Halloween Ghost Story Contest -- 2016
Adult Winners

Third Place

Our third place Adult winner is Leonard Varasano of Sea Bright, NJ. Mr. Varasano also won this contest in 2013, 2012, and 2011, making him among the very few who have managed to win this contest four times.

Hell's Kitchen

Leonard Varasano

He who has faith has hope —
He who has hope has everything

September 20, 1918 — Northwestern France

High above the Meuse-Argonne front, swift moving clouds parted every few moments, allowing the full moon to cast its glow upon hundreds of soldiers' bodies, rigid in bold relief; each corpse shaped by the awful throes of violent death, lying strewn across the cratered terrain of the No Man's Land, bounded without visible end by barbed wire and furrowed trenches. The corpses were a tribute to the unerring savagery of the machine gun fire dispensed whenever a field commander, often a class-ridden and backward-looking general, would put his faith in an Over the Top attack from the relative safety of the rear guard. As a result, the foremost troughs were gore laden ditches filled with the moans of the dying, those men wounded above but able to crawl or be dragged out of the hail of ceaseless gunfire to their final resting place.

Suddenly, salvo blasts shot toward the Allied front; multiple barrages emanating from an unconventional ordnance source, spewing a unique, muffled PFFFT-ing staccato. The ensuing, evil-looking veil of white fog emanating from the discharged gas canisters crept forth, goaded by the westerly wind with impending, certain finality. Within moments the first Allied trench was breached by the phosgene gas, and men cried out in agony only to be choked into quick and lasting silence.

One young American soldier, large for his age but still more a boy than a man, assigned to a field Dressing Station for the wounded, saw what was happening and helped his grievously injured Allied brothers, comprised mostly of American and French combatants with a smattering of English and Scots, to don their gas masks as the pale cloud wafted ever closer. Finally, he pulled on his own mask just as the cloud curled downwards into the trench. Stepping up a ladder he risked a peek over the top into the No Man's Land and gasped as he saw dozens of shadowy figures advancing in silence with gas masks and bayonets affixed to rifles, as the full moon betrayed their advance through another brief parting of the cloud cover.

Grabbing a Browning from the arms locker, affixing a bayonet and racking the weapon live, he vaulted over the top just as the moon disappeared once more and unleashed a fully automatic hail of death at the enemy, screaming into his gas mask with all of the fury coursing through his veins until he was out of ammo. Charging with great valor into the lop-sided melee, the body count surrounding him quickly grew larger by two as he used the bayonet to skewer those within his reach.

But the score of enemies remaining were battle scarred rogues with murderous hearts. They opened fire into the blinding cloud at the point where they last saw the muzzle flash of their Allied assailant, but he'd outguessed them and dove behind a calvaire, a monumental roadside Crucifix laden with icons of faith, found throughout Europe, which somehow had survived the bombardments and gunfire that had leveled nearly everything else surrounding it for miles.

As a volley of bullets exploded upon the calvaire's stone base, the young soldier felt death at hand and prayed to be forgiven for his earthly sins, particularly for the existing thought of falling upon his knife blade to prevent capture. Yet, as the German soldiers closed in to finish him off, a flash of light burst forth amongst them within the poisoned fog as an illumined, dynamic figure had manifested, brandishing a radiant blade, wielded with mystical swiftness and laced with an arcing, hacking precision, dropping the soldiers in their tracks with a buzzing whirr every time contact was made. With the soldiers all fallen, the figure moved upon another glowing entity in close proximity to the rear of the dead Germans, not nearly as bright but with a greater physical mass than any man, and a series of intense shrieks and war-cries ensued, filling the air with the passion of fierce battle, merged with the clash of unearthly steel.

Several long moments had passed when silence reigned once more and the young soldier risked a glance from his hiding place, first glimpsing the smoldering corpses surrounding the base of the calvaire, his eyes then drawn to the smaller, gleaming figure standing in conquest over an immense, prostrate adversary, and as its blade swung downwards, an astonishingly bright light flashed like sunlight, and with contact both beings quickly dissipated into the surrounding haze.

Now, all had grown quiet in the No Man's Land, save the young soldier's muffled prayer of thanks uttered softly within the confines of his gas mask.

April 29th, 1925 — New York City

Another night and another nightmare as the roiling mass of a black robed, hooded mob surged toward a quivering, solitary, nearly naked figure of a boy with hands tied behind his back, hanging upside down from a rope wrapped around his bare feet before the backdrop of a life- sized, inverted Crucifix; the unearthly faces turned upwards in hideous anticipation when suddenly a solitary hand reached up from the horde with a gleaming dagger, slicing the throat of the wretched figure; the blood torrent spurting down their gaping maws. After several long moments a towering, demonic figure appeared from beneath the mob, pushing its way below the deluge, opening its massive jaws and absorbing the remaining gush of the crimson stream...

Vaulting awake, Sean Murphy heard the church bell far in the distance sounding forth, barely audible through the closed bedroom window, finally stopping after the 13th toll. Glancing at the alarm clock he saw it was a few minutes past 3:00 a.m. "Good God," he whispered, trying to shake off his horrid dream as he turned towards his pregnant wife Gracie , still slumbering in the darkness. He tried to go back to sleep but it was futile, so he laid back down, staring off into the night.

Later that morning, after buttoning down his double-breasted police coat, Sean flicked a whisk broom at some lint only he would ever notice and after a quick look in the bathroom mirror, decided he'd pass roll call inspection. He glanced in upon his wife still asleep, bending down and kissing her cheek, eliciting a drowsy smile. "I'll make you some coffee, Sean."

