Mars Rising 1-5
by Sophia
I've read there are small signs of impending doom, subtle, unnoticed by most people as they go about their business.  There, waiting to be found by those who are attuned to the minutiae, are the almost imperceptible changes that predict disaster.

Before an earthquake, for example, there are signs - seismic activity increases, the earth moves ever so slightly, swelling out under the growing force building in the fault underneath the earth's surface. There were signs of this coming disaster - apocalypse, as my superiors call it - many, small, widely dispersed, seemingly unlinked, and therefore making sense only after the first real quake.

I was there for these initial signs, in fact, I was waiting for them, but was unable to say anything to the very people to whom this all happened, silenced by my loyalties, by a sense of the greater good, the need for only the very few to know what lay ahead. It was a very lonely time for me, those first weeks and months when disaster loomed on the distant horizon like a hot July thunderstorm. Yet, it was in the midst of one of the coldest winters on record, in an otherwise nondescript Montana town, that the initial tremors of this first quake were felt.

That winter was so cold. I shivered as I walked to the Sheriff's office in the middle of the night, the air crisp and silent, insulated by the deep carpet of snow that lay on the ground, its surface a million crystals shining in the moonlight. It seemed to me, as I trudged through the snowy streets, the hard snow creaking under my boots, that nothing could ever happen here.

The victim's screams had been heard late in the cold January night by only one other human and that chilled the Sheriff - that image of the man dying all alone, crying out in pain with his last breath. Some other lonely man the only one to hear him. "Poor bastard," Paul, the local Sheriff, said to his deputy and me as we talked quietly of the man's death out of earshot of the witness - the room's only other occupant.

The witness, a bachelor living alone in a dilapidated homestead on his cattle ranch, heard the victim's scream of pain but was helpless to intervene. When I talked to Paul, he was as shaken as Joe Kelper, the rancher, at what he'd heard and at the fact that it made no sense and could not possibly have happened the way Kelper was telling it.

According to the rancher, recounting his story yet again for my benefit, he'd heard the man's cries and rushed out with his shotgun to find out what the screams were all about. Those screams had woken him from a deep sleep and had sent a shiver down his spine.

"I swear the hair stood up on the back of my neck," he said to me as we sat drinking burnt coffee at 3:00 in the morning. "I've read about that happening, but this was the first time it happened to me. It was so damn eerie," he said, his voice quiet. A shudder passed through him at the memory. "Never want to hear anything like it again."

I listened to the man as he spoke - his voice was soft, still filled with fear at what he saw on that lonely road. "The truck and snowmobile were, I don't know, about 300 yards from my property on the shoulder of the grid road. The snowmobile's lights were on, shining on the truck. Another truck faced the other way. I could see its taillights and the was motor running. A late model GMC truck. Black."

What he saw when he came close enough to make out any detail was what the Sheriff could not accept: two men, one very large, dressed in a military parka and beret, holding the other man up by the neck, electricity flowing off the raised man's body into the air around him. "Bright as an acetylene torch," Kelper said when describing the scene. "Lighting up the road all around it like daylight."

I nodded for the rancher to continue his story. He looked down in his coffee cup as if embarrassed at his admission of fear.

"I hid behind a fence where the snow had drifted and watched. I didn't want to get too close. I guess I was about, say, 50 yards away at this point. The larger man dropped the other man to the ground and then took the jumper cables and laid ‘em on the body. Then he was back in the GMC and was gone, throwing up gravel."

What confused Kelper, what scared him even more than the other scene was the fact that when he looked down the road, there were no tail lights - nothing. There were no side roads on that stretch of the grid road - not for miles. Kelper should have been able to watch the tail lights of the other vehicle for quite some time.

"Vanished into thin air," Kelper said, wonder in his voice.

"I waited a few minutes to make sure the big man didn't return and went up but the guy was dead." Kelper shivered as he recounted the story.  "His face was so white, his mouth was still open  - it was like he died in the middle of his scream." He paused for a moment, as if seeing it in his mind. "I ran back to my homestead and hopped in my own truck. Don't have a phone so I drove to the Sheriff's office. Almost went into the ditch I was driving so damn fast. Had to tell my story over and over to the deputy before he'd believe me and actually go check it out."

The deputy spoke up. "I found the deserted truck and snowmobile with only two sets of footprints - Kelper's and the victims. No sign of another truck or any other footprints."

"Joe," the Sheriff asked softly, "You drinking again?"

"I haven't been drinking!" Kelper insisted. A grizzled hand took off his John Deere cap and rubbed the weathered forehead in frustration. He grimaced at me, his dread clear on his features, his gap-toothed mouth comic despite his obvious anxiety.

He looked at me pleadingly as if I was some higher authority - which, of course, I was. The Sheriff called me in when they learned the identity of the victim - a member of the paramilitary group which my superiors suspected was a new religious cult.  I had been sent to investigate the cult, flying in to Helena and driving down the small secondary highways then on grid roads that led to the town.

The Sheriff thought I was CIA, but I belonged to an even more covert organization - one that the governments of the world didn't want to acknowledge they supported, providing our members with false identification and covers as agents working for the CIA, MOSSAD, INTERPOL, whatever was needed.

They didn't want to admit knowledge of anything about our organization - at least, not on the books. Only the Vatican itself acknowledged us to their own officials - we were in fact a special unit composed of priests, psychologists, and numerous theologians investigating paranormal occurrences linked to biblical prophecy.

Topics usually reserved for supermarket tabloids, our investigations were real, the events were real, the possessions and exorcisms facts documented with cold hard evidence. Only no one, especially the public, would ever hear of us.  The Vatican only informed its highest ranking officials that we existed and had ongoing investigations. Other governments were too in fear of wide-spread panic if news got out we existed and that they supported our research.

But in that small Montana town, the CIA was my cover and I told the Sheriff and his deputy at our first meeting that I was investigating the group for arms smuggling and terrorist activities, that the group was led by an ex-marine Colonel, a mercenary who had been a soldier for hire in a number of terrorist attacks in Europe and had links to the middle-east conflicts.

I informed the Sheriff, quietly, my voice as low and grave as I could make it, that I was to be called the moment anything happened that involved the members of the group - anything. A parking ticket, shoplifting, domestic disputes - it didn't matter what. They failed to call me the first time the leader of the group had been interviewed over a suspicious death of one of its members. I was determined it wouldn't happen again.

This was the second death I had been called to investigate, and this one, too, smacked of an execution as had the first. Yet, despite my intuition, there was no hard evidence, just another tale of a shadowy dark man, taller than normal and big, leaving the scene with no trace of having even been there in the first place.

I thought back to the first death as Kelper went over his story one more time. Judy Veners, 36, wife Billy Veners, 39, owner of the local restaurant/gas station. Both members of the group. The death had also been an electrocution - but this one was even less suspect - a knife in a toaster used to pry out a burning piece of toast. "Such a stupid act," the coroner had said, "to lose one's life over a piece of toast."  I had to agree but felt it was no accident.

The one detail that remained to haunt the tale, to confound the easy closure of the case, was the story of the large dark man in the station just minutes before the death, purchasing some gas for a late model GMC truck. Only, the register gave no evidence of any sale of gas at the pump for over an hour before Judy's death, and again, there were no tracks in the fresh snow.

Judy apparently held down the fort while her husband ran to the supermarket for more cream. She was fixing herself her own early meal before the breakfast rush arrived. The only witness to the man's presence had been a young lad pulling his new red sleigh behind him to the lone "hill" in the small Montana town for some tobogganing before mass.

He swore up and down he saw the large man at the pump, nozzle in hand, filling the truck up with gas.  He saw the man then go into the station to pay. The boy remembered the impressive new truck - late model GMC and went into the station after the dark man left. Mentioned the leader of the paramilitary group - the "tall man - like a football player" the boy had said. "I seen him once - my dad showed him to me. Said he was a Colonel in the Marines."

The boy had intended to buy a doughnut before he went to the hill, and had found Judy alone, lying on the floor beside the counter that held the industrial-sized toaster. The room smelled of burnt toast and seared flesh - acrid, sickly sweet. The Sheriff questioned the Colonel that next day, but he had a sound alibi - giving a lecture on weapons to his new recruits. The deputy checked with the Colonel's secretary for his itinerary and sure enough, there it was, the lecture noted in red-pen in his large daily log. Besides, there was no evidence that anyone had been at that station; no tire tracks, no gas sold.

Now, on this early January morning, we had another death of a cult member - another electrocution - another vague reference, unsupported by any physical evidence, of the tall powerful man with the late model GMC truck. The Sheriff didn't want to suspect the leader of the paramilitary group or link the two deaths so soon, yet how could he not? I am not trained in criminology, I am a priest, a theologian and amateur archaeologist, but I was already convinced that these were executions and that the leader was somehow involved, probably the executioner himself.

"There were no other footprints in the snow, Joe, other than yours and the victim's," the Sheriff repeated. "Are you sure you saw someone? Sure it wasn't just some shadows you saw?"

"No, Paul," the man insisted. "I know what I saw - some guy with one of those big military-type coats, you know, with the fur around the collar - you know the ones. A big man, real big. One of those caps, you know - berets. Big and strong enough to life a man up with one hand - like this." Joe repeated the gesture again, the one he had already shown us a dozen times.

The Sheriff shook his head. Even with the flood lights, he and his deputy had been able to find only two set of footprints in the fresh snow; the victim's as he milled around, getting the jumper cables hooked up and Kelper's own, extending from the ditch to the victim's body and then doubling back to the ditch.

"It looks like the guy electrocuted himself trying to jump his truck." The truck was left there overnight - the truck's bed was filled with snow and several inches covered the roof and windshield. The man had come back on a snowmobile to jump-start it, bringing an extra battery so he could start the vehicle and load up the snowmobile, return to the camp. He was apparently alone.

The coroner found two sites where the current had passed through the man's body - both hands were burnt where the jumper cables had touched him. The current that passed through the man had killed him almost instantly and had left a row of burn marks where his metal buttons had seared into his flesh, the zipper on his jeans burning into the tender skin of his groin.

We talked to the coroner - he shook his head sadly and confirmed the cause of death was accidental electrocution.

"Fool. People oughtta be more careful with electricity," the old physician said as he wrote out his report. "That's two in the past month - I usually only see this once in a decade."

Two deaths. Accidental electrocution, both victims ordinary residents of the small Montana town, their only notable characteristics the fact that both now were dead and had been members of an organization linked to arms sales to the middle-east. I knew the disaster was coming - here were the first tremors, the small signs I'd read about that precede the real quake.

I closed my eyes and prayed to God that I was caught in a bad dream, one from which I'd wake up, sweaty and tense, but filled with relief that the dawn had come and my life and faith were still intact. I knew this was yet another prayer that would go unanswered.

********

The Sheriff called the leader of the group in to discuss the deaths of his members and called me to let me know the time of the meeting. I asked to be allowed to listen in, my identity a secret. If asked who I was, the Sheriff was to say I was visiting as part of my training. He agreed when I indicated how important it was that the man not yet know I was from any other organization, especially the CIA.

I had dressed as a Deputy and was sitting at a desk, going over my own notes on the case on the small laptop that is my constant companion when he walked in the office. I closed the laptop up and put it away in a desk and flipped through a thick file - laptops were not the norm for small-town Sheriff's deputies so I had to hide mine.

My back was to the door, so I heard him, felt his presence before I saw him. When the door opened, a chill gust of wind blew in, snow swirling on the floor and down the lane between the rows of desks. Despite the cold air, I felt sweat spring to the surface of my skin, on my forehead and the small of my back.

A half-familiar sensation went through me - I felt it only once before, in a small town outside Hiroshima, where I was visiting to take part in the service of remembrance on the anniversary of the dropping of the A-bomb. That nauseating feeling as the earth betrayed you, moving beneath your feet, firm ground now swaying in the throes of a moderate earthquake. I felt that same feeling as he walked in the room. The betrayal of my usually firm footing even as I was seated in my chair, my stomach heaving in response to the sensation.

I turned slowly, not wanting to betray my anticipation, my suspicion, my fear. When I saw him, I felt such a strange mix of emotions - attraction and revulsion. He was tall and massively built, dark curling hair below his collar, bronze skin, dark eyes. Short trimmed goatee and mustache framing full lips. Handsome and fearsome.

When that beret and regulation army-issue parka came off as he sat down on the chair the Sheriff's deputy offered him, I saw his strong musculature through the dark olive green fatigues.

He looked around the room, waiting for the Sheriff to get off the phone and begin his questions, his long fingers tapping impatiently on the tabletop. A thick gold signet ring emblazoned with an eagle circled his index finger - I knew the eagle was the symbol adopted by the group for its insignia. When those black eyes came to rest on mine, I had to fight with all my might not to look quickly away. I merely nodded and waited for him to break the eye contact between us. He finally looked away, his eyes closing briefly, a small smile on his lips as if he knew who I was and why I was there.

I shuddered at the thought. My superiors had reports that some of his followers believed he was a god, had god-like powers of healing and could manipulate matter, appear and disappear at will. I dismissed the notion - there was only one God - my God, and opposing him, only demons. I could, however,  believe he was a demon, perhaps the devil himself. I was more likely to believe Satan's reincarnation than the return of a god - especially if the claims were the product of mentally unstable devotees of a religious cult.

The Sheriff finally put down the phone and came to the desk, extending his hand to the former Marine, retired Colonel Alexander Verccino. Forty-ish, strands of gray in his black curls, he had presence. He rose briefly and took the Sheriff's hand, shaking it firmly before letting go and seating himself once again before the Sheriff, reestablishing his superior status.

"Well, Col. Verccino. Thank you for coming down so quickly to meet with me to discuss the recent death of one of your members, Cpl. Gerald Murphy," the Sheriff said, consulting a file in front of him. "A former marine, and according to his membership card, a lieutenant in your organization."

"Yes," the Colonel replied, his deep baritone soft and filled with sadness. "Such a shock to us all, so tragic a loss - Murphy was one of my best young officers. Moved up from the ranks very quickly once he joined my group, his talents as a leader unrecognized in the regular forces."

"Yes, I spoke to his family in Georgia - they seemed pleased he was a member of the group - said it was the first time he's been out of trouble in years. They were proud that he made the grade - risen to be an officer. They claim he had a dishonorable discharge from the marines and some trouble with violence in the past. You had no problems with discipline? Any enemies he might have - someone who might want him dead?"

"I thought this was an accident. Why would you ask that?"  "We have some un-corroborated evidence of another man at the scene of the death. So, naturally, we have to check it out - see if Murphy had any enemies."

"None that I know of," the Colonel replied, shifting in his chair, waving his hand in dismissal.

"Murphy chafed under the restraints imposed on him from his low rank in the regular forces. I've seen this before - a man's potential unrecognized and un-rewarded. It often leads to insubordination and aggression." The Colonel looked at us before continuing. "The wise leader places his men in proper positions of authority to utilize their talents. His were unrecognized. As an officer, he was able to exercise more authority and thus was more at ease, more in control of his aggression. He channeled that youthful energy into command."

"So you never had any trouble with him?"

"Not once he was promoted, no. Before then, some minor discipline problems, but nothing I couldn't handle. I was pleased with him. I'm sad to lose him." The Colonel sat patiently, waiting for the Sheriff to continue. His legs were crossed casually, his hands resting on the arms of the wooden chair. He was calm under the Sheriff's questions - totally at ease with the situation, no hint of nervousness. His air of absolute command made the rest of use look pale and insignificant in comparison.

"As I said, there were some conflicting reports about another man present at the scene when the Lieutenant died - a tall man with a military-issue parka. The witness claims the man was very tall, very big build. Strong enough to lift a man up with one hand. The man was driving a late model GMC truck. I remember from our last meeting that you own such a truck."

The colonel raised his eyebrows. "Yes. I do. Any leads on who the man might be?"

"No, we think it's just the witnesses' vivid imagination. Not a very reliable fellow. Just for the record, Colonel, can you tell me your whereabouts last night at around 11:30 p.m.?"

The colonel looked down at the floor and then nodded. "Yes, I was with my ... girlfriend, in my quarters. She's our treasurer, Jean Borgeault. I can give you her number and address if you require it."

"Thanks, Colonel. You understand we have to check it out," the Sheriff said, downplaying the seriousness of the issue. The colonel waved his hand and shrugged, taking a pen out of his shirt pocket and  writing something on a slip of paper.

"No problem. I understand protocol."

The Sheriff took the slip of paper and nodded, then stood up and extended his hand once again. The Colonel rose and shook it, then pulled on the massive parka over his strong form before looking at us all, me last, and nodding good-bye. He pulled a beret over his head before he left. "Good day, gentlemen," he said, his voice almost jovial. "Let's hope there's no more reason for me to visit your pleasant office again." His eye caught mine before he left and I felt a shiver go through me.

We gathered around the Sheriff's desk and discussed the case - the Sheriff was unconvinced of the rancher's claim there was a second man at the scene. He was even less convinced it was the Colonel.

