Lydia turned from the sink, surprised at the sound coming from her husband.
“The light. Why does it have to be so bright in here?”
Lydia’s brow furrowed. He’d never complained about the light before.
“You got into bed rather late last night,” she said in a conversational tone, masking her worry. “Maybe you just didn’t get enough sleep.”
Steve grunted and sat down, his back to the window. He looked exhausted.
Lydia brought him some coffee, which he barely tasted. She sat across from him, wishing she could do something to help him avoid the morning sunshine. But there were no drapes at this window; she had insisted on it when they’d bought the house. This was her bird-watching window; they had laughingly decreed it so on that very first day.
With just a brief glance, she could see that the light was not the problem. His employers and Delilah wanted their new venture to have its open house tonight, a full week earlier than agreed on at the time the contract was signed. Steve had kept workers going around the clock, putting in odd hours himself to keep up with the demands put on him. His eyes had dark circles under them, and his skin was pale. He had shaved, but half-heartedly, and bristles remained where he had missed with the razor.
She grasped his hand. “Hopefully, this will all be over soon.”
He nodded in silence. “I was up late last night, and got a call from up the hill. A guy had found a hole in the basement of the building where you’d worked. It led down pretty deep, no stairs. Stunk like, I don’t know, sulfur or something. I had them re-cover it. But it took a good chunk out of my night.”
Lydia’s skin crawled with the thought of that place, but she didn’t remark on it. They sat in silence for a moment.
Then Lydia brightened at the memory of a call she’d gotten that morning. She knew Steve would regard it as good news. “Oh, Kim called. She and Ned will be getting home soon, and then they’ll come by for Toby.”
Steve looked maybe just a little less unhappy. “When?”
“Some time this afternoon or evening.”
All of a sudden he felt himself heating up. His tone got sharp as he asked, “Why did they take so long anyway? Just dumping their kid on us, while they loll around doing nothing!” He stood abruptly and walked the floor, agitated.
Lydia watched him, shocked. Where is my patient, loving husband? All of a sudden he’s a…beast in a cage. I understand tired, but this?
He stopped suddenly, and looked as if he would start ranting again. Lydia was about to say something when there was a knock on the door.
Steve whirled, a look one level above annoyance on his face. “Who the hell could that be this early in the morning?” He stormed through the kitchen door. Before it slapped closed, Lydia glimpsed a delivery truck pulling away.
Her husband walked back into the kitchen, carrying a small box. He studied the return address.
“New Orleans? Oh, it’s that professor who called me about the wood we found.” His eyes darkened. “Oh, don’t tell me he sent it here!”
He pulled the box open, not an easy feat with the fibered tape crisscrossing its surface. Lydia marveled at how strong Steve had become.
Active construction work is doing him good in some ways, anyway.
He lifted the wrapped object, smaller than the palm of his hand, out of the box. Suddenly, and violently, he threw box, wrappings, and the item down onto the table as if it had bitten him. He backed away from it, shock in his eyes. Then he noticed Lydia staring at him.
“Stupid box,” he said, his voice shaking. “I got a cut from it.”
Lydia knew that wasn’t the case, but played along for the sake of not getting him riled up even worse than he was.
“Do you need a bandage?” She made as if to get up.
“No, no, I’m okay. Just get rid of that thing, would you?” Then he stormed out without another word.
Lydia, stunned, could only sit and listen to the front door slam.
Pat and Trudy had been about to go down the stairs when they heard their dad rage through the dining and living rooms. They peered down into the first floor and saw him stop long enough to pick up their applications. He read Trudy’s note and stuffed it into his shirt pocket, hesitating just for a moment. Then he charged out the door.
The kids exchanged glances, continued down the stairs, and went into the kitchen. Their mother was holding an open box and reading a creased, unfolded piece of paper with interest.
“Mom? What’s with Dad?” Trudy asked.
“Erm? Oh. He had a bad night.” Lydia didn’t want to trouble the kids with their dad’s emotional struggles. She hoped he would calm down before it got so serious that she would have to go into details with them.
