by R. Scott Bolton

CHAPTER TWELVE — June 5, 2015; 4:35pm

Reverend Mother Mary Shelley stacked another can of Del Monte peaches on top of the growing pyramid of canned goods that had been donated to the convent for the homeless. One of the nice things about being in Las Vegas was that there was always leftover food at the casinos and they were more than willing to donate the extra to the cause.

   Mary Shelley stood back and admired her handiwork. There must have been three or four hundred cans in that stack, and yet it was as sturdy and as solid as if they had been glued together. That was by design. It was imperative that none of the cans fell and got dented. She’d seen swollen, botulism-contaminated cans before and knew of the sickness, or worse, they might bring. The last thing she wanted was for her convent to be responsible for the death of one of those less fortunate.

   She topped the growing stack with one more can of pears and gave the tin pyramid a satisfied look of approval. There was enough food in the storage room to last a year, easily. If the rapture suddenly happens, Mary Shelley thought, there will be plenty for those left behind.

   The door opened behind her and Sister Cecilia poked her head in. “Reverend Mother?” she said, “There’s someone here to see you.”

   “Oh? Who?”

   “Someone from the City,” Sister Cecilia said. “Didn’t say what it was regarding.”

   Probably someone looking for one of the homeless, Mary Shelley thought. People from the government, often the police, occasionally stopped with questions about suspected shoplifters or with family members searching for loved ones. It was Mary Shelley’s personal policy to help when she could. Not only did she feel it was beneficial for everyone to weed out the bad eggs, it felt wonderful to reunite someone with their family.

   She took one last glance at the tin can pyramid, brushed her hands together to knock off the dust, and followed Sister Cecelia to the front door. There, a very large man in a black suit stood waiting, a briefcase in one hand and a patient smile plastered on his face. He looked vaguely familiar but Mary Shelley couldn’t place him.

   Alarm bells went off in Mary Shelley’s head. This was not the usual government visit.

   “I am Mother Superior Mary Shelley,” she said, holding out her hand. “How may I help you?”

   The man did not take the offered hand and his patient smile vanished. Mary Shelley’s alarm level increased. “Sister Shelley, my name is Simon Cadabra. I’m with Child Protective Services. I’m here looking for a young girl,” the man said.

   Mary Shelley tried not to let her alarm show through. “It’s Reverend Mother Mary Shelley,” she said. “Who is this girl you’re looking for?”

   “Her name is Anjelica Martinez,” Cadabra said. “She’s about eight years old. Her parents have been on the lam for about four years now. I can’t go into details, but let’s just say the law recently caught up with them. They tell us that they dropped their daughter off here shortly before they skipped town and that’s the last anybody has seen of her. I was wondering if you might have any ideas as to her whereabouts.”

   “Pardon me,” Mary Shelley said. “What did you say your name was?”

   The man smiled politely. “Simon Cadabra,” he said. “With Child Protective Services.”

   “I’m sorry, Mr. Cadabra,” Mary Shelley said. “But there aren’t any children here. And I don’t recognize the name. Martinez, did you say?”

   A man in a stained rock’n’roll t-shirt and tattered blue jeans walked up behind Cadabra and stopped at his right side. Cadabra paid him no attention. Mary Shelley couldn’t see the newcomer’s face but assumed he was one of her homeless drop-ins, stopping by for free soup and bread. A split second later the man’s body odor hit her nostrils and she was certain he had lived on the streets for a very long time.

   “Yes, Martinez,” Cadabra replied, offering yet another friendly smile. “Anjelica Martinez.”

   “No, doesn’t ring a bell,” Mary Shelley said, and was surprised to see yet another man, this one in a dusty and well-worn black suit, step up on Cadabra’s left. The smell of unwashed bodies seemed to intensify but still Cadabra paid them no heed. What are they doing here so early? Mary Shelley thought. Evening meal isn’t served for another hour.

   The alarm bells grew louder. Something was wrong here.

