Saturday, October 13, 2018

THE SWORN STATEMENT OF ENOCH FLAGG

     Continuing my tradition of October being "Horror Story Month" on my blog, I've written this little gem, about an arrowhead hunting expedition that went horribly wrong!  Don't read this too late at night, OK?



                                    THE SWORN STATEMENT OF ENOCH FLAGG
                                                   A Short Story by Lewis Smith

Rendered before the Jackson County Criminal Court on the morning of April 12th, 20**

 

Before you say anything about my story, yes, I do realize I am under oath.  And yes, I understand that you may not believe my story, Your Honor.  Frankly, no one believes me – not my friends, not my mom, not the police. Frankly, if I had not seen what I did with my own two eyes, I would not believe it myself.  So your skepticism does not surprise me at all.

          But the fact remains that Gene Turpin is dead, and that I am the only one who was there when he died.  As for the others, I can make a pretty good guess as to what happened to them, based on what I saw and heard.  So, honestly, I don’t care if you believe me or not.  I don’t want to go to jail – you have no idea how badly I want not to go to jail! – but if I do, our system has failed. You will have failed.  I know in my heart I am innocent of their deaths.  Gene’s, and the others’ as well.  I told them not to go in there. I warned Gene, too, right there before the end.  I knew something bad was in there.  But no one believed me, and now they are dead.  So, as you can tell, by this point I am used to people not believing me.

          They wanted me to take them fishing, you see.  Gene, Rob, Virginia, Kassi, and Craig were all city raised, and none of them had ever done more than drop a line in the pond at Graham Park to catch a bluegill or a mud cat.  They wanted to get out on a real lake, in a boat, and catch something that would put up a fight.  I grew up on Bakers Canyon Lake, and my Dad had left me his cabin up there when he passed five years ago.  It had a boat slip and a nice, twenty-foot Bass Tracker in the shed.  When Gene found out about that, he insisted that I take the whole group of them fishing on spring break.

          I didn’t really want to go – there was something about the lake’s north end that I never had liked.  The water was too dark, and too still, even on windy days.  I didn’t like the way the cliffs seemed to lean over us whenever we fished there, and those moss-covered cave openings gave me nightmares as a kid.  The lower end of the lake was fine – sand beaches and lots of trees.  But the canyon always gave me a bad vibe.

But they all pleaded and begged, and to be honest, I would have done just about anything that Kassi asked me to – I was always sweet on her, and she and Craig seemed to be on the brink of breaking up.  One more good fight between them and she might become available, you know?   So when she joined the chorus I said sure, why not, Padre Island is too crowded anyway, plus it’s a hellaceous long drive down to the Texas coast from Missouri State.

          It was funny how they all scrambled to get their fishing licenses purchased, and all the gear they bought!  I tried telling them that Dad had at least a dozen rod and reel sets up at the cabin, but they all insisted on buying brand new fishing gear. Virginia even got one of these ridiculous vests at the Outdoor Pro shop, one with all the pockets and zippers for putting hooks and lures and lead weights in.  Gene got him a big old Cowboy hat to keep the sun off his head and stuck a couple of trout flies in the band on either side so there would be no doubt that he was an angler and not a goat roper!  Did the deputies ever find that hat?

          Get to the point?  I am, Your Honor, it’s just a long story, and if you want to understand what happened, you must hear all of it.  We loaded up in two Jeeps and headed up to Bakers Canyon as soon as our last class dismissed Friday – all of us are pre-law, and Dr. Rudoff had scheduled a mid-term for Friday afternoon before spring break, so none of us could take off any earlier.  But it was only a three-hour drive from the University to the lake, and all of us were finished with the mid-term by two o’clock, so we got there with an hour or so of daylight to spare.  Gene wanted to go swimming, but I knew how cold that water was this early in the year and stayed out.  He jumped in for about five minutes, and that was all he could stand!  We unloaded our gear, and I drove down to the gas station to fill up three cans’ worth – Dad had always taught me to drain the tank on the boat at the end of the summer, so the gas wouldn’t go bad over the winter and mess up the engine.  I filled up the boat before we went in for the night, and then everyone picked a bedroom.  Sure enough, I heard Kassi and Craig fighting through the wall around midnight, and the next morning I woke up and found him sleeping on the couch.  I’m embarrassed to say it now, but I was really glad.  He was a jerk and she deserved better.  Dear God, they all deserved better than what finally happened!  But I am getting ahead of myself.