"Oh no you won' stay right here." He kissed her once more and left their apartment, walking eight blocks through the dark streets of New York's Hell's Kitchen to the 18th Precinct.

The precinct briefing room was buzzing with uniformed cops by the time the shift commander strolled in. Someone called out "Atten-HUT" and the men broke into two rows and stood at attention as white-haired Sergeant Joe Dolan walked slowly by, sizing each of them up and down, loudly pointing out shortcomings in his heavy Irish brogue which elicited muffled laughs from the rank and file, in response to the likes of "Looks like you shined them shoes with a Hershey bar!", and "Jay-sus, did you use that badge to stir your soup?". Linty coats or just plain slovenliness also caught his witty ire.

Nearly everyone in this part of Hell's Kitchen had an Irish brogue to some degree, but those born in the old country like Joe Dolan maintained the most pronounced of all.

But as he approached Sean Murphy, Dolan nodded and gestured for all to see. "Take note what a police officer is supposed to look like." There were a few jeers, whistles and references to "Bowie Boy", alluding to Sean's supposed backup weapon of choice he was rumored to carry, but the young officer remained unflinchingly at attention, even when Dolan gave him a small, attaboy wink.

The inspection now over, the room grew somber as Dolan took his position behind the lectern. "Another child's gone missing...a young boy simply vanished yesterday in broad daylight. I'm passing around his photo...luckily his little sister had one to spare. Keep your eyes peeled during your tour of duty, especially the dumps and garbage piles where most of the other bodies have surfaced. "

The black and white photo made its way around the room. Some of the cops studied the image of a young boy and girl while others barely gave a passing glance. When it finally reached Sean his eyes narrowed. "I know these kids," he whispered to the man next to him. "Just saw them yesterday."

"You know that boy, Sean?" the sergeant called out. "Yes sir, I do...the girl too."
"See me after briefing...I've an assignment for you." "Yes sir!"

As the cops filed out of the briefing room, Sean approached the lectern. The sergeant looked up. "Ah...Sean. That was some fight the other night."

Sean winced and rubbed his jaw for effect. "He was a tough man...painted me good."

"Aye...but you painted him better when you put him to sleep. That's why you're still our NYPD heavyweight champion. Listen, while you're making your rounds today lad, I want you to rattle some cages, maybe visit a speakeasy or two and see what you can develop on this newest disappearance. I don't think the detectives have much, if anything, on this or any of the other cases."

Sean's eyes narrowed. "Well that's a bit funny...I'll tell you something Sergeant. I've been tracking a few things myself. Do you want to hear?"

Simultaneously intrigued and impressed, the sergeant nodded. "Absolutely."

"Well...first, the day after all of these disappearances...early the following morning at around 3:00, a church bell sounds far in the distance, tolling 13 times."

The sergeant was incredulous. "How do you know about this church bell?"

"I've heard it every time, wakes me."

"Have you told anyone about this, lad?"

"I started to tell Lonegan but he brushed me off before I finished speaking."

"Well...what do you expect from a horse's arse? Let's see what happens today on your rounds. I'll be sure that someone with authority hears what you have to say about this."

Sean waved a hand. "There's more."

"Tell me, lad."

"Without going into great detail, I asked my priest about the significance of 3:00 a.m. He told me the dark side considers that time as a ritual mocking of the know...Jesus died at 3:00 in the afternoon."

"The ‘dark side'?"
"Yes...those who worship Satan."

"Jaysus, is there more?" His bushy eyebrows now furrows of intensity, Dolan's expression grew darker by the moment.

"Actually, there is. The bodies have all been found in a rubbish heap with their throats slashed, exsanguinated. Dating back to Biblical times, sacrificial victims often were disposed of in that manner, deprived of burial, another sign of an affront to God. And the bodies of the victims, once plotted on a city map, are clearly forming into the shape of a pentagram...right here in Hell's Kitchen."

Dolan shook his head. "How long have you known about all of this?"

"I only spoke to my priest a few days ago about the significance of 3:00 a.m. But as far as the bell tolling, I've been hearing that since the disappearances started. The other aspects of satanic ritual I've researched on my own."

Dolan patted Sean on the shoulder. "Good work, Sean. Report back to me after your tour, let me know what else you find out."

"Yes sir." Sean didn't mention the dreams.

A few minutes later Sean was on foot patrol near West 38th Street at 9th Avenue, the post he normally manned, an area closed to street traffic also known as Market Central. Many of the open cart vendors already were selling goods as others were setting up shop for the day. Sean's first order of business was checking that each callbox on his beat was operating. As mundane as this task was, its importance could not be overstated, as the boxes were his only readily available access to the precinct.

Between boxes he nodded to the organ grinder as the man shared a banana breakfast with his capuchin monkey.

As he approached the third callbox in his grid he saw Francie at her small, portable table selling pencils and flowers. Sean had grown quite fond of the child though he loathed her father, a  drunken bum who put his children to work so he could sit at the bar and drink himself stupid all day. And now Francie was all alone, as it was her brother who had gone missing yesterday.

"Hello there, Francie. I'll have my usual, if you please."

The young girl beamed up at Sean, clearly glad to see him. "Hi, Officer Sean!" She took two pencils from a canister and two daisies from a vase.

Sean smiled. "I'll tell you what. Would you hold everything for me until the end of my shift? I'll be back for my goods then." Sean plinked down a silver dime. He rarely retrieved what he bought from the girl except for a flower to bring home to his wife.

"Sure, Officer Sean."

"There's just one thing though...I'd like for you to wear one of these blossoms in your hair." Francie smiled wider as Sean continued on with his daily routine of affixing a flower to her tresses, but it was then that he noticed a fresh bruise on the left side of her face. His look turned serious. "What happened to your face, Francie?"

