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For centuries, deep inside the bowels of the church, hidden from all except a few, a hauntingly evil cancer has spread like a murderous plague, destroying everything and everyone in its path. No one is exempt from its lure, and it will go to the depths of hell to accomplish one single goal at all costs. Global domination through a new world order. This cancer has a name: The Order of Asmodeus.
Under a binding cloak of secrecy, a brother and sisterhood of handpicked servants have been chasing down The Order of Asmodeus for as long as the demonic sect has existed. Their mandate, root out the cancer and destroy it at every turn. Their name? Il Martello di Dio. The Hammer of God.
Gazing down into dazzling blue eyes, Charles Tolbert marveled at the milky softness of his lover’s skin. Women had rejected him over the years, casting him aside like a half eaten candy bar, but now he was in love.
Charles stroked dirty brown hair, soft and billowy, like cotton freshly plucked from an aspirin bottle. He closed his eyes, took a whiff of just washed skin, the scent of clean, with a hint of soap lightly engulfing his nostrils.
When he lifted his eyelids, the beauty before him enticed him to tears, but he gently bit his bottom lip, fending off the surge of feral emotion. Without invitation, Charles pressed his lips against a mouth he could no longer resist, the moist touch of which sent his heart a flutter, his senses a blur. He pulled back, sporting a smile that could shame the angels in heaven. But as quickly as it came, his joy dissipated like steam rising from the sea.
“What’s wrong?” Charles asked. “Have I done something wrong?”
“I can’t do this anymore,” his lover answered. “I’m sorry, but this is wrong.”
Fear washed over Charles. He fell to his knees. “Please, I can’t bear the thought of losing you. I know we’ve both been under a lot of pressure, but I promise it’ll get better.”
Picking up the white satin robe that lay across a beaten antique couch, Charles slipped it over velvety arms that caused him to lust over the head he’d kissed more than a few times, and the body he’d held with great admiration and envy. He took a few steps back, and admired his angel.
“You always say we’ll stop, but we don’t,” his angel said.
“I know, I know,” said Charles. “But let’s not talk about it now. We’ll talk later. You have my word.”
No answer came, just wet eyes and red cheeks. Charles cleared his throat.
“I’m sorry if I hurt you. I love you.” There, I said it. “We’ll talk more in a few days, until then let’s continue to keep it quiet.”
Still no answer came, just a wounded stare. His lover turned the doorknob and left the room. Guilt washed over Charles. He’d broken his vows again, caught up in an affair he knew would destroy his relationship.
He fastened his ice white, high collar shirt, and slipped into his favorite suit, dark and slightly wrinkled. A wood framed full-length mirror, as old as the building he worked in, caught his attention and forced him to look upon the ugliness he so abhorred. He turned away, chest heaving, mouth dry, and plopped down in a blue leather swivel chair behind his desk. Losing a love that brings me such childlike joy is not something I’m prepared to do. Chocolates, he thought. I’ll start with chocolates, then a shower of gifts. It’s a bit pretentious, but it’s a start. Charles smiled at himself in the mirror, his jet black hair and boyish good looks overriding the monster that now retreated within. He checked his watch. I’m late.
He grabbed the tools of his trade and headed for the door, the monster in the mirror right behind him.
Strikingly exquisite, the ten foot stained glass image of the Assumption of Our Lady, surrounded by twenty-three angels in a montage of red and multiple shades of blue handcrafted glass impressed Robert Veil. Church was not his favorite place to be during the middle of baseball season, but sitting there in a spiritual ports-of-call that had played host and home to Chicago’s eighteenth century Northern Italian immigrants, Robert’s heart pounded and his palms moistened. He was about to lay eyes on his godson, Samuel, for the first time in almost six months.
“I bet he’s grown an inch or two,” Robert whispered to Donovan Napier, Samuel’s father.
“An inch and a half since you last saw him,” Donovan whispered back.
“Shhhhhh,” Donavon’s wife, Alison, hissed. “You boys will have plenty of time to stick your chests out over Sam when service is over.”
She gave Donavon a sly smile and sat back against the naked wooden pew. Donavon gave Robert a “we better do as mommy says” look. He smiled back. She’s your mommy, not mine.