"Look, there just isn't any evidence to support another person at the scene - either scene. Not one bit of evidence other than the witness accounts. Besides, even if there was another person at the scene, someone who electrocuted the lieutenant, it is highly unlikely that the Colonel himself would do the dirty work. More likely one of his minions." The Sheriff looked at me and shook his head. "Sorry, Michael, I just don't buy it. There's no motive, no evidence." I nodded. Of course, he was right. I knew different.

I was leaving for Rome the next day - it was time for me to make a visit to the camp, to see the Colonel on his own turf. I dreaded this meeting - it is hard for me to explain the sense of unease that filled me at the thought of venturing on his terrain, sitting in his office. I made the call to the camp and asked to make an appointment to see the Colonel. "Tell him it's Agent McGuigan of the CIA. I've corresponded with the Colonel before."

"Just one moment, Agent McGuigan," the soft female voice replied. After a few moments she returned. "The colonel would be glad to see you. He's available tomorrow between 5:00 and 5:30 - then he's leaving on a overseas trip."

"That's inconvenient for me," I replied, not wanting to wait that late in the day. "Isn't there an earlier time I could meet with him? I'm leaving town as well and need some time myself to prepare."

"It's then or nothing, sir. Sorry."

I agreed to the late meeting - it would make me rushed  - I'd have to drive like a maniac to make it to the small airport in Helena on time for my flight to Chicago. I was flying out to Rome to report on my findings and follow up some other disturbing occurrences being investigated by the group for whom I worked. Still, I had to see the Colonel, meet him face to face. Let him know who I was and gauge his response to me and the knowledge that we were watching him. If he didn't already know, that is.

The next day I settled up my bill at the motel and packed up my few belongings before heading to the Sheriff's office to tidy up some loose ends on my side of the investigation. After looking through both case files once again, and making a few more notes on my laptop, I shook the Sheriff's hand and left, promising to return again in a month to do a follow-up, see if anything had developed in either case. I asked the Sheriff to call me and gave him my number in Washington and my cellular in case anything else of a suspicious nature turned up.

I drove to the base a half-hour early, hoping to spend some time wandering around before the meeting. I was met by a young man dressed in combat fatigues at a guardhouse - he requested my name and some identification. I pulled out my badge and he looked it over and checked my name on his roster. He nodded, keeping my ID and asked for my weapons.

I handed him my service revolver, and the small knife I kept in a sheath on my calf. Better turn it all over now in case they searched me. I was certain someone would before I got in close to the Colonel.

The young man gave me directions and I drove to a low hangar-like building which I knew housed the Colonel's private airplane. A small landing strip extended off into the distance. Beside the hangar was a plain beige building, no windows or decorative architecture - typical military construction meant for function rather than enjoyment.

I was surprised at how little activity there was, and how freely I was able to move around. I parked my car and looked around me - several buildings were set side by side, there was a track and a weapons range with warning signs. Jeeps and other military vehicles, purchased at military auctions graced the parking lots. Everything looked ship-shape, clean and polished. The Colonel had access to some impressive cash to fund this operation.

I went into the small building which housed the Colonel's private offices and found myself in a small reception area. There was no one there to greet me but I heard the murmur of voices off to the rear of the building. I stepped to the partially opened door that led to the back of the building and listened - the unmistakable sound of a male and female laughing intimately.

A deep baritone - familiar - the Colonel,  and a high female voice - perhaps his secretary - I couldn't tell. I peered through the crack in the door and was shocked at what I saw - the Colonel leaning over a young woman who was herself bent over a desk, her skirt hiked up, her legs spread as he thrust inside her. His pants were undone and were half-way down his thighs.

I watched as his buttocks clenched and released as he thrust inside her. His arms were one either side of hers, his hands holding her own. He bent over her and was talking to her, his head on the other side of hers. I could see her face in profile - she was attractive, a blonde with long curls. Her face was flushed and her eyes closed, a smile on her lips.

Then, I watched entranced as one of his large hands slipped around her waist and touched her - she moaned when he made contact. I pulled away, closing my eyes, trying to dampen the desire I felt rising in me at the sight, the shock taking away my usual detachment at such scenes. I couldn't deny what I heard, however, and listened as she began gasping, crying out his name as she felt her climax.

I wasn't always a priest - I had at first sought the life of a scholar as had my father before me, but turned to the priesthood as a result of a personal revelation and sense of obligation more than anything else. I'd been chosen for the priesthood by my God, I had not chosen it. In the secular world, I'd had a few lovers and knew the pleasures of the flesh. I thought it made me a better priest, more able to comprehend the temptation that existed in our world, better able to give my parishioners advice on sexual matters and those of the heart.

Now, as I leaned against the wall and heard the sounds of pleasure from the next room, I remembered my own lovers so long ago and felt the familiar sadness that filled me occasionally when I thought of my previous life, carefree, unaware of the darkness surrounding us all. I heard a male voice groaning, grunting in ejaculatory delight and felt my own cock swell in response. I breathed as deeply as possible, trying to calm the feelings that spread through me.

I looked back quickly and observed the Colonel and was shocked at what I saw. I could see his face now - he looked a decade younger as he embraced the young woman, his hair longer, the loose curls falling to his shoulders, black, with no traces of the gray I'd seen previously. Still tall and heavy set, well muscled, but seeming to be slightly smaller than before.

I left the office and went back to my car, sitting in my seat, dread filling me at the image I'd seen of him, my worst fears confirmed. What I saw made me realize he was no mortal. It was the same man, the Colonel, I was certain of it. The same deep voice, the same black curls, if longer and with no gray, the same massive build and height. The dark goatee and mustache. Only at least a decade younger. A demon.

I waited until just before 5:00 then went back in to the building. The young woman was seated calmly at the reception desk, the only sign that she'd had sex her still-flushed cheeks. She smiled sweetly when she saw me and asked me if I was Agent McGuigan. I nodded. She picked up a phone and spoke into it.

"He'll see you now," she said, opening the door to the rear of the building. She led me past the desk where the two had sex and pointed to an office with an impressive leather chair and ornately carved mahogany desk. On the walls were various plaques and certificates of commendation from his time in the military. Photographs of him on a horse, a civil war uniform on, a rebel flag flying behind him. I had to laugh at that one - one of those antique reproductions. The Colonel as a rebel. It squared with the rest of what I knew about him. A maverick.

Then I looked at the others more closely - there was one of him standing beside a large tank in a desert setting, Africa? One of him beside an early bi-plane, one of him sitting in one of the first fighter jets, another of him in an F-15... were these all reproductions? Mock-ups made for fun?

He entered the room from an adjoining one - the bathroom, I supposed. He was wiping his face in a towel, and saw me looking at his mementos. "Sorry, I was just... cleaning up," he said, a smile curving one side of his mouth. "You caught me at a ... bad time." He raised his eyes suggestively. Did he know I was there earlier? Watching them, listening to him grunting in pleasure?

I was on guard - I knew now anything was possible with him.

"Well," he said, looking at my face, the towel now drying off his strong hands. "I see you've noticed my ... photographs. Intriguing aren't they?"

"Wonderful. Especially the rebel uniform. I'm curious though - you chose a German uniform for this one. Why?"

The Colonel laughed. "Let's just say I have a history of picking the wrong sides in battles and leave it at that, shall we?"

He finished drying himself off and threw the towel onto a table before sitting down at his desk and motioning me to be seated as well. "We've met before, but I thought you were merely a lowly Deputy. Agent McGuigan is it? What can I do for the ... CIA?"

He was back to the older Colonel now - the hair shorter and flecked with gray, the build slightly heavier. He smiled at me, waiting patiently for me to begin. The knowledge that I was sitting in the same room as a demon had a strange effect on me.  I felt fear, yes, but a strange mental detachment came over me as I sat there looking at him. I knew God had chosen me for this very purpose, to be sitting here, across from this beast, on this day. Still, my body almost pulsed with remnants of adrenaline that went through me when I realized who he was, and I breathed deeply, hoping that my voice did not betray my deep fear of the creature seated before me.

I spoke of the supposed investigation of his paramilitary organization, the fact that members of his group had been linked to shipments of ground-to-air missiles to terrorist factions in the PLO. He nodded, his palms held together almost in prayer. Was he mocking me? Did this demon know who I was? I could not suppress a shudder.

He acknowledged the reports, gave me the same story he had before by correspondence - that these were former members who had been kicked out of the organization, that while he had family living in the middle east, the group itself had no contact with any other groups outside the US. He reiterated that the goals of the group were domestic only; to create a standing militia for the defense of the American homeland from invading illegal aliens - the same xenophobic claptrap none of us in the group believed for a moment.

"If there's nothing else?" he asked, rising up to dismiss me, "I have to leave and fly to Chicago, then to New York to catch my plane to Jerusalem."

I shook my head. "I'm on my way there as well, bound for Rome," I said, unable to stop the admission in spite of myself. "Really?" he replied, his brows rising in surprise. "Yes, actually," I added quickly, hoping to cover myself. "I have family there. Taking some time off, see the sights."

"You're driving? You're going to have to speed the entire way to make it on time."

I nodded. "I'll have to leave now and drive like the devil..." I said, almost choking on my words. He chuckled.

"Tell you what, *Agent* McGuigan, I've got a spare seat on my plane, and you're welcome to come with me, meet our flight in Chicago."

I hesitated. Fear griped my like a vise, indecision not my usual response to crisis. I finally nodded. Something, my God, fate, was pushing us together, the Colonel and I. My death was not yet due, of that I was certain. There was a lot of suffering possible before that, however, and I wondered if this flight with the *man* seated in front of me, so handsome and relaxed in his military fatigues, was the beginning of my own personal trial by fire.
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Chapter 2

I had agreed to go with the Colonel to Chicago to catch our connection to Rome but as we walked to the hangar, I had second thoughts.

"My rental car..." I said, my voice betraying my reluctance to travel with him. "And my badge, my weapons - I gave them to the guard at the entry. Maybe I should drive after all."  Here I was - trying to find puny reasons to drive when I knew now that I'd never make it to Helena on time.

"My Ops officer will get your badge and weapons and arrange to have your rental car driven back later. Give me your keys."

I threw them to him and he passed them to the young man at a desk in the briefing room. They spoke for a moment and I caught sight of my face in a mirror, shocked at how tired I looked, older than my 41 years. My straight dark hair was marked by gray, around my temple and ears. My bangs fell in my eyes - I needed a haircut badly, but personal things like this were often shoved to the wayside when I was caught up in a case. I brushed my bangs back and squinted. Blue eyes stared back at me from the mirror - I was tired and anxious about the company and the flight itself. I could not suppress a sigh.

"What's that sigh for, Agent McGuigan. Don't like small jets? Or are you just tired?"

I looked at him - was he reading my mind? I had felt compelled to change my plans and drive back to Helena on my own, hating small planes, preferring the safety of large, wide bodied jets of the major carriers.

"I prefer larger jets, actually," I said, hating to admit fear to him.

"Don't worry, Agent McGuigan - may I call you Michael?" he asked. I nodded. "Call me Alex, then.  Michael - my pilot is very skilled. Ex-top gun, former member of an aerobatics team. Come."

I followed him and protested when he picked up my bag and briefcase, carrying them outside to the waiting Lear Jet. "No, no!" he replied, handing the bags up to the young man helping us board. "Let me do this. You need a rest. I have some cognac in the bar - we'll have a drink - that'll relax you."

The interior was luxurious - this plane was worth a great deal and was outfitted with all the amenities. The Colonel motioned to me to sit in a large chair across the aisle from one I assumed was his. The young officer came up to the plane's door and handed me my weapons and by badge. I felt somewhat whole again with them in tow. The engines started as the pilot went over his pre-flight check, their whine signified the inevitability of this trip. I breathed deeply and looked around, trying to distract myself from the flight. The colonel had a briefcase on his seat and a laptop sat in its case on a small desk set against the bulkhead of the plane. Overhead in a corner was a television and a pull-down screen used for briefings jutted out from above the row of windows beside me. This plane was equipped so that the Colonel could carry on his business as he flew. He was a professional.

He went to the open cockpit and was leaning over the pilot's shoulder, looking at the flight display, talking in that deep voice. I could hear them but not make out any words. Just as well - those details always made me even more nervous. I wanted to pretend I was on a bus. Deny that it was actually a plane - that I was flying on a cushion of air. I could do it on a 727. I suspected I would not pull it off in this Lear jet. I'd need that cognac or two.

He came back to me finally and bent over me, his face close to mine, and tethered me in before I could think to stop him. The belt was a three point one - not the standard two point belt in commercial carriers.  He had me strapped in so quickly, I couldn't even protest. He pulled the shoulder belt, keeping one hand in between the belt and my chest to ensure comfort, looking at me closely as he tightened it.

"There," he said, standing up, keeping his eyes on mine as if to gauge my response at what he was about to tell me. "My pilot informs me that we're in for some turbulence between Helena and Chicago, might get pretty choppy, so once it does, you'll need to keep this on." I swallowed, hating turbulence and the feeling that was growing in me - my heart pounding at the prospect. I was afraid of looking foolish more than death. Death I knew was inevitable - looking foolish likely was too, but at least one could fight that. I nodded. "That cognac?" I smiled weakly, hoping that a drink or two would help me relax.

He chuckled. "Yes, better get that out."

He went to a small bar and pulled out a bottle of the liquor. I watched as he un-stoppered the bottle and poured the amber liquid in crystal snifters, turning the snifter on the side to gauge the amount. I knew this ritual - my father had been a cognac drinker - one had to rest the snifter on its side to see if there was the proper amount of the fluid inside. He had judged correctly.

"Perfect," I said, remembering how proud my own father was when he accomplished the same feat.

"So you're a cognac drinker, are you Michael?"

"My father was.  I rarely drink. When I fly, at social gatherings." The Colonel handed me one snifter and placed his on his tray. "Excuse me," he said, unbuttoning his shirt. I watched, amazed, as he changed his clothes in front of me, removing the fatigues and putting on a sober dark suit with a white shirt and dark tie he removed from a wardrobe set in the side of the bulkhead in front of me. He said nothing and kept his back to me, but I was still embarrassed by this show of his body. It was incredible - he worked out - I could tell from the lean sculpted look to his muscles. His back was so broad and his suit looked almost out of place on his massive frame. He was an exceedingly handsome man, even I had to admit it.

He cinched a leather belt and then sat down in his seat, strapping himself in and then taking the snifter in his hand. He help it up and nodded to me. "Cheers," he said and took a sip, smacking his lips and letting out a sigh of appreciation. Another sip and then he placed his snifter down and opened his briefcase.

"I've got a lot of material to read on the trip," he began, flipping through some papers thick with text. "So I won't make a pretense of being friendly with you Michael. Besides, I'm sure this is as uncomfortable for you as it is for me, so I'll leave you to your own business. There are some magazines in the pocket of the seat if you want distraction."

I nodded, glad that he was so up-front about our relationship. I reached into the pocket and brought out several magazines. A National geographic, Time and a Penthouse, the woman on the cover pulling a strand of pearls suggestively between her legs. The Penthouse would have been the most distracting, but I put it hastily away and turned to the Time magazine instead. I wasn't looking forward to trying to make polite conversation with this demon or whatever he was, and closed my eyes, leaning my head back, planning to read once we leveled off. After a few moments, I felt the plane move and opened my eyes, my hand reaching into my jacket pocket, to touch the rosary I kept squirreled away for moments like these. My fingers moved the beads between them as I said the rosary, thinking of the Blessed Virgin, asking for her protection.

"Well," the Colonel said, putting down his papers and leaning his own head back. "Here we go. It's actually the first 3 minutes and final approach that are the most dangerous. If you get through those, you're pretty much safe."

"Thanks for telling me," I said wryly, my stomach clenching as I thought about liftoff.

"These are really wonderful planes, Michael," he said, patting the armrest of his seat. "Not too many crash. Very good safety record."

The speed increased and I looked out the window - the sky outside was now dark and I could see the thick snow at the edge of the runway as we sped along. Faster and faster we went and I grew alarmed - when would we take off?

"Rotate... now," the Colonel said at the moment the nose of the plane lifted. He then gave a soft grunt of pleasure as the plane rose in the air. The angle of the plane's nose was quite acute and I looked down as we passed over a grove of trees. The plane rose and fell softly as we climbed higher - I hated that feeling, preferring the bumps of a firm highway. I had counted to 54 seconds. 126 to go before I could feel safe for a while.

After what seemed like an eternity, we leveled off and one of the pilots came back to us - a young man - I supposed it was the co-pilot. He was dressed in the usual fatigues, his blonde hair cut very short, his blue eyes set in a face of such innocent youth I wondered how he could be old enough to fly this plane.

"Sir," he said, nodding at me then smiling at the Colonel. "James," the Colonel replied, smiling and putting his papers down. The young man leaned against the desk and looked at the Colonel. "We've reached cruising speed and altitude. We'll be in Chicago on schedule at 22 hundred hours local time. Your flight leaves at 23:30. Is there anything you need now? Perhaps your guest would like to sit in the right-hand seat."

"How about it, Michael? Care to take a trip to the cockpit?"

I shook my head, unable to reply, my throat was dry even at the thought.