The girl's smile vanished and she had much difficulty looking Sean in the eyes, which had grown fiery and menacing, though certainly not directed at the child. "I fell down this morning." She stared at the ground.

Sean knew what had happened was from no fall. "All right then, child. Tell me this, when was the last time you saw your brother Luke yesterday?"

Francie's eyes flicked up to Sean before turning down again. "Well, it was just before we were getting ready to close down for the night. He wandered off a bit towards 10th... I saw him talking to a man with a walking stick and then I didn't see him again."

"Walking stick like a blind man would use...or the kind a high falutin' fellow would carry?" "Aye...maybe a blind man...but I didn't get a good look at him...the street was too crowded." Sean nodded. "All right then. Tell me, where might your father be this morning?"
Francie blinked back tears. "I really did fall down...I really did!"

"Oh...I know that, child. I just need to speak with him about Luke." Sean admired the girl's character in protecting her worthless father, who had no integrity at all.

"He's probably at Bub's."

Sean kept a straight face at the mention of the notorious drunkard's paradise, opened now even in the wee hours after sunrise. "All right Francie, I'm going to make my rounds and I'll be back to see you in a bit."

A small smile returned as Francie nodded. "All right, Officer Sean." Yet, her eyes were sad, for she knew Sean was still likely to kick her father's arse.

Sean noticed that most of the street vendors were now in place: the fruit and vegetable stands; the vendor pouring ice chips over a barrow of fresh fish; clothing for all ages and genders and a myriad of household goods. Long-dressed women, both with and without baby carriages comprised the bulk of the customers, though many of these ladies tended to stay in close proximity to Sean due to his infallible ability to repel the assortment of hoods, thugs and con men who tended to show their faces on the streets later in the day. Of course, his confident stride, manly looks and easy grin were an attraction too, for he could have been the poster boy for the artist who wrote the tune When Irish Eyes are Smiling.

Sean made his way to an alley a few blocks from Francie's cart. He stopped at the door beneath the hanging sign marked BUB'S, took a deep breath then went inside. The dark, smoke-filled room reeked of spilled booze with a hint of puke yet surprisingly, there wasn't an empty seat at the bar as all the heads swiveled and squinted towards Sean's imposing silhouette framed in the doorway.

"Here's trouble..." one man muttered as Sean made his way inside, honing in on Francie's father.

"I'll have a word with you, Nolan...outside." Sean stood behind the man while keeping his eyes on the rest of the motley group. "First man off his stool gets his face smacked off his head."

"To what do I owe this displeasure, Murphy? Can't a man enjoy his breakfast in peace?"
"I'd think that a man whose son has gone missing would want to speak with a police officer." "'d be thinking wrong."

Another man piped in. "Why don't you get lost, Murphy. You're not wanted here." Others grunted their assent, but Sean was having none of it, and they were experienced enough to recognize the fierce look in this officer's eyes meant that they should not leave their seats. Prior dealings had taught them that tangling with the reigning NYPD heavyweight boxing champion was simply not in their best interests.

"Nolan, you get up on your own or I'll drag you out of here."

"I don't think..." Nolan was cut off mid-sentence as Sean made good on his word, grabbing him by the collar and seat of his pants and bum rushing him towards the alley door. Once outside Nolan was heaved into a pile of metal trash cans and wound up sprawled out on the fetid ground. "Get on your feet!" Sean commanded Nolan, who stood slowly as one expecting an added thumping for good measure. But Sean held off on that, for now.

"First your wife disappears...then your son and you're in this dump drinking swill the morning after he vanishes." Sean looked the man up and down. "And where did the likes of you get these expensive clothes and shoes? From the toil of your children while you drink your life away?"

Nolan sneered. "I got a deal...shouldn't be a concern of yours." Given his predicament it was the utterly wrong response, and Sean's backhand sent him flying into the metal cans once more.

"Who was the man with the walking stick talking to Luke yesterday?"

Nolan's eyes moved back and forth as he tried to think of an answer. "I...I don't know. I already told the detectives that."

"You're a liar." Sean lifted Nolan off the ground by the collar and shoved him into the wall. "Tell me what you know and I'll go easy on you." Sean noted Nolan's left earlobe was pierced but said nothing about it.

Nolan now exuded fear. "I mean...I don't know his name. By his description, he's like one of many who wander through the market."

"Did you tell the detectives that?" Sean tightened his grip on the collar and Nolan squirmed.

"I did...I did! Come on man, you're choking me!" Nolan's eyes were wide with fear and pain while Sean's remained furious blue slits. "If I find out you're lying to me...this'll look like kisses from a broad." Slamming Nolan into the wall once more, Sean heard the tingle of metal and reached into the man's outer pocket, pulling out a leather moneybag of coins. Sean looked within and grimaced, shaking the bag for sound effect. "You must have twenty-five, maybe thirty dollars in here. Where did you get this money?"

Nolan stammered for an answer. "I've... ah...been saving for quite a while now..."

"You're lying and you're no good at it." Sean tossed the bag back to Nolan, whose eyes lit with greed as he caught it with his right hand. But Sean wasn't done with him.

"I saw Francie want to tell me what happened to her face?"

Nolan's greedy thrill was short lived when he saw Sean's glare had intensified. ‘She fell down...didn't she tell you that?"

"Actually, she did." Sean turned away and Nolan breathed a premature sigh of relief. He never saw Sean's open hand as it cracked him on the same spot where Francie had been injured. As Nolan dropped to the ground his bag of silver dollars spilled open. Sean stood over him for a long moment, eyeing the money.