          Bakers Canyon Lake was built back in the Depression by workers from the WPA.  Bakers Creek was a big, swift flowing tributary of the Arkansas River that ran for a hundred miles or more through the Ozarks before dumping down into the flatlands.  There were all kinds of Indian camps up and down it, mostly underwater now.  When I was a boy I would find lots of arrowheads along the lake shore during dry years, and my Dad hung a couple of picture frames full of them up in the cabin.  I wish to God I had taken them down and sold them to that collector from Texas who liked them so much!  Maybe then . . .

          But I didn’t, and Virginia was absolutely fascinated with them.  That first night she asked me to take the frames off the wall, and everyone gathered around the table as I showed them off and told about finding them.  Well, it has been a dry year, as you know.  The lake was almost six feet below normal, prime hunting conditions.  But, Bakers Canyon is also a Corps of Engineers lake, and in recent years they have gotten downright nasty about folks picking up artifacts on the shores.  Some of the beaches I used to hunt on the lower end, the wide end of the lake where the best camps are, actually have big signs warning of fines and even jail for picking up an artifact.  When I told them about that, the group calmed down a bit, but Virginia kept going back to the wall and studying those arrowheads.

          The next day was a lot of fun and made me think that my worries were for nothing.  We went out and fished all day down on the south end and caught a bunch of channel cat; we got out on one of the beaches and waded and swam for a bit – although I pointed out the big sign warning folks against picking up artifacts in case my friends got any ideas!  A five-thousand-dollar fine was more than any arrowhead was worth – although now, honestly, I wish we’d gone ahead and taken our chances.

          That night we fried up the fish we caught, and I dug out Dad’s old recipe for hush puppies and we made those, and some French fries.  Kassi had avoided talking to Craig all day long, and that night as we sat around the den shooting the breeze and watching movies, she made a point of sitting by me.  Craig sulked the whole time, but I just smiled and ignored him.  I thought things were working out just the way I wanted them to.  Then Virginia spoke up.

          “Do you think that the Corps is watching the other end of the lake like they are those beaches?” she said.

          “It would be a lot harder for them,” I said.  “That end of the lake is narrow, with steep cliffs on either side.  There are lots of trees and overhangs along the shoreline, and caves that go back pretty deep in places.”

          “I just want to find one arrowhead before I go home,” she said.  “Are there any up there around the caves?”

          That was a complicated question.  The old timers who had lived in the area before the lake went in all talked about the bluff shelters and caves that used to overlook Baker’s Creek – but they also said that it was bad luck to dig there.  Why, no one could say.  But if you look at the local records, in the eighty years or so since Bakers Canyon Lake was built, nearly a hundred people have died there.  Twenty or so of those were run of the mill drownings, mostly on those big beaches down near the dam – people swimming too far, out or getting caught in sudden squalls that capsized their boats.  But almost eighty people have simply gone missing in that lake.  Bodies never found, just drifting boats or empty life vests.  Now, that sounds like a lot, and it is – but they were spread out over such a long period of time, so no one paid much attention. The lake is deep, and there are lots of boulders and underwater ledges where a body could hang up and never float to the top. 

However, in most of those cases, the missing people were last seen up there on the north end, in the canyon where the caves come close to the lake shore.  A few search parties had ventured into the caves looking for clues, but nothing had ever been found.  At least, no one would admit to finding anything.  Now I wonder.  Those searches never seemed to go on for very long before being called off.

          But Kassi was looking at me with her big blue eyes – my God, your honor, that girl was so beautiful!  Hair black as midnight, halfway down to her waist, and skin like fine bronze!  Virginia looked so eager as she asked, and with Kassi now expressing her interest, I gave in.  I did.  I never had liked that end of the lake, but for the girls’ sake I figured I’d try to find an Indian camp washing in.

          “Tell you what,” I said.  “Tomorrow morning you guys can sleep in, and I’ll take the boat out early and try to scout us out a campsite where you can find a point or two. If I see a likely spot, we can head up there tomorrow afternoon.  Fair enough?”

          Virginia have me a hug, Kassi’s eyes lit up, and Gene gave me a high five.  The only one who didn’t seem to like the idea was Craig, but frankly his happiness didn’t matter much to me at that moment.  We sat up and drank a while longer – they all drank more than me, because I was determined to get up early and find them a spot.  In fact, when I went upstairs a little while later, I dug around in the closet of Dad’s old bedroom and found a box that he had kept there when I was a kid.  If Kassi wanted to find an arrowhead, I was going to make sure she did – and everyone else who wanted to look, for that matter.  Dad had a shoebox full of points that he’d never had time to make a frame for, and I intended to sow a pocketful of them along the shoreline for my friends to pick up.  It wouldn’t matter if I found a site or not, they were going to find some points!

