The sinister shadows that followed Patrick Gallagher this night along the Via Magdalena would cast him into the kind of peril that no experience could compare. From his formative, but rowdy years growing up in Shreveport to his escapades on location at numerous SWAT scenes as an investigative reporter for various publications, he could not have imagined the horror he was about to encounter. Except he could for he had dreamt such a scenario just hours ago. It was a nightmare that brought on the cold sweats in the comfort of his room at the Esperia. He was out of that environ now and very much in harm's way as he inched his way toward the rendezvous Karel had scheduled. A few minutes late, but he had made it.
Dateline: Rome - Via Magdalena - November 3, 9:02 P.M.
No more than four notes of 'Take me out to the ballgame' escaped from Pat's lips before he was grabbed roughly from behind. A firm, gloved hand clasped a suffocating hold across his mouth, and he felt himself propelled closer to the wall leading to the alley, his feet barely touching the ground.
At the mouth of the alley he was yanked into an even more viscous blackness and shoved roughly against the slimy wet wall. The hand remained over his mouth. He perceived a new sensation, that of something sharp pressing menacingly against his neck. He barely breathed as the voice behind him, clutching him tightly gave him no other opportunity but to succumb.
"Make no sound. If you do...you die."
Gallagher managed to nod that he understood, though the movement of an affirmative, desperate nod was minute considering that any overt action would've thrust the sharp point through the neck. He remained motionless, his breathing calming as the seconds ticked by and he was still alive.
The hand eased slightly on his mouth as the deep voice tried to assure him, "I want not to kill you. I am here to help."
Again Pat nodded 'yes.' Why lie? Whoever held him in this iron grip already knew who he was. Gallagher managed to speak through the muffled fingers, "Funny way of showin' it."
"You are Patrick Gallagher, no?" The stranger relaxed his grip.
"Naw! Clark Kent. I was lookin' for a phone booth." Pat snapped facetiously.
The stranger turned him around, pinning him against the wall. Pat sensed perhaps he had bought the farm. Whoever held him in this iron grip already knew who he was.
The stranger spoke again. "There is much danger here. You must cooperate if we are to get you out of here."
"Who are you?" Who is 'we'? Pat cracked back, trying desperately to figure out just what was going on.
"That is unimportant right now," the stranger replied as he stooped to pick up Pat's umbrella, handing it back to him. "You have walked into a trap. I am here to see you get out of it. I am sorry I was too late for your friend."
"Oh, my God! Karel!?!"
"Look!" said the man, forcing Pat's head around to the left where he could see for the first time a small light seeping into the alleyway from a single light bulb over a shop entrance.
For the first time in his entire life Gallagher almost fainted. His knees buckled as he fell to his knees. What he saw sickened him so desperately his stomach made a terrible retching sound. Only the steady command of the man's voice above him and behind bidding him to be silent kept Pat in control of the waves of nausea lapping within.
Karel was indeed there. Or what had once been Karel.
Hideous. More abominable than his worst nightmare. His mind went numb. His heart became a piece of lead in a chest of concrete. He could no longer emit any voice, but the stranger could.
"Say nothing. Observe. Learn. The danger is very real. I don't know if the killer is yet gone."
Frozen against the wall, Gallagher looked for the moment grateful the man supported him against the same wall that connected the shop where the single light bulb hung dangling in the damp, cold night air. Extended out from the stone and mortar wall was a rusted iron post, bearing a beaten-up wooden plaque which had once been the beacon for shoppers to test the wares of the shop within. Now the words were withered with age, neglect and weather-beaten. But none of this was important, although it left a lasting impression on Gallagher's mind, yet not as much as what dangled beside it.
From the iron post on the far end, bending downward was the delapidated body of Karel hung upside down. Her feet had been tied with wire and blood oozed where the wire had cut into her delicate flesh. Her hands had been pinned behind her, also with wire, and the blood had dripped to her fingernails and seemed to paint them in a lacquer of now crusting blood.