"Really, Michael,' he insisted, "I advise it. It takes the mystery out of flight to sit there. You can see all the little towns below."

"No, really," I replied, clearing my voice. "I'd rather not, thanks. I'm happy just sitting here, strapped in." I looked at my magazine and brushed my bangs out of my eyes once again. An article in Time magazine about the negotiations in Jordan. Photos of Arafat juxtaposed to that of the new Israeli leader, from the Likkud. Netanyahu's successor. Two arch rivals, two competing gods - such an old dispute, this one. Playing itself out in the present, when both had nuclear capacity, when one false move, one mistake could lead to such decimation.

I spent a considerable amount of time in that area of the world as a young graduate student, working out of the University of Rome where my father had taught Anthropology. I followed in his footsteps in studying archaeology - he took me as a young boy on digs in Egypt, and on visits to the hall of kings, to Tut's tomb, to stand beside the sphinx.  I was hopelessly infected with love for the old, for the ancient. Cradling some artifact in my hands, the very first human to touch it since it had been buried so long ago, gave me such delight, such shivers of pleasure as a young student.

Those were such happy days for me. I saw a clear and pleasant future laid out for me, finishing my doctorate, getting a post at some university and teaching graduate classes, doing my own research, finding a wife and settling down. Egyptology - I'd been a devotee since a young boy.

Now here I was, involved instead in clandestine work for the Vatican, a lonely priest, living in a small dim hovel in Rome, obsessed with finding out who this dark man was, discovering his secrets, hopefully, to reveal his fraud and stop his power over his cult members.

It was as I was contemplating the Colonel's identity that I felt the first bumps of turbulence. Small at first, like riding in a small craft on a choppy sea, they grew in intensity and soon, the Colonel was back in his seat, returning from the cockpit, strapping himself back in and downing his cognac quickly. He picked up another document, though, and read it over, flipping pages as he scanned the material, unconcerned.

I, of course, fearful as I was, felt faint, and knew I was likely white as ghost. The Pilot's voice came over the intercom. "Colonel, we've got a major thunderhead in front of us. I'm going to ascend and try to clear it, get out of this turbulence.

"Please do," the Colonel replied, flipping the page of his document. Then a huge drop followed by several moderate bumps as we hit a pocket of air. The colonel's snifter fell to the ground, and rolled around on the soft carpet.

"Don't worry Michael," the Colonel said, as if sensing my growing fear. "We'll be over this in a few moments, and it will be a lot calmer."

I pulled out the rosary, unconcerned now that he saw me with it and closed my eyes, my lips moving in my prayer.

"Catholic are you, Michael? Of course you are, with a name like McGuigan," he said softly. I nodded, but did not break my concentration, repeating the rosary, gaining some comfort from the small ritual. I felt our ascent but the turbulence only seemed to worsen and all at once I felt an incredible drop, the lights went out in the cabin and several loud bangs as we hit the air layers. My neck had jarred from the sharp drop, my teeth grinding together.

"Shit!" I couldn't help but cry out, as the plane pitched wildly.

"Sorry Colonel," the captain said over the intercom. "It doesn't look like it's gonna get any..." His voice was cut out and the cabin lights blinked on and off before remaining off, leaving us in darkness.

"Fuck," the Colonel said under his breath as we began to dive, the nose pointed down at what seemed to me to be too acute an angle. I watched amazed as he unstrapped his belts and pulled himself to the cockpit door and opened it, pulling himself in and yelling over the noise of the engines, now whining loudly as we descended.  Lightning crackled outside the window and I saw the plane's wing illuminated briefly.

The colonel returned and strapped himself back in. "Pilot has to dive to get out of the worst of it - pretty bad - he was unable to clear through the thunderhead. We'll have to drop down below it to escape it."

My hands gripped the armrests, my rosary grasped in one hand. I nodded at the Colonel and swallowed, my heart racing in my chest. Sweat sprung up on my face, on my upper lip and forehead, and I felt it trickle down under my arms along my side. I was panting, trying to get a grip on myself, embarrassed at my reaction, yet unable to stifle my fear. I felt his large hand grip mine - he took my clenched hand in his from across the isle - his touch was so hot, his skin dry and smooth against my damp palm.

"Don't worry,' he said, his voice low, but still audible over the noise of the engines. "We'll be fine."

Such an act from this, my enemy. This act of kindness, this attempt to calm me, a civilian, afraid of flying. I was thankful for it, thankful for contact of any kind, even with him, and yet I hated him. He should have let me alone with my fear, let me keep my dignity. I pulled my hand from his and turned the other way, so he wouldn't see my face flushed with embarrassment. Me - a grown man - reduced to a fearful boy.

The descent seemed to steepen and I panicked. I looked back at the Colonel - he had his eyes closed and his head back against the headrest, his hands gripping the arms of his seat. He must have felt my panicked eyes on him - I don't know what I thought he would do - save us from crashing? If he was a servant of the devil, I felt certain he had powers to do such a thing, and I couldn't help but hope he would, almost wanting to beg him to stop this, stop this terrifying descent.

I turned away from his gaze and closed my eyes. "Do something," I whispered.

In a moment I felt the plane level out, slowly at first, then more rapidly until we were almost level. The lights came back on in the cabin. I turned and looked into his dark eyes - he had been watching me. He didn't smile, he didn't say anything. Just turned back to his closed briefcase and opened it, then pulled out his document.

"We're out of it now, Colonel, but will have to reduce speed at this altitude," the Pilot said, his voice calm. "We'll be a bit late arriving, but you still should have plenty of time to make your connection."

"Thanks, Bill. That was a good piece of flying."

"You're very welcome, Sir," the pilot replied.

The Colonel put down his paper and unstrapped his belt. He stooped and picked up his snifter and then retrieved the bottle of cognac, pouring more for himself and then coming to my side, standing directly in front of me holding the bottle up. "More?" he asked. I nodded. The liquid sloshed in the crystal glass and I drank it down quickly. He then filled it once again and sat back down.

I drank that down too, and leaned back, enjoying the feel of the liquor as it warmed me, heat rising in my belly. We sat in silence for the rest of the trip, the colonel reading his documents.  My mind unable to be blank, I wondered about his behavior to me, his identity, what in hell he was.

**********

We disembarked and waited for the co-pilot to bring our bags. My legs  were wobbly - the Colonel kept pouring the drinks and I kept downing them. He thanked both pilots and took my bags and his own and started marching off to our gate. I grabbed my briefcase and ran behind him.

"Colonel," I protested, my voice thick from the cognac. "It's Alex," he reminded me. "Alex, let my take my own bag," I insisted but he only shrugged. "Nonsense. You just drank 5 cognacs. Carry your briefcase. I've got these." I followed him, angered that he was making me feel once again like a small boy in the presence of a grown man, but glad at the same time that it was he who was carting the load.  My mouth felt dry, cottony from the nervousness and the alcohol. I'd have a wicked headache in the morning.

I watched the Colonel - he was so damn exuberant, exuding confidence, ability. I felt like an adolescent as I tried to keep up with him, almost staggering behind in the wet slush. He was taller than I by several inches - I am well built, playing soccer in a recreational "old-timers" league when I can, and swimming to try to beat the heart disease that killed off so many of the men in my family before age 50, but am only 6 feet tall and not so massive as the Colonel.

We reached the gate and the clerk took our boarding passes and ushered us into the international section, where we both had to pass through customs. Once through all the proceedings, my badge and weapons checked, we sat in the waiting room until our plane was called for boarding. I slumped down in a chair and the Colonel sat beside me.  His long legs were crossed casually, still reading a document, his fingers stroking his beard. I felt like a wreck. I pushed my bangs out of my eyes one more time and leaned back, heaving a sigh of relief that now I would be getting on a large plane for the remainder of our trip. My head spun a bit - I would sleep on the flight - the cognac ensured that.

They called our flight and we stood, picking up our respective briefcases. "Are you in economy or first-class?" he asked. "Economy," I replied. The agency didn't send its agents out first-class. "Well, it looks as though this is good-bye then. I'm in first-class."

He extended his hand to me and I hesitated. I felt so much like a fraud to be shaking his hand, as if we were just a couple of businessmen who shared a flight and were not enemies. I looked at him and could not hide my feelings of disgust at the thought of shaking his hand, despite all he'd done for me. I was glad we would be separated - no more opportunity for him to see me cower, for me to feel in his debt. "I'm sorry," I said quietly, turning my face away from him. "I can't pretend to be your friend, considering who I am."

"Oh, Michael," he chuckled, putting his briefcase down and grabbing me around my shoulders in a hug. I felt stiff, startled to be pulled into his embrace. "I know who you are," he whispered in my ear, his breath hot against my skin. He squeezed me tightly, one hand going to the small of my back, pulling me against his body in a very intimate manner. "You think you know who I am, but you're wrong."

His hand slipped into my pants pocket and felt something hard and heavy slide to the bottom of it, clinking against my keys and change. Then he kissed my cheeks, one after the other as was the custom in other nations outside of the United Stares and was off, his briefcase in hand. I watched the swell of people close around him as he made his way to the boarding gate. He was tall enough that I could watch him, his dark curls bobbing above the crowd. I saw him bend down to the stewardess who took his ticket and heard his deep mellow voice laugh out loud, jovial, full of exuberance.

I slid my hand in my pocket and pulled out a piece of fired red clay, cuneiform lettering stamped into it's surface. It seemed to be part of a tomb seal - I had seen them before in Egypt,  placed there at the door to a tomb to ensure that if anyone entered, the seal would be broken and all would know the tomb had been breached.  I rubbed my thumb over the rough edge of the semi-circular piece of clay. The colonel had given me a clue of some kind - he wanted me to know who he was. He claimed to know my true identity.

My mind turned these facts around as I was pulled along towards the gates with the rest of the passengers bound for New York and Rome.

*******

Three minutes - I counted out every second, my gut in a knot the whole while. Finally, I felt the large plane level out and I settled into my seat in the aisle. The location where I felt more able to believe I was in a bus and not a hulking mass of steel flying 5 miles in the air.  An empty seat was between myself and the woman in the window seat and I placed my briefcase on it and loosened my tie, reclining my seat in the hopes that I might get a small bit of sleep. I dozed.

I dreamed. Lips on mine, moist and soft, the heat of another body, warming me through my clothing. Hot breath on my skin, a wet tongue licking my neck, my cock. Once you've felt these pleasures, it's so hard not to recall them, not to be seduced by them. I could understand the church's attempt to prevent us from being sexually active before coming to the priesthood. If you never knew these pleasures, they couldn't haunt you as clearly as mine did me. Bringing me to orgasm frequently, waking me up to find my hand moving slowly on my hard cock as I shuddered, the hot fluid anointing me, my hand, my chest.

Now on the plane, those memories threatened to embarrass me, and I opened my eyes and found myself looking into dark ones, their iris rimmed with amber, black lashes framing them. He is there in front of me - his arms around my waist as mine are around his neck, pulling him close. It is the Colonel, the younger Colonel, the hair longer, brushing his shoulders, the gray absent, his skin so vital and flushed. His lips are on mine, his wet tongue is on my mine, and I feel myself responding, feel my cock harden in spite of my horror. I cry out, trying to push him away, but he pulls me closer. One hand clamps down over my mouth and his lips curve into a smile. "Shhhh," he whispers. "Don't worry," he whispers. "No one can hear us or see us, so there's no point in yelling. Just relax, Michael." Then his mouth replaces his hand and his tongue pushes into my mouth once again and he presses his body against me, his arms pulling me closer until I feel I can not breathe and I fall, fall into him.

I wake up. My hands are on the chair's armrests, not in my pants. The woman beside me is asleep and the cabin lights are low. Apparently no one is the wiser that this priest sitting incognito in their midst just had a wet dream. I sigh and do up my jacket and make my way to the bathroom to check myself out. Yes, I have cum, the white fluid wet in my underwear, only a small stain  spreading to my pants. At least it was a dream and not reality.

I wipe the fluid off me, and try to mop up the dampness with a paper towel and succeed fairly well. I do  up my jacket - hiding the sign of my shame.  How could I respond to him - why did I dream of him, my enemy? Why his face, his eyes, his mouth? Is he going to haunt my dreams as well as my days? Poison my sense of self this way? It must be his work, this demon. To try to seduce me, to make me feel these feelings for another male, a male demon. That is why he kissed me, embraced me, pulled me close, undressed in front of me. I cursed myself and my weakness. I was tempted to find some woman and lose myself in her flesh, bury my cock deep inside her so I could erase the memory of him. I was handsome enough to pick someone up if I wanted. God! Here I was, contemplating breaking my vows so I could remove the taste of him from my memory.

Here was my penance for not following my calling before I'd become sexually active. I'd felt the pull of the clergy long before I joined but dismissed it, wanting to be an archaeologist like my father and have sex with my first girlfriend, Loredana, her dark sultry eyes and long raven hair drawing me to her. Her perfect twin orbs succulent, their rosy peaks so responsive to my fingers and mouth, the velvety folds of her flesh soft under my tongue as I licked her, making her cry out with pleasure and she doing the same to me, tasting me as I came in her mouth. Oh, what sweetness that was - so much more rewarding than the cold hard marble under my body as I prayed, prostrate before Him on the cross when I finally acknowledged my God's calls to me. Now I would be tested, now I would be punished for my unwillingness to go when I was first called. Forgive me, God.

I went back to my seat and sat back down and closed my eyes, my hand reaching into my jacket pocket to retrieve my rosary, but my fingers touch instead the clay seal and I was once more reminded of him and his embrace. Then I found the beads and pulled them out, praying myself to sleep once again. This time, the demon did not haunt me. A dreamless sleep, as usual.

******

We disembarked in Rome and I was so glad to be off that plane, finally away from him. I picked up my checked bags and briefcase and hailed a taxi to take me to the villa in which I rent a small apartment. It is dimly lit, an inside corner apartment with a tiny garden. The space outside the small French door is just large enough for a metal table and chair and a planter, in which I have a hibiscus bush growing, the double white blossoms providing the only beauty I have in my life.

I haven't had the energy to paint the interior and purchase prints, decorate - not since my father passed away and I sold the apartment I inherited and moved into this place. Not since then have I taken an interest in my surroundings. My mind is completely immersed in the cases I work, in the cults I investigate with my associate, Frances, a forensic psychiatrist. She would have come with me to Montana but was called away to assist with another case deemed to be at more of a crisis point, so I went alone.

I missed her matronly presence, her half-eye glasses reminding me of the matriarch of my father's family, his mother, my grandmother, a teacher and political activist who wore those glasses for effect more than for actual reading. I remember her staring me down, those glasses perched on her nose, her hands on her full hips. Frances reminded me of her and although she never cooked herself, my grandmother's house always smelled of apples and cinnamon scones and blackberry tea. My treat whenever I went there for the afternoon. When I sat with Frances, reviewing details of a case, the memory of that smell would come back to me and I felt the bittersweet feeling inside, memories of my childhood, of happier days.

I sat on my patio and sipped my tea, thinking of my happy childhood, of the pleasant days of my adolescence and youth, when I was certain of my place in my little world. Now my father was dead - stolen away from me by a heart attack despite his attempts to change his lifestyle and beat the legacy of our family genetics. He almost made it - reaching pensionable age before his heart claimed him. He died last year and I have felt rudderless since then, as if something solid on which I based my identity was gone, missing. An only child, I was all alone now, no siblings to grieve with, no wife and children to distract me from my pain. There seemed to be only my job to fill the gap.

As I sat picking off dead hibiscus flowers, my tears came unbidden as I thought of my father, and I had to leave my patio and go into the dim interior, lay on my bed and cry. Yet these tears, the only ones I had cried since the day of his funeral, did not wash away any pain. They seemed to only magnify it, call it to my attention, make me realize how empty my life felt, how meaningless it was outside my work. How loveless it had become. Not even a cat to pet and feed, a dog to walk and play with in the park - my landlord forbidding me even this luxury. I was so damn lonely, so in need of someone to touch me, to hold me, to love me.

I stared up at the crucifix on the wall across from my small bed and cried out to him in my mind - to my god. Why hast thou forsaken me? Can I not serve you in some other way? My dream unsettled me so much, my desire for the Colonel making me feel sullied, contemptuous. And so very lonely, for in my heart of hearts, I felt so damn lonely, so in need of a body next to mine and that sweet oblivion of sexual release, I was afraid I would have pulled him to me, my arms going around him even more tightly, if he had been really there and not a figment of my dream.

I would talk to Frances tomorrow, confess my feelings. She said she worried about me, that I worked too hard and had too little joy in my life. That I had to reflect why I let this work consume me. Why I did not pamper myself even with the pleasures I was allowed to enjoy. Good food, drink, pleasures in non-sexual pursuits, music, art, literature - friends. All the pastimes I used to pursue when I was first a priest, before the group came to me and made me their offer.

That was a decade ago. Ten years of progressive self-denial, as revelation after revelation had shattered my faith in the eventual defeat of evil by good. As I struggled to hold on to my faith as little by little, I felt my God slipping away from me, His reality less and less tangible as time went on. I used to feel His presence, but after my father died, nothing.  Now - now I only lived on a memory of Him. Paper thin, that memory, it threatened to be destroyed at the slightest test of its strength.