          I woke up nice and early the next morning and slid out of bed feeling pretty great.  Kassi had kissed me long and hard after Craig stumped off to the room he had intended to share with her. I was already planning on asking her to dinner and a night club when we got back from break.  I had a smile on my face as I walked down to the boat slip at dawn, arrowheads rattling in my pocket. The sky was clear and blue, and the sun was rising over the far shore of the lake, looking as bright and radiant as I have ever seen it.  I fired up the motor and headed up lake, ready for what I thought was going to be one of the most enjoyable days of my life.  God, if I only knew!

          It was a couple of miles up from the cabin before the lake narrowed into the canyon, and another half mile after that before the caves and overhangs started.  I made it up there in about ten minutes, running the boat wide open and enjoying the wind in my hair.  There was a huge rock that stuck out of the water in the middle of the lake just before the cliffs drew in – we called it Split Rock, since it appeared to have broken off one of the cliffs long ago.  Dad and I used to fish around it some. I steered past it and began scouring the banks in earnest.  They were mostly vertical on this end, and you could still see the remains of Indian petroglyphs on some of the rock faces.  A half mile or so past Split Rock I saw where a fresh landslide had come off of the east bank, leaving a hundred yards or so of beach exposed at the base of the cliff, with several downed trees lying in the water’s edge.  It was the kind of erosion my Dad always taught me to look for; a fresh slough where prehistoric artifacts would be exposed.  I also saw the mouth of a cave there that I had never seen before – I think the dirt slide may have revealed it.  It was in deep shadow, at the back of the narrow strip of sand and rock, with the cliff rising vertically above it a hundred feet or more.

          The minute I got out of the boat, I realized I needn’t brought any artifacts to seed the beach with.  There were white flakes of chert everywhere, and I picked up three or four points in the few minutes I spent scouring the beach.  Then I took the ones I brought and dropped them in the edge of the water, on either side of where I’d beached the boat, for the length of the shoreline.

          As I turned to go, that cave caught my eye.  I wondered if there was anything in it – I’d heard stories of fabulous artifacts being found in Ozark caves over the years, and honestly, picking up those points had given me a bit of the old artifact fever I used to feel when hunting with my Dad.  As I walked across the beach towards the mouth of the cave, I saw a very worn remnant of a petroglyph in the cliff next to it.  I thought it was a sunburst design of some sort, with long crooked rays shooting out of the center orb.  Only as I got closer did I see that it looked more like a big spider or crab motif.  I was still studying it when the stench hit me.

          I’ve hunted and fished for most of my life, and I know what dead things smell like.  There was something dead in that cave, and it was NASTY!  The closer I got, the worse it was.  I did stand at the entrance and look back as far as I could, but I couldn’t really see anything.  I heard something, though – some sort of shuffling or skittering sound, pretty far back away from the entrance.  I figured it was wolves or coyotes, or maybe even possums, feasting on whatever dead critter was back there, and made my way back to the boat.

          I don’t know if that smell physically made me ill, or if I had gotten ahold of a bad piece of fish the night before, but as I motored back down the lake towards the cabin, I felt sicker and sicker.  My bowels were seizing up, and I didn’t know if I was going to make it to the bathroom or not!  When I pulled into the boat slip, I tied a single half hitch around the docking post and did a tight legged, penguin style run up to the cabin.  The others were starting to stir, but I ignored them and went straight to the upstairs bathroom – Kassi and Viriginia were in the downstairs one putting makeup on, and I could not wait.

          Stomach bug, food poisoning, whatever it was, that bout of diarrhea saved my life.  I was in the bathroom for a half an hour, and when I came out I felt weak as a kitten.  Rob was teasing me about melting the toilet, and I told him he had room to talk – I’d smelled his apartment before, and it was like standing downwind from a landfill!  I stretched out on the couch, and Virginia came and sat next to me.

          “Did you find anything?” she asked, eyes still big.

          “Oh, yeah,” I said.  “I found a great beach up past Split Rock, flint lying everywhere!  You guys should be able to find lots of stuff there.  Just let me rest for an hour or so, and I’ll take you on up.”

          Rob joined her, throwing his arm around her shoulder and kissing the top of her blonde head.  They really were a great couple.