   “You’re sure?” Cadabra asked. “There’s no Anjelica Martinez here?”

   “I’m certain,” Mary Shelley said. “If there had been a child dropped off here, we would have notified the local authorities and they would have taken it from there. I’m afraid Mr. and Mrs. Martinez are fabricating a story.”

   Cadabra pursed his lips and Mary Shelley sensed that he wasn’t buying anything she said, and suddenly there was yet another homeless man standing just behind him, intensifying the moldy odor. Mary Shelley felt her hackles rise. These three men were either spaced out on drugs or mentally incapacitated. They stood silently behind Cadabra, their faces down, simply standing and listening and waiting.

   And, with a burst of adrenaline, she realized that they were with him.

   “I’m sorry you feel that way,” Cadabra said. “Do you mind if I come in, have a look around?”

   “Do you have a warrant?” Mary Shelley said, and realized she’d probably asked that too quickly.

   “Do I need a warrant?” Cadabra asked. “Is there something you’re hiding, Reverend Mother?”

   One of the homeless men looked up briefly, but long enough for Mary Shelley to catch his eyes. There were no pupils visible, the eyes were entirely white, like a boiled egg, and Mary Shelley suddenly realized that what she had been smelling wasn’t unwashed bodies and filthy clothes.

   It was rot.

   Because these men weren’t on drugs or mentally ill. In fact, in all probability, they were dead.

   And, with another warm burst of adrenaline, she realized that this was the moment they had warned her would come. This was the moment they had prepared for throughout the four years since Anjelica had been delivered to them. This was the moment she feared more than anything else in her entire life.

   It was here. It was now.

   And they were ready.

   She took a breath as if to answer Cadabra’s last question and then slammed the door in his face, setting the three deadbolts as quickly as she could. She could hear Cadabra roar with anger and the door shuddered violently as he threw his massive bulk against it. Mary Shelley gave a little cry of fear as the door cracked somewhere with a splintering sound but held … for now.

   “Code Red!” Mary Shelley screamed. “Code Red!” She pried a large crucifix off the wall next to the door, revealing a round, illuminated red button. She slapped it hard with the heel of her hand. Alarm klaxons began blaring and red emergency lights flashed throughout the building and she could hear the others in the convent snapping to attention.

   It was here. And it was now.

   Cadabra hit the door again. He bellowed curses and threats but the door held solid.

   Mary Shelley raced down the hallway and almost crashed into Sister Cecelia as she was bursting out of the laundry room.

   “Is it happening?” Cecilia asked.

   “It’s happening,” Mary Shelley told her.

   “We’re ready,” Cecelia said. Her arm came out of the folds of her habit and revealed a shining MAC-11 sub-compact machine pistol gripped tightly in her hands. The weapon gleamed with well-kept maintenance and sheer determined malignance.

   “We better be,” Mary Shelley said, pushing past her. “Take your post.”

   Cecelia ran back down the hallway toward the front door. Mary Shelley stepped into the laundry, and found Sisters Caterina and Hildegard already inside. As she had been trained, Caterina had pulled the big Kenmore washing machine out of its spot, revealing a hidden cabinet behind it. The cabinet door was wide open and Caterina was passing another MAC-11 to Hildegard who took it, checked it, and turned to exit. She nodded to Mary Shelley and put a hand on her shoulder. “We’re ready,” she said. “We’ll protect her.”

   “I know,” Mary Shelley said. “We must.”

   As Hildegard left the laundry room, Caterina passed Mary Shelley a weapon of her own. Mary Shelley took it, checked it, and said, “Close that up and get to your post. I’ll be with Anjelica.”

   “Understood,” Caterina said, taking the last MAC-11 out of the safe and closing the heavy door with a metal clang.

   Mary Shelley stepped into the hall again, glancing briefly at the front door and listening intently. The klaxons had stopped blaring and it was generally quiet. There was no more pounding at the front door but Mary Shelley didn’t for a moment think that meant this was over. Even if the man at the door—Mr. Cadabra—had given up and gone away (which was unlikely), he, or somebody like him, would be back soon enough.