I wiped my face off, the salty tears stinging my lips which were chapped from the Montana cold. Here I was, a grown man, weeping on my chaste twin bed in my dark hovel in Rome, the most glorious city in the world. How I hated my life, what I'd become. If I had died then and there, the only person who would have even noticed, besides my landlord when he came to pick up my monthly cheque, was Frances, and I knew that soon, even she would forget me, busy as she was with her grandchildren and all her other charity work.

I reached my hand into my pocket and played with my rosary, trying to find comfort there, distract me from what I really wanted to do, to jerk off hard and fast, to cum and release some of my anguish with my semen, wasted seed, falling on barren ground.  I knew I would only feel guilty afterwards, the guilt almost overwhelming any pleasure I did receive. My fingers touched the cold stone of the tomb seal the Colonel gave me and I pulled it out of my pocket and looked it over once again. I'd have to see if I could find out what those letters spelled. Call my connections at the University in the Antiquities department.

Then I thought of Christine, bright, vivacious Christine, the woman I'd met through my father and dreamed of even as I was taking my vows of chastity when I joined the priesthood. She was younger than me by almost a decade - I think she was 16 when I met her.  So strong and intelligent, she exuded confidence, knowledge, even when she was wrong. I remembered sitting in on one of my father's graduate seminars for fun - they were making a day trip out to a site and my father invited me along for the day.  They were discussing the dig and I heard her make a point and get her facts mixed up. She was wrong and yet, she seemed so certain that no one questioned her, assuming that if Christine said it, it must be correct. Even my father did not correct her - I suspect he was in awe of her as well. She was one of those geniuses, the kind who started college when unable to even drive a car - at 14 she was taking courses as a special student, and at 16 was already taking my father's graduate courses, moving into her Ph.D. at an age when I hadn't even started my Bachelors Degree.

Unconventional, everyone thought Christine was a lesbian with her short blonde hair and Doc Martens, army surplus jacket and knapsack. An American living in Rome - her parents both musicians playing for the symphony orchestra, she was like me - an expatriate American. She startled me with her strong feminist critique of dead white European males - all the ones I admired - God I loved her! She was so arrogant. Even if she was a lesbian, I wanted her and would have kissed her feet had she deigned to ask me. She never even noticed me that day, the dark-haired "student" sitting in on the class. I didn't want anyone to know who I was. After I saw her, listened to her talk, I wished I had told her who I was.  Perhaps she would have noticed me, had she known I was her professor's son.  We met several times after that as I sat in on more of his graduate courses for "fun" and had actually talked as fellow students. We frequently sat as a group after class and had coffee, talking about politics, art, philosophy. Nothing came of it though - I finally made my decision to join the priesthood and stopped visiting my father's classes.

She did finally find out I was his son, but it was only later when I had already taken my vows. I was at a Christmas function where my father invited all his graduate students he was advising and those who worked for him for dinner.  He invited me to show me off and to say grace - my two functions as his son - the beautiful priest who said a mean prayer.  Usually I was proud to play this role. I remember looking at her, dressed in black velvet - so out of character for her, but she looked so beautiful, I only wished I hadn't been a priest after all.

She came up to me later and poked me in the ribs. I was startled at her familiarity. "You're a priest," she said, her voice shocked. "Were you a priest all along?"

"No - I was still a civilian," I laughed, filling her a cup of fruit punch. She took it from my hand and sipped it. "Damn," she replied. "I guess I should have made my move then."

I laughed out loud at this, but inside it hurt to know she had noticed me after all. I had made so many mistakes in my life.

That was 15 years ago - so long ago. She finished her dissertation and was offered a position at the University and worked on and off again with my father's team. I never saw her again although she worked for my father and then collaborated with him as a colleague.

15 years! It seemed a lifetime. She went back to school and studied  extinct languages and had become an expert - if anyone could help me decipher the message on the Colonel's piece of clay, it would be her. I looked in the mirror over my dresser at the gray hair that told of my age. I wondered how time had treated Christine - if she was still as pretty with her green eyes and creamy skin as she had been that year I met her. I'd call her in the morning.

******

 "My God," she laughed, her voice clear and warm. "A blast from my past! Michael!  It's been... years! I don't even want to think of how many."

"Fifteen, actually," I laughed in reply, glad to hear the pleasure in her voice.  "I've got gray hair and wrinkles around my eyes, how about you? You're what - 31 now?"

"I won't even answer that question! Are you still a priest or are you corruptible?"

"Can't I be both?" I chuckled, knowing the answer to both was yes.

"I suppose both are possible, from what I've read about you priests."

"Believe every word!"

We passed pleasantries, filling each other in on what we'd been doing. Of course, I'd been able to keep track of her through my father, knowing she married very badly soon after I entered the priesthood and had a child and had divorced several years later. I imagine she asked my father about me as well, for she seemed to know I had taken on a new position with the church and was not actually in charge of a parish, not a practicing priest.

"You're in administration," she said as I told her I worked for the Vatican. I gave her my usual cover for the people I knew more closely. "I'm in charge of a large project to archive all the Vatican's antiquities. My background in archaeology..."

"Well, that's great Michael, sounds like a really rewarding job."

"That's why I called you, actually..."

"You mean, you didn't call me to ask me to go out on a date?" she laughed. "You know I'm a lonely divorcee and available. Even at my age there aren't too many eligible bachelors floating around so..."

"I suppose, as a priest, I'm not very eligible..."

"I suppose not," she said, but I could detect a hint of sadness in her voice and that sadness warmed me at the same time that it hurt a little bit. "I always thought the Catholic Church was wrong to make its priests celibate. It isn't natural."

"Well," I replied, agreeing with her, but feeling unable to say so. "The church requires absolute commitment from a priest - loyalties can't be divided. God must come first in our lives, not a wife or children. But I do regret not having had the chance at both, Christine. Just between you and me, of course. Don't let it get out or I'll be in trouble!"

She laughed. "Why on earth did you become a priest anyway? You were doing your Doctorate. Why did you quit? Did you hear a voice, run into a burning bush?"

"Yes, actually. I did. I was called, Christine. I know as an atheist, you don't believe in such things, but I was called nonetheless."

"Well, as long as you're happy..."

"Oh, I am," I lied, feeling sick as I said those words. I'd never been more unhappy in all my life.

"I'm glad then," she said quietly. I wondered if she believed me or was just sad.

"I called you because I have a piece of ancient pottery - I think it's part of a tomb seal. I'd like to track it down, get the characters translated."

"Glad to help. Where'd you get it?"

"From a civilian, actually. He just gave it to me, no explanation, no information so it might be hard to track."

"I'm booked all day but why don't you come by tomorrow? We'll have lunch at the faculty club and I'll take a look at it."

We made a date to meet and said our good-byes. I looked in the mirror - perhaps it was time for that haircut.

**********

"You look like the devil," Frances gasped as I walked into our offices later than morning.

"Thanks, Frances, that's just what I need to hear, given our line of work."

"No, seriously, Michael. You look terrible. Are you feeling ill? You're not sleeping well are you? Nightmares again?"

"Of a sort," I replied, wondering how much I'd tell her. I plopped my briefcase down on my old oak desk and took off my jacket. I brushed my bangs out of my face for the hundredth time.

"Haircut time, Michael," she said as she poured the hot water for our tea. She was like a mother to me - my own had died when I was a young boy and I was raised by a housekeeper my father hired. Women had this need to nurture me.

"You're brooding again," she noted, looking at me over her glasses. "So you've been having dreams - the case?"

"Yes."

"This...Verccino. What do you think? I read your e-mails. Sounds pretty scary."

"Oh, he's the real thing, Frances. Changed age in front of me, dropped a decade, his hair longer, his build slighter."

She poured me a cup of the fresh tea and put in my sugar and cream, stirring it before handing me the cup.

"Might not be actual manipulation of matter, he might be projecting mental images. Telepathy of a sort. Doesn't mean he's a demon. Just psychic."

"Possibly," I replied, acknowledging what she said could be the case. He could just be an ordinary psychic - able to project mental images, make you think you were seeing something that wasn't really there. That didn't mean he wasn't in league with the devil. I sighed, hoping he had projected the dream  that it wasn't my own mind working after all. Frances was a psychiatrist. She'd understand. Still, I felt reluctant to admit it - I was a priest and had always thought I was straight. My face grew hot as I thought about the dream.

"Michael!" she said, noting my red face. "What on earth is the matter?"

I shook my head, unable to speak for a moment. I felt tears burn in my eyes and dug my fingernails into my palms, hoping that the pain would stop the tears.

"I dreamed about him."

"Oh, Michael," she said, her voice soft. She understood.

"It was a... sexual dream," I said, my voice quiet, looking away, out the leaded window to the building beside us. My eyes wandered down the side of the building, tracing the path of a large crack between the red bricks. Grey plaster had been applied in a vain attempt to shore up the breach, but I could see now that it was cracked as well.

"You don't have to tell me if you don't want," she replied, resting her hand on my shoulder.

"No, really, Frances," I said, taking her hand and squeezing it. "Of all the people I know, you're the one who would understand, not judge..."

"He's playing mind games with you," she said in an attempt to comfort me. "I'm not surprised you dreamed of him - that's very common."

She sat in the chair beside me and leaned close to me, sipping her tea and waiting for me to continue. When I didn't she gently probed me for details.

"What bothered you most about this dream?"

I looked at her - her face was so open and caring, sympathetic.

"I... I responded to him."

"You're straight, Michael. You've told me before about your lovers, about that one girl."

I nodded but covered my eyes. "But why? Why would I respond if I don't want it, in some way..."

"Michael! This is a perfect way to torture you, to make you question your sexuality - you, a priest. Supposedly celibate, devoid of desire."

I nodded, knowing that what she said was right, but still hating myself inside. I couldn't look at her, my false smile unable to hide my revulsion at myself.

"Don't let it bother you - understand it for what it is - a demon's attempts to destroy you, turn you. Lord only knows what he'd offer me as bait. Probably a chance at youth and beauty since I've always been ugly and now I'm old and ugly."

I looked at Frances. She wasn't ugly, she was plain. Her redeeming feature her warm brown eyes. I looked at her and understood though how she could be tempted - she had a square face, thick across the jaw, small eyes. Thin lips. Short and broad across the hips. Still, she was a loving woman, married and had several children before she turfed her husband.  She had family and those who loved her. To be tempted with youth and beauty, though  - would she give in to him if offered this?

I sighed, finally able to speak, made brave by her own honesty. "I just... it just felt so bad to respond. I've never even considered it, Frances. Always wanted women when I did feel lust. So it came as a big shock that I could... feel desire."

She nodded. "Freud was right, Michael," she said and offered me a plate of fruit and scones. I took some melon. "We're all polymorphous perverse, able to respond to either sex, if our inhibitions are destroyed. That's what he did to you, if you responded to him. Destroyed that wall of inhibition you've built up over the course of your life."

‘Well, it's scary to think it can be destroyed so easily, Frances. I thought it would take torture or pain to do it. Not just a scary flight."

I told her about the turbulence, about my panic and how the Colonel had taken my hand during the worst part. How he had undressed in front of me, how I had witnessed him having sex with his secretary. How he had embraced me when we parted. I didn't tell her about the piece of pottery - something kept me from discussing it.

"You see what he's doing, Michael. He's sexualized himself in your mind - made you think of him in a sexual way, doing all this."

"What should I do? How do I fight this?"

"You don't. You can't fight him, not if he's a demon. You can only understand what he's trying to do, so you can reduce his power over you."

I sighed. I didn't want him to do this to me. "I don't want these feelings," I said to her, looking away. "They have too much ... affect now." I couldn't continue for a moment.

"I'm so lonely, Frances."  I looked at her. "I've considered breaking my vows."

"Get yourself taken off the case, Michael. Take a holiday."

I shook my head. "What on earth would I do that for? I'd be even lonelier without you to talk to."

"Oh, Michael. Get off the case. Someone else can take it over."

I was going to see Christine tomorrow. If I left the case, it wouldn't be until after that.

"I'm meeting someone tomorrow. After I'm done with that, I'll consider it."

She looked a me and shook her head, clucking her tongue in disapproval, but hugged me anyway, her touch such a welcome relief.

*********

 That night I lay in bed, excited for the first time in weeks, months even. I would see Christine tomorrow and that gave me some reason to look forward to getting out of bed. I picked up my spy novel, Le Carre's latest, and read until my eyes felt heavy and then put the book down and turned off the light, ready for sleep.

I had barely fallen asleep it seemed when I woke to the sound of electricity buzzing around me and opened my eyes. In front of me an apparition - Verccino dressed as a Roman warrior, huge, with a tall crested helmet, blood-red leather breastplate, split leather skirt, huge sword at his side. Golden eagle crest on his shield. He hovered over my bed, his dark eyes burning into mine. The image faded, seemed to flicker and was gone.  I closed my eyes and prayed, asking God for strength to fight this demon. What was this image - another clue? A roman warrior. I shook my head and tried to go back to sleep, my rosary in my hand. I dozed.

Then I felt him - felt his heat against me, his body heavy on mine as I lay in my bed under my harsh wool blankets. I could smell him - a scent of soap, cologne, sweat and cognac all mixed together. I opened my eyes and looked into his - it was his younger version again - the curls long, the hair dark with no gray. He was leaning on his elbows looking down at me, his thighs spread straddling my own. He was naked. I held up my hand with the rosary in it and pointed the crucifix at him. He merely laughed at me, kissed the crucifix and then nuzzled into my neck.

"Oh, Michael!" he sighed, "I'm not a vampire so that has no effect on me."

"What do you want from me, demon?" I whispered, knowing that what Frances had said to me was true- I couldn't fight him - he was too strong.

"You," he said in that deep voice. His mouth covered mine in a kiss. I have never felt such a kiss before, have never dreamed of such a kiss before. My cock swelled when I felt him suck my tongue and I knew that quitting the case would be a meaningless gesture. He was a demon and no matter where I went, he could have me, as I feared he was going to have me now.

"Why are you doing this to me?"

"Isn't it obvious? I want you, priest," he laughed.

Then his mouth took mine again and I felt myself falling, falling, panic and desire rising in me at the same time.

I woke with a start, gasping in horror that I could feel anything when he kissed me. My hand went to my hard cock and I felt such shame at my dream. I pulled my hand back and tried to will my erection away, but of course, it was impossible.  The crucifix on the opposite wall offered no comfort - where was my God when I needed him?

Staying in my small bed would do me no good so I pulled my robe around me and padded to the small kitchen to make myself some blackberry tea.  As I stood over the stove waiting for the kettle to whistle, I felt my stomach clench as the memory of his mouth on mine resurfaced. I tried to blot it out, cursing him in my mind. The whistle startled me, bringing me back to the present, and I poured the hot water over the tea leaves in the small jade teapot and stirred. Cup in hand, I went to my father's favorite armchair and plopped down with my book.  This armchair sat by our hearth all my life - it was the one piece of furniture I kept when I sold my father's apartment and its contents.  I couldn't bring myself to sell the armchair - it was far too old and worn anyway - but it meant more to me than anything else. So many nights as I grew up, in that house where I lived all my life, I sat with him, on his lap, and together we read my books and talked, his warmth, the scent of his cologne and the smell of his tobacco defining masculinity for me. As I sat there now, I felt the soft material cushion under me, almost in an embrace - his embrace.

I turned the small table lamp on, its golden light flooding over my shoulder and read in my chair until I fell asleep, Le Carre still open in my hand.
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Part 3

If anything, Christine was even more attractive to me now, fifteen years later, than when we first met. She had a vulnerable quality that I liked and seemed delicate, but perhaps that was because I knew she'd a very bad time of it.  Her ex-husband  stalked her and threatened her long after their marriage ended. If I was initially attracted to her certainty, her cocky know-everything confidence, I was now attracted to her need. I suspect that, to a lonely priest, another person's need is almost an aphrodisiac.

We were sitting in the faculty club at the University waiting for our meals to come.  The club was almost deserted - only a few other early birds were present - we were having an early lunch as she had a 12:30 class. Almost alone in this large empty room, we leaned closer together as if to overcome the stark loneliness of the place. Perhaps it was  this loosened her tongue, or maybe just the wine, but I felt an intimacy with her that conflicted with the years that had passed since we last saw each other.

Christine told me about how her ex-husband stalked her and threatened her.  As familiar as I was with this whole scenario, I was still shocked that the woman I'd admired so much could become involved with such a man.

"How'd you ever get mixed up with him, Christine? You always seemed so self-assured, so capable, as if you'd never take anything from anyone." As soon as the words slipped out of my mouth, I realized this was the wrong thing to say, but it was just my honest reaction - shock.  She looked away - the intervening years hadn't taken the edge off her memories  - the wounds were still raw.

"I was a total fraud," she said quickly before I could apologize. "What do you mean, a fraud? You were brilliant - a 'wunderkind', my father called you." I reached out and touched her hand, glad no one was around. She looked away as if she thought me an indulgent fool.