          “Why don’t you let me take them?” he said. “You look like death warmed over, and I bet you’ll rest better with us out of the house.  Gene’s still asleep, but Craig and I will be glad to take the girls.  Just show me where the spot is on the lake map.  I’ve driven my Dad’s boat many times; I promise not to mess yours up!”

          I should have said no, Your Honor.  I know that now.  I should have said no, made them wait, taken them up myself, and kept them away from that damned cave!  But I was weak and still feeling pretty sick – I thought I’d have to run back to the bathroom, but as it turned out, I didn’t.  So I told Rob to take the boat and showed him the spot on the lake map.  They were whooping and hollering as they headed down for the boat.  Kassi was wearing a black one-piece bathing suit, and she looked like an absolute goddess.  Moments later I heard the engine start up and then fade away as they headed up the lake.  That was the last time I ever saw or heard them – well, saw them anyway.  There was . . .  there was that sound! Dear God, that sound!  I can’t . . . please, can we have a brief recess, Your Honor?  (Sobs)

 

          At this point Judge Hollister ordered a 30 minute recess, and then Mr. Flagg resumed his statement.

 

          Thank you, Your Honor.  I’ve tried hard not to think about that afternoon, even when I’ve been required to talk about it.  But recounting the story from the beginning like this – well, it got to me.  I think I am OK now.  Where was I?

          Gene woke up about a half hour after they left, none the worse for his liquor intake.  In all the years I knew him, I don’t think he ever had a hangover.  I was feeling a little more settled by then, and even got up to help him find a frying pan.  The others had eaten energy bars for breakfast, but he wanted bacon and eggs!  I had a couple of eggs myself, and my stomach began to settle down.

          I didn’t really get concerned until around one o’clock.  I’d made it up to that isolated beach in twenty minutes; even allowing for them going slower to search for it, they should have been there in a half hour or less. The beach wasn’t that big, either – around a hundred yards long and less than twenty across at its widest point, with nothing but sheer cliffs behind it. I’d dropped twenty arrowheads along the waterline, more than enough for everyone to find something – not to mention the artifacts that were already there!  But they’d been gone for five hours now, and I was beginning to worry.  Gene and I talked awhile, and then I decided to act. I couldn’t get that foul-smelling cave out of my mind.  Bears are still active in this part of Missouri and can be pretty aggressive when they emerge from hibernation.  I hadn’t seen any tracks, but rain could’ve washed them away.  What if my friends had been attacked?

          I went to the next cabin up the shore from Dad’s, where Mr. Pettigrew lived.  He and Dad had been friends, and he was glad to see me and more than willing to let me use his boat.  Gene got two flashlights, and I found my Dad’s old Army .45 and grabbed a pocketful of shells.  By two o’clock we were headed up the lake looking for our friends.

          I saw that the boat was still on the beach while we were still nearly a mile off, and as I drew closer I saw that not one of our friends was anywhere on that beach.  I’ll never know which one of them went into the cave first, but I would bet anything it was Virginia.  She always was too curious for her own good, and going out with a macho dude like Rob, she always felt she had to prove herself fearless.

          When we got there, we both saw the footprints.  Four sets of tracks leading into the cave, none leading out.  The stench pouring from it was stronger than ever. Gene gave me a look as he caught his first whiff of it.

          “Ugh, what IS that?  Why on earth would they go in there?” he asked.

          “Herd instinct!” I said with a laugh – but I was scared now.  Why would they all go in?  As we neared the entrance, I saw something that made me stop.  Scattered in the sand, next to a woman’s footprints – I am pretty sure they were Kassi’s, her foot was longer than Virginia’s – was a pile of arrowheads.  Four complete ones and two broken ones, lying together where they were dropped.  I studied her tracks.  It looked as if she was going to walk past the cave, then dropped her finds, doubled back, and went straight in.  I noticed those last few tracks were mainly the balls of her feet.  She had been running!  What had she heard? What made her run into that awful, dark place?

          “I have to go in there,” I said, and Gene handed me one of the flashlights. “You can wait out here if you want to.”

          “They’re my friends, too, Enoch!” he said.

          And so both of us entered the cave.  It was much bigger than it looked from the outside.  There was a passage you could stand up in that went back maybe ten feet or so, and then it opened up into a large chamber, probably a hundred feet across and fifty feet deep.  Right where the passage widened into the chamber, I saw a flip flop lying there with a plastic sunflower on the thong.  It was Kassi’s. 

          The stench of rot was overpowering, and as I stepped into the chamber, looking for movement, something soft and wet landed on my forehead.  I felt it move, and when I picked it off with my hand, I saw it was a maggot.  I shone the light directly over my head and saw something so grotesque it made me freeze in place for just a moment, another maggot barely missing my face as it dropped.