“What’s that you have?” Pat pointed to the box.
“Not sure yet. I’m reading the note that came with it.” She gestured toward the wrapped item. “The box was delivered this morning. It was for your dad, but he doesn’t want it.” She looked up from the paper, but only for a moment.
Trudy and Pat caught each other’s eye. “The box,” Trudy mouthed.
Pat nodded. He turned back to his mom. “So what is it? Who’s it from?” he asked.
Lydia finished reading and handed the note to her son, perplexed. “It’s from a Professor Brown in New Orleans. Apparently he was running a carbon-dating investigation on this piece of wood that was found in that buried house.” She frowned. “Wonder why? I mean, the place is made of wood, there’s wood furniture everywhere. What was so special about this chunk?
“But, look.” She pointed to some data on the paper. “It says here that the artifact is a lot older than any other wood in the house.”
Pat read the findings, and his breath caught in his throat. “Middle Eastern in origin. About two thousand years old…” And we’re supposed to deliver this to Nick. Why?
An incredible, almost unbelievable answer formed in his mind. It was almost too powerful to keep to himself. But he had to, at least until he and Trudy were out of the house.
“Mom,” he asked, “did you say Dad doesn’t want it?”
“Yes. He said to get rid of it. Why?”
“Do you mind if I take it? I have a friend who is really interested in this forensics/archaeology stuff.” No lie there.
“No, please, go ahead. But if your friend doesn’t want it, bring it back. I have an odd feeling about it.” She gave the still-wrapped object a long, wondering look.
“Okay. Sure. Thanks.”
He and Trudy barely made it through breakfast, trying to look patient and to take their time. Lydia listened to them as they discussed their plans for the day. Trudy was still feeling skittish about going into the park again, and Pat was going to take her out there to work through her anxieties.
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Lydia looked worried.
Trudy nodded. “I feel like it’s something I have to do.”
This was true; it was something both kids felt certain of. But the main reason was to meet Nick, with Miriam in tow. Both Pat and Trudy hoped that they would soon be able to tell their mother everything. They were not comfortable tap-dancing around the truth the way they had been doing.
The two youngsters left the house and went directly to the hardware store. Pat hoped Miriam would be there. She hadn’t answered her phone that morning. Trudy, for her part, was looking forward to meeting this obviously exceptional young woman. She hoped that they would have at least some things in common.
As they walked into the store, Pat spied Miriam standing by the customer service desk. He waved and hurried over, Trudy close behind.
Trudy almost gaped, just like her brother had done earlier.
He’s right—she’s gorgeous.
But there was something else about her. A gentleness and a peace that Trudy felt could not be touched or destroyed by anything or anyone.
The welcoming look on Miriam’s face encompassed both of them, and Trudy knew they would hit it off immediately. Pat thought his new friend looked even better in regular clothes, but refrained from saying anything. He knew from experience that his mouth didn’t connect with his brain very well when he was around her.
“I’m glad we found you here, Miriam,” said Trudy. “Pat tried to call you, but there was no answer. We’re just going to the park to do some long-distance walking. If you’re not working, would you like to come along?”
Pat smiled at his sister, grateful. She was not tongue-tied in the least, whereas he kept tripping over his words.
Miriam grinned. “Sure, I’d love to. I’m just here to pick up my paycheck. Today’s my day off.”
Pat finally found his tongue. “Great. Did you want to stop at the coffee shop or anything first?”
“Nope, I’m good. Probably lucky I wore my trainers today.” Miriam lifted her tiny foot, which was encased by a new red athletic shoe. “Okay, shall we go?”
“Oh, wait, I have to get something first.” Pat shook his head, smiling sheepishly. “Turns out my friend needs those ax handles after all. We’ll drop them off when we see him. He’s on the way.”
Pat made his purchase and they left the store.
Miriam got into the back of Pat’s car before Trudy could suggest that she sit up front. As Miriam settled herself in, she spied the box from New Orleans in the other seat. Trudy thought she looked just a little uncomfortable when she saw it. But the look passed, and Miriam smiled at Trudy as she buckled herself in.