"I have a photographic memory, Michael. I remember everything. It's great for exams, it's easy to score well when you regurgitate material. And I'm good enough as a writer that I can mix together what I've read into an essay - so I did well in grad school. But remember - I was with people five and ten years older than me - right from my first days in school. I always felt insecure."

I nodded. It would be hard to find her place. Kids her own age would either be in awe or think her an egghead, while her fellow students at university would think of her as a child. I never noticed - I saw her as a woman in spite of her age.  Her cockiness put me at ease.

"So you compensated by acting aggressive." I said, feeling foolish that I'd never picked it up. My attraction to her blinded me to this.

"Exactly."

We paused as the waiter brought our meals. I bowed my head and said a silent prayer of thanks and when I looked up, she was smiling at me.

What!" I laughed, taking my fork and poking the salad on my plate. "I'm a priest, Christine. "

"Thank you for not making me bow my head as well!"

"I'm not an imperialist, although my religious predecessors were."

"And still are!" she replied.

"Still the same Christine," I said, "All those tirades on religious imperialism and the roots of anthropology."

She laughed. "I guess I am still the same in many ways. It's just that the Catholic church has been involved in so much of the bad that's gone on in our history, so much bloodshed and so much repression. I really had a hard time accepting that you were a priest when I found out. I thought you agreed with me when I ranted after class about religion."

"I did agree with you, Christine, but -- I think part of me just wanted to get you into bed," I said, my face flushed at my admission. She tilted her head to the side and looked at me sadly.

"So you admit the church has been implicated in much of the evil in our history?"

I cut up some vegetables as I framed my response. I didn't like her choice of word - evil. Perhaps corrupt, harmful, but not evil. "The church is a living thing, it is a human construct, and therefore fallible. The word of God isn't."

"Well, I can't believe in God, Michael. Not when 40,000 children die each day of malnutrition. How could God exist?"

"Christine," I sighed. "I don't want to argue with you about the existence of God." I put my fork and knife down and looked at her. "I grant you almost everything bad you could say about the church - I'm smart enough, I've studied history. I'm not some blind dogmatist. I just know, in my heart, that God exists. You don't know this. That's fine with me - I won't try to convert you. I just want to have a nice meal with you and ask for your help tracking down this piece of pottery."

She looked away from me, obviously upset at my tone.

"I'm sorry," she said finally. "It's just that, everyone blames me for being with a man who beat me - you..." she turned back and looked at me. "What you said made me feel so stupid. I wanted to hurt you back."

I reached over and took her hand. It was all right for me, a priest, to take her hand, to comfort her. If people saw me holding her hand, and saw my collar, they'd know I was just doing my job. I might believe it if I repeated it enough.

"I'm so sorry, Christine. It was a thoughtless thing to say."

"No," she said, close to tears. "It's the first thing people think when they know. 'How could you be so stupid? Why would you stay with a man who hurt you?'" She pulled her hand away and wiped her mouth with her napkin. "I needed someone to want me - I felt so out of place. He wanted me so badly and let me know it."

"You can't appreciate how ... seductive someone else's desire can be to someone who is insecure," she said.

"I'd no idea he was obsessed, that his jealousy was dangerous. I thought - he loves me so much, he can't stand the thought of me being away from him." She took a sip of water. "I've had counseling - I know it's a danger sign, but then it made me feel so special. Then it became about control, and got out of hand - violent.  But not until I was already married to him and pregnant. What could I do?" she asked, her voice breaking. "I had no money and I thought he'd kill me."

"Oh, I wish I'd known, Christine." I said, shaking my head as I pictured her, bruised, pregnant and afraid for her life.

"No!" she said, "Not you of all people! A Catholic priest! You'd tell me to stay with him, tell me that divorce was out of the question."

"We're not monsters, Christine.  You could've had an annulment. The church now recognizes violence as a valid reason to end a marriage."

"I went to a priest--my parents took me.  He said my husband needed help.  His solution: I should pray for strength and his soul."

"Well, your parents' priest was an idiot - the old school. I wouldn't have told you that."

It's so easy to spout advice when you have no interest in the outcome and when you know nothing about love and jealousy and insecurity. I'd probably say the same thing if I hadn't known her. We sat in silence for several very long minutes. She seemed to struggle with herself, debating whether to continue. But discretion took over, and kept silent, attention now fixed on her plate.

 "You have a son. How's he doing?"

"Nicholas?" she replied. "As well as can be expected, considering he's never had a real father to care for him, do the father thing."

"You seem to be doing fine now," I said.

"He finally found another victim," she replied. "Isn't that comforting? To know that he's making some other woman's life hell?" She looked away. "I know it's selfish of me but all I care about is that he left Nicky and I alone."

I took her hand again, wanting to embrace her instead, wanting to kiss her. This time, she squeezed my hand back.

"So, where's this piece of pottery you spoke about?"

I sighed, and fished in my pocket.

"Here it is," I said, passing it to her across the table. "I know nothing about it. Someone just gave it to me."

She looked at it briefly and moved to put it in her case, but then pulled it back and took the pottery out of its plastic bag for a closer look.  She frowned.

"Is there something wrong?" I asked.

"No," she replied, and put it back carefully into the plastic bag. "I... " she shook her head. "I'll check it out - I've some time in the next couple of days so I'll have something for you by the end of the week."

The meal finished, we walked to her office. I smelled the scent of books, the musty smell of old artifacts in drawers in the lab attached to her office, and the dry grit of chalk dust from the small chalkboard behind her desk. She'd drawn several different ways of translating a set of characters - probably explaining to one of her students how they had gone wrong on an exam. Her photographic memory made her almost perfect for her role as an expert in extinct languages.

Her office was filled with bookshelves and texts - oh, how I loved academic offices! My father used to take me to his when I was a young boy. I remember sitting beside him at another desk while he worked away grading exams or preparing lectures. I sat reading his texts on ancient civilizations, looking out the large window onto the green space below the building.

A radio was tuned to an FM station playing classical music. The atmosphere was so tranquil - so removed from the troubles that filled my own work, the fear and dread I felt when reading my own files and writing my notes. As I moved around her office, looking at her vast selection of texts, I felt such a deep sense of personal loss.  I wished that I'd finished my own doctorate and gone on to the academic life instead of the priesthood. Who knew where I'd be now. I turned and watched her as she bent over her notes, flipping through a set of overheads to make sure they were in order.

If things had been different, she could've been my wife.

"Michael?" she said, standing up. She must have felt my eyes on her. "Are you all right?"

Was my regret so obvious? I almost ached to be her lover.

"Just thinking about how infatuated I was with you back then."

"Michael!" she said in surprise. I was surprised as well, but something was making me confess to her - likely my anxiety over Verccino's affect on me. "You were infatuated with me? I thought I was the one who was infatuated!"

I shook my head and leaned against the filing cabinet, my hands supporting me. "If we'd become lovers, I don't think I'd have become a priest."

"You'd have let me get in the way of joining the priesthood? That doesn't sound very good for your commitment."

I nodded. "I was looking for reasons not to become a priest. I felt compelled to join - I wasn't overjoyed at the prospect. You'd have made my mind up for me. I mean, it's impossible to know now, but I'm sure my life would've been very different."

"Mine too," she said quietly.

In a movie, I'd put my arms around her, kiss her and promise to quit the priesthood so we could marry and finally be happy together. Instead, she picked up her lecture notes and looked at her watch.

"I've got to go."

Knowing the moment had passed, I said nothing and followed her out the door.

"Michael," she began, slinging her case over her shoulder. She hesitated and I had the feeling she was censoring herself again. "I'll check this out tomorrow, see what I can find out. I'll call you when I have something."

She smiled at me, but I knew she felt awkward saying good-bye.

"It's been so good to see you again, Christine," I said, wanting to embrace her - hell, wanting to kiss her. We parted and walked in opposite directions.

******

Later that afternoon, Frances had the television on and was watching news clips of the peace talks in Amman, Jordan.  As she watered her plants, she looked over her half-eye glasses at the television screen and mumbled a running commentary - none of it complimentary to the participants. I strolled into her office in time for tea and flopped down on the couch to watch with her. The camera showed saw a large briefing room filled in the rear with reporters and at the front a large table with a panel of officials from the three participating nations - Israel, the PLO, and Jordan.  Frances brought me a cup of tea and stood watching the question and answer session.

It was actually quite boring - just an opportunity for the press to ask questions about process - who, what, where and when questions about the negotiations. I had little real faith in the possibility of peace - this was just a new government's attempt to garner favor at home. The camera was focused in on the Israeli official - I could see a number of advisors standing behind him, but none of their faces. The official was asked a question from one of the reporters about support from Zionist groups in the United States. The official covered his microphone and leaned back and I was amazed as Verccino himself  bent down and whispered in the official's ear.

"Oh, God," I said, my voice betraying my shock. "There he is."

"What? Who! Verccino?" Frances asked, her voice alarmed. "Where?" She came quickly to my side and watched the television. "Where is he - which one?"

I pointed him out. "There - talking to the Israeli official at the briefing table."

"It can't be him!" she protested. "How could he be there? He's in an Israeli uniform - it looks like, but I can't tell. Is he an advisor? But our reports..."

"Our reports said certain ex-members were involved in selling arms to militant factions of the PLO who were out to end the peace process," I replied.  This part of my cover was true - the CIA caught several and their "confessions" led the CIA to call us in. Their claims led our group to Verccino it the first place. I contacted the Colonel less than a month ago about the information I received from the CIA as a way to establish contact with him and his group.  He replied, giving me the spiel about the ex-members."

"Maybe they were traitors - going against his wishes. It might explain the deaths in Montana," Frances offered.

"Maybe he's playing both sides off against each other." I suggested. "Who can say what his motives are? We don't know enough about him to even guess."

The camera panned back as the two discussed the question. Verccino stood back up and leaned against the wall, the officers on either side of him leaning in to listen to him. The official replied saying that the purpose of the meeting was to answer procedural questions, not discuss policy but that the new Israeli government enjoyed the support of sympathetic people and groups from around the world. That he couldn't mention any names in particular to protect them from potential backlash.

How had Verccino worked his way into the upper echelons of the Israeli military establishment? I knew as much about him as did the CIA - they gave us their file on him when they informed us about his connections to the PLO arms deals. He had been an officer in the Marines during the taking of Granada and during Desert Storm, but left soon after to branch out on his own.  He had recently been a mercenary, fighting in Indonesia. He established his own militia in Montana, training recruits and we suspected hiring them out to the highest bidder.  They had several members fighting in Central America, working with the Mexican government against the rebels.

Now here he was - involved in the most current round of Middle-East peace talks.

"Who in the hell is this guy?" Frances asked, her hands on her hips. She shook her head and looked at me. "He's everywhere - wherever there's war. Did the file say anything about Desert Storm? Why he retired?"

"No - he never saw direct combat - he was in planning. Behind the scenes in Storm and as an advisor in Indonesia. He saw direct action in Granada, leading ground forces during the invasion. He seems to like to keep to the background. He's pretty visible here, though."

"Well, if he's a demon, he's damn visible. I don't know Michael. I know you think he changed form, but I've never heard of this kind of incarnation before - this kind of constant embodiment and contact with the world. This guy is beyond anything I've seen or read about. If he's the real thing, he's a very powerful demon. I'd say of a different sort altogether."

"A fallen angel," I replied, finishing my tea. My grandmother used to tell us stories about the fallen angels.  They were said to be the most mighty demons on earth - set to rise up when the apocalypse neared, acting as Satan's minions in the final battle against Christ.

As I grew older, I stopped believing in my grandmother's stories. Science wiped away all vestiges of my belief.  I believed the psychologists instead who claimed there was evil in our own hearts - that it was the human soul that was responsible for evil in this world. But I'd seen too many cases of men with unnatural power, power to alter the thinking and beliefs of their followers, seemingly able to manipulate matter and induce psychoses in their disciples. I'd begun once again to believe in evil.

Verccino didn't look like a demon - he looked like a competent military officer. Yet, I remembered his younger incarnation - he looked more like an angel to me - his youthful face so beautiful, his body so perfect. I could believe this version was a fallen angel. If so, I had a mighty enemy trying to get into my mind, into my bed. A shiver went through me at the memory of his lips on mine.

"We'll have to contact Velasquez. He'll want us to go to Amman," I concluded. Frances nodded in agreement.

"Michael, you'll have to tell him about your dreams. He'll ask you to assess your ability to carry on. He'll ask me as well, and I'll tell him the truth. I think you should pull yourself off the case."

"Frances," I replied. "It makes no difference if I'm on or off the case. He can get to me any time he wants."

"Michael, once you're gone, he'll forget you - he's only doing this to you because you're a threat. If you've considered breaking your vows, you must withdraw."

I shook my head. "No, Frances - this is more than just the case. It's personal. He ..." I hesitated, not wanting yet to tell her about the clay seal fragment. "He told me he knows who I am and that we're wrong if we think we know who he is. He gave me something. I think it's a clue to his identity."

"Michael! Why didn't you tell me this immediately? This is critical - you can't keep information back like this!" She sat down beside me on the sofa and waited for me to tell her the whole story. I did, ashamed that I had kept this from her. I told her everything.

"Christine's checking it out for me. She's the best for this kind of artifact. She said she'd have something for me by the end of the week."

"We'll have to tell Velasquez. Whatever this seal is, it's part of the case, Michael, not your personal property. He may have given it to you, but if he knows who you are, he gave it to us as well. He may also be playing with your mind - trying to make you think you're somehow special to him by doing this. I'm worried about your judgment, Michael."

I leaned back and closed my eyes. That worried me, too.

******

We met with Bishop Miguel Velasquez, our direct superior in the group, later that evening. He was busy on the phone when we walked into the luxurious office and I thought of Christine's rants about the church's wealth as I surveyed opulent office in the historic building. Dark wood moldings on the doorways around the windows gave the room a somber studious appearance - I'd always felt a certain sense of awe in his presence probably because of the surroundings. I scanned the books in the ornate bookshelves that lined one wall - classics, some of them so old, the bindings were falling apart. I finally sat down beside Frances on a velvet chair and felt the cool breeze brush my cheeks.  Leaded windows were opened to let fresh air in.

Velasquez sat behind his desk, hands clasped together, waiting for us to speak. He'd already read my briefing notes, but wanted our own words to refresh his memory. Who knows how many cases he was keeping track of at one time.

I told him of my time in Montana and of my suspicions regarding the Colonel - his ability to change his appearance. Of our flight back to Chicago and the turbulence. Of our parting at the airport in Chicago and the seal he'd given me.

"It could mean anything - his words to you. We can't jump to any conclusions," he said, taking his glasses off and cleaning them with a kerchief extracted from a pocket. He was a small man - balding, and chubby. Dark close-set eyes were framed by thick eyebrows.

"As for knowing who you are, that is an old trick used to unsettle one's foe, to get you to admit who you are. The seal could be a ruse, a red herring used to distract us from his real identity."

Frances seemed unhappy with Velasquez's response.

"He's had dreams, Miguel. Sexual dreams."

Velasquez looked at me and leaned forward. "This wasn't in your report, Michael. If it's relevant to the case, it should go in. I have to have all the facts before I can determine the proper course of action. You know that. This is not personal, Michael - none of your work for the group is."

I flushed, knowing what he said was true, but I was so damn embarrassed to admit my response to the dreams.

"I've talked to Francesca about this. I realize I should've put it in my report, but it was very difficult for me to come to terms with my response to the dreams. I... I didn't want it in writing."

"It's a perfect form of torture, Michael - to tempt us with forbidden desire. You're no different than any other priest in this - our celibacy makes us ripe for the picking even as it makes us better priests, more able to give our entire selves to the service of God. It is our burden - to be tested by Satan this way," he said, watching my face closely for my response.  I nodded at his words.

Of course he knew just what to say - he'd practiced psychiatry before joining the clergy, and, like me, was  someone who had lived a normal life before becoming a priest. He was as close to a kindred spirit as I'd met in the church - I knew he had chosen me precisely because I'd lived as he had - outside the church's grasp for a time as an adult. He was very busy, however, and we'd never spent much time discussing anything other than our cases.

"I am sorry that you are faced with this test - most priests are never faced with such temptation. I chose you for the group because I felt you had much to offer us because of your interest in ancient religions and biblical texts. I also wanted you because I felt that your time as a civilian would give you strength and wisdom to comprehend and deal with such a test if it ever occurred. I'm counting on you to weather this and carry on."

He rose from his chair and came in front of me, leaning back on his desk, his hands folded on his lap. "Do you feel able to meet this challenge?"

"I ..." I hesitated, still not certain if I was able. "I considered breaking my vows, finding a woman so I could reassure myself of my... heterosexuality."

Velasquez nodded and closed his eyes for a moment. "You see, my faith in you is well placed, Michael, for  it takes considerable strength to admit this. Self-awareness. But you have not acted on this impulse.  You haven't broken your vows."

I shook my head. "No, I haven't." I didn't tell him that I was hoping that Christine and I would become lovers, that I was, even now, willing to break my priestly vows if she wanted me.

