Rough hands closed the blood-stained journal that read like a history book about the Corduva church and mission. The journal’s last date was little more than a year ago, compiled by some unknown author with a penchant for researching the church’s bloody past. Governor Martinez’s tenuous hold on the Corduva region had gone to hell over last year, when the cartels tired of paying for their safe haven and staged this bloody coup to remove him from power. And while Corduva’s local blood had supplied the cannon fodder for the staged rebellion it was professional soldiers like Warrant and his men that drove the thing home. They’d been hired to lead the locals against Martinez’s forces, but Martinez had been an even worse general than he was a governor, and his soldiers died fast and ran even faster. As a bonus, the cartel had allowed Warrant and his crew all the spoils they could find in the abandoned church, and in fairness they’d even told Warrant about the reputation of the mission. But Warrant and the rest of his merc’s had been in Central America long enough to know there could be valuable antiques and relics in such places. From Cortez all the way down to the Nazis, their forgotten treasures could be found in equally forgotten places.
The few locals they’d encountered at Corduva’s only cantina said little and even avoided eye contact with them, not an unusual thing from what was essentially an occupied town. With a little coaxing, though, Warrant was able to get some of the legends about the Corduva church as well as the journal the locals had found on one of the bodies last year. He and his men had laughed about the stories over bottles of weak beer, and the dire warnings some of the more eccentric residents gave only added to their merriment. The merc’s were still laughing as they pried the rough boards from the wide double-doors of the church. Though he didn’t believe the stories, Henry Warrant’s mother hadn’t raised any fools. Ten years in Force Recon’ and another ten as a soldier for hire had taught him that stories and rumors often held a grain of truth in these little backwaters. Like as not at least of few of the slayings were real, though it was far more likely the murders were the work of locals that snuck into the church and did away with the drug lords, gangs and military occupiers that dared violate their holy place.
The team swept through the church as if it was an urban assault then spent the rest of the daylight hours searching every inch of the place for hidden doors, windows or other ways that someone could enter. The few vulnerabilities they found actually made Warrant feel better and went a long way towards proving the theory that the mysterious slayings really weren’t all that mysterious. The search also proved the mission was, indeed, loaded with valuables. Warrant could only shake his head as he compared the wealth of the church and the utter poverty in which the people lived. He had faith in nothing more than himself and couldn’t respect a people that would let their children starve rather than clear out the mission and sell the contents to feed their families.
“Kevin? What do you make of it?” Warrant asked the gaunt young man seated a few pews away. Kevin barely heard him as he turned a finely-engraved gold chalice over in his hands.
“I’ve never seen anything like this place. There’s got to be at least four or five million worth of stuff in here. It’ll take days to get it out of here and weeks to get everything appraised. Frankly, there are a few things around here that I can only guess at. That’s not mentioning the stuff we’ll find in the vault.” Kevin said.
“Vault?” Warrant leaned forward and rested his elbows on the pew ahead of him. Even the benches were elaborately carved, though they were no more comfortable than those he remembered from the church of his youth. “What vault? I didn’t see any vault.”
“These old churches always have some sort of hiding place for the really valuable stuff. What we consider valuable antiquities and art to the original inhabitants were cups and pictures on the walls. There’d have to be something of real value somewhere in this church. They put a lot of time and money into the place, a lot more than one would expect to find in area that even in its heyday would have been a shithole,” Kevin said.
Warrant scratched at the stubble on his chin. It would only make sense. The church would’ve been incredibly expensive to build and maintain in this corner of the world, and many of the materials looked like they were imported; far too much cost for a simple church. It was obviously intended to stand forever and Henry doubted the sole goal in its longevity was for a few goat herders and tequila-swillers to have a place to pray. The legends surrounding the place and actual proof to be had of its deadly nature only strengthened his belief that the boy could be right.
“Just one thing bothers me,” Kevin said quietly as he looked around the vast sanctuary. “It’s probably nothing,” he said finally, shaking his head. “Forget I said it.”
“Report, soldier,” Warrant ordered. Kevin Daniels wasn’t a soldier and had never wanted to be. He wanted to be Indiana Jones; a dashing hero with a penchant for lost artifacts and whips. However, he had a use in Warrant’s merry men, and if he was going to be along for the ride he had to be as accountable to Warrant’s commands as any of the rest of the team.
“It’s just that the place is so… clean,” Kevin said.
“Clean?” Warrant repeated.
“Well, yeah. This mission is older than dirt and it’s been boarded up for years besides. Isn’t it odd that there isn’t a layer of dust and cobwebs over everything in the place?” Kevin said.
Something had been tickling the back of Warrant’s mind since they walked in but he’d put it out of his mind while they made sure there weren’t crazed zealots waiting inside. He had realized the same thing, but it hadn’t registered till Kevin pointed it out. Warrant panned the room to confirm what he already knew. Kevin was right. The church looked like the ladies auxiliary had just finished their Saturday afternoon cleanup.
“Any ideas as to why this is floating around in that college brain of yours?” Warrant asked.
“No, sir,” Kevin said.
“Well, I do; it’s the locals. There are other ways into this building, and I doubt we’ve found them all. They come in here and keep the place up at nights, keep the legend alive. They did a pretty good job of scaring away the governor and a lot of other assholes. Know what I think, Kevin? I think this is one big fuckin’ Scooby Doo mystery. I think sometime tonight, maybe tomorrow night, we’re gonna see a beaner with a sheet over his head and a machete in his hand looking for drunk mercs’ to slaughter to keep their little haunted house alive,” Warrant said.
