Deliver Us From Evil
By Allison Brennan
Blood isn't red.
Blood goes beyond color. Rich and textured, dark and fathomless, blood was life and death. Burgundy didn't do it justice. If blood were wine, it would be a full- bodied cabernet, perhaps a zinfandel, certainly not something as boring, mundane, two- dimensional as red.
Especially spilled blood, filling the crevices of the nearly two- hundred- fifty- year- old limestone floor of a forgotten California mission. Every hole, every nook, every imperfection in the aged floor filled with blood, corner to corner, the porous stone absorbing death so dark red it was almost black, as black as the heart of the evil man who had murdered the twelve priests in this oppressive chapel.
Evil men. Certainly it had taken more than one person to slaughter twelve unarmed priests.
Until this morning, the most spilled blood Sheriff Skye McPherson had witnessed was a vicious murder- suicide three years ago. A man had stabbed his family to death, then shot himself, the bastard. Even the arcs of blood slashed against those white walls didn't come close to the tragedy before her today.
She'd never rid this image from her mind, never forget the stench of violence.
Violence? Twelve people dead. It was a massacre.
"Jesus, Mary, and Joseph." Detective Juan Martinez crossed himself as they proceeded carefully through the carnage.
They were in the chapel of Santa Louisa de Los Padres, a small mission closed to the public. Skye had hiked up here many times with her father, Chuck McPherson, a U.S. forest ranger who had known the Los Padres National Forest better than anyone and had befriended the priests who came to the mission on sabbatical.
That was before. Five years ago the diocese relocated the few who'd lived there, ended the sabbatical program, and moved in retired priests who weren't as friendly as their predecessors. But Skye was too busy now for weekend hikes anyway. And with her father dead, she didn't enjoy the wilderness as she once had.
Skye let the criminalists do their job as she surveyed the scene. So much violence in such a small room — it was as if the imprint of what happened last night would forever taint this hall. The altar drew her eye. She wasn't Catholic, she didn't care much for any religion, but it was obvious something sacrilegious had occurred.
The huge stone crucifix had been turned upside down. It must weigh hundreds of pounds, in addition to the deceptively simple six- foot solid- wood carving of the crucified Christ. Blood coated the crown of thorns on Christ's head, whether spatter from the killings or put there on purpose Skye wouldn't know until the crime scene team finished their work.
One of the dead lay on the raised altar; the remaining victims were scattered around the room, on the floor or in the pews. Not all bodies were intact.
There was good news, bad news. The good news was that they had the prime suspect in custody, along with the man who had discovered the bodies. The bad news was the suspect was allegedly in a coma. She'd believe it when she had a second opinion.
"I thought de Los Padres was for retired priests," Martinez said as he looked around. Many of the dead were too young for retirement.
"That's what the diocese has said, but they've been pretty hush- hush about this place for the last couple years," Skye said. "They did some major renovation five years ago, but I haven't been here for more than a decade." She forced herself to look at the faces of the victims. Their frozen expressions of terror gave her additional motivation to find the killers.
"The crime scene has been compromised." Head of the small county CSU Rod Fielding carefully approached, his face grim, stating what they already knew. "The guy who brought Mr. Cooper to the hospital didn't take any care about stepping in blood or disturbing evidence. I need his prints, his shoes, and a statement. What he touched, why, the whole nine yards."
"I sent a deputy to the hospital to hold Mr. Zaccardi until I get over there to interview him." Skye stared at the crime scene. "I don't expect it'll be anytime soon."
"Sooner than you think."
Skye whipped around and saw a tall, broad-shouldered man with dried blood on his white tailored button-down shirt. His naturally tan face was as hard as the stone walls that framed the mission, but his eyes were as deep and rich as dark chocolate. He looked like a pirate, not only out of his country but completely out of his element. His commanding presence caused everyone to pause a beat.
Anthony Zaccardi, no doubt.
"You're in the middle of my crime scene," she said.
Zaccardi stared at her with haunted eyes, his black hair falling to his shoulders. He wore a small dark stud in his left ear and bore a three- inch scar on the side of his neck along the edge of his collar. He was physically fit and muscular, more than capable of killing. But twelve men without a scratch? Doubtful. Besides, she had already verified his itinerary and the timeline wouldn't have worked, otherwise he'd be in lockup.