"Pray for strength, Michael. I'll pray for you as I'm sure Francesca is already. Call me at any time should you reconsider. Other than that, please continue. You'll have to fly to Amman and check out the Colonel. Place yourself where he can see you so he knows you're following him, that you're aware of his involvement in the peace talks, but maintain your cover. He may contact you, he may not," he shrugged. I nodded.

"Francesca," he said, turning now to my partner. "I want you to stay behind and help me. I'm sending someone to Montana to infiltrate the group, to watch Verccino first hand. I'm reviewing candidates now and could use your input."

I felt momentarily dizzy at the thought she'd not accompany me - as if she could offer me some protection from Verccino. Velasquez was the head of our unit - it was his decision, so I didn't protest. I watched Frances' face - she looked as if she wanted to speak but bit her tongue as well.

"Was there something else, Francesca?"

She shook her head, unwilling to challenge his decision. Velasquez's silence was our dismissal and we left him and went back to our own offices in another area of the city. As we drove in her little Austin, she shook her head, admitting her shock at Velasquez's attitude towards my dreams.

"I can't understand why he didn't take you off the case, Michael. I would if I was in charge. And not sending me with you - it's like he's dangling you out as bait."

I had the same feeling.  We drove in silence.

"Michael, will you be all right?" she asked me as I got out of the car outside the villa where I lived. I nodded.

"Call me if you need to talk. If you want to stay at my place, feel free. I have an extra room now that Joseph's gone to college."

"It won't do any good, Frances," I sighed. "I'll dream wherever I am. But thanks anyway. You're so good to me."

"Michael - I love you like a brother. I don't like this one bit - what I think Velasquez is doing with you. Keep that in mind when you encounter Verccino - you may be bait." She looked in the rear- view mirror at the traffic building behind her and I knew she had to leave.

"We seem to be caught up in the idea that the demon is tempting you, Michael, but Velasquez may want you to tempt the demon. If so, I fear for you."

I nodded, fearing for myself as well.

******

Pacing around my small apartment, I felt an incredible need to release some of this tension and anxiety. I was reluctant to sleep - afraid that I'd have more dreams and dreaded going to bed, but what could I do? I had to go to Amman tomorrow and would need my energy. A warm bath would relax me and my book would offer some distraction while I soaked, but after reading the same paragraph for the third time and still not knowing what it said, I put the book down and closed my eyes. My mind went immediately to Christine and our meeting in the day.

I wanted her. There was an immediate sense of intimacy with her that I felt with no one else - perhaps because of our previous relationship, however chaste. Perhaps it was the fact that she was lonely now and still hurting from her failed marriage. I only knew I was still attracted to her as a woman and imagined how it would feel to kiss her - really kiss her, the way Verccino kissed me in my dreams.

My cock swelled at the thought and I was so tempted to touch myself, to imagine her as I masturbated - her body against mine, my cock inside her, thrusting in her. Yet, I sensed that this was his goal - to break down my defenses, to make me a willing conspirator - to want my own corruption. I had to be strong, had to try to resist as long and as fully as I could. I had to know who he was, what he was doing, before I could break my vows over Christine. I had to think of the consequences for myself if I did break them.

If I broke my vows, I knew I'd leave the priesthood completely, and that was a big step.

I left the tub and wrapped my robe around me and threw myself on my bed on my stomach. I prayed for strength, repeating the rosary over and over again until sleep came.

******

The first sensation was warmth as he sat on the bed beside me. I felt the mattress depress and the heat of his hard thigh along my hip. Lifting my head off the pillow, I turned to look at him - he was naked, his bronze skin glowing in the moonlight shining in from the window over my bed. He pushed me over on my back and opened my robe, his hands sliding over my skin as he moved to straddle my hips. I lay helpless beneath him, unable to move or fight back as if he'd paralyzed me.

"Yes, you're very tempting, Michael," he said, his voice warm and deep. His eyes moved over my naked body. "All that pent-up desire waiting to be released, all those years of mandatory self-denial, all that loneliness needing to be erased by love and affection. So tempting to be the one to release that desire, to erase the loneliness."

He leaned over me and kissed my neck and I felt his hard cock press against me. His mouth was so hot, his  tongue soft and wet - they felt so incredibly erotic on my skin.  I knew he could feel my own erection pressed against him as he lay fully on top of me.

"I've known that incredible loneliness, Michael. 1500 years of enforced solitude. I've known unfulfilled desire -  so painful, it almost drove me mad. Yes, you are tempting. They chose you so well, I just might give in to temptation."

Then he kissed me and I felt such a surge of desire go through me I thought I'd explode from it even as I felt tears of anger and frustration fill my eyes.  I was disgusted at my weakness, at how I was unable to resist him, and yet, I kissed him back and my arms were suddenly able to move. They moved around him, pulling him closer to me.

"Oh, Michael," he whispered, pulling back and raising himself up on his hands.  His face above me was so incredibly beautiful, his dark curls falling softly around his face, his cheekbones high and sharp, his full lips wet from my mouth. He wiped my cheeks with a finger and slipped the finger in his mouth, his eyes closing as he tasted my tears.

"So much loneliness..."

Then he bent down and kissed me once again, the touch of his tongue on mine taking my breath away.  When his mouth moved lower on my body, I tensed, knowing what he was going to do. I cried out, fighting still against the desire I felt for this act, for him.

I woke with a start, still on my stomach, the bed damp beneath me. My erection felt hard against my belly and I knew the bed was damp from my wet skin, not from cum. Thankful that the dream had ended there, I got up and went to my bathroom.  From the back of the medicine chest, I took out a vial of strong sedatives my physician prescribed for me when I'd had trouble before with nightmares during a particularly difficult case. I swallowed one, drank some water and went back to my bed.

I'd spend the rest of the night in a drug-induced sleep, and would wake up only partially rested, but I knew I'd have no more dreams.
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Part 4
Amman at dawn shines like burnished gold - the rising sun touches building tops and glints off the many domed mosques spread over the city. I stand at the open widow of my small hotel room and smell the hot air as if wafts up from the street below.  The ripe smell of the noisy market is gone after a night of emptiness - it's quite strong if you're not used to such places.

In the distance I hear a lonely muezzin calling out to his God - his sorrowful voice tugs at my heart.  So many men searching for God, calling out to Him, looking for what? Peace? An end to fear and the grief that of necessity accompanies life?  A way to assuage the knowledge of our human frailty - to deny our mortality with dreams of eternal life?  I would normally be kneeling down to pray to the Christian God, but after yesterday and last night, I've not the heart.

"Laa Elaaha lllallaah" There is no god but Allah.

Yesterday was a day like no other in my life. I can scarcely believe I'm still able to function - each sense now feels magnified, each sensation heightened. I feel as if I've just passed through the eye of a hurricane and survived - stunned and shaken, but still breathing. Barely.

***

It's early the previous day, I'm on the first commercial flight from Rome as it touches down in Amman and I'm relieved to get off although the flight was short and uneventful.  There are so many places I'd like to visit again now that I'm here but I go instead to the American Embassy, passing though the market as I do.  The air is heavy with the scent of bodies, of food and refuse - already the day is hot and the smells mingle to produce the over-whelming scent of humanity.

I spent many nights in this great city and others in this ancient land with my father when I was a small boy and during my days as a graduate student.  I love the smell.  So many wonderful memories are attached to it - it is the scent of life and death, of the marketplace.  It invigorates me momentarily as if the air is filled with energy from the multitude gathered to buy and sell their goods.

I meet with my contact and get proper clearance papers so I can continue to function in my guise as a CIA officer.  The agent hands me the latest reports on the peace talks - they mention Verccino. According to intelligence, he's acting as an advisor and has made fast friends with a number of high-ranking military officers in the Israeli army. I can't imagine why he's here - is he hoping to make money off his advice? Is he here as a mercenary? Is he selling arms to both sides? Or selling them to one, and informing for the other?

"Nothing scheduled to happen until 1700 hours when the news conference is being held," Agent John Gray, field officer in charge of the Jordanian branch of the CIA, informed me.  "You can get privileged access to the news conference with your ID but you'll get no access to any official functions - won't get into any of the sessions. But we've an Agent stationed in one of the palace rooms and are taping the proceedings - with the blessing of all three participants, of course!" he laughed and winked at me. I didn't believe him - they might have Jordan's support and perhaps Israel's blessings - but Arafat? I couldn't see the PLO leader agreeing, although he'd been moderating lately.

After my meetings with Agent Gray, I went straight to the palace where the meetings are being held - it's impressive, but frankly I've visited before with my father and am more interested in Verccino so I hardly notice the architecture.  My head is aching--the sedative from last night makes me feel hung-over and I can't stop yawning.

In the old bathroom we're using at the palace I look at myself in the mirror as I wash my hands and splash cold water over my face.  Dark shadows circle my eyes, betraying my obvious fatigue and my legs feel weak - then I remember I haven't eaten.

"Is there a commissary or someplace to get lunch?" I ask Agent Crosby, the CIA agent in charge of logistics at the palace when I return from the washroom.  He shakes his head.

"You gotta go out to the market and buy your food.  The palace provides food only for official participants, which cuts us out of the loop."

"Can I get you anything?" I ask as I head out. I don't really feel like being here, sitting in this cramped room with Crosby - he's wearing headphones and is listening to the proceedings of the peace talks.  There's nothing to do but sit on the leather couch which sags against the wall and read the international English language newspapers.  Crosby shakes his head and yawns after watching me yawn for the hundredth time since I arrived an hour ago.

"I got my cooler full of stuff - I don't like the local grub. Gives me heartburn."

I shrug and leave. The closest exit to the street leads to a nearby market. It goes by the conference room and I'm tempted as I pass to stand outside and listen, but change my mind as I see a Jordanian police officer approach.  I couldn't understand anything so I pass by, slowing down briefly to wonder if Verccino is there today - hoping that he is, but at the same time, afraid to see him again in person. I'm still not entirely convinced the dreams are the product of my unconscious or actual visits - they're so real to me, so vivid. So disconcerting. Damn it - who am I trying to fool?  So blasted real they scare me half to death.

The air scorches off the streets, and there's a brisk wind today - the hot air blasts me and sand grits between my teeth.  I shiver despite the heat, feeling feverish and I'm so *bloody* tired.  Yawning again does nothing to alleviate my fatigue and I sit on a bench to stop from fainting.  I actually get lightheaded and have to put my head between my knees.  My head spins - damn!  I had this checked out at the neurologists last month, a CAT scan to check for the cause of my persistent vertigo, but nothing.  Then I notice blood on the stone road beneath my feet and can't figure it out at first - where's the blood coming from?  A man stops in front of me - I glance up slowly and he speaks to me in some Arabic dialect.  I have to shake my head and speak to him in English.

He points to me then motions to his own nose and it's then I realize my nose is bleeding. My hand goes to my face and sure enough, I've got blood dripping down my chin. Damn nosebleeds. The dry air does nothing to help my condition. When I reach into my pocket, I've no handkerchief - my bag of tissues is back on the coffee table at my
hotel.  He's nothing to offer so I hold my arm up, trying to stop the flow with the sleeve of my suit jacket.  Then someone hands me a large white handkerchief and as I take it, I notice the signet ring on the man's index finger and a shock goes through me.  There's an eagle stamped into the ring - even in my state, I'm able to make it out. I cover my nose and lean my head back to stem the flow, meeting his eyes as I do.

"You're not looking so well, *Agent* McGuigan," he says.

He lays his hand on my head, on the top and leaves it there, a look of concern on his face. A frown, then his brows relax and I take the kerchief away and note that the flow of blood has stopped. Patting my nose I see there is no blood left, not even a drop comes from it - as if it's dried up completely in less than a minute.

"Seems to have stopped," he says, and I nod my head, unsure of what to do with the bloodied hankie.

"Sorry - I'll replace it as soon as I get to my hotel."

Verccino shakes his head and hooks his hand under my arm, helping me to my feet. The light-headedness is gone.

"Go to the Doctor when you get back to Quantico, Agent McGuigan," Verccino says, his voice soft, with a slight accent on the "Agent" as if he doesn't believe I'm CIA.  "Get another CAT Scan, and have them check the previous one more carefully. You had a benign tumor on your brain causing those headaches. It's gone."

I look at him, confused. "How did you know."

He smiles at me; one corner of his mouth turned up in a grin that looks almost devilish.

"I have a "knack" at sensing these things, Agent McGuigan. People say I have a healing touch."

We walk along the path to a vendor who displays unleavened bread and meat, and Verccino purchases some for me.  I shove it in my mouth and eat with gusto, glad that my vertigo is gone, whatever the cause.  I walk beside my "demon", choking down the food, and push the nagging thoughts to the back of my mind. I tuck a mental note to call my neurologist into my internal scheduler.

Back at the palace Verccino pulls me into his private office. He shows me to a seat and then stands off to the side of the room and changes, stripping off the damp shirt that covers his tanned and well-developed form.  I can't help but stare as he stands there: his chest and back are bare while he rustles through the closet, selecting his shirt.  I know he's doing it again - trying to show off his marvelous physique.

God!  As I sit here, watching the spectacle in front of me, I feel no desire for him, none at all.  He's just another man changing his shirt, he happens to have a very good build.  Yet, why then the dreams?  Is it my subconscious desire, some repressed homosexual tendency I've denied all this time?  I shudder in spite of myself and turn away, unwilling to watch as he turns to face me and buttons up his shirt.  But before I'm able, I catch sight of his half-smile. Damn him!

"So, Michael," he says as he tucks his shirt in his pants.  "What are you doing here at the peace talks. Or need I ask?" he smiles at me, those dark eyes sparkling. "The Agency sent you to watch me? I thought you were out here for a personal trip."

"Both.  My father used to take me here when I was a young boy.  It's a favorite retreat for me when I'm under a lot of stress."

He smiles and buckles his belt; his hands seem to linger over his crotch and draw my eyes there against my will.  Then he turns away and walks to his desk and bends over, and I swear he's doing it just to show off his hard butt.  I feel nothing, nothing.It's just the fact that he's trying to tempt me that causes any reaction.

"Yes, that's right.  I remember reading your profile, what little we could dig up on you.  You were going to be a scholar.  How on earth did you manage to end up in the CIA?"

I didn't want to keep on this line of discussion-I hated to lie, fearing that he'd be able to sense it, but kept replying in spite of myself.  I told him as much of the truth as I could.

"I.I was called to it, really.  They contacted me and said they needed someone with my background in the Middle East."

He looked at some papers in his hand and then over at me, and I felt his eyes focus on me as a hawk focuses on its prey.

"Sounds more like you belong to a religious order than an Intelligence Agency."  He smiled and put the papers down.  "Yes, some of us do have a calling.  Not one we'd necessarily choose for ourselves, one that's pressed on us by necessity or fate.  War seems to be my fate, Michael.  Intrigue yours.  They go together, no?"

"Always have."

He came over and stood directly in front of me, his hands splayed on his hips.  Those hands, I couldn't take my eyes off them-the fingers long and elegant.  Tanned, strong.  I remembered the hands of his younger version, the feel of them on my body in my dreams. so hot, insistent.  Taking what he wanted and I was helpless to resist.  I shuddered at the memory and looked away, at the window; the orange-yellow sunlight shone in and gleamed on the brass vessels laid out on the small table. I tried to ignore the tingle in my belly.

"Well, here I am, Agent McGuigan.  I'm yours.  Ask me anything."

I looked back.  He couldn't be serious-he was just taunting me once again.  As if bidden, a knock on the door interrupted us.

"Come."

A uniformed man entered and nodded politely to me when he saw Verccino had a visitor.

"Sorry to interrupt, Sir, but the General wanted to speak with you in his office."

"I'll be right there."

The man nodded and left us alone and Verccino turned back to me.

"Well, Agent McGuigan, I suppose we'll have to talk some other time.  What about a late supper tonight?  I'll be in conference all day, and we won't be breaking until 2100 hours.  We could talk then, and maybe I'll get you off my back."

I stuttered something incomprehensible and realized I'd agreed to meet him later at the hotel.  He ushered me out of the room, one hand on my back as if I was a prized secretary.

"Later."

The door closed behind me and I stood dumbstruck, still processing everything that had happened to me.  If I thought I was in shock then, I think I'd have boarded the next plane for Rome if I'd had any inkling of how terrified I'd be in only a few short hours.

*******

The participants from the Palestinian contingent drone on all afternoon.  I'm sitting in the foyer across from the main conference room, waiting for the talks to end so I can see and hear Verccino and the other officials answer questions from members of the international press.  Nothing I've heard here today is a shock or in anyway new or
startling.  Just as I thought--window-dressing on the part of the new coalition government in Israel.  The halls are deserted: everyone is in the conference room, and it isn't slated to end for another quarter of an hour, but the small office to which Crosby and I have been relegated is hot and cramped.  I sit in the cool dimness of the corridor and sip at a cup of hot tea I've purchased in the market.