          There was a deer hanging there, dead for some time, crawling with fly larva.  It was wrapped up in white, translucent cables, almost like a mummy, with only its rotting head hanging out the bottom.    As I shone the light above us, I saw several other bundles hanging from the cave’s ceiling, which was at least twenty feet above us.  Each one was wrapped in the same white filaments, bigger than clotheslines.  One of them had tufts of black fur sticking out, and I could see a massive paw poking through the cocoon that encased it – a paw with long, sharp claws.  What could wrap a bear up like that? I wondered.

          “I found Virginia’s vest,” Gene said.  It was lying about twenty feet in front of me, halfway to the back of the cave.  As I grew closer, I saw there was some sticky, greenish-black fluid that had dribbled on it.  When I touched the end of my finger to it, I felt a sharp, burning sensation, followed by numbness.

          That was when I heard it.  A muffled, squealing cry, a voice faint but unmistakably human.  And unmistakably Kassi’s.

          Near the back of the cave was another opening, about ten feet wide and perfectly round.  Black roots of some sort were sprouting from its edges in a semicircle, thick and dark and glistening slightly in the beams of our flashlights. But the faint cry had not come from inside that dark opening; it had come from above our heads and in front of us.  Our beams swept through the darkness until they came to rest on another dangling bundle – a bundle that was moving.

          We ran over to the point directly beneath it, shining our lights over our heads.  It was Kassi, I am sure of that.  All I could see of her head as it dangled above us was a single lock of her long, dark hair hanging down – and one eye, frantically rolling as it peered at us from a gap in the ghastly cables that trussed her up there above our heads, more than ten feet up.

          “Hang on, we’ll get you down!” I shouted.

          I am not entirely sure, but I think the word she tried to say through the foul cords that covered her mouth was “Run!”

          There was no way for us to reach her.  We needed a ladder, a tree, something to let us get up there above our heads where she dangled like a grasshopper in a spider’s web.  That was the analogy that sprang into my mind at that moment, as I swept my light around the cave trying to find something that would help us reach her.  That was when my beam swept across that dark opening again.

          My first thought was that the black roots we’d seen protruding from the edges had suddenly grown – grown by six feet or more and increased greatly in diameter.  But then the rest of the creature hauled itself out of that monstrous burrow, pulled by those huge, long legs, and the sight blasted my mind free of its moorings.

          A spider?  Ha!  Calling that thing a spider is like calling a giant squid a hunk of calamari!  I guess, of all the creatures I have ever seen on this good earth, it probably resembled a spider more than any of them.  But that doesn’t mean it WAS one. And I don’t think it was anything ever meant to exist on earth, either.  It had way too many legs, for one thing – at least a dozen of them.  Black, thick as tree trunks, hauling its awful bulk into the main part of the cave.  Its head was six feet across, and when it opened its mouth, six fangs spread apart to reveal an opening big enough to swallow a moose.  Or a man.  Its abdomen was huge and swollen, palpitating with odd bulges here and there – one of them suspiciously man-shaped.  It made no noise at all; no hiss, no roar, no sound except those giant legs scraping the wall and floor of the cave – the same sound I had heard faintly from outside that morning!

          Gene froze to the spot.  I shouldn’t say this, but I am under oath, aren’t I?  The last thing I saw was a dark spot spreading across the front of his pants as he wet himself in terror.  My bladder followed suit seconds later.  Then four of those awful, multi-jointed legs snatched him up and pulled him towards that dreadful maw.  A single, black fang, dribbling with the same ichor I’d seen on Virginia’s vest, shot out and plunged into his throat, and he screamed like a child for a second or two before going limp.

          I ran.  I dropped everything and ran for the mouth of the cave, that monstrous hell-beast skittering and slathering behind me. How big was it?  Too big!  That’s all I can say.  I got out with those hideous legs snatching at my back; the deputy saw the slashes in my shirt when I called him to the cabin that night.  I jumped into the boat, frantically pushing it off and gunning the engine.  As I looked back one more time, I saw those same nightmarish “roots” sticking out of the cave opening in a semicircle, waving and feeling around for me. I get the feeling it didn’t like the sun. I also saw the odd petroglyph I had seen that morning, fully illuminated in the afternoon sun, and suddenly realized it was a crude representation of the thing I had seen in the cave.   That was when I began laughing maniacally, laughing and crying at the same time, racing down the lake with the engine at full throttle - and then I blacked out.