“You could sit up here, if you’d like,” Trudy offered.
“Oh, no, I’m fine. I like to ride in the back, really.”
Trudy grinned and shrugged as she got into the front seat. To each his own, she thought.
On the way to the park, Pat explained to Miriam that Trudy had had a bad experience while walking through it the other day. However, he didn’t go into details. Miriam nodded and glanced sympathetically in Trudy’s direction.
Trudy screwed up her courage as they stepped onto the path into the woods. Miriam could feel Pat’s sister tense, and put a hand on her shoulder.
“Just think to yourself that nothing will happen while your brother is with you. You are safe.” Miriam’s voice was gentle and comforting.
Trudy nodded, but she still gulped as her memories washed over her. She found herself gripping both Pat’s and Miriam’s hands as they got deeper under the trees.
As they passed the path she had taken the day of her attack, she relaxed a little. “I was down there the day I…the day it happened.”
“What actually happened? Can you tell me? Is there something we should tell the police?”
Miriam’s concern was genuine. Trudy thought again how very lucky they were to have her with them. Hopefully. She was still in the dark about what they hoped she’d agree to. They themselves weren’t sure, in all reality.
Trudy was about to answer when she heard someone shout. Pat hailed back and started abruptly up a slight incline, through some thick bushes. She hesitated, her heart once again rocketing around in her chest.
“Go on,” Miriam whispered, “I’m with you.”
Somehow those few words were all that Trudy needed, not only to go forward, but to suddenly feel in control over all of her anxieties. There was a power not her own stirring within her as she climbed up the hill and through the foliage.
She was still marveling at this sensation when the three of them emerged from the bushes into Nick’s campsite. Nick was waiting for them, a big, welcoming smile on his ancient face. Pat was still ahead of the girls, the ax handles heavy in his grip. Trudy and Miriam were obscured by his body.
“Good to see ya, Pat. Ya brought those handles—good. And the box. Gabriel said you’d probably got that. Oh!” He peered behind Pat. “You brought company.”
His eyes darkened in suspicion for a brief moment, and he looked questioningly at Pat.
Trudy stepped up.
“Oh, right. Trudy. My eyes. Sorry. You know…” He stopped talking when he saw Miriam.
Pat and Trudy were shocked and amazed at his reaction. His face became suffused with joy and love, and he went down on one knee as he stared up into Miriam’s face. He took her hand and whispered, “My Lady.” Then he kissed it and held it to his face.
Pat, embarrassed, was about to apologize for Nick’s behavior. But he went mute as he saw Miriam’s own countenance. It seemed to give off a faint glow as she smiled softly at the old man.
“Nicodemus, old friend. It’s good to see you again.”
Wondering at this, Pat looked back and forth between the two. He turned to see Trudy’s reaction, and was not prepared for what he saw.
Trudy’s eyes were huge. She stood frozen, her hands in front of her, the fingers splayed. Pat wasn’t even sure she was breathing. But then she muttered something, almost inaudible.
Pat’s eyebrows rose. Trudy caught him staring at her and said, a little louder, “It’s Mary. Jesus’ mother.”
“What??” Pat whirled back to look at Miriam.
She smiled gently at her new friends, then nodded once. “Trudy’s right. She knows because of her gift, which is also her weapon.”
To Nick, she said, “Do get up, dear man. I know your old bones must be tired of being in that position.” Her eyes sparkled in amusement.
“Yes, he does creak a lot, doesn’t he? Especially his mouth.” Gabriel was with them, a grin on his face.
Miriam gave him a kiss on his cheek. “Good to see you, Gabriel.”
There was a flutter of wings, and a bright white bird flew out of nowhere and landed on Miriam’s shoulder. Trudy looked curiously at it, then a look of shock and remembrance came over her face.
“That bird. It…was that…the same bird that…?”
“Saved you?” Miriam asked. “Yes. He saves you at all times. All of God’s people know Him because of the Spirit.”