"Aye. That's about thirty dollars," Sean said as he turned and ambled away.

Returning to his beat at the street market, Sean smiled at a group of giggling kids as the tethered monkey held out its tiny bellhop hat towards them for pennies while the tune The Sidewalks of New York filled the air from the organ grinder cranking his wheeled instrument. Sean quickly noticed the signal light flashing above his callbox, which he unlocked and grabbed the phone receiver. "Murphy here."

"Murphy...8th Avenue off of West 43rd Street, there's a man on the roof of a seven floor walkup threatening to jump."

"Got it, on my way. In the meantime why don't you dispatch an know...we'll need it one way or the other. And be sure to tell them no sirens!"

"You bet, Murph."

Sean hung up the receiver and relocked the callbox. Double-timing his way to 8th Avenue, he saw the crowd gathered on the street beneath the solitary figure perched on the roof some 70 feet above the pavement. As he approached the shouts of "Jump... Jump!" were plainly audible from the crowd, and he bulled his way into the mob.

"Enough of that! I know all of your faces and if this man jumps, I'll be paying each of you a visit, one at a time." The boys and men responsible for the shouts turned sheepish with Sean's presence, melting back into the crowd like the true cowards they were. Sean addressed the rest of the people, gesturing with both arms in a horizontal sweeping motion. "Everyone get back NOW...just in case I can't talk him down."

Sean entered the building and made it to the roof in short order. A bit winded from the stairs, he slowly approached the jumper, making enough noise so the man heard him but not enough to startle. "Hey fella, what are you up to?" he asked softly, recognizing the small, damaged torso of a tortured soul even before the man turned towards Sean, who hadn't seen a face like that close up since the savagery of the Argonne Front: half shot off, the gaping eye socket; tears streaming down the half that remained. "Sorry Officer...I hope my face doesn't disgust you."

Sean had seen the young man before from a distance, in the shadows of the alleys. "Don't worry about me. What is it I can do for you?"

"Just leave me be."

Sean eyed the distance between them and knew he wasn't yet close enough to grab the man if he decided to jump. "You night on the Argonne Front...I really believed I wasn't going to make it home...the thought crossed my mind prevent capture and a quick execution...or worse."

"It would have been better for me if I hadn't come home," the man stammered. "Now that's not true."

"Isn't it? I scare little kids...teens throw rocks at me while women run away...I have no friends and no one will hire me...even for the most menial work...what kind of life is that?" The man wept softly.

Sean edged a bit closer. "Well...I need friends know...someone who can relate to what we went through over there. What do you say, and I can tip back a few cold ones at the Veteran's Club."

"They didn't want me in there...told me to get lost." He leaned closer to the edge.

"Well I'll personally guarantee you that won't be happening again. What's your name?"

The man turned towards Sean. "I'm...M...M...Michael."

"Sean's my name." Reaching out his hand he edged closer and Michael turned towards the street and then back again. "You're just saying all this so I won't jump."

"I don't lie, Michael. Please..." Sean implored with genuine empathy. "Please shake my hand."

Michael reached towards Sean and the two men shook hands. Sean guided him away from the ledge, his arm around the man's shoulder, and they made their way down the stairs to the sidewalk. Michael limped slowly, able to take but one stair at a time and the descent took longer than normal.

The crowd grew silent when the pair emerged, and Sean walked Michael to the ambulance now parked curbside. "Hey fella, would you take us to the VA clinic," Sean said to the driver. He turned to Michael. "I did tell you a small fib up on the roof, Michael."

"You did? About what?"

"About lying...I enlisted when I was 15...big for my age I was and they believed me when I told them I was 18."

Michael smiled a half grin and the two men shared a silent laugh.

At the VA clinic, Sean phoned in to the precinct to advise his location and then met with the haughty physician in charge. Sean quickly haggled for Michael to immediately receive a prosthetic mask. Citing regulations, the doctor inquired about the status of Michael's service voucher and also, where he'd been for the last seven years, but Sean talked him down with Michael out of earshot, being examined by a nurse. "Doctor, he doesn't have a voucher with him...and I can't account for his last seven years... but... in God's name... are you really going to allow him to walk out of here with his face looking like that?!" Sean gestured through the examination room window and the doctor slowly shook his head, shamed into doing the right thing by the big Irish cop.

A while later, in the adjoining room, Michael eyed himself in the mirror, not really liking the mask but realizing it was far less ghastly than the alternative. "What do you think?" he asked the young nurse, who nodded her head while barely holding back tears. "I think it looks fine, Michael. We'll see about some sunglasses for you, and a walking stick."

Sean walked in and nodded first to the nurse and then Michael. "Looks good! I have to get back to my post, Michael. We'll talk later on, all right?"

Michael stood and held out his hand. "Thank you for everything, Sean."

Sean shook his hand. "You're welcome...We'll see about getting you a fedora too...what do you say?"

Michael nodded with his half grin once more.

Sean made it back to his beat and saw the call light flashing again. He opened the callbox and answered the phone. "Murphy here...just got back."

"Murph...down near the dock...still unidentified but sounds like that kid's body turned up in a trash heap."

Sean looked and saw Francie still at her cart, talking to a woman customer. "All right. I'm on my way. How about the detectives?"

"They're en route too."

Grim-faced, Sean hung up and closed the callbox. Glancing back at Francie Nolan once more, he then headed east towards the docks.