“So what do we do about it?” Kevin asked.
“You will continue cataloging everything we find. We are going to make sure there are no drunken mercs for them to find; only very sober and very ready ones. Get everybody in here; we need to have a little meeting,” Warrant said. Kevin nodded and left the sanctuary while Warrant lit a cigarette and threw the match down on the marble floor. “Scooby-fuckin-doo… where are you…” Warrant mumbled. A mental picture of a local in dressed in a dirty bed sheet with even dirtier sandals sticking out from underneath slipped into his mind and made him chuckle. He had to hand it to them, though. They used minimal effort to maximum effect.
Warrant regarded his force as they came together from his perch at the high altar like a priest watching over his flock. Each was good at what they did and wholly dedicated to his leadership and the money he was always able to find to pay them. Some he’d served with while he was in the Corps and the others he’d picked up along the way through various jobs and assignments.
Jim and Bob Browning were brothers, often mistaken for twins. There was barely a year between, and their exact same flat-top haircuts and similar personalities didn’t do much to avoid the label. Both were larger than most mobile homes and had a penchant for the weapons that shared their name. Each had a massive .50 Browning machine gun that they could use to devastating effect, especially in tandem. But then, each of his men had their peculiarities. Take Gina for example.
That was Gina; just Gina. She’d never volunteered a last name. Considering she’d once pulled out a man’s eyes with her bare fingers and ate them in front of a packed bar most didn’t press her for more. She was neither plain nor attractive, neither fat nor thin; she was simply Gina. There was no other way to describe her. And Gina was all about the money. No one knew what she did with her considerable pay from their adventures. No one cared to ask. But she could be counted on in a fight and to follow orders. Past that, Warrant didn’t care.
And then there was Fernando DeSade. Everyone knew that DeSade wasn’t his real name. But like Gina, no one cared. At least he was true to the name, and that was all that mattered to Fernando. Fernando had a thing for computers as well as being a capable soldier. In today’s world it never hurt to have someone around that knew their way around a computer and could neutralize security systems from miles away. Fernando also had a thing for young boys, but the rest of the group chose to overlook it as long as they didn’t have to see it.
In contrast to DeSade was John Kyber. Kyber was staunchly religious and tried to be morally upright. After bombing several abortion clinics in the States he came south of the border to escape the “unjust prosecution” from the “liberal bastards”. Kyber had learned his trade alongside Warrant and had been one of the Marines’ premier bomb makers and breakers. Forced into a life of running, he fit perfectly into Warrant’s plans. He was also an unrecognized authority on all things theological, and it took every bit of convincing Warrant could muster to get him to come into the church in the first place. His only condition was that he would give up any money they made from fencing the items they found so long as they left alone anything used directly in the rites of the church. Of course, Warrant wasn’t going to live up to his end of that deal. He would simply have well-paid locals remove the more sacred of items after they’d crushed the myth of murderous spirits and righteous vengeance upon those that entered the Corduva church.
And he couldn’t forget Manny, Moe and Jack. Like so many others in the game, they’d abandoned their real names long ago. Warrant had never known them by any other name, but he knew enough about them to know that they functioned well as a team and even better when left as their own tactical group. They excelled at scouting missions, and their plain features and love of anything with four wheels made them perfect for trailing and surveillance work. And like the rest of his team, they could always be counted on when things got tight.
Nimble of finger and quick of mouth, Don Moore was the runner, lover and scoundrel of the group. Don had never met a safe or a purse he couldn’t open or a penny that he wouldn’t pick up, so long as someone else had earned it. Built much like young Kevin but hardened in the fire of experience, Don was the type of man that could smile to your face while one hand lifted your wallet and the other buried a blade between your shoulders. He only carried a pistol at Warrant’s insistence and was far more partial to his cache of knives stored liberally yet discreetly about his person. But Don also possessed a charm that belied his morals and never lacked for company when he could find it. More than once Warrant had found himself separating the ne’er-do-well and Gina after one of his flippant remarks or thinly-veiled passes. Though she swore she would kill him someday, Warrant and the rest thought she secretly liked the attention. Such antics made Gina seem almost human at times and were always good for morale. He was an asset to the unit, so long as he was watched carefully to make sure he didn’t take too much from the spoils of the unit while no one was looking. To many, his men were a rag-tag bunch. They wore no insignia and held no inane traditions or other traits that would mark them for what they were. Let the amateurs have their secret handshakes and code names. He preferred the quirks over the symbolism. Besides that, they were good; very good.
As soon as they were seated, shuffling noises and hushed conversations died away. While each was a force to be reckoned with, this cadre of killers, thieves and plunderers gave Warrant their respect as commanding officer. Most of them had served under him long enough to know Warrant was as fair as he could be to his mercs’ and did everything he could to keep his unit together and get everyone out of their jobs in the same health with which they’d started. But deep down, they also knew that Warrant wouldn’t hesitate to kill any one of them that tried to cross him or placed the unit in jeopardy. For all their abilities and skills, crossing Henry Warrant would only lead to their own extremely uncomfortable ends. If they didn’t respect him for his leadership and his knack for finding the best paying jobs they would do so out of his willingness to kill them before they could do harm to him or the unit.
“Have we secured the building?” Warrant asked the group.
“Yes sir; all four levels and a smaller sub basement have been swept and cleared,” Gina said in her plain, monotone voice.