Verccino and a couple of the senior Israeli military officials walk down the long hallway after emerging from a bank of elevators.  Verccino is taller than the others and stands in the midst of them as if he is the center of importance.  I wonder how he's able to do it-weasel his way into the realm of power so easily, as if this is second nature to him.  His face is turned to talk with one general beside him: a short balding man with a hard body and small pot belly.  They nod to each other, serious about the topic of conversation.

It's then I see a figure emerge from a narrow corridor leading to another part of the palace.  Something about the man draws my suspicion.  He's dressed in ethnic clothing: tunic and loose pants, sandals and a hat.  He's carrying a jacket over his arm and I know enough from my small bit of CIA training that this means danger and my muscles all tense.  Verccino looks up and sees the same thing I do, we all do.  A shout, the man yells something at Verccino in an unintelligible language and then I see something I can't accept.  It's as if lightning streaks out from the intruder to Verccino, throwing him back against a wall.  The men with him fall to the side as if struck by the same bolt of electricity.  Verccino is shocked, shaken, but he stands up and hurls a similar bolt back at the figure standing across the corridor from him.  They struggle and I realize I'm the only one conscious and able to watch.  The other men with Verccino are unconscious.

"It's too late," a strange voice says.  "Even if you destroy me, your plans are ruined."  Then the stranger laughs, and the next thing I know, I see a white-hot flash.  "FUCK!" I hear Verccino shout, and he lunges at me, and it's as if he trying to stand over me.  The world itself seems to collapse around us and the noise is deafening.  Then nothingness.

********

I'm being carried; big arms hold me effortlessly.  I wake up, stars still sparkle in front of my eyes but I can see.  Verccino sits me down on the bench.  He kneels in front of me and wipes off the blood from my face with a rag, I sit in stunned silence, quiet in the midst of ruin - all around me are bodies and debris and ambulance personnel tend to the injured.  Stone from the collapsed wall between us and the conference room lies in big chunks, and sirens wail.  A bomb.  That's all I can think.

"We need a priest here, this man is a Catholic."  One of the medics stands up from the injured man he's tending and looks around.  "He needs last rites."

Verccino looks at me, at my panicked eyes.  He waits, as if he knows I'm a priest, and wants to see how I'll handle this impossible situation.

"Go ahead priest," he says to me finally and stands up, motioning for me to go to the dying man. "Soothe this dying man.  Pretend to him his God cares that he's dying.  You and I both know He doesn't."

I stand and move to the man, and recognize him as one of the CIA personnel.  Kneeling down, I make the sign of the cross and start the last rites.  I feel Verccino's eyes on me but ignore him.  It's the least I can do-blow my cover for a dying man's comfort.  Verccino obviously knew who I was already.  No sense in pretending any longer.  As
I'm saying the prayers for this man at my feet, it hits me that what Verccino said was true--I don't really believe our God cares anymore.  Verccino knows who I am.  He must therefore know what I think of him, who I work for and what we're doing.  It's then, too, that I feel this overwhelming sense that I'm a sacrifice.

I look up from the now-lifeless body and over to Verccino-he's deep in conversation with several of the Israeli officials, and then others come and try to whisk him down the hall to the elevators, but he pulls away and comes to stand over me.

"You and I need to have a heart to heart, priest."

I look up at him.  He's so damned powerful, that body, his bearing-all of it.  He seems to drip strength and certainty even in the midst of chaos.  I look down quickly at the lifeless man and lay his hand on the rosary I've taken out of my pocket.  I make the sign of the cross and stand, my eyes reluctant to meet Verccino.

"You know who I am," I say lamely.

"I knew who you were before you did."

I look at him, confusion on my face and see the look of satisfaction on his.  The he smiles and laughs softly.  I swear his eyes sparkle with delight.

"Oh, Michael.  They chose you soooo well."

The he was off, gone with the Israeli officials down the hallway.

********

My father tries to grab hold of me but his hand is just out of reach.  I strain, and lean farther over the chasm, and as I do I look down and see the red-hot fires below, the stench of burning flesh is unbearable and the heat of the pit is blistering.  I can't believe the clothes haven't melted off my body as I try to pull my father back.

"Nooooo!" I cry as others pull him farther away from me.  I know that if I lean over any farther, I'll fall into the pit and burn to death before I even reach the bottom, but I can't give up. It's my father.  Sweat drips off my face, into my eyes, mixing with my tears of frustration so that I can't tell which are which.  "I can't make it!  I can't reach."

"Go farther," a soft voice says to me and I look back.  It's him, the younger Verccino, and he's leaning over me and starts to wrap his arms around my waist so I can lean farther and not fall into the fires.

"I can't," I whisper, horrified that he's there with me, that I instantly respond to his touch, even in this life and death struggle to save my father.

"Go ahead.  I'll not let go of you."

The ring of the phone next to my bed startles me out of my nightmare and I sit up, panting to catch my breath.  My heart is racing and I feel wetness on my cheeks.  I could sob right now if I let go, but I swallow hard and reach for the phone instead.

It's Agent Gray, informing me of a full briefing on the bombing of the peace talks tomorrow at 13:30 hours.  I hang up and lie back on my bed, and think of the day past. After being checked over at the local infirmary, we spent most of the day in de-briefing sessions with the CIA and members of the Israeli and Palestinian intelligence community.  I didn't know what to say, but for some reason, held my tongue, telling them only that a man stepped out in front of the Israeli officials and then there was an explosion.  They accepted my story without many questions.

I got up and went to the washroom and splashed water on my face.  I should contact Frances and let her know  what's happened, but I'm so confused and in shock from the blast, my bruises throb even with all the pain-killer I've taken.  I run a bath instead--the heat will soothe my aching muscles.  Naked, I lie back in the deep water and sigh as the heat penetrates my body and the tension drains out of me.

He steps naked into the bath, his feet between my legs, and kneels down, propped over me so that his face is only an inch away from mine.  I startle and gasp, no, no, I don't want this!

"Don't fight me, Michael.  Don't fight me anymore.  It's a waste of energy.  I want you."

I'm breathing faster and I shiver with unbidden lust as I feel his hot skin press against mine as he lies fully on top of me.  Water washes over the edge of the stone tub and splashes onto the floor.  Panic rises in me, I feel as if I'm going to scream if he doesn't get off me but he stops my scream with a kiss that almost knocks me out.

When his lips touch mine, I'm lost to him.  Instantly his, my body responds, my cock thickening and rising and my heart rate speeds. He presses his own thick cock against my belly and thrusts against me and I feel his strength as his muscles tighten.  His skin is like liquid fire, hot and slick against me even though the coolness of the water.  He breathes a long sigh and pulls back, his eyes bore into mine, but there is no look of triumph on his face.  Just need, incredible insatiable need.  My arms circle him and pull him more tightly against me.

"Oh, Michael." he sighs as my mouth reaches up to meet his once again.  "You're mine."

********

What happens next is almost beyond my comprehension.

He pulls me out of the tub effortlessly and carries me like a bride to the bed.  He lays me down on my stomach, my face pressed sideways and my arms spread out on each side of my head.  I watch as the damask coverlet stains from the water dripping off both our bodies.  He lies fully on top of me and his long wet curls fall over my face and then trail over my body as his hands start a slow exploration of me, my back, my shoulders, my ass and legs.  It's as if he can't get enough of me and is trying to touch every inch.

Then his mouth starts to explore me and I writhe in painful ecstasy underneath him as he bites and nips and sucks my skin from my neck to my butt.  Soon, my body is on fire for his touch even as I'm crying from my willingness to join in.  When he turns me over, I touch him back with a hunger I didn't know I possessed.

When his mouth trails down to my groin, I can't believe my own response-the touch of his wet tongue on the head of my cock just about knocks me out with shocks of intense pleasure.  He begins a slow lapping of my entire groin, his tongue washing me, licking my balls and sucking at them.  All the while his wet curls brush against my cock, and the coolness contrasts with the heat of his mouth and breath.  I can't stop from thrusting my cock greedily up at his face as if he's unleashed some kind of animal in me, but he denies me and continues to lick all around my sack.

"Ask me," he growls; his voice filled with lust.  "Beg me, Michael.  Beg me to suck your cock."

"Oh, fuck," I moan, tangling my hands in his curls, trying to pull him down on my aching cock.

"Please, God, suck my cock."

He did.

When his mouth closed over my cockhead, when I felt the intense suction on it, his tongue stroking the sensitive skin all around the crown, I shuddered and felt the cum boiling up from my swollen balls. That familiar sweetness spread from my balls to the tip of my cock and I grunted as I ejaculated, almost blinded by the pleasure and by the knowledge that my cock was still in his mouth, that he was sucking the cum out of me and drinking it down.  While I'd had lovers before I joined the priesthood, no one had ever swallowed my semen.  It was taboo and I'd always felt bad for my lovers as they spat it out or pulled off at the last moment before I ejaculated.  He didn't and seemed to actually want it.  My muscles quaked as he continued to lick the cum as it seeped out of me, my cockhead so sensitive I thought I'd die from the sensation.  Then he moved up on top of me, and kissed me deeply and for the first time in my life, I tasted my own semen; its salty-sweet bitterness was exotic and reminded me of the seaside.

He looked in my eyes finally as I stopped shuddering and I knew what he wanted.  He waited, he didn't say a thing to me, but I knew he wanted me to reciprocate.  My body still ached as if unfulfilled even though I'd only just cum.  I thought he'd probably want to have anal sex with me-I didn't expect he'd want me to do this to him, but then I realized that he wanted proof of my complicity with him and I'd be passive if he fucked me.  No, he wanted me to actively comply with my own corruption.  For a moment, I balked, in spite of the near miraculous return of my erection.  Then I gave myself over completely.

As if he sensed my surrender, he rolled off me and then stood on the carpet beside the bed.  I followed him and admired the hard angles and smooth curves of his muscular body; his golden skin glowed from a mixture of water and sweat.  I stood next to him, and looked into his dark eyes, at the full lips that were now swollen from sucking my cock, and felt such unbridled lust.

"Kneel, Michael.  Kneel and worship me."

As I knelt at his feet, my face pressed into his groin for a moment as I breathed in his musky scent, I felt a deep sorrow flood through me.  Here I was, kneeling at the feet of a demon, debasing myself as I prepared to lick his balls the way he'd licked mine.  He touched my head, laying his hand on me as if he were the Pontiff come to bless one of his flock.  When he touched me, I felt the sorrow dull just enough for the lust to reemerge and I let all my inhibitions go.

I licked his balls and thought of how incredible it felt when he did that to me.  His moans above me mimicked my own earlier and were reward enough for performing this act.  His cock-it was so thick and long and hard, harder than I could imagine.  If he was a demon, he was a demon who could inspire incredible lust, for I felt my own cock as hard, no, harder, than it had ever been in my life.  I stroked his shaft, just to feel its hardness, and as I did, his precum leaked out in a long string.  It dangled in front of me and as I looked up, I caught his eye.  He waited and I opened my mouth and extended my tongue to catch it, then lapped it off his cockhead as if I'd done that all my life.

He pushed his cock in my mouth, as if impatient with my hesitant exploration, and I sucked as hard as I could, knowing what felt good, and trying to please him as much as possible.  Soon he had hold of my head and was thrusting slowly in my mouth, fucking my mouth.  Occasionally, during a deep thrust, his cockhead would strike the back of my throat and make me gag, and he'd thrust less deeply the next time.  Then his thrusts became erratic, and I knew he was close to his release.  His huge cock choked me repeatedly until tears were running down my cheeks, but I was excited by his need, the feel of his precum aroused me as it started to leak  out in greater quantity.  GOD!  He was going to cum in my mouth and I was going to swallow!  I closed my eyes as I heard him start to grunt over me, and waited to feel the cum squirt in my mouth, against my tongue.

"Look at me!  Open your eyes!"

I did, and watched his face contort in pleasure-pain as his orgasm started and I knew what sweet sensations were flooding through his groin as his balls emptied themselves, and his cum rose and squirted into my waiting mouth.

"Drink me, priest!"

He groaned, and then filled my mouth with his hot sweet cum, and I swallowed and swallowed, my hands gripping his ass, pulling him closer; my mouth sucking it out of him.

I licked his still pulsing cock and stroked it, milking the last of his semen out of his shaft.   He shuddered over me, his breath coming in deep gasps.

"Who are you?"  I whispered, as I looked up into his dark eyes.  The sweat dripped off his dark curls, down his massive chest and sculpted abdomen.

"Your God."
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Part 5

I shudder, and feel caught between two worlds, sleep and wakefulness, pulled from one to the other, from the spreading light in my bedroom to the dark candlelight of the night before.  Through my lashes I see that the room is dim even though I can tell it's early morning.  Pale yellow threads from the rising sun filter in from around the thick curtains that cover my window.

My eyes close once again and I feel as if I'm being pulled from his embrace against my will, and fight the sensation.  Then I'm fully back with him and he lies down beneath me.  Those eyes, so dark and liquid, stare into mine and the ebony curls fall loosely around his face against the pillow and down around his neck.  Those lips smile softly, then part as his tongue runs over his them, the moisture highlights their lush fullness.

"Fuck me, now," he whispers, and I almost fall on him as a cry escapes my lips.  Ohhhh, God, I want him so much!  He rests his heels around my neck, exposing his ass to me and that position, with him below me, waiting for me to enter him, brings out such lust in me, such a sense of power and need that I gasp out loud and it sounds almost like a sob.  One hand strokes his chest, running my fingers through his body hair to a nipple, while the other smoothes the oil in my hand over my cock, making it slick, pulling back on the foreskin to expose the swollen head.  I guide my rigid cock to his tight hole and rub it against him for a moment and hear his sigh. He closes his eyes and arches his back, as if to press down against me and so I penetrate him slowly, the delicious feel of his ass as I pass the tight ring is so incredible, I almost swoon with lust.

"Fuck me, Priest," he murmurs, "fuck me the way you've needed to, the way you want to."

I slide my cock into him until my balls rest against the cheeks of his perfect ass and look over him, lying beneath me, the sweat gleaming on his chest, running down into the thick dark fur on his belly and groin.  I shiver as a rush of lust courses through me as I watch him move his hips, meeting my thrusts, amplifying the sensation.  It builds in me, higher and higher, the tightness of his ass around my aching cock, the sight of his own cock lying thick, almost pulsating against his golden skin, leaking a pool of precum on his sculpted belly.

"Make me cum, Michael," he moans, and I finally take his cock in my hand and jerk him off, my hand moving to the rhythm of my thrusts, and soon, I'm erratic, I'm lost to my own pleasure and I can stop yelling.

********

I wake with a start.

It's fully morning; there's no mistaking the yellowness of the light as it streams in between the drapes.  I'm lying naked in my bed and my hands run over the coverlet to check for dampness from the night before but I'm startled to feel nothing.  The coverlet is completely dry.

I pull back the covers and pad to the bathroom where I expect to see the floor covered with water spilled as he lay on top of me last night in the marble tub, but nothing.  The tub's large rectangular interior is completely dry, and there's only a thin rim of water around the drain from the intermittent drip from the ornate gold tap.  There's no sign of last night's events-nothing to prove or, for that matter, disprove that I was actually with Verccino.  I feel numb, not knowing what to believe anymore.  Was it just another dream?  How could something so real, so intense, so tactile, be a dream?  If it was merely a dream, I've never dreamed this vividly before.

God.Perhaps I didn't actually do all those things to him. or he to me.  For a while I was convinced it was real, and not a dream, while it was happening, I kept telling myself I was dreaming this, he was projecting it.  Then he laughed and told me it was wishful thinking on my part, that I'd have to learn to accept my desire, no matter how dark, if I was to be his Priest.  His priest.

I stretch and feel only the aches and pains from the injuries I received during the bombing, and there's no sense of lightness to my balls that I vaguely remember accompanies a night of sex such as I had in my. dream.  This thought calms me a bit, and I call down to room-service for breakfast.  I'm hungry.  I didn't realize how hungry until the I hear the growl of my stomach.  I remember that I'd not eaten dinner because of the commotion surrounding the bombing.

When I call down to check my messages, the front desk clerk says I have one from Colonel Verccino: he reads it to me.

"Sorry to back out at the last minute but I'm going to have to miss our dinner appointment.  You can appreciate I'm unable to break away from the investigation and de-briefings at the Israeli embassy.  I'll be busy all day tomorrow, and will be unavailable until I return to Montana on Friday.  Call me then.  I'm looking forward to our little heart to
heart."

Oh, god.  Were those my own dreams--the product of my own hidden desires?  Or his projection?  I'm more confused than ever as I stand at the window and look out over the Amman sunrise and wait for my breakfast.
 

********

I return to the palace, to the makeshift headquarters the CIA has set up in another wing of the building that was untouched when the bomb exploded.  There really is no need to linger here-my cover's blown, and I should return to Rome to meet with Frances and Velasquez and decide on a new course in this case, but I hesitate, wanting to hear more about the blast.  It's time to pull myself off the case--if that was my own dream, I'm far too entangled in this emotionally and psychologically to continue with the investigation in any objective manner.  Velasquez will have to agree once he hears of what I've dreamed, and what passed between Verccino and I after the bombing.