Robert, born Catholic, defected as soon as he could slip from under his mother’s radar, and had forgotten how opulent Catholic Churches could be, Chicago’s Assumption Church especially.
Below the stained glass masterpiece up front, hung a stunning recreation of Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece,The Last Supper, which would’ve made the Italian master proud. Smaller, but every bit as impressive, was an extensive splattering of stained glass images, in addition to dazzling mosaics and murals prominently displayed on the walls and ceiling. Robert counted five different types of Italian marble on the altar rail, and a dozen museum quality statues standing sentry on three sides of the remarkable sanctuary. Under their feet lay a sea of deep royal blue carpet so rich, that walking on it seemed a sin.
Robert glanced over at Donavon and Alison. They were still making goo-goo eyes after ten years of marriage. Seeing his old friend so happy amazed Robert, especially since ten years earlier, while they were working a CIA surveillance assignment in Bohn, Germany, Donavon swore off the lifetime confinement of matrimony, saying he’d rather roll around naked in broken glass.
“After service there are a few people we need to meet,” Alison whispered to Donavon, who took a deep breath and bit his lower lip. He looked over at Robert. Save me.
Marry one of Chicago’s treasures, and that’s the price you pay, thought Robert, wanting to laugh.
Melodic Latin phrases from a male falsetto echoed throughout the sanctuary, and Robert watched his godson, Samuel Napier, lead a priest, three other altar boys and an altar girl down the center aisle.
Samuel, draped in a white satin vestment, along with the other altar adolescents, looked deadly serious holding an elaborate silver and gold cross stretched out in front of him toward the sky. They marched toward the altar at a pace more fit for a funeral procession than a spiritual celebration.
One look at Samuel and Robert was sure that he had grown more than the inch and a half Donovan mentioned. The dirty-brown haired boy’s shoulders were starting to broaden, and Robert could already imagine the ten year old birthday boy playing linebacker or center field.
After readings from the book of Isaiah, and several more from Matthew, John and Luke, Robert listened to the priest, Father Charles Tolbert, launch into an additional series of chants, and a sleeping pill of a sermon that Robert vaguely surmised as an exultation to pray for one’s enemies and those that hate you. The need to yawn was almost more than he could bear, and water welled up in his eyes as he fought back the urge.
Samuel and one of the other altar boys, a portly, jovial kid with fiery red hair, freckles and friendly eyes, set up the altar for communion. When Samuel turned to resume his position on the far left of the altar, Robert noticed that he flinched slightly as he passed Father Tolbert. Must be a little nervous, thought Robert, remembering Alison’s earlier comment that it was Samuel’s first time setting the communion table. After communion, more prayer, benediction, and then dismissal, Samuel, cross held high, led the evangelical parade back down the aisle and disappeared through ivory painted, gold encrusted double doors. Ten minutes later, Robert milled around outside in front of the Church with most of the congregation, watching them chat, laugh, and wish each other well.
Chicago’s summer season, in full motion, sported a dark overcast sky, blowing crisp air, but not too cold. The notorious wind, for which the city was well-known, toyed with parishioners’ hats and coats for sport, all subtle precursors to the harsh winter that always followed four or five months later.
Robert watched Donavon and Alison work the crowd like seasoned veterans. Alison flashed a smile that could disarm the most hardened heart, and Donavon, standing slightly behind her, put on a stellar performance worthy of an Oscar. It was like watching a President and the first husband campaign.
“Uncle Robert! Uncle Robert!” yelled Samuel.
Robert looked over his shoulder and spied his godson in full sprint, arms pumping, face bright and excited. A foot or two away, Samuel leapt through the air into Robert’s arms and wrapped his legs around him, almost sending his godfather backwards to the ground.
“Well hello, birthday boy! I’m happy to see you too!”
Samuel thanked Robert but didn’t release his grip. When Robert finally pried him loose and lowered him to the ground, he took a step back.
“Let’s have a look at you,” he said, hands on his chin, as if inspecting every inch of the boy.
“I’ve grown two whole inches,” said Samuel, beaming with pride.
“I see that,” said Robert. “You’ll tower over me soon.”
At this, Samuel’s smile broadened and his back straightened. He took Robert’s hand and led him over to his mother and father.
“Well, I see you’ve found your favorite playmate,” said Alison, kissing her son on the cheek.