Gallagher saw more, all the while wishing he could close his eyes but unable to do so. He'd just come from a place where hundreds of thousands had died hideously, where ashes had been the last visible sign of the human body. He had faced that, the fetid stench, all of it and not blanched. Perhaps because his mind had been unable to grasp so many deaths. He knew none of those on the Field of Death. There had been so little left that it had truly been more of a surrealistic nightmare than a reality.
But try as he might he could not fit this scene of Karel into that nightmare. Her death was very real, very ugly and therefore utterly terrifying. Utterly personal. First Fasif and Elias, then Karel's mother, now the last of the family. So innocent. She was wearing the same clothing as she had worn in the marketplace in the Via Dulce just a short ways away. Only now the raincoat had been ripped open and blouse beneath had been shredded as well, exposing her delicate flesh and femininity to the elements and the whim of her lustful attacker.
Her supple breasts seemed so tender and delicate in the swaying light from the bulb, her nipples hidden in the shadows which Pat felt only proper considering her innocence. He focused on her face. Ah, that classical face! The killer hadn't mutilated that. Not in the same sense of taking knife to the flesh. But her eyes, open and staring, and her trim little mouth agape in horror, shouted in agony what she'd endured. He wanted to rush forward and close the eyes staring into oblivion, but knew that if he did he'd have to look closer at the real reason she had died - the means of her horrid death.
Her abdomen had been bared, and someone had taken a sharp instrument, and upon her dainty skin had carved in her own blood a symbol he had seen before. It was a lizard-like shape that rested there, distinguished even thought the blood had run, and was now congealing. The lizard that Fasif had spoken of.
The forbidden symbol. Fasif's words again. And Karel Shenneker had died because of the Basilisk at the hands of the Legion. This was no legend. It was very real. Too real.
Pat looked down and away from the body, ready to lose it all. The rain had left the slimy puddles in the alleyway, but the one beneath Karel was red, bright red rippling out to darker hues as he watched the drops splatter into the pool ten yards away. Though life had left her, the blood within still ran.
He wanted to run, wanted to be sick, wanted to wipe the slate clean of all he had heard and seen this past three days. Oh if he could return to the Crooked Spigot before Ben turned on the TV that night. He and Corrie would have fled far away, sheltered from the wiles of the devils that now roamed the earth.
The stranger's voice brought him back to the present. "We must get out of here," said the man who had not moved while Gallagher had studied the slaughtered woman he'd known less than half an hour total.
Who was this man? Pat's thoughts turned toward this strong interloper who still had a steel-like grasp on Pat's arm. Was he the killer? Was he to die in this same manner, or even worse?
"How?" Pat managed to whisper.
"We will have to investigate that later," the mysterious man retorted. "We will leave one at a time. It is necessary. Stay close to the buildings. Go back exactly the same way you came. Once you reach the corner of the Via Magdalena, you will be safe. I have a car waiting. I will meet you there. Give me five minutes."
"Why should I trust you? Pat queried roughly as he caught a glimpse of the powerful ebony eyes peering at him.
The voice was logical. "Do you have a choice, Mr. Gallagher?"
Pat didn't and he knew it. He had to take the chance. He didn't want to die as Karel had. He could admit that, but to no one other than himself. And if this guy wasn't all he pretended to be, at least he was buying time, giving himself a chance to get away from him, whoever he was.
"Okay. Go on. Let's get the hell out of here," Pat chimed in weakly.
Gallagher remained braced with his face against the wall as the man released his grip. Pat listened for every sound in the humid, chilly night air. He couldn't hear or see the man move away so perfectly did he blend into the night. Why hadn't he thought to bring his raincoat instead of his tan field jacket. He needed to blend with the shadows if Karel's diabolical killer was waiting out there to strike him down.
He glanced at his watch. It was something to do. Better than thinking about the mutilated body hanging not far from him. The seconds ticked by. Rain trickled down the drains, sputtering off roof tops and toppled with a splat to the street. The sounds seemed to reverberate.