“‘Spirit’?” Pat looked doubtfully at the small dove.
In response, the bird suddenly shimmered, much like the angels Pat and Trudy were so familiar with. But there was no doubt in any mortal’s mind that the angels’ abilities came from this source. There was no comparison.
The shimmer grew in size and power, then shifted into a bright column of unapproachable light. Then, just as quickly, the light coalesced into a swirling vortex of sparklingly pure water. If left unleashed, that water could quickly cover the earth, of that there was no doubt in any mind there in the campsite.
Just as suddenly, the water became a fire that gave off intense heat but burned nothing.
After a moment, up to the point where the heat became almost unbearable, the fire shrank down and subsided back into the shimmering light. The column reverted back into the shape of the white dove, which perched innocently on Miriam’s shoulder as before.
She looked lovingly at the bird. “He doesn’t say much, but He gets His point across.”
Pat and Trudy were still frozen in amazement and awe, too astounded to talk. Nick, however, had seen the Spirit more times than he could remember. But it didn’t take away from the reverence he had for the Third Person of the Trinity.
Nick cleared his throat, which broke the trance that his young friends seemed to be in.
“Begging your pardons, my Lord, my Lady, but shouldn’t we get started?”
He trudged over to his tent and brought out the iron spikes. Miriam’s gentle countenance changed to bitter sorrow at the sight of them. She looked away.
“I’m sorry you have to see them again, my Lady,” he apologized, “but these are necessary for the coming war.”
“I know, Nick. But the sight of them breaks my heart, even now.”
Trudy couldn’t even imagine what it would be like to lose a child, much less have him tortured, brutalized, and then abandoned by those who had claimed to be His friends. But she knew sorrow, and she could understand that. Without thinking of who she was comforting, she put her arms around Miriam.
Jesus’ mother did not pull back. She let herself be comforted by the young mortal who had so easily become her friend.
Trudy looked at the spikes, then at Nick. “What are you going to do with them?” she asked him.
“Not sure. Pat, get one of those handles to me, willya?”
Pat handed one to the old man. Nick looked from the handle to the spike and brought them together in various positions. He looked up at the Dove.
“How did You want this done? You’ll have to be fairly clear on this…” He was going to joke about his deafness, but thought better of it. This was not the time to be kidding around.
Seemingly on their own, the wood and the nail came together and met end-to-end. The blunt end of the spike overlapped the short end of the handle by about an inch. Nick pushed the two items together and looked up at the Dove again.
Nick’s hands, the wood, and the iron suddenly gave off a bright glow. It went on for a few seconds; when it subsided, Nick took his hands away. The stake and the wood were now united seamlessly.
“Okay. Well. Now, that’s pretty clear,” Nick said, staring at what had been created. “Pat, please get the other two.”
The others were transformed the same way, and in as little time.
Nick gestured to Pat. “Your weapons. Now you must find two worthy allies to carry these into battle with you.”
“What about…?” Pat pointed to Trudy.
“She will point out the Afflicted when the time comes,” Gabriel responded. “Your job will be to stake them so that the trapped souls can be freed and the demons destroyed.”
“Okay, wait a minute,” Pat said. “Just how big an ‘army’ are we going to need? Last time we had this…sort of thing…happen, it was worldwide. And this time?”
“The demons’ portal is here,” Gabriel replied. “You have seen it, up in those old buildings. The Ancient Evil is here. This time, the Dark One is using his Bride, Lilith, to create a campaign to take over souls here first. He plans to afflict as many souls as he can, who will in turn afflict others. He will, in this way, attempt to take over the world for his own plans.”
“And you know this.” Pat could hardly believe what he was hearing. “Yet everyone’s letting it continue?”
Miriam spoke up. “Don’t lose faith, Pat. It’s all for a reason. Again, no souls will be lost that don’t want to be. These trapped souls will be free to go on to Eternity.” Her face turned sad. “And those who side with evil, we can’t stop them. Unfortunately, there will be many who will.”
