than me at keepin’ my boy out of trouble?” Frank’s point was made in that alleged arsenal beneath his house, but Mayor Stevens wouldn’t risk one more preventable death in Perching Tree. And despite their firepower, the Evans had lost their boy enough times to have a pentagram drawn on his back, be some type of witness to Father Jonathan’s murder, and learn Latin enough to give the shivers to otherwise resolute Vicky Stevens. Mrs. Evans, on the other hand, wanted nothing more than the professional protection of her boy.
“We have reason to believe your son is the primary target of a cult called the Crimson Dawn,” the detective explained to Deidra, sitting on her couch together. “The cult historically tends to mark a child between six and twelve for sacrifice shortly before the ritual. The marking on your son’s back, the pentagram, we believe that is his mark.”
“And I bet that dead priest told you that too?” Frank snarled.
Buck and Mrs. Evans frowned, ignored her husband’s protests. “Has your son been learning any Latin?”
“N-no,” Mrs. Evans’s scanned the detective with a shrunken expression. “N-not that I know of. Why?”
“Latin? Jesus Christ,” Frank spat.
“Pat uttered a Latin phrase this afternoon,” the detective said, “the same one that was inscribed on the cross where Father Jonathan…” He thought better than to complete his sentence.
“What was it?” Deidra asked.
“It was in Latin, mind you, but it means ‘here and now, the rapture begins’,” he paused. “Does that mean anything to either of you?”
“No,” Deidra croaked.
“The fuckin’ what?” Frank chimed in. His hands flopped at his sides.
“Rapture,” Buck said calmly. “In the Bible, it’s the transportation of believers into Heaven. In this case, the followers of Crimson Dawn to…well, wherever it is they think they’re going.” The couple still shot puzzled and outraged expressions respectively. Buck continued, making sure to keep his intonation as even as possible. “Ma’am, I know I’ve asked you before, but I need you to think hard: have you ever heard your son refer to a man named Malachi?”
Deidra gave it some thought, but again shook her head.
“Hol’ on,” Frank approached the detective. “Did you say Malachi?”
“Yeah, I’ve heard that name,” Frank said. “Not from Pat, but I’ve heard it. It’s uh – it’s that fuckin’ alcoholic that’s always stumblin’ about. It’s what he’s been callin’ himself. It’s uh, Stan or Sal or –”
“Sam,” the detective said with a breathy voice. “Sam?”
“Yeah, that’s the guy,” Frank snapped his fingers. “Guy whose last name is Devil.”
“His last name’s Livéd,” Buck corrected.
“Yeah,” Frank thought. “That’s it…I ain’t no mathematician but…” he waved his fingers in the air, weaving imaginary lines over one another. “Livéd spelled backwards is…you know…Devil. Ain’t it?”
The floorboards near the staircase wavered and the sounds of splashing echoing liquid raised the hairs on the detective’s arms. The three of them spun towards the noise. It was Pat, standing there with glass fragments puncturing his fingers and remnants of a drinking glass rolling at his feet. “Malachi,” he whispered with a blissful stare. “Hic et nunc raptus incipit.”
Deidra screamed and rushed to her son, catching him just before he fainted. And while she was once again collecting her fallen son, the phone rang and nearly fell off the wall. Frank swiped at it and brought it to his ear. “Hello? Yes…yes he’s here.” He raised the phone and presented it to Buck. “Detective…it’s for you.”
Buck rushed to the corded phone and took it. “Hello, this is Detective Walters.”
A deep, frantic, but familiar voice struggled for breath in static from the other end.
“Buck…it’s Lily…they took her.”
Reused yellow caution tape, blaring lights, and a murmuring crowd. Buck’s childhood friend’s home was a crime scene. Ron scratched and pulled at the little hair he had left, punching tables and futilely attempting to hold back the rage in his heart. “Those sons of bitches,” Ron muttered. “They gonna pay for this. They ain’t getting away with this.”
“I know,” Buck said.
“It’s my daughter!”
Buck shone his flashlight in every crevice and drawer in the little girl’s room. Her covers were pulled back, her stuffed bear left in the doorway. No blood, no scratches, no struggle. “Has she ever mentioned someone named Malachi?” the detective sheepishly asked.
“I need Buck now, not detective Walters,” Ron cried and grabbed at the detective’s jacket. “Listen to me, man. You gotta save her. She’s all I got.”
Buck nodded and closed his eyes, trying to recall everything he’d seen over the past few days for the hint of a clue. “Okay, there was the goat with the pentagram, the word ‘Rebirth’ drawn in blood. Electric fence wasn’t broken.”