“What about breeches in the integrity of the building?” Warrant asked.
“Negative, sir; all doors and windows were secured from the inside upon our arrival and the two lowest levels have also been boarded up and nailed shut from the outside. The only known access to the building interior is through the front doors,” Manny reported.
“I think you’re wrong,” Warrant said. The words couldn’t have stung Manny, Moe and Jack harder than if he’d punched each of them in the gut. “I think there’s another way into this place. As a matter of fact, I know there is. There has to be. People have been coming in here for years, some to pray and some to take over the place. Why would the ones that come to pray be safe while the others weren’t? Because the ones that come to pray kill the other ones. Pretty obvious, ain’t it?”
The unit glanced around at each other with most nodding their heads in sage agreement. It made perfect sense. They were each solid and practical to a fault and kept little room in their heads for legends and stories about the unexplained. Even the unexplained could usually be shot dead if you knew just where to aim. If any of them held any silent court with the idea of nameless, faceless boogey-men, Warrant’s simple explanation washed most of it away. Most that is, except for Kevin and John. The two found each other’s eyes in the small gathering and instantly knew the other didn’t completely buy Warrant’s explanation.
“Good. The way I see it, the other assholes were undisciplined, untrained and couldn’t fight their way out of the shitter. We’re better assholes than that. From now until we find out who has appointed themselves the caretaker, no one goes anywhere alone. Everyone is to be armed at all times, and that includes going to the can. First order of business is to secure a perimeter and a safe room on each level, a room with only one door that can be barred. Store an extra weapon or two in each, just in case something happens and somebody gets separated. We may be pros, but the yokels have had years to learn every nook and cranny of this place. No drinking, no drugs, and no bullshit. I want this done by the numbers,” Warrant said as he stepped down from the altar to the floor of the sanctuary.
“Okay then. Kyber, you and Moore get to restore power to this dump. The service is in the basement. It’s old, but at least most of the wiring I’ve seen is ran on the outside of the walls. When you’re done, come back to the rectory. There’s carpet in there for the bedrolls. One sleeps while the other watches. Gina, you and DeSade will take first patrol outside. See if you can catch the little buggers coming in. Come in at three and wake up Kyber and Moore to replace you. Jim, you and your brother will take up positions right here and watch the front door. You figure out who sleeps first. You three,” Warrant said with a wave towards Manny, Moe and Jack, “…one of you sleeps here with the Brownings, the other two are on constant patrol inside. Trade off after a few hours, one sleeping and two walking at all times. I want you people to look alive tonight. Kevin and I will be floating around checking out the inventory, so make sure who you’re shooting at. Fire up the radios, I want checks every 30 minutes. Move out.”
Whether they were happy with their assignments or not, the unit moved out in their separate directions before Warrant’s echo could die in the cavernous sanctuary. Kevin approached Warrant and waited for his commander to recognize him.
“Where do we start?” Kevin asked.
“You’re the expert, you tell me. Where would they hide their best stuff in a place like this?” Warrant asked.
“You mean the vault? It could be anywhere. It could be underground, off the basement. It could even be in the walls, maybe even in the altar,” Kevin said with a nod towards the large marble and wood structure on the platform above them.
“The altar’s out, for now at least. Kyber would have a fit if he saw us messing with it. We’ll start at the top and work our way down.” Warrant picked up his light machine gun, strapped it over his shoulder and walked out of the sanctuary. He didn’t have to look to know that Kevin would be right behind him. Warrant was warming up to the kid. Kids could be impetuous and unpredictable, and he knew the young man’s morals and thoughts weren’t that of a mercenary. If he followed orders, he would have all the money he would need to go back to school or travel the world or whatever it was that archaeologists did with their lives.
The basement wasn’t as large as the other levels of the church and looked to be more for storage than worship. Stacks of bibles, hymnals and wooden crates looked on as Kyber and Don examined the room, flashlights and pistols at the ready. They swept the room, clearing it before turning their full attentions to the ancient electrical panel. The church had been built long before electricity came to the area and they found several of the large metal boxes mounted on a piece of upright plywood on two metal poles. Don held both lights while Kyber opened his toolkit and went to work.
“It’s funny…” Don whispered.
“What is?” Kyber asked.
“You ever notice when people are in a real quiet place, they talk real quiet, too?” Don asked. Kyber frowned at him and continued checking the various fuse slots with a voltage tester.
“It wouldn’t hurt you to have a little more respect, Don,” Kyber said in a low growl.
“Like looting a church will get you to heaven any faster?” Don said. Kyber shot him a dark look then continued his work. “You know, there’s something else funny. Have you noticed this place is absolutely clean? I mean, not a mote of dust anywhere. Even the basement doesn’t smell like a basement. Know what I mean?”
“It’s like Warrant said. The locals keep the place up. I admire them for it,” Kyber said as he pulled several wires out of a large bunch and checked them for breaks. “I just hope they’re smart enough not to come while we’re here.”
“Well, it didn’t stop them before. The way they tell it there were a lot larger units in here than us that never came out,” Don said.
“Those were drug dealers and thugs. We’re professionals. I don’t think they want to mess with us. Besides, they know we aren’t here to stay. The others were. They’ll probably just let us do our thing and wait for us to go away,” Kyber said.
“I hope you’re right,” Don said as he wedged Kyber’s flashlight between two junction boxes and made sure the light was on his work. “I’m gonna’ take a look around. Yell if you need me,” Don said. Kyber grunted a reply as he tried to pull an old fuse from the panel.