   Mary Shelley’s only real surprise was that it taken them this long to come for Anjelica.

   There was a sudden shattering of glass and a brief burst of machine-gun fire from the dining room, followed by a blast that shook the walls. Mary Shelley’s heart sank. She envisioned the beautiful, floor-to-ceiling stained-glass window in the dining room now shattered into a million tiny bits and she wondered how Sister Johanna had fared. The dining room was her post. Had she held them back or had she been overrun? There was no time to consider the outcome. Mary Shelley ran toward the chapel, pried open the massive double doors there, and closed them behind her.

   It was the safest room in the building. There were three large stained glass windows on each of the outside walls but they were fifteen feet above ground and made access to the interior difficult. The thick double doors were the only way in or out and Mary Shelley locked them, and then slipped a large wooden bar, kept nearby specifically for this purpose, between the handles. She turned and surveyed the chapel.

   It was empty.

   “Anjelica?” she said aloud. “Honey?”

   There was nothing but silence for a moment but then Mary Shelley heard a tiny, little girl whimper. She glanced at the barred door just as another burst of machine gun fire came from the hallway, followed quickly by another, louder, single blast. And then it was quiet again.

   They were getting closer.

   Mary Shelley ran from the door, up the aisle, past the pews and onto the chapel stage. She dropped behind the dark wooden podium there and pried open the small door in the back.

   Anjelica cried out as the light hit her and began sobbing when she recognized Mary Shelley.

   “It’s okay, honey, we’re okay,” she said. “We’re not going to let them get us.”

   “Who are they?” Anjelica whispered.

   “I don’t know,” Mary Shelley said, and they both flinched as another eruption of machine gun fire clattered nearer than before, closer to the chapel doors, followed again by that single, louder blast.

   A shotgun, Mary Shelley thought fearfully. That sounds like a really big shotgun.

   “You stay in here, honey,” Mary Shelley told Anjelica. “And don’t come out. For anything. You’ll be safe in here, I promise.” She knew her promise was a good one. The podium had been reinforced five years ago with layers of steel and Kevlar so that it was completely and utterly bullet-proof.

   “What about you?” Anjelica asked.

   “I’ll be fine,” Mary Shelley told her. “Don’t you worry about me.”

   The Reverend Mother closed the podium and raced back up the aisle to the main doors. She dove behind the last row of podiums just as a double rake of submachine gun fire burst out near the doors, followed swiftly by a double blast of that alarmingly loud and very final-sounding return fire.

   For a few moments, there was complete silence. Mary Shelley stood slowly and crept cautiously on her tiptoes toward the double doors. She stood beside them, not wanting to make herself a target in case someone had the stupid idea of trying to shoot them down, and put her ear flat against the wall.

   She could hear people moving around out there, but there was no talking, no telling what they were up to.

   Someone tried the doors. Of course, they were locked tight. Suddenly, something banged hard against them. Once, twice, three times. It was the sound of a heavy weapon being slammed against the door. Mary Shelley couldn’t help but wince at each pounding but was confident the doors would hold.

   “Reverend Mother,” said the big voice of Simon Cadabra from the other side of the doors. “Unless you’ve got an army of nuns in there with you, then this is over.” He gave a low chuckle. “And, by my count, you don’t have any nuns left.”

   Mary Shelley hugged the wall behind the doors and held her MAC-11 at the ready.

   “I’m going to give you to the count of ten,” Cadabra said through the doors. “And then my friends and I are going to knock these doors down. And we’re not going to be happy about all the extra work you’ve made us do to get inside. And we’re probably gonna take that frustration out on you. So, just open the doors and we’ll make it nice and easy on you. If you don’t … well, let’s just say it won’t be very easy. It won’t be very easy at all.”

