Applegate Bogdanski returns from Vietnam with a missing leg, a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. A fair trade, he thinks, for a coward. He stumbles through each drug-besotted day working at an obscure Newark, New Jersey bookstore. Enter Angela, who claims to be his guardian angel. Neither one is an angel, but together, they uncover a conspiracy which threatens to undo humankind itself.
The Prudential Building, Newark, New Jersey, 1975
Jason tucked in his shirt and ran his stubby fingers through the graying remains of what had once been jet-black hair. He bent forward to take a closer look at his distorted reflection on the smooth office-door window. A mosaic of a shadow danced across the opalescent glass. He backed up as the door handle turned.
A woman stepped inside, forcing him to take a step back. She held her head high, an unnecessary affectation because she stood a full half-foot taller than him. Dark eyes with dilated pupils darted from him to the room beyond. Her oval face was framed by a tight black coif with a solitary strand nearly covering one eye, giving Jason the unsettling impression that she was a pirate. A single silver earring took the image further.
She sniffed the air. “And you are?”
“Like it says on the door, miss, MacKenzie Investigations. I’m Jason MacKenzie. My secretary, Viola, she’s not in yet. Who might you be?”
She looked familiar, but his sleep-deprived brain spun in place and couldn’t find her name.
She pointed to Viola’s visitor settee. “May I sit here?”
She sat, crossing her legs and giving her tight black miniskirt a tug. Jason leaned back against the edge of Viola’s desk.
He coughed to clear his throat. “How can I help you? Do I know you?”
“I doubt you know who I am, and it’s of no importance. However, you can help me.”
“Are you sure you’re in the right place, miss?” Jason was sure he had no clients scheduled this early in the morning.
She nodded at the inner door. “That is your office?”
“Yeah, but we can’t go in. There’s broken ceramic on the floor. I dropped my coffee cup—”
She marched inside. Jason shuffled after her. An odd scent wafted into his sinuses, a mixture of flowers and something else—oil? He heard her stilettos crunch their way around his desk. When he caught up, she pirouetted, taking time to give the room a complete three-sixty.
“Please watch your step, miss. What are you here for?”
She strode to his desk chair and sat.
“Suit yourself.” He pulled up a chair from the corner to face her, waiting for an explanation, wondering if it would ever come.
She ran a finger along an exposed page atop an open folder.
“Hey, that’s confidential business. If you don’t tell me why you’re here, I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to leave.”
She reached into her oversized patent-leather purse and pulled out a manila envelope. A black-and-white eight-by-ten glossy slid out onto the desk. “I believe you know why I am here.”
Jason stiffened. “That picture… that picture doesn’t belong to you.”
“I’ve come for the rest. There must be more, and don’t forget the negatives.”
“Did the monsignor send you?” His voice shook. Only the monsignor knew about the pictures. “I thought he was coming here himself… with the money.”
“Money? He didn’t say anything about money.”
“That was our agreement. These pictures prove the monsignor’s suspicions.”
“Oh? And what were they?”
Jason knew he had said too much, but there was something about the woman that made it hard to keep quiet. “I can’t tell you. That’s between the monsignor and me.”
Her smile sent ice-cold fingers tapping across his abdomen. “Oh, didn’t you hear? Monsignor Touhy passed away this morning—something to do with his heart, I believe.” Her teeth, gleaming white, seemed to erupt from her crimson lips. “Where are they, Jason?”
Jason began to tremble as she rose from his chair. “You’re the one… with the cardinal in the photos.” He stood, teetered, then braced himself on the desk with both hands. “There aren’t any other pictures. My deal was with the monsignor.”
“Perhaps you don’t understand.”
Jason saw only a blur—a brief passing of a shadow between them. Something moved on the desk—a pear rolled out of his lunch bag and split into two halves, the freshly cut pieces see-sawing.
“How did you do that?” Jason’s eyes were locked on the rocking fruit. His bowels started to quiver.
The pitch of her voice descended. “Where are the negatives?”
“Your stupid magic trick doesn’t scare me, and you can tell your cardinal boyfriend to screw off. If the monsignor is really dead, I’ll be going to the press. That’s what he’d want me to do. Now scram.” Jason edged toward the door.
A sharp pain stabbed at his right hand. He jerked it up, leaving a trail of bright-red oval droplets along the doorjamb. His eyes widened. The tip of his right forefinger was gone. Squealing half in anger and half in terror, he pinched the bloody stub with his other hand.
“Bitch! What the hell?” His eyes darted to his desk. The Smith and Wesson might as well have been a thousand miles away. He didn’t see a knife. His knees began shaking.
“Jason, calm down. Tell me where the negatives are, and this unpleasantness will end.” She held up his fingertip, wiggled it at him, and tossed it into her mouth.