“See if you can find any fuses or tools or anything lying around while you’re at it,” Kyber said.
The thief started moving in small, overlapping circles from the center of the room. The floor was free of dust and the marks of age, and even the wood-beamed ceiling lacked any trace of cobwebs. “Do you really think they’d clean so well down here, too? I haven’t even seen a spider,” Don said.
“No food for flies and bugs, no spiders to eat the flies and bugs. The place is locked up tight and animals and bugs don’t have a reason to stay in a place with no food,” Kyber answered from the darkened recesses.
“Makes sense, I guess.” Don said as he approached a stack of bibles. They were printed in Spanish with the heavy, dark type typical of their era. He flipped through a few pages then ran his hand down a corner of the stack. “No mold, no curling; the paper hasn’t even turned yellow,” he mumbled. He’d seen programs on education channels that talked about Egypt and other places where the climate and geography delayed the decomposition of everything from paper to flesh. Perhaps Corduva was one of those places. The air in the basement, while only slightly stale, was cool and dry, much like that of most every other area of the church. His rationalization firmly in place, he wrote off the odd environment and continued his search.
In his usually stealthy manner, Don had overheard part of Kevin and Warrant’s earlier conversation and was also very interested in the suspected vault, and it was his experience that such features were almost always on the deepest floors. He inspected several of the wooden crates and found most contained textbooks and more bibles. Early missionaries taught more than just their faith and had a healthy respect for the general education of their heathens. Most also acted as school teachers and trades instructors where they could instill their parochial mission even when not discussing Christ directly. The mission must’ve done a lot of good for the area in its day. Don examined other crates and found some full of clothes and bolts of fabric. Others couldn’t be opened without a pry bar. Besides, the noise that would make would be deafening in the quiet broken only by his soft footsteps and the occasional muttered curse from Kyber as he worked with the old electrical system. Don found several heavy, glass-covered fuses and a pair of crude pliers in an old cabinet behind the stairs and took them over to Kyber. He left them at Kyber’s feet then continued his methodical search. Don had a lot more respect for Kevin’s body of knowledge than even Warrant did, and if there was such a thing as a vault in the church, he wanted to make sure he was the first to find it.
Gina shrouded her eyes against the still-harsh glare of the setting sun. She wasn’t a particular follower of architecture or art, but she knew what she liked. She pulled out a small digital camera and started taking pictures of the church and its odd features. Aside from the heavy, stained glass that seemed to be everywhere on the second floor the building boasted spires that would easily make it more than seven stories if their height were included into the equation. She continued to snap pictures and finally turned her attentions to the oddest features of the church.
They’d seen the massive stone gargoyles when they came in the front doors this afternoon. Two of the brutes even stood silent and eternal guard to either side of the great doors leading into the sanctuary. But these were not the downspouts of yore. These were easily larger than either of the Browning brothers and had deeply-carved faces that even their own mothers could never love. The one to the right was carved into a heavily-muscled caricature of a man. Great, spiked horns jutted from its forehead while a mouthful of fangs drew back into a wicked smile. A large pair of bat-like wings was pulled tightly against its back, never to feel the winds. She took several pictures of it and then its partner. This one was as tall as the other sentry but was far ganglier, almost emaciated. Its horns were much shorter, almost stubs in comparison to its comrade, and its wings were nowhere near the same size. But the leer that had been etched into its face for the ages made Gina shiver, and that was something no living creature could ever claim. If madness and lunacy had a face, it would be here at the Corduva church in the form of this leering abomination.
Why a church would have such things at ground level amazed her. Gargoyles were standard fixtures in European architecture, but they were usually incorporated into the general structure first from superstition and second as rain spouts or structural supports. The honor of guarding the front doors was usually reserved for the stone lions. Gina snapped a few more pictures then went around to the back of the church to find Fernando. She came around the corner and found DeSade standing at another, smaller set of doors carved in imitation of the great doors in front. The light from the setting sun had turned red and bathed the back of the church in its garish hue. DeSade had his own camera and was taking pictures of another, smaller pair of gargoyles positioned at the rear door.
“Ugly little bastards, huh?” he said as she joined him and snapped a few pictures of her own. These two were noticeably smaller than their brethren around the front of the building but were no less intimidating. With the light behind her, she looked up at the rear of the church and found two more gargoyles perched on ledges on the fourth floor directly above them.
“I don’t know about that. They have their own beauty, I guess,” Gina said.
“You getting soft on us now, chica?” DeSade asked. She punched him hard on the shoulder while he smiled at her. “I love it when you’re angry,” DeSade said in a breathy tone. Gina shot him a look then left him to go back around the front of the church.
“I’m going to check the lower windows. When you’re done being funny, get your ass around front,” Gina said. There was only one authority, one leader for their unit. But the men had learned when Gina barked at you, you could either do what she said or get ready for a fight. The men often forgot she was a woman, and she made every effort to keep the thought far from their minds. But every once in awhile there would be the sniff of a rose or the hint of some perfume. She’d known other female mercenaries, and each she knew had a rape story to tell. She’d had enough of that at home before she’d headed south to build a new life. To date, no man had touched her that she didn’t invite to the task. If a rough demeanor and no-nonsense dedication to her job kept it from happening, so be it.