“I still don’t really understand, but okay,” Pat said. Trudy nodded in agreement, totally confused.
He turned to Miriam. “Now, Gabriel said you’d be ‘key’ to the success of the mission. What did he mean?”
Miriam smiled at him. “Do you remember that night on the hill with your friends? When the portal was opened?”
Pat shuddered. “Oh, yes.” He shook his head quickly, trying to erase the memory that had come to his mind.
“And that voice that told you that someone would be sent to protect you?”
Pat nodded, and his awe grew with his comprehension. “The rosebud…”
“My favorite flower,” Miriam said, putting a gentle hand on Pat’s shoulder. “Yes, Pat, I’m here to protect you and your army.”
She looked over at Nick. “The box, Nicodemus.”
“Oh. Right.” He picked it up and brought out the artifact, still wrapped. Then he looked worriedly at Miriam. “Will you be okay?”
Miriam’s eyes grew sad again, and she nodded in resignation. Trudy put her arm around her shoulders.
Nick unwrapped the item. It was, indeed, a small piece of ancient-looking wood. He then pulled something out of his pocket and shook it out of its tangled shape. It glinted gold in the mottled sunlight.
It was a necklace chain, on which hung a small mesh bag, also gold. Nick opened the bag and inserted the wood into it. He then held it out to Trudy.
She took it, a question on her face.
“This,” said Nick, “is the last known piece of the True Cross. It was placed in a house in New Orleans over a hundred years ago, to keep the most, or should I say, second-most dangerous vampire in history captive.”
“That house Dad was working on?” Pat was aghast.
“Yes. The beast was unleashed, but without the venom it had before its capture. The worst of the three was taken by the denizens of Hell.”
“Wait. Three? What do you mean?” Trudy interrupted. She flushed in embarrassment as all eyes turned to her. “Only because, the soul of that, um, ex-vampire that attacked me? She told me something about three souls and two not to be blamed. What did she mean? Does what she said have something to do with this ‘beast’?”
“The Dark One’s evil play on the Trinity,” Gabriel explained. “The vampire, this beast, under Lilith’s control has three souls trapped inside the body he is occupying. Two have long since removed themselves from active predation. But it’s the third one that we are concerned with. He was added after the beast escaped from his prison, and is the one that is happiest doing the will of the Devil. This is the one we have to flush out.”
“You don’t know who it is?” Trudy asked.
“We do, but this information has to be discovered on a mortal basis. Otherwise, the demons will realize they have been discovered by divine agents, and will just hide away again.”
Trudy put the chain around her neck. That was when Pat noticed something missing.
“Your crucifix, Trudy. Where is it?”
Trudy explained about her weekend with Martha, telling the rest about the demons that had attacked them and how she had used her crucifix to ensure that the Ouija board’s ashes would never be used as an active portal for the minions of Hell again. In turn, Pat told her about what had happened up on the hill that night, when that portal had been opened.
The small group talked and planned until the morning shadows were replaced by the direct light of noon in the glade. Then they all bade each other good-bye. Miriam left with Trudy and Pat, while the Spirit and Gabriel disappeared in their usual way and Nick went into his tent for his fishing pole.
The three walked on in silence for a while, as the afternoon began to warm up around them.
Then Pat broke the silence. “Okay, um, Mary? Or Miriam? Which do you prefer?” He wasn’t even sure if he should address her in such common terms after hearing Nick’s way of speaking to her.
Miriam touched his arm. “Go ahead and call me Miriam. It’s what I went by in life, and I’m used to it now.”
“Okay. I’m wondering…okay, this may sound weird…are you living like a…like us? I guess what I’m asking is, do you need a place to stay? Do you sleep?”
Trudy snorted. “Oh, that was clear as mud, Pat.”
Pat gave his sister a look, which Miriam found funny. “You two remind me of my own brothers and sisters.” She laughed. “And, yes, I sleep. I have an apartment.”
Pat grinned, feeling more at ease. “Another question. This will be somewhat clearer, I hope.” He drew a deep breath. “When can we fill Mom in on all of this?”