“So it was Nate Burke? I told you.”
“No, he couldn’t do this all alone. He’s too small for somethin’ like that. But maybe he has friends. Then there’s those crows crashing into Miss Potter’s windows, then the boy with the pentagram on his back, the water with the blood, Mary-Ann Keller reading that book. She was bein’ coy about it too, wouldn’t tell me the name.”
“You think it’s her?”
“No, I know it’s Sam Livéd, been goin’ by Malachi. Think he murdered the priest too – saw him walkin’ towards the church only ‘bout thirty minutes before we found Father Jonathan. And you know how you said you thought Miss Keller was maybe settin’ up that ‘book club’ for someone else? She was quotin’ the Bible to me too. I reckon it’s Sam, but she’s in on it then. So the three of them gotta know somethin’. And if little Pat Evans ain’t the target, then…your little girl is.”
“Jesus Christ,” Ron shrieked.
“And that sign on the black cross – here and now the rapture begins. Here and now…it was hangin’ at the end of the cross, upside-down, pointed at the floor…” The detective got quiet, grabbed at his own face. “The basement of the church. The book club. It’s all connected. It’s all right there.”
Ron grabbed at the detective’s arm, and through his clenched teeth he spat, “Get ‘er Buck. Go kill those sons of bitches.”
Buck looked into his friend’s eyes, saw the fire, the indignation, but even more so, the desperation to save his daughter. Buck’s eyes swelled and he held back his tears with a hard bite and a nod.
The sky darkened over Perching Tree, darker than the darkest night. Crows flapped all about and landed on the church’s pointed roof. The detective approached the back door with his heart recoiling, pleading for him to turn away. He heard something inside him, like a new facet of conscience. It spoke in a calming but commanding tone. “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you,” it said.
Keeping one hand on the grip of his Sig Sauer, Buck slowly reached for the doorknob. He recalled what Wilma Potter had said, felt it emanating off the door. There’s an evil here. I feel it in my bones. And when his fingers reached the knob, he felt its metallic form was frozen. It crackled between his knuckles.
Murmurs came from the other side, the darkest thoughts he’d ever had zapped in and out of his head. SUBMIT something screamed. But it wasn’t from the other side. Buck shut his eyes tight and shook his head. “No,” he pleaded. “Go away!”
IT’S YOUR FAULT! DADDY, DADDY! PLEASE! PLEASE WON’T YOU SAVE ME? WON’T YOU DO ANYTHING? ANYTHING!
The detective tried to ignore it, the voices screaming inside and all around him. He felt his heart slowing, his blood calming as if death played his veins like a violin. And when he finally found the momentary strength, Buck twisted the doorknob.
The door creaked in a vile squeal. The voices inside grew louder. As the door swung, Buck saw more of what was in that basement: cobwebs lit by flickering candlelight, a thick odor haunting his nostrils, the frozen air stabbing at his hands and waggling his shoulders. At the forefront of the room, Buck saw the old drunk, now composed with his hands outstretched, his shadow dancing on the cobblestone walls. At least forty black robed men and women gathered around him. “…that one of you would shut the temple doors, so that you would not light useless fires on my altar,” Malachi bellowed, candlelight dancing in his irises and illuminating his sharp teeth. “I am not pleased with you.” He stopped, noticing the detective. “Detective Walters,” he smiled, something otherworldly captivated his soul. His voice crackled and his tongue wavered like a snake’s. “What a lovely surprise.”
Within a flick of his fingers, two of the black-robed men converged on Buck and grabbed at his arms. Buck reached for his gun, but his hand never made it to his belt. He looked up, into one of the robed men’s faces, lit only in fractions of shadows. “Jonah?”
Mr. Reeds only responded by holding tighter. The other man, who the detective never saw, grabbed the Sig Sauer from Buck’s belt and kicked it back towards the door.
The crowd reassumed their bowing positions toward their leader and chanted in response. “Cursed is the cheat who has an acceptable male in his flock and vows to give it, but then sacrifices a blemished animal to the Lord.”
Malachi’s smile widened. “Take this, and eat of it, this body has been given up for you.” He took two steps back, and out of the shadows emerged two more of his followers. The room was too dark for Buck to see them, but he suspected they were people he knew, just like Jonah. People he’d protected. People he’d trusted. And between the two robed cultists was a child, submissive and head bowed.
“Let her go, Sam,” the detective demanded. The second cloaked man squeezed Buck’s arm harder.
Malachi ignored him. He was now pulling something from beneath his robes, something that broke the darkness with a shine. “Take this…all of you, and drink from it,” he croaked.