Night fell quickly in Corduva, plunging it into an almost unnatural darkness. There were a few street lights, though, and the ones several dozen yards from the church at the end of the bricked courtyard seemed to be working well enough. Gina had just finished checking the boarded windows when full night slid into place. She pulled out a long-barreled flashlight and held it over her shoulder while her free hand rode on her holstered pistol. It was a practiced posture that she could maintain for hours without her arms becoming numb. Fernando had finally joined her and they started their rounds around the perimeter of the church. The quiet night air carried the soft sounds of music and voices from the cantina a few streets away.
“Nice to see there’s still a bit of nightlife in town,” DeSade said as they rounded the corner to check out the western side of the church. “Maybe we should go and see if the locals are there and plotting to come around tonight?”
“And abandon our posts? Warrant would shoot us dead before sunrise,” Gina said. She couldn’t resist passing her light over the gargoyles as they went. They looked different, somehow more sinister in the deep night shadows from behind and bathed in the light from her flashlight. She shivered inwardly and continued their patrol. They made several circuits before they agreed to meet every hour for a few tours around the building. In the meantime, Gina would post at the front of the building and Fernando the back. Gina would be responsible for keeping watch over the northern face as well, while DeSade would watch over the south. For all her bluster, DeSade often made her uncomfortable, especially when they were forced to work together. The less time she spent with him, the better for the both of them. If she thought about his unspoken proclivities for too long she would never be able to serve in the same unit with him. The two took up their respective posts and settled in for a long night, blissfully unaware that they weren’t alone.
Kevin ran a hand over a tapestry that hung in the long, darkened hallway. While it may be valuable to someone, he didn’t think it was of any real monetary value.
He jotted it down on his list anyway and continued on while the rest answered Warrant’s radio check. He had almost half a sheet of notebook paper filled with various items they’d found. The most remarkable thing was that even the papers and furniture, usually the first victims of age and neglect, were as perfect and crisp as the day they’d been made. He’d already cataloged dozens of silver service sets from the kitchen
as well as quite a few religious icons and items that were encrusted in jewels and made of precious metals, a common practice of the Church that allowed them to keep veritable fortunes under the noses of their patrons and governments alike. The only real question now was if the items had more value in their present forms or melted down and sold raw for their components.
Kevin looked down the hall and saw Warrant’s light slip off into one of the many rooms. He followed and found the door still open.
It appeared to be a small office. A long table with a large, heavy chair behind it sat at the opposite end of the room, illuminated by the sparse light that made it from the streetlamps through the windows behind the table. Large stacks of papers sat on the table. Books that had once rested on several shelves and cases around the room had been pulled out and stacked around the room. It had the appearance of someone looking for something, and looking hard. Warrant was already seated behind the desk, shining his beam over various documents and scanning the pages quickly.
“Someone’s been looking for something,” Warrant commented absently. “As orderly as everything else in this place is, I think one of the other units that have been through here had the same idea we have.”
“But why would this room not have been put back together?” Kevin asked.
“Simple. I think that not all the locals are in this for the love of their church. I think a few of them have been mining for treasures of their own and haven’t found them yet. Know what else I think?
FIND THEM! KILL THEM!
I think that the whole ruse and legend of the murdering church is just a front. I think someone has been looking for the same thing we’re looking for and is using the cover of the stories while they do it,” Warrant said.
Of course, everything the mercenary said made perfect sense. It was a perfectly reasonable, logical and rational train of thought. With that said, Kevin couldn’t understand why he still felt something wasn’t right, that there was a piece of the puzzle he simply didn’t have yet. “What was that you said about Scooby Doo earlier? I think I saw this episode,” Kevin said. He hoped he sounded far more amused than bemused.
“Me, too,” Warrant said. He put down the sheaf and shined his light on the other stacks then moved to pick up another bundle and inadvertently knocked a small stack of the papers to the floor. Warrant leaned from his chair to gather them and shined his light down. The floor directly in front of the chair had dozens of deep, smooth gouges carved into it. He put the papers back on the table and slid the bulky chair away. On closer examination he found hundreds of smaller, smooth slices dug deep into the thick wooden boards. He ran his hands over the gouges and tested their depths with a fingernail. Someone with a thick knife had a nervous habit.
“What is it?” Kevin asked as he added the beam of his light to Warrant’s.
“Just some scoring,” Warrant said. He got up and dusted his hands off on the front of his black shirt. “Kyber!” he barked into the boom microphone resting against his cheek, ”Are we going to have power in this dump or not?”
“Still working on it, Boss. The system’s pretty old.” The mercenary’s voice came back soft and full of static, just barely audible. The thick stone of the place wasn’t going to cooperate with their radios it seemed.
Kevin let his light slide over Warrant’s chest for a moment. “Boss?” Kevin said softly while pointing at his shirtfront. A fine, grey dust lay on his shirt where he had wiped his hands.
DESTROY THEM BEFORE THEY FIND IT!
“Now why would there be dust here and no where else in the whole joint?” Warrant mused. He pulled his shirt away from his body and examined it closely, pinching it between two fingers and rubbing them together to feel the coarse, gritty dust through the calluses on his fingertips.
“Maybe it got tracked in and then stuck in the cuts in the floor. Unless they really got down there, they wouldn’t have known it was there,” Kevin offered.