A few minutes later he arrived near the water and approached a small crowd that had gathered. The people were solemn, silently pointing to where Sean needed to go. As he approached the smoldering trash heap he saw first the contour of the savaged body and then Luke Nolan's face, frozen in the throes of horror from his last moments; streaked with rivulets of dried blood which had poured from the huge neck wound that had slashed his throat from ear to ear. His wrists and ankles still bore furrowed ligature marks from the rope when he'd been hanged upside down to facilitate the blood flow. He was clothed in a shear white, blood- spattered shroud.

Sean had seen plenty of death on the battle lines of the war front but this, involving a young child troubled him deeply, and his face could not at all conceal this fact. One by one he canvassed the people present if any had seen how the body was placed here but no one offered information. He heard a car approaching and saw two detectives had arrived. Then he saw one of them was Lonegan and his sadness shifted to ire.

As Lonegan and Sean eyed one another with mutual distaste, the detective gestured for his partner to take photos of the body. "Whattaya got so far, Murphy?"

"It's the Nolan boy... throat's been cut... ligature marks on the wrists and ankles." "You know this kid?"

"Yeah... I spoke with the father earlier. Claimed he didn't know anything about the boy's disappearance. When I found him this morning at Bub's, he was already hugging the bar, half lit." Sean noticed Lonegan's arrogant expression and felt like punching him in the face. Everyone knew the only reason Lonegan had made it to the detective bureau was that his father was Chief of Personnel and chummy with the Police Commissioner. The nepotism was bad enough, but Lonegan's snooty, conceited demeanor, conveying his contempt to be in the presence of inferiors, whom he deemed everyone else to be was utterly intolerable.

Lonegan nodded. "I see." He strolled over towards the body and whispered to the photographer.

Sean gestured towards the derelict warehouses nearby encompassing much of the waterfront, stretching inland for several blocks, noticing a decrepit steeple with a missing cross he'd never noticed before in the mix of structures. "Might be worth a canvas," Sean gestured toward the buildings. Lonegan looked in his direction, smirking. "Maybe...but not today."

Sean thought it strange the detective wouldn't at least want the adjacent buildings searched. "Could be someone in one of these who saw or knows something...maybe a clue about the assailant."

Lonegan smirked towards Sean. "Listen...we've got this covered. You can head back to your beat. But if I need a door kicked in later you'll be the first to know." As he turned his back on Sean, the big cop noticed Lonegan's left earlobe was pierced. Always with an eye for detail, Sean was positive the tiny hole was a new anatomical development. Men in this day and age simply do not pierce their ears. Yet he said nothing about it for now; time enough for that.

"Yeah Lonegan... you let me know about that door when you find it." Glancing once more at the dead Nolan boy, Sean knew that he'd be back on his own later on to search these forsaken buildings in this crumbling sector of Hell's Kitchen.

When Sean returned to his beat he noticed little Francie and her table were gone. She usually stayed the whole day and he didn't know what to make of her disappearance. He asked the nearby vendors if they saw her leaving but no one offered information. He made his way back to Bub's but when he looked inside, Nolan was nowhere to be seen. Shrugging, Sean did not like that the little girl had vanished. He thought about visiting her apartment but that was far outside of his assigned zone, and now he noticed the flashing light above his callbox. When he answered the phone he was told to report back to the precinct.

When he arrived, Sean was met by Sgt. Dolan. "I've arranged for you to meet with the Captain. He seemed interested in what you have to say about the murders." Dolan gestured towards the door marked Captain of Detectives. "They're waiting for us."


"Yes...the Captain and Lonegan." As the men entered the room Sean noted the captain and Lonegan already seated at the conference table, with a dour face and smirky expression, respectively, in plain evidence. "I understand you have information concerning the child disappearances and murders?" the captain asked, his brogue as pronounced as Sgt. Dolan's.

"Well sir, just some observations I've made."
The captain raised his eyebrows. "And just what have you observed?"

Sean repeated what he'd told Dolan earlier: About the disappearances followed by the 3:00 a.m. church bell tolling 13 times, with the bodies being found in a trash heap later that day. The significance of 3:00 a.m. as a ritual mocking of the Trinity. The bodies having all been found with their throats slashed, exsanguinated. Dating back to Biblical times, sacrificial victims were often disposed of in that manner, deprived of burial, another sign of an affront to God. And the bodies of the victims, once plotted on a map, slowly forming into the shape of a pentagram.

"Who else have you told about this?" the captain snapped, seemingly perturbed.

"No one, sir."

"See that you keep it that way. We don't need this kind of crazy mumbo jumbo leaking out. And I'm ordering you to turn over your notes to Lonegan here. He'll be conducting the follow up."

Sean now sensed there was much more happening than the captain simply having a bad day. "Well, sir, I have a sketch plotting the bodies found, but everything else is up here." Sean gestured to his head. "And I don't think this is all ‘crazy mumbo jumbo'."

Sensing ridicule, the incensed captain stood and approached Sean, whose eye for detail noted the tiny hole upon the man's left earlobe as he drew close and pointed in Sean's face. "It is what I say it is. You got that?"

"No, sir." Sean felt himself growing angry as he looked down at the beet-faced captain's mug. "It is not possible that this is all simply coincidence."

"You'll do as I say or find yourself sitting home on suspension while I prepare charges to terminate you from the force."

"You would do that to me in good conscience, Captain?"
"You bet. Now get out of here. Dolan, I want to see you in private."

Sean turned to leave the room and saw Lonegan grinning wryly his way. As he closed the door behind, for the second time in an hour, Sean visualized slugging him in the face.

It was near the end of tour and Sean decided not to head out to his post but work on the duplicate map sketch he was ordered to remit. He finally saw Dolan emerging from the captain's office wearing a haggard look, walking with his eyes down and the weight of the world upon his stooped shoulders. Dolan finally saw Sean and approached. "I'm sorry about that, Sean. Before, when I told him about your findings, he seemed interested."

