I awoke to the smell of sulfur in the air. It was two A.M. and it was already a hard night's sleep that made my brain Topsy turvy. I opened my eyes to blurred vision, a pounding head, and a lingering shadow that hovered above my bed. A low key whisper protruded through my tingling ears. When I sat up in my bed and turned on the bedside lamp the shadow dissipated into thin air.
I stood, looked around, a .38 S and W already in hand. I found nothing at first. But I heard a rumble in the kitchen and proceeded there. I hit the light switch and something grabbed my hand. I heard a hissing sound and that damned sulfur perfumed the air once more. The shadow reappeared, with it's winged body and over-sized turnip shaped head. I felt hot breath that smelled of rotting corpses on my face.
“Light is not permitted, Chambers.” The shadow said. It knew my name, and wasn't polite enough to give it's own name. My wrist was beginning to ache, this thing had some grip.
“You can let go of me, funny face,” I grunted.
“I heard you had quite a sense of humor.....a human trait that disgusts me.” It's voice seemed to change pitch with each syllable. It was an annoying sound to my ears, a lot like fingernails across a blackboard.
It removed it's kung fu grip from my wrist. Something told me to put the S and W away, it wouldn't do any damage to this creature anyway.
“I'm sure it's not as disgusting as your breath. My guess is your mother never made you brush your teeth...or fangs.” It wasn't a joke it liked at all and showed it by cutting loose a growl that shook the refrigerator.
“If I was here for any other reason--”
“Why are you here, waking me up in the early hours---”
“If you weren't under the protection of G'nal, I would eat your intestines from the inside out!” The appliances shook again. This thing had put me in a bad mood. Yeah, I was in the protection of the Demon G'nal, and whoever this Hell spawn was, he was a lower rank than my protector. Screw it, I was gonna push it to the limits.
“You don't have any power beyond scare tactics. Guess what? I'm not scared.”
It grabbed my arm, the flesh began to simmer, burn. I screamed dropped my gun. Suddenly I was thrown across the room into the living room of my bungalow. My back slammed into the wall, jarring framed photos of loved ones to the floor. I tumbled across the carpet, knocking the T.V. off it's stand.
“Make sure you give this message to Romy Berline, human waste. You have two days before I come for your body and turn it into a pillar of salt.”
I touched my arm, symbols and letters from a strange language had been etched into my flesh. I looked up and the shadow was gone.
I heard footsteps outside my door. There was a faint rapping. Then a muffled voice calling my name. “Pete?” The voice belonged to Maggie Conolly. I was living in the bungalow her rich husband owned. It was an odd relationship, ever since I acquired G'nal as my protector. He allowed my keeping Maggie company and sponging off her, in return he was somewhat protected too. He was a nutcase. Searching the world over for Mystical artifacts for crazy-ass schemes.
I hobbled over to the door, let her in. She looked good as usual, changing her hair to a more red tinge than the chestnut brown. She filled out that robe nicely.
Maggie stole a cigarette from top of my Ross MacDonald book on the coffee table. “Are you alright?” She whispered.
I nodded, reached for the lighter on the coffee table, lit her cigarette. “As well as a guy can be whose been tossed around by a demon.”
Her eyes widened. “G'nal let this happen?”
I moved a couple of picture frames, sat on the couch. Maggie did the same. She sat real close to me. “Yeah, I was wondering why he let this happen. Might be a rank or something.”
“Your arm.....” Maggie examined it. “What is this...burns?”
“This shadow woke me about an half hour ago. He grabbed me, we exchanged words, then....this....burned into my skin. He said to make sure I give this message to Romy Berline.”
“Do you know a Romy Berline?” Maggie's eyes were cool, icy. Jealousy rearranged a beautiful face.
“It is obvious that I had better get to know her....and fast. First I better find out why this Demon picked me out of a host of people that actually know her. Why my so-called protector didn't protect me.”
On the corner of fifth and Warren, Little Jimmy, the paper boy met up with me. I handed him some coins and he flipped a morning paper to me. I opened the paper to the sports section, I wanted to see if the Rams were taking it on the chin again, and damn if they didn't from the Bears. I looked up and the usual busy street had stopped all commotion. The hundred or so that was on that street was sure to suffer some memory loss courtesy of G'nal. He towered over me, his ember eyes glowing in the snowy atmosphere, and those misshaped goat legs looked out of place on concrete sidewalk.