“Solid thinking. There might be hope for you yet,” Warrant said. The dust forgotten, he looked around the room at the stacks of papers and books. “It seems whoever was doing the looking didn’t have any luck with the stuff. No sense wasting time covering ground they already did right now but it goes to prove my point. Someone else that cares about the stuff around here has been in here, probably recently. Maybe they’re on to something. We may have to spend a lot of time going through the documents and books we find. Nobody hides something without a trail to find it again,” Warrant said.
Moe backed out of the room and closed the door behind him. He and Manny had covered the fourth floor earlier, had set up the safe room that Warrant had ordered and had found nothing of note. If the locals were coming after them, it certainly wouldn’t come from this floor. They would have to use ladders or climb the walls of the church to enter through a window, something that either of them doubted would happen anytime soon, and the ones they met at the cantina didn’t seem to be that motivated.
“What do you make of all this?” Manny asked. His long–time friend and fellow adventurer stood out in varying shades of red in his heat–vision goggles. The trio used nothing less than the best equipment, and he was more used to seeing his comrades in the guise of their heat signatures than in the flesh. If there was anyone else anywhere in sight, their own biology would give them away.
“Pretty good deal if you ask me,” his partner replied in a slow, deep–south drawl. “Stuff is just sitting here. Kevin seems pretty worked up about it, too. Must be some good stuff or Warrant wouldn’t be wasting our time here.”
They moved out together with pistols drawn. Neither of them believed the locals were stupid enough to try and roll through here with a group of hardened mercs’ strolling around, but if Warrant thought there was a chance of it happening they would take it seriously. Their commander’s instincts had not only kept them alive but had made them fairly wealthy men besides.
They came to the next door and posted to either side. Manny pushed on the door and let momentum swing it the rest of the way open. They both spun, one kneeling and one standing and scanned the room. Moe slid into the room and put a wall to his back while Manny looked on, watching the room for hostiles while his partner checked under tables and inside closets. The room resembled many that they had already seen and appeared to be Spartan living quarters, probably designed for the priests and missionaries that once called the church home. Satisfied that his friend was in no danger, Manny stepped back and casually scanned the hall for any signs of life while Moe finished checking the room.
Moe stepped lightly across the floor and came to the only window in the small cell. It was a moonless night and the best the streetlamps below could do was to cast a thin light on the heavy glass panes. Far below, he could see Gina’s heat signature moving around at the front of the church. Suddenly, the heat of her body disappeared. He fumbled with the controls on the goggles, then finally lifted them. Gina hadn’t disappeared. Something had blocked his view through the window from the outside. He raised his pistol and flashlight in the same breath and took an involuntary step back from the window. His beam fell on a man’s bare chest, the image distorted by the thick glass as it reflected the powerful flashlight beam back into his eyes. He fired three rounds through the window and called for Manny.
Manny had ranged a few yards down the hallway when the shots rang out. He turned and sprinted for the room as he pulled his machine gun from his shoulder and was in a crouch even before his feet stopped moving. He nearly slid past the doorway as he trained the muzzle into the room. “Moe!” Manny could see his friend’s heat silhouette at the opposite end of the room but could find no other living reason for the alarm. Manny spared a hand to rip the goggles away and braced the butt of the machine gun in the crook of his arm to steady it while he pulled his flashlight. “Moe! Report!”
He sent the beam of light into the room and found his friend standing just to the side of the window. He could see something moving on the ledge outside but couldn’t clear Moe to fire. “Moe! Move!” Manny called out. Moe didn’t respond but fired several more rounds before he went into a sudden, violent spasm. His arms flew back then fell limp to his sides, the flashlight and pistol dropping from his nerveless fingers as a gurgling cry sprayed blood across the window. Manny watched in mute amazement as a large hand burst from Moe’s back. The hand was empty and bare and had been able to ram through his partner’s chest and body armor. Warrant’s voice crackled and spit in his ear as the cold stone muffled his demands for a status report.
Manny rolled into the room and fired into the window as he went. The sound of shattering glass couldn’t mask the unearthly shriek from beyond the window, though it sounded more like a cry of victory than of pain. Moe’s body was lifted from the floor by the hand that impaled it and was pulled hard against the wall, his lifeless form hitting it then slumping to the stone floor in a rapidly–forming pool of his own ichors. Manny kept firing bursts through the window and relaying his position over the crackling airwaves to the others. He dropped down beside Moe and kept his weapon on the window. Manny’s flashlight beam revealed a gaping and ragged hole in his friend’s chest. Blood still oozed through the wound and from the dead mercenary’s mouth.
“Fuckers! What the fuck!” Manny hissed.“Moe’s down… I repeat, Moe’s down!” he barked into his microphone. Static was his only response. He took a panicked look around the room then tried the radio again; nothing. Outside the room he could see flashlight beams swinging through the hallway and hear Warrant’s voice barking orders to Kevin. Manny called out to them and sat back on his haunches. He pointed his flashlight to the wall and found a large smear of gore at chest–level. “What the fuck…”
Beams of light danced in through the open doorway as Warrant and Kevin took positions outside the room. “Manny! Report!” Warrant demanded.
“Moe’s dead,” Manny said flatly as he stared at the blood stain on the wall.
“What the hell happened in here? Kevin, cover the hall,” Warrant said as he came into the cell. Nothing looked out of place save for the demolished window above his men. He went to the pair and leaned down, locking his gaze on the wall to cover both the window and the bloodstain. “Manny, report!”
“Moe was sweeping the room…” Manny started, his voice low,” we’d already been in here once tonight. Nothing was here. He came in here for maybe a minute. I heard the shots before I heard the radio. By the time I got in here I could see someone outside the window, but Moe was blocking my field of fire.”