   And then he began counting. “Ten. Nine. Eight.” Loudly. Abrasively. Even if he wasn’t trying to kill me, Mary Shelley thought, I still wouldn’t like this guy.

   “Seven. Six. Five.”

   Mary Shelley lifted her weapon, pressed close against the wall near the double doors.

   “Four,” Cadabra continued, slowing the countdown a bit as he got to three, two and finally, “One.”

   There was a moment of complete and utter silence.

   “All right, Reverend Mother,” Cadabra said at last. “If that’s how you want to play it.”

   And Mary Shelley flinched violently as there was another roaring blast and the doors rattled in their frame and pieces flew off into the pews. Another blast, and more of the doors were ripped away. Mary Shelley envisioned the giant Cadabra standing on the other side, firing what must be a huge shotgun again and again into the wood there. A third blast, then a fourth. And the doors started to give way. A fifth blast and the left door sagged on its hinge. A moment later, a massive hand reached through and pulled the rest of the door out of the way.

   Mary Shelley crouched beside the now ruined doors, weapon at the ready. She braced herself for what she knew was coming next.

   But they were on her before she could react. The three homeless men, dead homeless men, suddenly surged through the ragged remains of the chapel doors and were on her almost instantly. She managed to get off a shot sewed a line of bullet holes across their midriffs, but still they came. They were on her, clawing at her, snatching the MAC-11 away and sending it sailing into the pews. Then they had control of her and held her as Cadabra stepped into the chapel, a monster of a man with a monster of a shotgun, the biggest Mary Shelley had ever seen, ridiculously, comically so, held at his side. Twin streams of smoke snaked from its matching barrels.

   “Hello, Reverend Mother,” Cadabra said. “Where’s the girl?”

   “She’s not here!” Mary Shelley said. “She’s gone. We took her away when we found out you were coming.”

   Cadabra smiled. “You didn’t know we were coming,” he said. “But nice try. Get her to her feet,” he told his drones.

   He stepped deeper into the chapel. “We know where she’s not,” he said. “We searched each of the rooms we came through and we had a few, um … conversations … with your friends out there.” He stopped, turned around in the aisle and looked back at Mary Shelley. “Your former friends, I should say. Your late friends might be even more accurate.”

   He continued toward the stage. “So we know she’s in here,” he said. “And there aren’t a lot of hiding places in this room. So we’ll find her eventually, and I figured we’d let you watch.”

   “Go to Hell,” Mary Shelley spat.

   “That’s the plan,” Cadabra said. He stepped nimbly and somewhat eagerly, Mary Shelley noted, onto the stage. Her heart sputtered as she watched him peer behind curtains, open cabinets, even peek into vases where the girl couldn’t possibly be hiding. Finally, he stepped onto the stage and walked directly to the podium, standing behind it as though poised to give a speech. Mary Shelley’s heart stopped.

   “You know, Reverend Mother, in fact there is only one place this wonderful girl could be hiding. And I believe that the two of us, you and I, know exactly where that is.” He leaned down, groaning mildly with effort, and touched the latch on the podium. From inside came the slightest frightened whimper, and Mary Shelley could see Cadabra’s smile of triumph all the way from the back of the chapel.

   Her eyes were riveted on Cadabra and the podium, but peripherally Mary Shelley caught sight of sudden movement near the remnants of the chapel doors and she winced as a rapid triple blast of gunshots rang out and Cadabra’s drones released their cold, stiff grips and fell away from her. She cried out and her hands jumped up to her face.

   And suddenly, there was a man in the chapel with her, a man in a tan trench coat and a black fedora, and he was walking down the aisle, a handgun held out in front of him, pointing it directly at an obviously startled Cadabra.

   Cadabra blinked. “Who the hell are you?” he asked, caught off guard.

   “Richard Keane,” the man replied. He pulled the trigger twice and put a matching set of black bullet holes right between Cadabra’s wide-set eyes. “Private investigator.”


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