“What the hell happened this morning?” I screamed in the horned bastard' slimy green face. “You didn't protect me like our deal.”
“Already you have given me three souls for the year---you have done well. Four more would solidify the agreement. I have protected you, Master. You are still alive. But you stink of the curse.”
“What curse?” I said nervously.
“You interfered with a Messenger. I believe the smell of this Messenger was on his way to meet another, and you so stupidly got in the way. Any human that receives the message and fails to deliver this message, turns to---”
“A pillar of salt. I heard what it said.”
“Then the directions are clear, your actions pure, no reason you should not achieve satisfactory results, Master.”
“I don't know who Romy Berline is.”
“Neither do I,” Smoke took G'nal away and little Jimmy appeared along with Detective Calvin Hopps, running an errand for the Police commissioner.
Hopps was a tall slender man who smiled way too much to show a line of broken teeth. “They want you, Chambers.”
“Everybody wants me, Hopps.” I snarled. This morning was turning rotten, and by the smell of that, my day would end up the same. We walked and talked, my pace faster than his left leg hop.
“Well, the funny thing, Chambers, is they got a weird body in the morgue. Need you expertise for this case.”
“I'm not the dick you guys are.”
“I'm not at all offended by the double -entendre. No, we've never seen anything like this. I'm telling you. A skinless freak with tattoos everywhere, a language nobody can understand. It keeps changing from that description to a shadowy figure. This thing had been found on 3rd and bottoms, chest split open, and a feather jabbed in it.”
Standing inside the morgue when I arrived, was Hemlock-police commissioner- and Ragdale- Detective Lt. Always happy to see these two, and how strange they were always together.
“How'd you two sleep this morning? I slept horrible,” I chuckled.
Ragdale flew into a fit, bawled up his fists. “I ought to beat you to a pulp! You punk---”
“Ragdale!” Hemlock squealed. “Heel,boy!”
“You know what he was implying---”
“A joke—yes, Ragdale—no matter much in bad taste it was. Just a joke.
What do you make of this, Chambers?” Hemlock pointed to the unusual corpse. Just as I had been informed. The messenger was laying on a slab of concrete in a white room, colder than hell. There was a huge gash in it's chest cavity, the feather buried deep inside. The body couldn't decide to stay solid or change over to shadow—whenever it did so—the lights would flicker. Sulfur was hostile in the air, burned my nose. I explained to them what happened to me this morning. Hemlock just smiled, nodded. Ragdale showed his disbelief by frowning and sputtering words not meant to be understood by actual human beings.
“So this is what disturbed you and gave you the unusual tattoo? I see.” Hemlock said.
“You don't believe him, do you?” Ragdale railed out.
“It doesn't matter what I believe, you bozo! I want this resolved and now! You get help from us, okay, Chambers. Just name it. Solve this problem—no bloodshed of any citizens or my Officers. Understood?”
“Very nice of you, Hemlock. I need Hopps to find out who Romy Berline is and where I can find this person.”
Meanwhile, I visited someone who might be able to decipher this special message. Fred Roos was a guy who used to work for the Museum specializing in old languages, Latin, etc. He was also one of the biggest heroin addicts I've ever known. When he lost his job with the National Museum, I ran a few cons with him. Usually getting rich people to buy phony scrolls from the Roman times. When he lit up, Fred was the best liar I'd ever known. When he wasn't lit up, he was the smartest man I'd ever known. So I brought some smack with me. I couldn't get any on short notice. I showed Fred a baggie of brown sugar, he moved like a cat to snatch it from me and fell on his face to the hardwood floors in his kitchen. He laid there, crying like a newborn babe.
The one room apartment was a mess. Food on dirty dishes in the sink, papers everywhere on the table, clothes hung in the refrigerator.
“Why?” He bawled. “Why did you come here? You devil, you!Why?Why?” He beat his fists on the floor.
“Shut up!” I kicked him in the legs. He cried harder. “I said shut up! You want somebody to call the cops? They come in here and see smack residue everywhere---”
“What do you want?” His voice was muffled from his face hidden in his arms.
“I want you to read something written in an ancient language. You do this for me, I'll give you the smack in my coat pocket.”
Fred leaped to his feet like a spry young man. Fred was sixty-one, short bald and bespectacled. No one would mistake him for an athlete. At that moment, he looked like a Triathlon winner.
“Where is it? This document?” He said quickly, wiping spittle with a handkerchief from his pocket. I showed him my forearm.