Warrant shined his light on Moe’s chest and stared. He’d seen wounds in all varieties and death in all its forms. The closest thing he’d seen to this was when one of his men took an RPG to the chest at point-blank range. The explosive didn’t go off when it impacted his man so the rocket simply punched through him and out the other side.
“Manny? What did this to him?” Warrant asked.
“It was a hand, boss. A big fuckin’ hand,” Manny said.
“Get it together, soldier!” Warrant barked. “You know there’s no way one of these beaners could shove their hand through a man’s chest!”
“That’s what happened,” Manny continued in a monotone voice. “I saw the hand come out his back, so I pushed into the room and went to the side to get a shot, must’ve pumped a dozen rounds through the guy. Think I hit him. He screamed pretty loud. Then he pulled Moe up against the wall and was just gone.”
“What do you mean he pulled him against the wall?” Warrant got up and examined the bloodstained wall more closely. No window, vent or other opening sat in the gore. “He must have reached through the window…”
“No boss, the hand came through the wall and then went back into it. The guy outside had to have reached through the wall.”
“Not possible, soldier. There’s no opening. He must’ve used something through the window to get him,” Warrant said.
“I know what I saw, Boss. He… it… reached through the wall and ran its fist right through Moe’s fucking chest,” Manny said.
Warrant knew shock when he saw it. The three of them had served together for many years before they’d thrown their lot in with Warrant. If they weren’t brothers by blood, they were by experience. He adjusted his microphone and opened a channel. “Gina, DeSade… check around the west side, see if there’s a body. We made contact in here, there might be one down near the center–west side. Report.” Static buzzed and cackled in Warrant’s ear, the voices of his unit fading in and out. “Shit!” Warrant said as he stepped to the window. He chanced a glance out it then stuck his head through the large hole made by Manny and Moe’s fire. The glass was old and thick, similar to the glass blocks used in more modern structures. Opaque and insulating, it would also resist shattering unlike panes would do under the same circumstances. Warrant couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary. He looked down and shined his powerful beam to the ground level. All he could detect were bits of shiny glass from the broken window reflecting the light back at him. At least that much was real.
Warrant shined his light above and to the sides and found only one peculiarity; just to the left of the window he could see a faint, red circle. He put out a gloved hand and touched the area and it came back with traces of fresh blood, as if Moe’s life had seeped through the stone wall. That wasn’t possible, either. It simply wasn’t, and he couldn’t start thinking that it was. Warrant came back into the room and continued to try and reach his people on the outside. The reception hadn’t changed.
“All right, let’s regroup. Kevin!” Warrant bellowed over the nearly–useless radio, “Get in here.” The young man was in the doorway almost immediately, his pistol leveled in response to the perceived tension in his commander’s voice. It lingered for a moment before Kevin lowered it then shined his light on Moe and almost lost his gorge. “Keep it together, kid. Help Manny carry him back down to the sanctuary. We’ll regroup there,” Warrant said.
Kevin swallowed hard and holstered his pistol. It took several moments for Manny to stand and a few more before he could reach down and help Kevin pick up his friend’s corpse. They each put a shoulder under one of the dead man’s arms and started to move with Warrant just ahead of them.
“It’ll be okay, Moe… we’ll get you fixed up, good as new…” Manny whispered to his dead friend. Kevin nearly said something to the grieving merc’ but decided to wait till the man had a chance to accept his friend’s death. None saw the bulge grow in the stone wall and glowing eyes that formed to watch their escape. The stone smiled.
DeSade tapped at his headset and adjusted his radio. All he could make out was that something happened on the west side. He slid around the building from the south and peered around the corner, relying on the dim glow from the streetlamps instead of giving away his presence with his flashlight. He could see a few pieces of broken glass glinting on the ground, but that was all. “Probably the kid shooting at ghosts…” DeSade murmured. He looked up the side of the building but couldn’t make out details in the dim light. “Gina… Gina…” he whispered into his boom mike.
“Go ahead…” Her voice was fuzzy but clear enough.
“Something’s happened on the west side. I’m going to check it out. How about some back up?” DeSade asked.
“I’m on my way,” Gina said.
DeSade slipped around the corner and threw on his light. Nothing but broken glass revealed itself on the ground ahead of him. He stepped away from the shelter of the wall and shined his light up onto the western side. Nothing seemed out of place. DeSade moved slowly along the ground and used his light in a methodical pattern to examine the entire side of the church. The sound of stone grinding on stone caught his ear and he turned his light in its direction just as an inhuman screech pierced the night. Something big had broken off the building and was falling. He caught the movement and trained his light on it in time to see one of the gargoyles from the upper floors fall to the ground. It landed upright in the beam of his light and looked for all the world like its earthbound kin stationed by the back door of the church.
DeSade breathed a sigh and went towards it. Perhaps the church wasn’t as solidly built as they’d been led to believe. It was only a matter of time with a place like this, though. He was surprised that tons of the stone hadn’t crashed to the ground from simple age. DeSade got up-close and started examining the thing’s features. It was an ugly brute, a mirror image of the right–facing one near the back door. But the facial expression was different somehow. “Gina…come easy. Looks like just a bit of this old bitch broke off and hit the ground. No emergency,” DeSade said into the radio.
“Got it. We’ll run a patrol around to the front and see if we can get Warrant’s attention to report,” Gina said.