“You’ll know.” Miriam’s face sobered. “But not right now. Not everyone in your family can be trusted. And because of that, she has enough to deal with right now.”
The siblings nodded, thinking of their dad’s irritated mood lately.
As they approached Pat’s car, Miriam said, “Try not to reveal what you know, and what you’ve heard today. Powerful forces will be massing soon, and you don’t want to give away any hints that you know anything at all. The demons will use your weaknesses to wrest the information from you. Trudy, keep your necklace hidden.”
Trudy slipped the mesh bag into her shirt.
Pat asked Miriam, “So, do you need a ride? I mean, what with you being, uh, who you really are?”
Trudy rolled her eyes.
Miriam laughed again. “Yes, I would appreciate that.”
When Pat and Trudy got back to the house, they were just in time to see Kim and Ned about to leave with Toby.
“No way! You guys are back!” Trudy ran to hug Kim. Then she put a hand on her friend’s swollen belly. “Not long now.” She grinned.
“Not soon enough,” Kim groaned. “I feel like I’m carrying a dozen watermelons.”
Pat swung Toby up into his arms. His little buddy had jumped out of his parents’ car and had run to him. “You were going to leave without saying good-bye?”
Toby burbled happily, then said, “Bye-bye. I come back.”
Kim and Ned just beamed. “The little guy’s grown so much,” Ned exclaimed.
Paramount in the minds of the Bronsons was, You have no idea.
Raphael shimmered nearby. His message was mentally broadcast to Lydia and her children: “He will not show any of his talents until he is grown. I will be here to protect him from the coming battle, but he won’t need me to guard him after that. Not until he is grown, and must take his own place in salvific history. Farewell, my friends.” And he was gone.
Everyone said their good-byes, and Ned pulled the car out of the driveway.
As they made their way into the house, Pat asked, “Where’s Dad? His truck’s here.”
There was a slight hesitance, then Lydia said, without turning, “He’s having a meeting and then drinks with Delilah and Howard. He’ll be home late.”
She quickened her pace, her back stiff, leaving Pat and Trudy behind. She went inside, then straight through the house and into the backyard.
“Uh-oh, they’ve argued,” Trudy said. “Wish I knew why he’s being such a…”
“Beast?” Pat had a distant, worried look on his face. “Yes. I wonder.”
About eleven o’clock, Pat heard an engine idling on the street outside his window. He peered out of his darkened room and watched as his dad got out of a sporty-looking car. Opening his window, he strained to hear what was being said.
His dad shut the car door, said something that Pat couldn’t catch through the open car window, and started to walk toward the house. But a voice from within the vehicle made him stop abruptly. He turned slowly back to face it, shaking his head “no’ in response to whatever the voice had said. He backed away, his feet seeming to make a great effort to do so. The voice in the car became more insistent; her voice took on a resonant timbre.
And suddenly that voice was surrounding Pat, too. He couldn’t make out the words, but it frightened him to the core. It was cold, evil. And it seemed to penetrate the very walls. He put his hands over his ears, but he couldn’t shut the sound out. It caused him to shake with a terror he didn’t understand. But his instincts told him that something evil was happening down there in the yard.
He could only look on helplessly as his father took slow, unwilling steps back toward the vehicle. As he walked, still shaking his head, he rolled up the sleeve of his injured arm. His voice drifted up, faintly:
Pat watched, his heart pounding in fear and confusion, as his dad put his arm inside the car window.
Suddenly, Steve cried out in pain. His knees buckled, and he had to grip the door frame to keep from falling to the ground.
Pat was frozen, helpless. He wanted to run, to get down there and help his dad, but his legs refused to obey him. He was pinned to the spot, helpless in the spell caused by that voice that had surrounded him.
The memory of those welts on his dad’s arm came to mind, and suddenly it all became clear.
And Pat knew, his stomach sick with despair. His Dad was involved with the coming war, just like him and Trudy.
But, willingly or not, he was on the wrong side.