“Son of a bitch.” Jason ran into Viola’s office. Surely there would be someone in the hallway. Several paces short of the door, his head lurched forward. His hands flailed at his neck. He was lifted off his feet and dragged back.
A button popped off as his collar cut into his neck so deep he couldn’t breathe. The edge of his desk dug into his spine, firing off a jolt of agony through his thighs to his toes. He heard his phone crash on the floor as she stretched him out atop the desk. He reached back with his hands, hoping to break her grip. He gasped and sputtered, straining to get air back into his lungs. The blood from his finger ran across his chin. A murky curtain lowered over his vision.
A moment later, he was seated at his desk, slumped over with his head resting on the blotter.
A man’s voice. Jason straightened up. A blur wavered before him.
“I told you… “ Jason swallowed as a figure emerged.
For some reason, he expected something very different, something out of a nightmare. Instead, a very familiar individual stood before him.
“Monsignor Touhy. It’s you. And you’re alive.”
The cassocked figure came into focus. “Of course. Why wouldn’t I be?”
“I was told… I mean…” Jason wasn’t sure why he’d had such an odd thought.
“When I came in, you were asleep. Perhaps a bad dream?”
Jason held his head in both hands—his intact hands. “A whopper, Monsignor. I must have dozed off.”
The monsignor sat across from him. “I received the photo. It would appear my suspicions were correct.” He sagged into the chair and brought up the picture to the light. “The cardinal and a woman… in his private office.”
“Any idea who she is?” Jason felt a twinge and rubbed his fingertip. The woman in the photo seemed to be staring at him. The dark hair, the oversized bangs—he knew the woman.
“She isn’t relevant. The cardinal is a disgrace. The Church needs to be informed. Cardinal Michaels will be forced to step down.” Monsignor Touhy placed the photo back in its envelope. “Now, what about the negatives? Surely you took more photographs?”
Jason fought down a sudden urge to run. He couldn’t understand why he was so nervous. “Actually, that’s the only one that came out in focus. The negative isn’t here.”
The barest hint of a grimace flashed across the monsignor’s narrow face as he prodded Jason with a raised chin.
“It’s no problem, Monsignor. I can get it for you.”
“But I must have it now.”
Jason jumped at the staccato delivery. His finger began throbbing.
The monsignor relaxed his mouth and smiled. “Sorry about that. I am meeting with the diocese office this morning. That is the reason for my insistence. I was hoping to show them the proof of his promiscuity—his breach of a sacred oath.”
“When I didn’t hear back from you right away, I put it in a book and gave that to a friend of mine to hold onto—Saul Wharton. Maybe you know him. He’s the owner of Wharton’s Books near the train station. I figured until we had a chance to meet, that would be a safer hiding place than this office.”
Monsignor Touhy stood. “Yes, I know the store. I think our little conversation has come to an end.”
At fifteen floors up, the morning sun bore through the window blinds, sending bars of light across the desk and bright stripes over the monsignor’s black cassock. The striations blurred and reformed as if painted onto a moving canvas. Jason watched the light show with mild interest as his body floated above the monsignor and wafted back down onto the surface of the desk like a gently settling autumn leaf. He tried to sit up, but his legs were numb, and his body seemed distant and disconnected. He shut his eyes tight, wishing it were a nightmare and hoping to wake
His eyes snapped open, and his heart stuttered. The face of an angel stared down at him with bright, smiling eyes. Her mouth twisted into a grin. She was the cardinal’s bitch and something more, something that made his stomach turn. Her bangs moved aside, and he saw himself reflected in her enlarged black pupils. Her lips parted to reveal a long, thin tongue. When a silver earring came into view, Jason screamed.
Arthur has authored 100+ scientific publications, invented novel 3D drug design software, and shares the 2008 Thomas Alva Edison Patent Award for the discovery of Sprycel, a new anti-cancer drug. He writes hard science fiction, fantasy and horror.
His debut novel, Algorithm, which is a story about DNA and the purpose of humanity, garnered a 2010 Royal Palm Literary Award (RPLA) and was published by E-Lit Books in October, 2014. His second novel, As Wings Unfurl, a story of guardian angels that are not angels, forbidden love, and the secret fate of humankind, took 1st place as best pre-published science fiction novel of the year at the 2014 RPLA competition. As Wings Unfurl was published in 2016 by Red Adept Publishing. Many of his short stories have been honored as finalists in RPLA competitions, as well as achieving Honorable Mentions in the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contests. His current project is Henry The Last, a story about the last creature with a human brain, and what it means to be human in a post-apocalyptic world where nothing is what it seems to be. Henry The Last was recently honored with a 2nd place 2016 RPLA.
He lives in Florida with his wife Lidia, teaches college chemistry and happily wanders the beaches when not jousting with aliens.