DeSade kept staring at the gargoyle’s features. There was enough difference
in the gargoyle’s posture and expression from its mate to pique his curiosity. DeSade did his best to memorize the features then took a picture with his camera. He went to the other at the door and shined his light on it. There were definite differences in the two, but only the type when one twin smiles and the other doesn’t. He flashed his light back to the other and found it had disappeared. “What the…” Something large and heavy landed beside him on the floor of the stone entryway. DeSade turned a moment too late. The shriek was the last thing he heard as a powerful, taloned hand hit him across the face. Claws as long as DeSade’s own fingers ripped through his muscles and bones alike, cutting off his own death-scream as easily as it cut out his tongue as it passed. DeSade hit the unyielding stone floor, his face one even his mother would never recognize.
Gina knew something was wrong as soon as she rounded the corner. DeSade’s flashlight lay on the ground at the base of the steps, its beam pointing directly at her and robbing her of her night vision. She blinked it away and stepped out of the path of the beam. “Warrant… Warrant… can you hear me?” Gina whispered into her radio. Static was her only answer. “Shit…”
Gina started moving slowly towards the steps in a random pattern and staying low to the ground. She didn’t dare use her own light. In the open common at the front of the church she’d show up like the sun. Gina continued on until she felt her foot drop into a hole. The common was done up in brick, and she knew from previous passes that no such hole had been there. She crouched low and ran a hand over the rough brick. The dim illumination from the street lights showed a large depression made up of several broken bricks. Something had to have fallen from a considerable height to make such an impact, something large and very heavy. It fit with the details of DeSade’s earlier transmission, but where was the debris? Gina doubted DeSade would have moved it or even could have if it was as much as she thought it would be. She tried the radio again unsuccessfully then continued on using the beam of DeSade’s cast–off light as her beacon.
Gina found DeSade lying on the raised entryway before the rear doors. She crept up and looked down at his blood and gore-coated flashlight. With a new appreciation for the situation, Gina got to the side of the steps and used them as cover. Crawling one at a time, she gained the top step and made it to DeSade’s body, her small pen light revealing the mercenary’s mangled face. She let the sight shock her only for a heartbeat before she rolled away and put a small stone flower planter at her back. “Warrant! Warrant!” she hissed into her radio. “DeSade’s down. If you can hear me, DeSade is down… west side. I’m coming around the front to regroup… Warrant…” Nothing except static. Gina cursed herself and pulled her legs up under her
FEMALE… SOFT… WEAK
and with her small machine gun in one hand she pulled her pistol with the other. Whatever had taken out DeSade was probably still watching from the shadows. Stealth would have to take a back seat to speed. She knew the grounds around the church well enough from her patrols and after a quick mental calculation figured she could reach the front of the church in less than a half minute. Gina made a mental countdown from three then shot away into the night.
The shriek was piercing, jagged, ripping through the night like nails on a chalkboard. Gina damned herself for slowing and turning in its direction even as she did so. She leveled her weapons and let off several bursts from the automatic in the direction of the sound. In the quiet of the night she could hear the lead slugs strike the stone wall and nothing else. The shriek came again, but this time from above. Gina cast a glance skyward then broke into a full run. The silhouette of something large cut through the night air, a dark image against an even darker sky and coming fast. It disappeared from her sight and flew over her, her mind screaming at her feet to keep moving. She’d worry about what it was when she was safely inside behind the twin’s Brownings. Gina had just shifted her weight to turn the corner when something large slammed into the ground a few feet ahead. The silhouette of a man was suddenly before her, a very large man with huge wings that fanned out from his shoulders and far too close to avoid.
Gina’s first thought was that she’d imagined the man and had instead misjudged the corner of the building. She bounced off unyielding stone and felt like she’d run headlong into a boulder. Gina hit the ground with no air in her lungs and blood pouring from her shattered nose, gasping for breath. More than one rib was bruised if she were any judge. With the last of her strength, she raised the automatic and held down the trigger, sending dozens of rounds into the now very real silhouette. The sound of bullets bouncing off stone and another, lesser shriek akin to what she’d heard before sounded over the blood pounding in her ears. Heartened from the shriek Gina let loose with another barrage. She threw open her eyes as her breath returned but found only empty air ahead of her. Panicked, Gina stayed on her back and cast about wildly, throwing the muzzles of her weapons in great sweeps around her but the impact had left her vision starry and blurred. She rolled over and got to her knees while her ribs screamed and her mind threatened to black out.
A sudden downdraft of air announced another earth–jarring tremor. The thing was back in front of her again, looming over her in the darkness. Gina kneeled there, open–mouthed and stunned as the dim light revealed a horrid, leering face hovering several feet above her.
Reflex turned her weapons to bear but they were swept away with one swipe from her assailant. Gina’s hands vibrated and ached from the strike. Judging from the sounds her weapons made when it hit them, the many tiny metallic parts that made up the works would be useless now. Her attacker backhanded her across the face, the impact lifting her off the ground and throwing her against the wall of the church. Pain scorched through her body as she hit the stone wall and slid down it like a rag doll. Merciful blackness stole over her then, her last sight the creature shaking its fists into the night and shrieking to the heavens.
Be sure to come back for the final installment of "The Vault". And while you're waiting for that I invite you to take some time and poke around at the other bits of madness and mayhem I have around here. With more than 20 works of fiction and a few articles there's bound to be something to pique your interests. And so, until next week, just write, damn it... - Author