There's not much for me to do but sit and listen to the other agents discussing the bombing-I'm not actually with the CIA, so I have no real role here.  I feel like the 5th wheel, the extra man. When I ask for the interim findings of the investigation team, one of the agents hesitates, then smiles at me and shrugs.  I read the report and feel my face redden the deeper into it I get.  All reports fail to support my story that a strange man dressed in ethnic garb stepped in front of the Israeli contingent just before the bomb exploded.

"Uncorroborated."

That's the verdict on my statement.  According to Verccino, a young man, a clerk from the Jordanian executive, walked past them and into the conference room a few minutes before the blast but flying shrapnel mortally wounded him and he was unable to add anything to the investigation before he died.  There was no evidence to link him to the bombing.  The other members of the Israeli contingent with Verccino at the time of the blast remember nothing before or after the blast: several were seriously injured in the explosion as debris rained down on us all.

I'm discredited.

As I leave the CIA's makeshift headquarters in the Palace, I catch sight of Verccino out of the corner of my eye.  Before I realize it, he's walking beside me down the long marble halls.  Our footsteps echo against the stone walls and ceiling and I wait for him to say something, but he doesn't.  He just walks beside me.  I finally stop and look at my feet, unwilling to meet his eyes, but still, unable to hide my anger.

"I saw what happened yesterday."

"I know, but you didn't include everything you saw."

I turned and looked him.  He's so assured, so calm.  He looks at me with those intense dark eyes, and seems to look right into me.  It's him, Verccino: even with the goatee and shorter dark hair streaked with gray, it's the same man of my dreams, just a decade or so older.  This version seems somehow more fatherly to me, more business-like.  The other version is more seductive, more . desirable.  I don't know what to think as I stand there and look at that marvelous physique.  I'd sucked his cock, fucked his ass in my dream, and he mine.  The room seems to disappear around us; there's only Verccino and me.  I feel a warmth flow off him, as if he's full of energy and the masculine scent of his after-shave fills my nose.  My father, it's the same my father used to wear.  Damn him!  I shake my head, feeling a little dizzy as I remember my nightmare, struggling to save my father, pull him to safety over the chasm.  When I look in Verccino's eyes, I see a something in them, the look I can't place, but it's between the look of a hawk eyeing its prey and amusement.  A small smile plays over his lips and my anger finally gets the best of me.

"How do YOU explain what happened?"

"I don't and won't, at least, not now, Priest.  You didn't mention a number of . phenomena.  I thought it best to remove any reference to  . unnatural events or persons from the record.  I did mention the clerk-that way you'd at least not be seen as an entirely unreliable witness."

"Thanks," I muttered, and turned to go, not knowing what to do but needing to do something.  His hand gripped me, preventing me from leaving, but I pulled away, my fury at his. his "intrusion" into my life and subconscious finally too much to control.

"Don't touch me!"

It's such a lie.  At that moment, I felt that I wanted him to put those arms around me, hold me, to do what I don't know.  He merely smiled and turned away, hands leisurely in his pockets.  He left me standing in the middle of the hallway with my fists clenched, my face red, teeth gritted.

********

I'm not sad to see the city grow smaller below us as I look out the window of the jet.  I'm on a busy flight to Rome and was unable to get an isle seat-my usual refuge when on a passenger jet.  So distracted from the events of the preceding two days, I forget to count to 180 and think instead about my report to Velasquez: what I'll include and what I'll leave out.

God!  I don't know if I'll be able to admit how much I desired Verccino's younger incarnation.  Even to Frances.  I'm so damn shamed, I feel unclean.  It's then that his reference to being my "god", as he put it in my dream, comes back into my conscious memory.  What the hell did he mean by that?  Is it my own mind, connecting him with the devil, with Satan, perhaps my fears that we are in the days of the Second Coming, and the Anti-Christ has already triumphed and is now holding sway?  Do I believe. and I hesitate to suggest it even to myself. do I believe Verccino is the Anti-Christ?

I swallow down a scotch and ask for another, needing the heat of the silky liquid to calm me before I have to meet with Velasquez and Frances.  They've arranged to meet me at the airport, and I have to build up my courage to tell them the truth.

********

"Oh, God, Michael!  You look terrible!"

She clucks over me like a mother hen, examining my scalp wound and the bruise on my cheek from a large chunk of rock that hit me during the blast.  I let her fuss over me: she's the closest thing I have to family and I relish her tender embrace and honest concern for my welfare.  As I hug her back, I realize there's no-one else on this earth who truly loves me, and that knowledge makes me feel like weeping right this moment, and I would if Velasquez wasn't with us.

"I'm fine, just shaken."

They retrieve my bags and escort me to Velasquez's car.  The driver opens my door and helps me in-I let him, even though my injured thigh doesn't really prevent me from walking or moving.  It certainly didn't prevent me from . I stop in mid thought.  It was just a dream.  No need to beat myself up.

We discuss the events of my trip during the car ride back to the Vatican and Velasquez' offices.  Velasquez doesn't look at me even though he's sitting in the seat directly opposite me as if he can't bear to see the staff member who discredited him and his office.  He holds his hands folded as if in prayer and touches the tips of his index finders against his bottom lip-he looks like the Pontiff himself as I relate the facts of the bombing and the way Verccino's report discredited me.

"Why did you even mention the intruder?  You must have known he was not a . civilian.  I wish you would have shown better judgement and held back that piece of information.  The CIA and other international intelligence agencies have graciously allowed us to use their organizations as cover for our own investigations.  They expect us to show professionalism at all times, as any of their own agents would."

He looked up at me, and the disappointment in his face was so obvious, it was like a knife-blade through my heart.  Here was the one man I'd looked up to since joining the Vatican's clandestine unit.  I'd failed him, and my actions reflected not only on me as an agent, but on him and his organization.

"I also had another dream about Verccino."

"I'll need to hear every detail," he said as he looked away.

Frances reached out and her soft warm hands were a comfort to me in the silence of the rest of the trip.
 

We sat in his rooms. I looked around as Velasquez rustled through his files and then spoke on the phone.   The leather chair creaked under my weight as I shifted nervously, waiting for the real interrogation to begin.

"Your dream, Michael.  Please relate the contents for me." He turned on a small tape recorder, and smiled at me.  "I hope you don't mind, but I want to record your words for our records."

My mouth dried up and I had to swallow several times to generate enough saliva to speak.  I told them only part of what transpired in my dreams, not the extent of my cooperation with Verccino, or my desire for him.  For some reason, I couldn't repeat Verccion's  words: it was as if something made me hold my tongue.  I knew that even as much as I did divulge would convince Velasquez to take me off the case, and perhaps send me on a much-needed holiday.  A sense of relief flooded through me when at last I was done and he turned off the recorder.

He sat, hands folded once again as if in prayer, and then spoke, and his words shocked me.  His small eyes finally came to rest on me, and as he spoke, he took off his glasses and folded them in one hand.  I looked at Frances: she was staring at the floor in front of her.  She didn't look up at me, even when she must have felt my panicked eyes on her.

"We have to let you go, Michael.  You are now a liability to the agency and will be unable to fulfil your responsibilities to us any longer.  You will return to the clergy after a temporary leave of absence for counseling.  We haven't yet placed you in a parish, but will find one for you before your leave is up."

He stood and came to stand in front of me, leaning against the desk as was his wont, and folded his hands in his lap.

"I'm so sorry.  I was wrong about keeping you on the case before, but I sensed you were stronger, more able to resist temptation.  I blame myself entirely for this. mishap.  Verccino is now our most pressing case.  We feel that he is somehow at the center of all our investigations and your cover is blown.  All our agents will be positioned to investigate him and his group.  We can't afford to let you fall into his grasp."

A long silence ensued, during which I was unable to speak.  When I realized I was dismissed, I stood and Velasquez moved to embrace me, his arms clapping my back in a fatherly show of affection.

"You need a change of pace, Michael.  You've given us so much of your time and mental energy.  Time to retreat, take stock and enjoy some serenity for a while.  There can be real peace in our calling."

I turned to leave, and then looked back at Frances.  I wanted her to come with me, to talk with me.  I'd grown so reliant on her that I couldn't imagine being without her on a daily basis.  My weekends were usually hell, as I spent most of them entirely alone.  Now I had no idea what I'd do with myself.

"Frances?"

She didn't turn to look at me: perhaps she was unable because of her own emotions.  Velasquez smiled at me and cocked his head sideways as if he felt guilty.

"Sorry, Michael, but I need Frances for the rest of the afternoon.  I'm sure you two will talk soon enough!"

I couldn't leave, I had to see her, look at her face, for her face would be all I needed to see to know where things stood.

"Good-bye, Michael."

A hand pressed against the small of my back and gently propelled me outside the office.  The huge ornate wood door closed with a soft thud behind me.

********

When I went to my office to begin the process of packing up my personal items, what little there was, I checked my e-mail and found a letter from Christine.

"Michael, I need to talk with you about this relic.  Can we meet as soon as you get back from your holiday?  Please call me.  This is important.  Thanks.  Christine"

I phoned right away.  Her voice was strained, as if she was tired or ill.

"We need to talk somewhere private.  Can we meet at your place?  I don't know, for dinner or something?  I'm . I'm staying at a friends for a few days so we can't meet at my place."

I agreed and went home, stopping on my way to buy some food.  I knew the sorry state of my refrigerator and wanted to cook something nice for us-a couple of steaks, baked potatoes, some salad, wine.  Typical American fare, although both of us were probably more used to local food after living in Rome most of our adult lives.  Still, the era of deprived eating was over, and people now seemed to indulge more in the rich foods of our parent's generation, as if in defiance of all medical science knew about health.

A thrill went through me at the prospect of being alone with Christine and the feeling I got in my belly was some comfort-at least I could still respond to the thought of being alone with a beautiful woman.  Whatever my dreams meant, they didn't mean I was homosexual.  Perhaps just a confused response to stress, or some innate bisexuality we all of us possess, as Frances had postulated.

I had the television on and was watching the news coverage of the bombing of the embassy when Christine arrived.  She breezed in and pecked me on the cheek, the smile on her face unable to hide the fatigue I'd heard in her voice on the phone.

"Oh, God! What happened to you?" she asked, surprised to see the ugly purple bruise on my cheekbone and the bandage over my brow.

"That happened to me," I replied, motioning to the television, and the report.  The camera showed the blast scene, the floodlights picking up debris, bloodstains and emergency personnel as they rushed to tend to the wounded.  The press had been on site, preparing to cover the news conference and so both camera crews  and reporters were primed and ready to cover the carnage once the explosion occurred.

"You were there." she gasped, now completely absorbed in the newscast.  She sat down on my small sofa and took the glass of wine I handed her.  "What were you there for?  I thought you were on a short holiday?"

I laughed, but it was a forced, hollow laugh.  I hated to lie to her, but had to.  One lie, as they say, leads to another.

"I was just doing the tourist thing, happened to go for an unescorted tour of the building while the security guards were looking the other way.  I'd been to the palace several times with my father when I was just a kid, so I wanted to see it again.  I was at the wrong place at the wrong time, I guess."

"We'll you're lucky to be alive."

I nodded and sat down beside her, planning on turning the television off so we could talk about the tomb seal.  I reached for my channel changer, but she gripped my arm and stopped me.

"Oh, God." she whispered.  I looked up at the screen to see what upset her and was shocked to see Verccino, large as life, standing behind one of the Israeli officials at the news conference held last night.  The camera panned in close for a head shot, and Verccino was there in full view.  His darkly handsome features were photogenic and he looked his usual calm, controlled and assured self.

"What?"

She went up to the television, actually crouched in front of it and looked at his face, her own only a couple of inches away from the screen.  The shot changed to a view of the carnage once again, and Christine turned to me and had a look of such panic on her face.

"I've seen him.before."

"Verccino?  He's an Israeli advisor, an American mercenary.  Leads a paramilitary group in Montana."

She looked surprised that I knew who he was.

"I." I hesitated, not knowing if I should tell her the truth.  Then I decided, since I was no longer involved with the group, I'd tell her about my involvement.  "I apologize for the deceit, but I worked on a clandestine unit with the Vatican to investigate false claims of miracles and religious powers.  Verccino was under investigation.  That's the real reason I was in Amman."

"I've had.dreams.  Ever since you gave me that seal.  Disturbing dreams.  He's in them."

Oh, God.  He's got to Christine, too.  I wondered if her dreams had been as sexual as mine.

"Tell me about them, your dreams."

She sat back beside me and curled up almost in a ball, covering her face with one hand and holding the glass of wine in the other.  I leaned over and grasped her shoulder.

"Nothing can shock me, Christine.  I know who he is, what he does.  He's. very powerful.  He's projecting images into your mind to try to torment you, knowing your blind spots, the things that disturb you the most."

She looked up at me and nodded.  My words seemed to absolve her of some measure of guilt.  It took a while, some soft words, explaining to her my role in the Vatican's unit.  Finally, after another glass of wine, she spoke in a soft voice.

"He. he tied me up, gagged me, blindfolded me.  And then he. he did things to me.  Bad things."  She covered her mouth and sobbed, then looked at me with tears in her eyes.  "I liked it."

Verccino was unsettling Christine with dreams of being sexually tortured.  If I knew Verccino's methods, he probably found this unconscious desire for domination and used that to . do what?  Bond her to him?  Drive her crazy?  She responded, and was shamed and frightened by the power of her desire for him and for what he did to her. Just like me.

I took her hand and squeezed it.  I wanted to take her in my arms and embrace her, lose my own grief and guilt in her arms, her body.

"I've had similar dreams.  Only in them, I consent willingly to be his lover. He didn't have to bind me."

She looked at me and her eyes opened wide. I shook my head.

"No, it's not entirely what you're thinking."  I paused and looked at her, right into her eyes. "Before I met Verccino, I'd never consciously desired any man.  I've admired men, been very fond of them, but always in a brotherly or fatherly way, not sexually.  I always wanted a woman."

We sat there in silence for a while, each of us processing the information our dreams revealed.  I moved to pour the last of the wine in her glass but she placed her hand over the glass to stop me.

"I better not drink any more until I get some food in me."

"I'm sorry. Are you hungry?" I asked, once I remembered I'd planned on feeding her as well as listening to what she had to say. "I've got some steaks, potatoes are just about cooked, so."

"Sounds great. If I drink anymore without getting something in my stomach, I think I'll pass out!"

Dinner passed uneventfully; she was right though, if we hadn't eaten, I too would have been feeling the effects of the alcohol for I'd been practically pouring it down as I listened to her talking about her dreams.  She was afraid to return home to her bed, and had been sleeping at a friend's house.  Now she dreaded sleep as much as I did.

We moved to the small couch in my living room.  The alcohol made me feel somehow looser, my lips certainly were for I found myself telling her things I scarcely wanted to admit to myself-about how lonely I'd been, how disillusioned with the Church and my loss of faith.

"I'm thinking of leaving the priesthood," I said, my voice quiet. "Now that I'm out of the unit, I feel as if there's nothing there for me any longer: it's as if I was meant to investigate Verccino.  I feel as if I don't belong in the clergy."

"Michael," she replied, her hand on my shoulder.  I turned to look at her and felt such a need to touch her, just to feel another human being after all the confusion of the past week, the pain of my severance from the unit, my fears about my recurring and more intense dreams.  We embraced.  I held her so closely, so tightly, I felt certain she'd panic, but she seemed to understand my need, and not fear its intensity.

The warm curves of her body against me soon had me feeling desire for more than just comfort: she must have felt it too for all at once, her hands began to explore my back and our mouths met in a kiss.  It started slowly, hesitantly but built in intensity until we were both breathless.  Poor Christine!  To go from forbidden sexual acts with Verccino in her dreams to forbidden sex with a Catholic priest.  For me, her touch, her taste, and my arousal was such a relief--proof of my normality.

I pulled her up from the couch and into my tiny room with my bachelor's single bed.  Her hands explored me hungrily and I was glad that at least she was experienced.  I truly felt as if this was the first time I'd had sex, for it had been so long.  She unbuttoned my shirt and pulled it off my body all the while kissing me on the neck and shoulders.

"You really got bruised from the blast," she said, as she kissed my neck, running her hands through my hair.  "You've got a real bruise here."

She touched the base of my hairline on the back of my neck and I nodded, but then a shiver went through me.  I said nothing, but went directly to my small bathroom and looked in my shaving mirror.  There it was, a blue-black bruise, only it wasn't a bruise.  I'd not been hit on the back of the neck by any falling debris, nor had my head struck anything - my wounds were all on the front of my body.  Then I remembered.  The silky feel of his lips, their incessant tugging on my skin as he explored my body with his mouth: it became so real, I felt nauseated.

I covered the mark with my hand and closed my eyes.

"Michael! What is it?"

I shook my head, unable to speak.  Tears came to my eyes, and I waved her away with one hand and covered my face with the other.

""Please leave," I whispered, when I was finally able to speak.  I heard her in-drawn breath behind me and then a pause as she fought with herself, probably wondering if she should stay or go as I requested.  After a long moment, I heard the sound of her leaving the room and then the slam of the door to my apartment.

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