"There's nothing for you to be sorry about, Sarge. Between you and me, there's something really strange happening here. Earlier, out in the field where the Nolan boy's body was dumped, Lonegan instructed me not to canvass the surrounding area...buildings. Have you ever heard of such a thing?"

Dolan shook his head, dread in his eyes. "No...never. Listen, Sean. I think you're a top notch cop...the best we've got... but I'm telling yourself. Don't follow up on any of this." Dolan gave him a quick wink and lowered his voice. "And if you decide otherwise...keep it to yourself." Giving Sean a clap on his upper arm, he quickly walked away.

Sean suddenly felt uneasy. He'd never seen the fearless Dolan exhibit alarm before and didn't know what to make of the display. Dolan was a tough, gritty street cop with loads of valor commendations, a man who backed off from no one yet Sean had no doubt about the look he saw in the man's eyes. Perplexed, Sean sighed and when he turned saw Lonegan eyeing him from across the room. "Do you have that map?" he asked.

"I'm still working on it. You'll have it soon enough."

Lonegan crossed the room. "See to it that I do."

Sean felt anger welling in his chest. "You know something, Lonegan?"

"What's that?"

"You should thank my wife."

"Oh yeah? What for?"

"If it wasn't for her, I'd just kick your arse all over this room and let the chips fall where they may." Sean moved forward to meet Lonegan.

"Don't let her stop you," Lonegan said with bravado though he took a huge step backwards. He saw the look on Sean's face and knew retreat would be best for his own personal health. Three uniformed officers watching the confrontation escalate stepped between the two men. "Easy there, Sean," one said while another told the detective to leave. Lonegan sauntered away, his smug look returning now that it was assured Sean wouldn't be knocking him silly. "Don't forget the map, Murphy," he called back over his shoulder while disappearing into the sanctum of the detective bureau.

Sean's anger dropped off as the object of his ire left the room. The cops were on his side all the way and offered assistance, but Sean said "I'm alright, fellas. Thanks for looking out for me."

Walking home, Sean's mind raced with the frenetic events of the day: the little girl Francie, Bub's tavern and Michael the would-be jumper, the child's body, all seemed so long ago. And what of that bizarre meeting with the captain and Lonegan? Why was he told to stand down with his findings by these men, arcane as the results might be? Was it not of upmost importance to thwart a serial killer of innocents and pursue every lead possible? How about the recently pierced ears of Lonegan and the captain, as well as Nolan? Men in this part of the world simply do not wear earrings, he thought, especially police officers.

Then Sean arrived home. His wife met him at the door on her tiptoes with a kiss, and he forgot about all the bad stuff for a while.

After dinner Sean prepped the items he'd need into a shoulder bag for his nocturnal search of the buildings near the dock. He knew it was far from prudent to search after dark, by himself but thought it best to avoid being seen in the area after his run-in with Lonegan and the captain.

Gracie watched him with a look of foreboding. "Really, Sean. Why is it you have to go? Why not let the detectives handle this?" she asked in her gentle manner.

"Because, they're not handling it. I gave them information and was told to stand down. I offered to canvass the area where the boy was found and was ordered not to do so. Police procedure is not being followed...there's something terribly wrong and I need to find out why.

Gracie's eyes filled with tears. "But Sean...why does it need to be you?"

Sean realized that upsetting his wife wasn't good for her health as well as that of their unborn child. "Listen," he said softly, taking hold of her hands. "Someone's out there killing young children...actually not just killing them...but doing unspeakable things. What kind of man would I be if I did nothing? I need to get to the bottom of this or my honor and badge are meaningless. Do you understand? It's important to me that you do."

As Gracie nodded, a tear streamed down her cheek. Sean wiped it and then held her close. "It'll be all right...I promise you."

Gracie had fallen into a deep slumber, and it was well after midnight had tolled when Sean, dressed in black, departed from the apartment. The streets were deserted and he made good time to the area near the docks where Luke's body had been found. Once there he remained motionless in the shadows while surveilling the adjacent dark buildings for a hint of activity.

Sean eyed the crumbling steeple he'd seen earlier, looming dark and imposing against the night sky. His intuition lured him towards the structure several blocks away and soon he stood outside, trying to see within the church ruins through the smashed windows which once had displayed holy images of stained glass. The interior was too dark though, and he sought a way inside. Not wanting to betray his position he didn't yet switch on his miner's headlamp; finally finding a side door with a hasp affixed to rotted wood. He was able to work the door open with a pry bar and stepped inside, now activating his lamp.

The interior was in ruins. All the pews had been smashed to splinters, forming a pile which reached the choir loft; the Stations of the Cross had been torn down while the area where the altar should be standing was now defiled with a huge hole at its core.

Sean crept to the edge of the void and peered down. The hole was encircled by a spiral staircase dug into the dirt and bedrock beneath the foundation; a twisting whorl disappearing deep into the blackness below.

Sean grimaced at the sight; intuitively knowing only something wicked would perpetrate such an ominous display. He noticed a set of chains and pulleys hanging from where the Crucifix once was suspended, one leading downward into the darkness, the other extending both down and upwards into the steeple. Shining his light upon the chain and into the spire, he saw the belfry indeed contained a bell.

Into the abyss he kicked a piece of broken tile but heard nothing in return despite the utter silence of the defiled church.

Sean was in a quandary. The hole absolutely had to be investigated but it would be downright foolish for Sean to do so, alone, at this time. Turning away, he was about to head to his point of entry when the sound of a rhythmical beat, an insidious throb pounding real as a living heart had manifested, freezing him in his tracks. He became aware of a lambent glow looming behind him. Whirling suddenly, his hand flew to the Colt .45 he was packing.