Five minutes later, taking a deep breath, Pat forced himself away from the wall and back to the mouth of the alleyway. He hesitated fractionally. Nothing moved.
Instinctively, one hand reached into his pocket and clutched the rosary, while the other hand grasped
the handle of the umbrella in a death-like vise. He started forward, embracing the buildings as if he were part of the mortar that was cracking and spilling in chunks onto the pavement.
He managed to get past the cobbler's shop, past the wine velvet shoes that now seemed blood-red after his vision of Karel. His ragged breath tore at his lungs as fear forced the oxygen out of him.
The end of the street loomed nearer. He could see the lights now coming from the other direction where the main thoroughfare would be lit and hopefully the man would have a car waiting to take him from this deadly place. Anywhere was fine with Gallagher away from here.
Pat coaxed his consciousness. Put one foot in front of the other. Keep going. Don't stop. Don't look back. Don't-
Suddenly, he felt a terrible, crushing pain in his right side, the side where he held the umbrella. Gallagher went reeling to his knees, falling face down into the gutter. Another crushing blow crashed upon him, hammering off his back as he instinctively rolled to his left, turning over as he did so, bringing the umbrella up at the same time.
He saw the shadow then but didn't know where it had come from. It didn't matter. It was the shadow of death, and he was alone to face it.
The figure raised a heavy piece of wood, a club, Pat thought, and made ready to swing again, this time aiming for his head. Adrenaline surged through the Texas reporter. He managed to roll away, and struggle to a semi-standing position, the umbrella at the ready as D'Artagnan against the world.
He was no match for this maniacal figure rushing at him, club swung in a deadly arch. No way Pat Gallagher was going have his obituary here, no way was going to leave his brains splattered on the Via Magdalena. He struck back with all the force he had left. With agility born of necessity, he waited for the right second and lunged, thrusting the point of the umbrella straight into the chest of the man who reeked of death.
Pat knew it wasn't enough to stop this beast. The two blows Pat had already taken had weakened him, yet in his pain he his bumbershoot blade had lacked the necessary emphasis to do more than fleeting damage. But the attacker backed off momentarily, allowing Gallagher the chance to get to his feet and find the proper stance. No use running. He was in too much pain to make a race of it. He was going to make his last stand right here in this dank alley. Come hell or high-water.
Keeping his distance, Gallagher edged away from the man as the latter once again lifted the heavy club, angrier than ever. The bloody, umbrella was still in Pat's hand, but it seemed as useless as a toothpick against a saber.
"Oh, God," he whispered into the night. What a fool he'd been! How he'd underestimated the Legion. He was about to fail everyone who had put their trust in him. Fasif! Fasif had counted on him. He couldn't fail.
He thrust and parried and backed away, feeling his chest heave with pain and his head swim in agony as the lethal club's arc grew closer. He knew he'd feel one swift blow and blinding agony before death. With one last ounce of energy he pivoted and an explosion of gunfire at close range shocked him into a motionless state.
The killer appeared immobilized by the bullet that had found its mark. The man-beast paused, club raised above his head, his dark grizzly face glistening with sweat. For a beat of the heart no one moved.
Then, with one motion there came a thud which was both heavy and sickening, as the would-be killer landed lifeless only inches from Pat's soaked feet. The club and attacker no longer relevant. Fate had saved him. He had no strength left to celebrate his good fortune. He felt his knees buckling again, felt the whole world spinning madly. The umbrella dropped from his numb hands and he could feel himself falling.
Was he dreaming? Would he wake up before he hit bottom? A steel-like grip latched onto his arm and shoulder, suspending him in a vapor of nothingness as Pat did what he had never done before.
He fainted! Fainted into the shadows of a surreal concussion.
Next issue: Eighth Chapter - Episode One
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WHITE SMOKE, BLACK FIRE!