He looked at me, stunned. “What have you done to yourself, my boy?”
“I didn't do this to myself, Fred.” I went into what happened. Strangely, Fred was a believer in all things occult.
He examined my arm for sometime. Tracing the letters and symbols burned into my pink flesh. He wrote them down, looked in a couple of books. It took two hours, but old Fred cracked it. He was shaking his head, laughing to himself.
“Spill it, you old geezer. The joke.” I croaked, blew smoke in his face.
“Please, Peter,” He coughed. “This language, you say came from a Demon?”
I shrugged. “Yeah, more or less.”
“It's comprised of several languages. Latin, the main one. German, Spanish. Gaelic. And, I believe,” He looked at what he had written on a cardboard box. “A derivative of Nilo-Saharan -- African.”
“Tell me what the fuckin' thing means, okay.” I had to be rough or he wouldn't deliver the goods.
“It says: Mother of my child---shall have protection in this lifetime and beyond. And then it's signed by a name that is unpronounceable in any Earthly language.”
I shook my head, Shrugged. I gave the baggie to Fred. He greedily took it, turned his back on me and headed for the bedroom. I scampered quickly out the door and down the street before the old fool figured it out I had conned him.
I got as far as twenty second street when a cop car pulled up beside me. “Hopps wants you down at the St. Barris Church. Get in,Chambers.”
I didn't argue. I couldn't wait to see what Hopps had found out.
When I got there, Hopps was standing on the doorstep of this great gothic church. On the columns, it read Established 1879, by Saint Barris. I felt sick to my stomach. My skin was hot, to the point of sizzling. I began to have dry heaves.
“What's wrong with you?” Hopps cried out. I stumbled away from the Church and fell in a snowbank. He followed, knelt beside me.
“Well, Hopps, it seems I can't go anywhere near a Church. I get violently sick.” I told him.
He pushed the brim up of his bowler from his eyes and smirked at me.”That put's a damper on your plans.” He pointed to the Church. “Romy Berline, my friend, is a Nun.”
“Okay. I need you to go in there, ask to see her. Tell her I'm hurt. Tell her someone with a feather struck me down.”
Hopps nodded. “Sit tight. One Nun coming up.”
I felt better in a half hour. But it took an hour or more for Hopps to bring Romy Berline out to me. He got twenty feet from me, and a bright light formed between us. I heard Sister Berline scream, then Hopps screamed. I saw his chest being sliced open like a knife through hot butter. Blood spurted out as if a soda bottle had been shook up before opening it. The expression on Hopps face is one I will never forget. His mouth was a jarred, teeth clenched tight, eyes bulging out. He touched the feather that was thrusting out from his trench coat. He fell in the snow in a pool of red that formed beside his listless body.
I ran to them. The light turned towards me. In an instant, G'nal appeared from a cloud of smoke. There were words from G'nal and a very blond man in a gray suit with a white rose in his lapel. He was standing bare foot in the snow that melted from his touch and green grass began to grow immediately.
“Please,” Sister Berline wept as she tended to Hopps. “I beg of you, end this. No more bloodshed. Please, in the name of our Lord and the Father. Please....”
G'nal and the man in the gray suit were locked in an eye to eye game of standoff. The man smiled, plucked his white rose from his lapel and handed it to Sister Berline. She graciously accepted it. The man turned from us, wings had sprouted from his back. A bright light consumed him, and he was gone. So was G'nal.
After they came and took Hopps body away, and Ragdale and Hemlock screamed at me. I asked Sister Berline to sit with me at a coffee house. We ordered nothing, nothing was said for the longest time.
“I didn't intend for this to happen. This...chaos.” She had intense gray-blue eyes. I wondered what she looked like underneath her Nun get-up. “I was in the basement of the Church. I found an old book, began reading something I knew I wasn't suppose to delve into. Apparently I called out an ancient creature known as a Messenger. The Greeks and Arabs often wrote of these creatures created by God---not Evil—not good—to bring messages to us—in many forms. I saw not it's true form, but it's human form. I ….did something..was doing...something I shouldn't have done....i fell in love.”
She broke down. Tears streamed down her rosy cheeks. She was touching her belly with her hands, rubbing gently. I reached out, took her hand. There was jolt through both of our bodies. When I reopened my eyes, the message was gone from my arm.
We looked at each other. Nodded. I stood and walked out of the coffee house, never to see or hear from Romy Berline again.