Levitating above the chasm was the spirit of Luke Nolan; a small, pallid specter floating and bobbing slowly with that of the throbbing beat; black circles surrounding his lifeless eyes; his spiritual body and limbs utterly limp though one hand drooped with a finger pointing into the abyss, undoubtedly a signal for Sean to follow.

Sean felt the hair rising on his neck. Fearless though he was, this was far beyond the mortal pale of his brave heart, and his pulse accelerated accordingly. Yet, he found himself taking the steps needed to descend into the void. The luminous spirit emanated enough light for Sean to now see, so he switched off the miner's lamp and continued on.

The stairs were narrow for his big frame to maneuver. Sean keeps his back hugged to the wall for support, moving slowly yet inexorably downward. No matter his position on the stairs the spirit twirled gently and faced him, and the uncanny pair continued their in tandem descent to the beating throb of the night.

Time moved slowly for Sean with no hint of a bottom forthcoming. Doubts assailed him and he thought often of Gracie and their unborn child, yet he pressed on.

As a murmur of human voices met Sean's ears, Luke's spirit dissolved into blackness. Sean froze as he saw a moving glow of light, still far below, illuminating a bizarre procession of dozens upon dozens of black hooded figures, most holding flaming candles, moving out of his line of sight. When the last disappeared Sean quickened his earlier pace. Eventually he came upon a glint of light, revealing a narrow stone stairwell which paralleled the same path as the black hooded convoy though still several feet above their route. He climbed through an arched door and found himself overlooking a dimly lit hall of vast proportions, possibly a walled-off water tunnel hewed from rock many years before, eerily illuminated by scores of black candles and wall torches. The two chains which descended from the church altar were somehow circuited into this room; one was attached to a life-sized, inverted Crucifix.

Sean noted that a stone staircase led down into the hall from his present position, half-hidden in the shadows. A black altar stood well above the crowd and soon a robed figure wearing a horned, goat-headed mask ascended to the dais, crossing upon a platform where four huge black candles had been placed. An absolute hush fell across the hall as he raised his arms and spoke with great passion.

"Father Satan, here on the eve of Walpurgisnacht, during this annual celebration of the Grand Climax, we call to you from the deepest recesses of our hearts, praise your name with every breath of our bodies, and worship you with every fiber of our being. It is YOU who has shown us what true strength is. It is YOU who has shown us what true passion is. Out of the darkness you came to show us the true light... Our Master and our Father, what a great gift you have given us! Hail to Satan...Hail to our King!"

"Hail to Satan... Hail to our King!" the congregation echoed in unified glory.

Wide-eyed in the shadows of his hiding place, Sean was mortified beyond belief. What in God's name had he gotten himself into? A satanic high mass, and that malevolent altar was certainly no pulpit, not with that gaping dark pit looming between it and the congregation; a slow-rising black smoke floating eerily from its depths; brimstone and sulfur reeking the air.

"We now unveil ourselves before the arrival of our Dark Lord," the speaker called out as he removed his mask, revealing a shiny, inverted cross earring dangling from his left ear. The congregation followed suit by pulling back their hoods and to a person, they all wore the same ornament suspended from their left ear.

"And now, as we prepare to greet him with the gift of a life... we shall offer the purest blood known, that of a virgin, female child." The speaker gestured and two men carried a small girl to the altar. Though bound hand and foot and gagged, even through the dimness and the distance of his vantage point Sean recognized Francie, the flower he had placed earlier still affixed to her hair.

Sean sprang up and raced down the stairs, drawing his .45. He caught a glimpse of the men hanging Francie upside down by her ankles over the altar and the pit. The crowd gasped when he leapt upon the altar, assumed a two-handed combat stance and shot the two men and the speaker between the eyes. The gunfire BOOM was greatly amplified by the confines of the cavern, panicking the crowd into utter chaos. Sean cut Francie's bondage with a small knife from his belt and pulled the gag from her mouth. "Sean...Sean!" she cried out.

"Easy lass, we're not out of this yet!" Sean pushed Francie into a small alcove behind him then aimed his .45 towards the mob, some of which had regrouped upon realizing there was but one interloper.

Sean noticed Lonegan, the police captain and Nolan amongst this faction, their inverted cross earrings on full display, scowling at him as they reached inside their robes. Sensing Lonegan and the captain were grabbing for their guns he quickly dropped them with a headshot each and took out Nolan for good measure when he produced a gleaming dagger. Sean's unerring aim for the moment kept the rest fearfully at bay, though some plotted to circle and ambush him from behind.

"The hour is upon us!" cried out someone from the horde, and the toll of the steeple bell commenced in the distance. Sean held his stance as everyone before him, in unison dropped to their knees before prostrating themselves. The bell had sounded 13 times when Sean heard a scratching, scraping noise emanating from the pit; saw two huge, taloned hands latch on to the rim as an immense figure glowing like blood-red coals vaulted out of the abyss and onto the base of the altar, flaunting black, leathern wings, each long as a man is tall.

Mesmerized, Sean could not believe his eyes as the dark, anthropomorphic figure crept towards the rear of the dais, initially with its horned head near the ground and then quickly erect, deeply inhaling the air, seemingly drawn to Francie's spoor by an uncanny sense of smell.

Sean stepped in front of the alcove where Francie lay. His .45 was out of ammo and the demon would be upon him before he could reload. Withdrawing his Bowie knife, he waved the shiny blade as he sought to block its onslaught, but the fiend quickly advanced, its gleaming yellow eyes exuding a ghastly exultation.