          When I came to, it was nearly dark.  I was drifting in the open waters of the lake, my boat out of gas.  I guess I had pulled back on the throttle as I fell, and had been cutting semicircles across the lake’s surface for hours.  How I didn’t hit anything, I’ll never know.  An old fisherman, returning to his cabin after a day down by the dam, saw me and pulled alongside, offering to tow me back to the cabin.  I beached the boat and walked into my Dad’s summer fishing cabin, seeing the things my friends had left behind, and knowing that I would never see any of them again.  I broke down and wept, sitting at the kitchen table and crying like a baby.  There was a bottle of Scotch there, still half full from the night before.  I downed it to the last drop, and then called the police.  That’s why I registered as over the legal limit when they did the breathalyzer.

          The deputies didn’t believe me, and when the search party found the cave, all they found was the vest and the flip-flop. I still say you should have those black stains analyzed, Your Honor! The opening at the back of the cave was gone, and so were the hanging carcasses.  So was Kassi.  So was Gene.  Gone, all of them.  Dead, and it was all my fault.  That’s all I’ve got to say, Your Honor, and it is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, whether you believe it or not.

 

End of statement

         

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

THE EXCAVATION - A Capri Team Short Story

    Last year, about six months before THE GNOSTIC LIBRARY's publication date, my mind kept pestering me as to what happened to my favorite team of archeologists after their last adventure together.  I didn't want to write another whole novel about them, but I thought just a peek into their lives, maybe a year or so after their ordeal in Egypt, would be worth writing.  And, of course, since it was October, the story took on a bit of a creepy air as it progressed.  After all, what happens when you get a team of archeologists together and they start asking about the scariest moment any of them ever experienced in a lifetime of digging up the dead . . . ?



THE EXCAVATION

A Short Story

By

Lewis Smith

 

          It was a bitter cold night, even for January in southern Oklahoma. The thermometer hovered just above freezing, and rain lashed down on the ranch house, beating at the windows as if it longed to extinguish the warmth within. Joshua Parker tossed another log onto the fireplace and then joined his wife Isabella on the love seat, looking across the den at his guests, seated on the sofa, clutching cups of hot cocoa or coffee.  Behind the sofa, the Christmas tree still stood, although he had unplugged the lights once the children were in bed.  He reminded himself that he needed to take it down before classes started back up next week.

          “So when does yer Spanish fort open to the public, lad?” Duncan MacDonald asked him.

          “Probably by next summer, Duncan,” Josh replied, barely remembering not to call Duncan ‘Father.’  He still couldn’t get over the fact that his friend had left the priesthood after thirty years in order to marry.  “We finished up the last of our excavation in September, and I’m doing the final write-up on the site right now.  A crew will start working on a reconstruction of the mission as soon as the weather allows, and the onsite museum building has already begun construction.”

          “That was indeed a fascinating discovery ye made there,” the former priest declared.  Beside him, his wife Katherine nodded.  Josh had taken them up the Archeology Lab at OU and showed them all the artifacts recovered from the ancient mission a couple of days ago, before the weather had turned so bad.

          “What about you two?” Luke Martens interjected.  “How goes the work on the Gnostic Library?”

          Katherine shook her head sadly.  “We’ve completely finished excavating the main library building,” she said.  “Unfortunately, the explosion destroyed about ninety percent of the manuscripts that were left there.  We recovered two codices and one scroll with relatively minor scorching, and a few hundred burnt scraps that will take years to decipher and translate.  Those jihadists committed a horrible crime when they destroyed that site!”

          “Not to mention the crime they committed against the two of you,” Luke said grimly.  Duncan and Katherine had been kidnapped by the jihadists, led by notorious terrorist Muhammad Al-Shavadi, and been tortured for days before being rescued by the Egyptian army – a rescue in which Josh had played a vital role.

          “They paid dearly for their outrage, and I would be telling an untruth if I said that their fate troubled me in the least,” Duncan replied.  “But, dear, tell him the good news!”

          Katherine smiled.  “Good news indeed!” she replied.  “We knew from the letter written by the librarian whose mummy we found that there was another structure next to the Library, still buried in the dunes.  We started excavating there last month, and although the roof has collapsed from the weight of the sand, it appears that the contents of the building may be largely intact.  It’s going to keep us busy for years to come!”