Chances were he had nothing to do with these murders. But she wasn't going to assume anything.
"I want my cross back."
She frowned. "What's he talking about?"
Tommy Reiner, the cop she'd sent to sit on Zaccardi, stepped into the room. He paled at the sight and scent of death. "He wanted to talk to you."
"I told you to keep him at the hospital."
Zaccardi repeated, "I want my cross."
Just what she needed, a lawsuit that she was denying Catholics their right to worship the way they saw fit.
"Uh — " Tommy hesitated.
"Give it back to him."
"It appeared to be a weapon."
"For shit's sake," she muttered. She motioned for them to leave the chapel, then turned to Rod. "You need me, I'm outside."
"I have enough to keep me busy," he said. "But when you're done with Zaccardi, I'd like him to walk me through his exact steps."
She ushered everyone out of the chapel and into the courtyard. "This is a crime scene. I — "
"You need to know what I touched when I arrived, where I went. I understand. I need my cross, Sheriff."
Zaccardi spoke with a subtly luxurious European accent. He looked Italian, dressed well, and had an aura about him that suggested he always got what he wanted, when he wanted.
Reiner said, "It's a knife, Skye. I swear."
She snapped her fingers. "Let me see it."
The cop left through the main courtyard entrance. They'd cut the lock on the gate when they entered. With one survivor at the hospital, they had to assume going in that there were other survivors, regardless of what Mr. Zaccardi had said over the phone.
"So you weren't lying when you told my deputy you just flew in from Italy."
"I don't lie."
Everyone lied, but she refrained from saying so. "What are you doing so far from home?"
"Rafe asked me to come. He was concerned about something happening here. He felt something — " He paused.
"He said something evil had slithered inside."
She raised her eyebrow. "Were those his exact words?"
"And you dropped everything and flew halfway across the world?"
"Rafe wouldn't ask for help if he didn't need it."
"What kind of help."
"I told you. Something — "
She waved her hand dismissively. "Something evil, right."
"What kind of evil?"
Skye had almost forgotten her detective, Juan Martinez, had followed them out of the chapel, until he asked the question. A few years older than she was, Juan had been one of her few close friends in the department since she became a cop eleven years ago.
"The kind of evil I understand."
"For a man who doesn't lie, you're being awfully evasive," Skye snapped.
His jaw tightened. "I'm a demonologist."
That was the last thing she expected to hear. She glanced at Martinez, who was nodding. "You study demons," he said, as if it were in the same career category as brain surgery.
"Among other things." Zaccardi stared at the chapel doors. "I was here five years ago. It had been safe." His voice trailed off.
"And now? You're saying demons killed those men?"
Skye snorted. "Please. We're looking for the men who helped your friend butcher those priests."
Zaccardi stepped toward her, aggressive. She put her hand on the butt of her gun, but he didn't so much as blink. "Rafe did not kill those men. He didn't have any part in it."
"When was the last time you saw him?"
"That doesn't matter — "
"All I'm saying is we don't always know our friends, especially those we don't see all the time." And sometimes we don't even know our own family. Skye steeled herself against her memories.
Zaccardi shook his head. "Rafe and I might as well be brothers. I know his heart. He knows mine. We were raised together, studied together in Europe."
"Until he moved to America ten years ago."
"And you haven't seen him since," Skye said flatly.
Deputy Reiner came back with an evidence bag. Inside was a knife in the shape of a cross. Dagger would be a more descriptive word.
"This is your cross?" Skye took the bag from Tommy. "How'd you get this on the plane?"
"I checked my baggage. It is a cross."
"Right." This guy was getting weirder and weirder. But he didn't seem dangerous. Not physically dangerous, at any rate. His alibi had checked out. Between the time his flight landed in San Francisco and the four- hour drive to the mission, he couldn't have killed the priests. She handed him the bag.
Surprise lit his face. He retrieved the cross and slid it into a loop on his belt. For a moment he looked just like the pirate Skye had envisioned earlier, the dagger-cross his sword, a breeze lifting his hair, the morning sun chiseling his face.
Rod stepped into the courtyard. "Skye, you have to see this." He stared at Zaccardi. "You should come, too."