As the demon moved closer still, Sean plunged in between its huge arms, sinking his blade to the hilt in its chest where the heart should be, coupled with a violent knee thrust to the groin and left-right punch combo flush to the gullet. Bellowing and momentarily staggered, the devil grabbed Sean by the throat, hoisting him like a rag doll and then hurling him into the altar's far wall before yanking loose the knife and flinging it down with obvious contempt, for immortal beings could not be overcome by worldly means.

Bloodied but unbowed, Sean reloaded his .45 and popped off unerring shots into the demon's flank, which turned away from the alcove and advanced upon him once more. Sean missed neither the front torso nor the ghastly head but the gunshots did nothing to slow the demon down. On the contrary the fiend grimaced, revealing a huge, fang-filled maw as it closed in to put an end to this troublesome human's existence, as the .45 ran out of ammo once more.

Sean's mind flashed with thoughts of Gracie and their unborn child, whom he would never see, as well as poor Francie, whose woeful life would soon be ending with the same horror befalling her brother. "Lord... do with me what you will but PLEASE help the lass!" he whispered in prayer.

Yet still, the demon advanced. Grabbing a metal wall torch and using both hands, Sean repeatedly thrusted the flame into the fiend's face, which swatted at him with a vengeance. Sean sidestepped and backpedaled with pugilistic skill, jabbing fiercely with the torch. More than once heavy contact was made, resulting in a cascade of flaming sparks. Suddenly, Sean's eyes drifted behind its bulk to the inverted Crucifix leaning in desecrated repose behind the altar. "Francie! Francie!" he shouted out. "Yank down on the chain attached to the cross! Pull that chain with all your might, lass!"

Scurrying from the alcove, Francie grabbed the chain as told. At first it wouldn't budge but then she swung her entire weight into it and with that the pulley clicked and released a counterweight, righting the Crucifix and the Body of Christ to its upright position. After a moment of silence a concussive pulse rocked the air, coupled with a dazzling flash. Suddenly, a sturdy, virile figure had manifested in the mix; kneeling, brandishing a shimmering blade. As he stood his armored raiment gleamed forth as though a glimmer of sun had infiltrated the cavern, even while ethereal, translucent wings unfurled from his shoulders. Yet despite his formidable, warrior caste physique, his visage strongly resembled Michael the jumper, bearing an intact face, incapable of harboring malevolence.

The demon spun and seemingly pulled forth a sword from the darkness. A series of intense shrieks and war-cries ensued, filling the air with the passion of fierce battle coupled with the clash of unearthly steel.

The pair attacked one another though it was the smaller of the two who wielded his blade with a mystical swiftness laced with a hacking precision. After several long moments had passed silence finally reigned, and the smaller, radiant warrior stood in conquest over his immense, fiendish adversary, and as he swung his blade downwards, an astonishingly bright light flashed like sunlight, and with the ensuing contact both beings quickly dispersed into the resulting haze.

Sean saw that to a man, all who had worn the black robes were now reduced to smoldering, shriveled corpses; their shining earrings motionless upon the ground; a putrid, dark mist now obscured the candlelight to the farthest reaches of the chamber. He stood and approached Francie, wide-eyed and stunned at what had befallen. "Did you see that, Francie? Did you see that, lass?"

Overwhelmed and speechless, the trembling girl simply held out her hands. With that Sean scooped her up in his arms and quickly retraced his steps out of the accursed chamber.

Later that morning, while Gracie tended to his wounds, Sean excitedly recounted all he'd seen and experienced: "... and Nolan had 30 silver dollars, thirty pieces of silver as payment for the Judas betrayal of his children, Jay-sus! And God only knows what really happened to his poor wife. And poor Luke... his spirit returned from beyond to guard the life of his little sister. And the fight between the shining warrior... smaller than me he was... and that ugly demon they called "Father Satan", so hideous... no wonder he got himself tossed from Heaven! Towered over my head he did. What a fight it was! With his gleaming sword that warrior kicked that demon's arse... and quickly too! You know, he looked like a jumper I'd dealt with earlier in the day named Michael, except that poor fella had only half a face. And somehow, this warrior managed to kill all the others wearing black robes and upended crosses. You know... I may have seen those two before on the Argonne... but there was too much battlefield haze on that dark night to see clearly..."

Gracie listened with great patience, nodding every few moments. "I should go check on Francie soaking in the tub."

Sean looked hopefully at Gracie. "Aye... and what of Francie?

"God had a hand in much of this... seems to me, He wants our child to start life with an older sister."

Sean took hold of his wife's hands, nodding with the wisdom of her words, though intuition had already told him she would not have answered in any other way.

Salem, Massachusetts — Halloween, 2016

A throng of world-wide revelers visiting the renowned witches haunt were treated to an unexpected event, when after dark, an immense, demonic figure burst through the Essex Street Pedestrian Mall, glowing like rubescent coals; leathern wings tucked back like the ears of a frightened dog; a raging fear emanating from its wicked yellow eyes; looking over its shoulder every few steps at a pursuer slowly gaining ground: a stalwart, young man wielding a shimmering sword, sporting armor which glimmered like angelic raiment. They moved with more than human speed but everyone present certainly got a good glimpse of the pair before they disappeared from view into the surrounding night.

"Daddy... Daddy! Was that the devil?" a bewildered young boy dressed as a leprechaun, speaking with a profoundly Emerald Isle brogue asked his similarly garbed and equally bemused father.

"Aye... well son... if that was... then no doubt the other was the Archangel Michael chasing down his satanic arse!"

Continue to the 2nd place story

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