“Yes,” added Donavon. “Now we won’t get an ounce of sleep over the next few days.”
“Oh, like you won’t enjoy it yourself,” chided Alison. “I’ll have to find a place to stay for the next two days, the way you three carry on.”
“We’re not that bad,” Robert joked, knowing that they were.
When he visited Samuel, the kid inside of him shook loose, and he loved it. It was like reclaiming something he’d lost in his own youth, the day his father was murdered.
“Where’s Aunt Nikki?” asked Samuel.
“She’s going to meet us at the restaurant,” answered Robert. “She said to tell you she wouldn’t miss your birthday for the world.”
Nikki Thorne, Robert’s partner and best friend, was a Baptist, as much as he was a Catholic. Thorne passed on morning mass, opting instead to visit an old friend, which Robert knew without asking meant a visit to Nelson Reynolds, a detective on Chicago’s police force, and an old flame.
“I’m starving,” said Donavon. “Let’s head for Spraggia.”
Spraggia was Robert’s favorite Italian restaurant. A choice he knew Samuel made with him in mind. “I’m with that,” he answered, smiling at Samuel. “We’ll eat, and then presents.”
Samuel’s face beamed, and he bounced around like he was going to wet himself.
“Well, this must be the famous godfather I’ve heard so much about,” a voice said behind them.
“Father Tolbert,” said Alison, pulsating with charm and respect. “Allow me to introduce Mr. Robert Veil from our nation’s capitol.”
Robert shook the priest moist, clammy hand. The cleric greeted Donavon and gave Alison a hug. “Our little angel here did a great job today,” said Father Tolbert, turning to Samuel, placing his hand on his shoulder.
“Thank you, Father,” answered Samuel, eyes glued to his feet.
“Now, don’t be so modest,” said Father Tolbert. “I’ll allow a little pride today, it’s your birthday.”
Everyone laughed, except Samuel, who seemed to force a smile. “Thank you, Father.”
“Thank you so much, Father, for taking an interest in Samuel. We’re very grateful,” said Alison.
“Not at all,” said the priest. “He’s an exceptional child. It’s my pleasure.”
They continued to banter and make small talk for several minutes, when a black Cadillac sedan swooped up to the curb. The driver, a broad shouldered priest with a pit bull mug, hurried to the rear passenger door and snatched it open. A tall, lean, elderly gentleman unfolded out onto the sidewalk, draped in a blood red silk cape, wearing a black wool cassock trimmed in scarlet, and the air of Catholic royalty.
“Cardinal Polletto,” Father Tolbert gushed. “I wasn’t expecting you
for another hour or so,” he continued, kissing the elder priest’s hand.
“Yes, I know,” answered the Cardinal. “I left St. Francis as soon as mass was over. I wanted to make sure you and I had plenty of time to spend together.”
Father Tolbert introduced everyone to Cardinal Poletto, the Archbishop of Chicago. Donovan fell just short of kissing his hand, and Alison bowed and curtsied as though she’d just met the Pope himself. The episode made Robert feel a bit out of place. He had no intention of bowing or kissing anybody’s hand. Instead, he opted for a firm, respectful handshake.
“And who’s this little fellow?” asked Cardinal Polletto, leaning down to Samuel.
Pressed up against his mother, Samuel eased forward and introduced himself. Father Tolbert added a few compliments on Samuel’s performance as altar boy. Samuel looked relieved when the two men turned their attention elsewhere.
Cardinal Polletto and Father Tolbert excused themselves and disappeared inside the Church. Robert and the others hustled to Donovan’s Lincoln Town car, and headed for Spraggia’s.
“So, have you caught any bad guys lately?” asked Samuel, bouncing in his seat. “Do you have your gun on you? Can I see it? Do you think I can be a bounty hunter when I grow up?”
“No bounty hunting for you,” Alison scolded, smirking.
Since leaving the CIA, Robert and Nikki had opened their own firm and chased down high-level criminals all over the world. Samuel loved to hear the details of their exploits. Stories about terrorists they’d captured, serial killers they hunted down, and exotic places they traveled to all over the world. Most of the details he gave Samuel were fabricated, since the majority of the cases they worked were highly confidential, for which they were sometimes paid millions of dollars for their efforts, by governments, and the wealthy.