          “Good!” Luke said.  “Alicia and I will be headed to south Texas this spring, diving on some eighteenth century villages buried at the bottom of Lake Amistad.  It’s a joint venture between the Texas State Historical Association and the government of Mexico, but fortunately I was the thesis advisor for the senior archeologist on the project, so we got an invite to take part.”

          “The last thing Alicia needs is a chance to get more tanned,” Isabella Sforza-Parker said.

          “Hey!” Luke’s young wife said.  “Two things a Southern girl can never be – too skinny or too tanned!”

          Isabella rolled her eyes at her friend and looked out the window.  “Such a nasty night,” she commented.  “I am so glad all of you are staying here!”

          Josh stared out at the storm again. “I second that!” he said.  “But such a dark and stormy night, to borrow a phrase, should not be wasted.  We need a ghost story or something!”

          “Not one of your gory horror movies,” Isabella groaned.

          “No, not that kind,” Josh said.  “I mean something real.  Surely one of us has had some sort of strange encounter with the unknown that would make for an entertaining tale on a night like this?”

          Luke Martens simply shrugged his shoulders, and Alicia shook her head.

          Josh looked across at Duncan.  “Come on, old man,” he said.  “You’ve been digging longer than any of us!  Surely you can spin a tale or two.”

          MacDonald laughed.  “Oh, I’ve seen a few things,” he said.  “But I can only think of one that is a fit tale for such a dreadful evening.”

          “I knew it!” Josh said.

          “Now, keep in mind,” the former priest said, “that, according to the Holy See, none of what I am about to tell you ever happened.  In fact, Cardinal Klein went to his reward ten years ago, and he was the only one besides meself who was privy to all the details of what happened at this excavation.  I know that our report is buried in the files of the Vatican Department of Antiquities, but it might not see the light of day for several centuries, if ever.  So I suppose telling this wee tale might be considered as me doing my duty to Clio, the Muse of man’s past.”

          Luke raised an eyebrow.  “No one spins a yarn like a defrocked Scottish priest,” he said.

          “Not defrocked,” Duncan said.  “Just laicized.  But yes, I have been accused of loquaciousness once or twice in my career.  Now tell me, lads and lasses – have any of you ever heard of Saint Sevastre?”

          “You’re talking to a room full of Baptists, other than Isabella and Katherine,” said Josh.  “The only saints we study are the ones in the Bible.”

          Isabella, the only other Catholic in the group, furrowed her brow.  “I remember a good many saints from church as a girl,” she said.  “But that one I cannot seem to recall.”

          “Small wonder,” replied Duncan.  “His story is buried deep in a couple of medieval chronicles, and his name quit showing up in the calendar of saints’ days sometime in the thirteenth century.  He was a Gaul, and his Roman name was Sebastius. I was reading over some of my old notes on that dig shortly before we left for the states, and that’s what brought him to mind.  Here is what the scholar Simon of Aquitaine wrote about him in the tenth century, although it was copied from a much older source, according to Simon:  And it came to pass that during the reign of the Emperor Caracalla that there was a judge named Marcus Decimus, whose hatred of the saints surpassed all others, and he imprisoned many sons and daughters of the true church.  Among those arrested were a mother and daughter of exceptional piety, named Agnes and Dolores.  When they were cast into prison, the other prisoners would fain have ravished them, but they were defended by another prisoner, a bishop who gave his name as Sebastius of Gaul.  He slew one of the prisoners, a loud and lusty Greek named Loukas, with his bare hands after warning him to leave the women alone.  The other prisoners withdrew to a corner of the cell, and when darkness fell Sebastius, having prayed for strength, tore the doors of the dungeon from their hinges and conducted the women to safety.  They fled to Rome, and took sanctuary in the household of the Pope, Saint Zephyrinus, the fifteenth pontiff in direct line of succession from Saint Peter of blessed memory.  When the Pope heard of their miraculous escape, he declared that Sebastius must have been blessed by God with supernatural strength like Samson of old.  Not long after he heard that the blessed Sebastius had been martyred at the hands of Marcus Decimus’ legionaries, and Zephyrinus declared the Gaul to be numbered among the righteous, and a generation later, Pope Fabian proclaimed that he be numbered among the saints.  It was said that some in the Gallic churches objected to this, claiming that Sevastre’s great strength – for such was their name for him - came not from God but from the devil.  But these Gauls were held to be schismatics, and the Pope disregarded their tales as idle gossip.  Thus the feast day of Saint Sevastre is held on the twenty-ninth day of October, two days before All Saints’ Day.’  That’s the official church version of Saint Sevastre’s martyrdom and canonization, and it was the earliest and best account available – until 1990, when we excavated his tomb.”