Skye didn't want to discipline Rod in front of the other cops, but he didn't have authority to bring civilians into the crime scene, even though he'd been working the job almost as long as she'd been alive.
"Do you really think demons did this?" Martinez asked Zaccardi without derision.
"Yes," Zaccardi responded. "I know they did."
"I don't know about demons," Rod said, "but something weird is going on, and if the press gets hold of this, PR will be hell."
Anthony walked through the carnage, trying to push aside the silent screams for salvation. He didn't have answers, and the panic in the pleas told him the dead knew their fate.
Did none of these cops see the evil around them? Didn't the presence of darkness terrify them as it tried to overtake their souls?
For his entire life, he'd heard the cries of the dead and cackle of evil. If it hadn't been for the wise men at St. Michael's on a small island off Sicily, he would have gone insane. He'd learned to control it, to let them inside in small doses, in order to help the dead as well as preserve his own sanity. But here, with so much evil and pain in one place, his head ached with the struggle to keep the agony of the lost souls at bay.
They entered the small, narrow sacristy on the far side of the altar, the room where the priests stored chalices, vestments, unconsecrated hosts, sacramental wine. The destruction was complete, broken glass everywhere and the scent of sweet wine.
An odd drawing was painted in red — probably blood — on the stone wall. It was the seal of a demon, but Anthony didn't recognize the crest. Four circles, one within the other, evenly spaced. Inside the first ring was a phrase written in ancient Latin. The second ring held three symbols Anthony recognized as traditional demonic marks — an upside-down cross at the top, a common symbol of the devil that has been around for thousands of years; a seven-point triangle in the lower right; and an upside-down hook in the lower left with a triangle at the top and an oval circling the bottom curve.
The third ring had markings he would need to analyze, but they appeared to be a numeric code of some sort. Some who practiced demonolatry used numerology as part of their rituals.
But the inner circle held three filled ovals that formed a fat triangle, a mark he'd never seen but filled him with an unexplainable primal fear. The image reminded him of soulless eyes, of which he had seen far too many.
Rod said, "It looks almost like hieroglyphics, but not exactly. Too much detail. The words are Latin."
"'Summon the fires to serve in death; relinquish the soul to serve your lord; walk in the willing dead,' " Anthony translated.
"What the hell does that mean?" Skye demanded.
"I'm not sure, but it's part of a ritual."
"A satanic ritual?" she questioned, disbelieving.
"This isn't the mark of Satan."
"Well?" she prompted when he didn't continue.
"This is the seal of a demon. It's used as part of the ritual to bring a specific demon from Hell." He gestured at the crude painting.
"Demons, Satan, does it really matter? I mean, we're dealing with a bunch of violent psychos anyway."
"It matters," Anthony said. Walk in the willing dead. He'd never heard that phrase before. Fire was a common element to call upon, particularly when dealing with demons. To serve Satan, one had to relinquish their soul to the fires of Hell. But the willing dead? Physical death or spiritual death?
"And who is he?" Skye asked.
If he were in Italy or in some other countries, Anthony could explain in far greater detail what they were dealing with. Believers would be appeased with his explanation that someone had brought forth evil and until they knew what evil they faced they'd never be able to send it back. But here in America? This pretty blond cop with intelligent, sad eyes? Her entire demeanor said she wouldn't believe anything he had to say.
"I don't know," he finally said. He didn't know which demon had been called, a first for him. All those years of study, and he was at an impasse.
"Great." She rolled her eyes. "So we're dealing with some satanic cult," she said, obviously not listening to — or believing — Anthony. "You're right, Rod, the press is going to have a field day."
"You think we have a wacko group running around performing satanic rituals and killing people?" Rod asked. "The crime seems too — disordered."
"Very Charles Manson-ish," Skye said with a smirk.
Anthony said, "You don't know what you're up against. These aren't satanists, and they're not disorganized. This is pure demonolatry. Someone called this spirit up and helped it kill those men. This seal is — how would you say it? — like his signature. He's gloating over death."
Skye rubbed her temple. Anthony resisted the anger that rose because of her disdain. He'd faced ridicule many times before, and he knew whatever spirit had been unleashed would feed on his anger, fear, and insecurity.
"So you think a demon killed those priests? And your friend just happened to survive the slaughter?"