A knife, Buck realized. “Sam, stop. It’s not too late.”
“For this is the blood of the new, and everlasting covenant…”
“Stop,” Buck protested weakly.
“…which will be poured out for you, and for the forgiveness of our sins.” Malachi quietened, breathed in deeply, relishing in perhaps his life’s greatest moment. With his free hand, he ripped the hood off his captive, and staring back at him were the helpless blue eyes of little Lily Roberts, the girl who would guarantee their final rapture. He presented the blade, showing her the tool with which she would fulfill her destiny. “Save us, oh savior. And set us free,” he whispered.
Malachi then raised the knife above his head and thrusted it down, plunging towards the girl. “No!” the detective called out again. He squirmed and kicked, freeing himself from his robed captors and kicked off the ground. He ran forward between the rows of cultists and pushed the little girl out of the blade’s path.
Two quick shots rang out and Malachi stumbled backwards with a gasp, hitting the wall and grabbing at this chest. Simultaneously, the crowd lifted their heads, looked to one another, and then watched their leader struggling for breath. “Hic et…” Malachi croaked. “raptus incip–” He slid to the ground, painting a crimson line on the wall in his own blood.
The wall still stood, its electricity haphazardly maintained. Hoses still clopped through the streets. The bingo and poker games resumed. And once again, the sun rose over the resilient little town of Pershing Tree. Bicycles chimed past the corner in front of the Town Hall where a single newsman stood with a stack of papers under his arm. “The Portal of Pershing Tree! Read all about it!” he hollered. “Cults? A dead priest? Missing detective? Getcha papers here!”
And after hours of the kid’s commotion, Buck Walters finally awoke. He sniffled and looked out the window, admiring his disinterested community. “You’re awake,” Ron said, standing and closing a book.
Buck sat up quickly, a shooting pain captivating his shoulder and forcing a flinch. “Lily. Where is she? Is she alright?”
Ron smiled and nodded slowly. “Actually she’s got somethin’ to say to you.” He turned to the door. “Lil? Why don’t you come on in?”
The door creaked open and a hand lowered from the knob. Hobbling in small purposeful steps was that little girl. She sported gauze wrapped from her shoulder to hip around her whole torso, but more importantly a calm and brave smile. “Hi Buck,” she croaked.
“Hiya sweetie,” he said, choking on his tears. “You alright?”
“Yeah…” she replied. “Daddy and I wanted say…thank you. Thank you for savin’ me. For savin’ us all.”
Ron nodded in affirmation and grabbed Buck’s hand. “Jenny woulda been proud. I know it.”
The detective batted his eyes. “What happened? Did they do it?”
Ron nodded and bit his lip, then asked Lily to leave the room. Once she did, he answered. “Right after you pushed Lily aside and took that knife like a champ, I grabbed your gun and shot that fucker dead.”
“You was there?”
Ron nodded. “Couldn’t let you go after my daughter alone.”
“And the rest?”
“Caught some, we did. Nate Burke, Mary-Ann Keller, Jonah Reeds. But most of ‘em got away.”
The detective shook his head and felt a sharp pain grab his back. He hissed.
“Got you bad, didn’t they?” Ron said.
“So…they’re still out there?”
“Yeah,” Ron whispered in defeat. “Maybe here in Pershing Tree, maybe made it to the Wild. But hey, buddy: rest up. You did it. You stopped ‘em. They don’t got no leader.”
“Rebirth,” the detective said.
“Rebirth. Resurgence. They’ll come again.”
Ron smiled and patted Buck’s shoulder. “I’m sure not for a long while.”
And when Ron’s hand landed on the detective, the pain from his back traveled all over his body, up through his torso and down to the tips of his toes almost shooting his nails right off. And in the interest of not screaming in front of Ron he said, “I gotta go to the John.”
Ron nodded and reached for his arm.
“I got it,” Buck shook him off. He made his way to the bathroom in his hospital suite and once the door was shut he let out a holler. His cries alleviated nothing. Buck felt something, burrowed into his back. Probably the knife wound, he thought. Maybe its infected. But he needed to see it, needed to see the scar that would forever remind him of the Crimson Dawn. He shifted his blue gown, feeling even the thin material drag like needles over his wounds. Buck dropped a shoulder towards the mirror, then furrowed his brow to study it: a round cut, like that of a circle. He gasped, turned his back more towards the mirror to see two straight lines breaking inside the circle like the point of a triangle. And when he was finally turned and looked in the mirror from the side of his eye, he saw it: the inverse pentagram, carved into his skin, down to the bone. He gulped and wet his lips with his tongue. “Rebirth,” the detective whispered.