Anthony chose his words carefully. "I think that a person brought forth the demon and used the power of Hell to kill those men. How, I don't know. Why Rafe was spared, I don't know. But I can tell you that it" — he pointed to the circle on the wall — "is still here. And more people will die if I can't find him and send him back to Hell."
Skye sighed and rubbed her eyes. "Let's get out of here."
Anthony didn't move. He took out his wallet, extracted a business card, and began to re-create the seal of the demon on the blank side. Anthony needed to find out exactly who — and what — he was up against. Maybe there was a chance to save those souls. The willing dead.
These men hadn't been willing. The demon would be looking for someone who was. One of those who summoned him? Did they know what the demon would demand of them?
"Look, Mr. Zaccardi," Skye said, sympathy crossing her face. "You've been through a lot today. I'm sorry about your friends, but I'm asking you to leave the crime scene. I'll be in contact later."
He finished the sketch and wrote down the Latin phrase. "You do not know what you are up against," he repeated.
"Yes I do. I'm up against a group of brutal cowards who killed twelve unarmed men."
"You are up against those who worship him." He stabbed his pencil at the drawing. "It is his strength that slaughtered those men. The people who called him — and there had to have been more than one — are tools. They may be frail old women or strong teenage boys. It doesn't matter, after bringing forth this demon they have the power of Hell on their side."
Anthony must sound crazy to the sheriff. The more she tried to dismiss what he knew to be true, the angrier he became. He had to control his temper. Not only to be able to work with this cop, but to prevent the spirits from using his temper against him.
"Sheriff," he said quietly but firmly. "You don't believe me. But you must. We don't have time for doubts."
"You wanted me to tell you if anything was missing."
"Do you know where the written records are kept?"
"In the caretaker's office."
"I'll let you know if anything has been stolen," she said.
He stared at her, her green eyes never leaving his, her mouth firm, her posture rigid. She wore her long blond hair back, in a complicated French braid. But the tight hairstyle didn't diminish the femininity of the tall, athletic woman. Skye was attractive, but deliberately downplayed her assets. To be seen as a leader first, a woman second.
The men around her were watching the situation closely. This was her turf, her pride at stake. There would be another time, soon, to reason with her. When they were alone, maybe she would let her guard down, soften her heart to the reality she denied.
"We'll talk later." He pocketed the drawing and left.
Skye watched Zaccardi leave, nodded to Martinez to follow him out. She turned and stared at the hideous drawing, the eyes inside the circle seeming to look right at her. Watching her.
Ridiculous. "Don't listen to him," she said to Rod. "The guy's a whack job."
Rod didn't say anything.
"What? Man of science believes in demons?"
Rod put away his equipment and stared at her. "Skye, I'm fifty- two years old. I've been a crime scene analyst in New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles. I came here because Santa Louisa was supposed to be one of the safest places to live.
"I'm telling you, in my thirty years of law enforcement, I have never seen anything like this. I'm not a religious man, but I believe in God. And if God exists, why not demons? I just can't wrap my mind around this crime scene. It makes no sense. No one tried to leave the chapel. The killers should have been drenched in blood, but not one drop was found outside this room, except for what Mr. Zaccardi tracked out when he saved his friend. If we are to believe Zaccardi that he broke down the kitchen door, which was bolted from the inside, that means that the only two entrances to the mission were locked by someone inside."
"Which means Rafe Cooper is our only suspect."
"Where are the weapons? We have searched everywhere and there are none. As far as I can see, at least four different weapons were used, all blades. Yet there is not one knife in this room, and certainly nothing that can decapitate a man."
Skye opened her mouth, closed it. She had no answer.
She walked out of the sacristy and saw Anthony Zaccardi standing next to the altar. "Reiner! Escort Mr. Zaccardi back to his car."
What the hell was he doing standing like that? What was he looking at?
He turned to her with a strained expression. "The tabernacle. It's missing."
Juan stood next to her and pointed. "It's right there."
Skye stared at a small, simple antique metal box with gold mesh wire for sides.
Zaccardi shook his head. "That's not the tabernacle I installed five years ago. Now I know exactly how the demon got in."
Deliver Us From Evil copyright © 2008 by Allison Brennan