          “Wait a minute!” said Joshua.  “You actually found his burial place?”

          “Not me, actually,” said Duncan.  “It started when a very old church in France – I won’t give its name, but it was not far from the ancient Gallic stronghold of Alesia – decided to build a new rectory.  As they were digging the foundations, they discovered part of the exterior wall of a church from the Fourth Century.  I had just finished up a season of excavations at the catacombs of Turin, and the Department of Antiquities assigned my supervisor, Bishop Heinrich Klein, and me to excavate the site and determine its significance.  We hired some local diggers, gridded the site off, and began to excavate within a couple of weeks of the discovery.  We found that the church itself was small, but had a large building with multiple living chambers attached to it.  We thought it was a monastery of some sort, but it was too early to belong to any known monastic order.  Finally we did find an inscription on one of the walls inside.  It referred to the ‘Order of the Watchful Guardians.’  That was a real puzzler!  Remember, nothing was digitized back then, and we had Vatican librarians scrambling through ancient codices trying to find any reference they could to this cryptic order.”

          “That does sound rather ominous,” Alicia said.  “This is a good story!”

          “It’s just beginning,” Duncan said.  “We found a lead-lined chest inside one of the cubicle chambers of the building, and after several days of jiggering with it, managed to pick the lock and get it open.  Inside we found a silver crucifix, an ancient robe that was once white, and a leather-bound codex in Greek.  Cardinal Klein asked me to take some time off from the dig in order to translate the codex. It was written by a priest named Linus late in the Fourth Century, and described his journey to Gaul in order to build this watch-station and church at the direction of Pope Damasus.  Much of its content was mundane, but as Linus arrived at the site where the church was being built, it got more and more interesting.  Mind you, the actual codex is now filed in the most secret wing of the Vatican library, where even I cannot access it – but I did keep the notes that I took while translating it.  The first entry that caught my attention was this: ‘Damasus has asked us to erect a watch-station here, with a consecrated altar below it, so that the evil that slumbers here may not be awakened again.’  The rest of that entry was about the laying of the church’s altar stone, but I’ll admit that piqued my interest.”

          “What evil was he talking about?” Josh asked.

          “Well, a few pages later, I got a clue.  Linus wrote about a letter he received from Rome.  As best I can remember, this was the gist of it: ‘Damasus, the Bishop of Rome, says that the well-known story of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastius, or Sevastre as the locals call him, is only a part of the truth about the man.  Sebastius was indeed the pastor of a local flock during the persecutions of Marcus Decimus over two centuries ago.  According to a letter received in Rome not long after his martyrdom, one of his disciples described how his master, out of good Christian charity, did receive into his home late one night a pale young maid, who told of being robbed and ravished by bandits as she rode with her family through a nearby forest.  She seemed most distressed, and so the pastor bade her spend the night under his roof, in the watchful care of his own daughter.  The next day the daughter awoke, and found no sign of the stranger they had sheltered.  Going into her father’s bedchamber, she found him seemingly dead, his body pale and a slight wound upon his neck, although indeed there was no blood around it or on his bedding.  Great was the mourning among his congregation at the loss of so kind a servant of God, and in vain did they search for the young maid who was believed to have somehow murdered her host.  But no sign of her was ever seen, either before or since.”

          “Then, that night, as Sevastre had been laid in his coffin and prepared for burial, he suddenly sat up, pale but alert, and great was the fear that struck his parishioners.  But he told them that God has somehow vouchsafed his return from the arms of death, and spoke so many soothing words of faith and charity that they overcame their fear and rejoiced greatly.

          For a time, the faithful of the church were content, rejoicing that God had seen fit to restore their pastor to them.  But then dark whispers began to emerge, that Sevastre was somehow changed by his ordeal – that he shunned the light of day and was seen wandering far and wide after dark, and that his flesh never regained the tones of life, but retained the pallor of the grave.  There were whispers of travelers attacked at night, dragged into the darkness and assaulted, waking hours later weakened and pale, with odd wounds about their necks and arms.  Indeed, the elders of the congregation were about to send to Rome for counsel when the Emperor’s troops descended on their flock like the very wolves of Satan.  Many were slain, and Sevastre himself was arrested and taken to the dungeon from whence his most celebrated escape occurred.  For aiding in the escape of the faithful who were there imprisoned, he was beatified and later declared a saint.

          However, the Pontiff of Rome recently came into possession of some notes from the trial and execution – if it can be called such – of Saint Sevastre, from the annals of Marcus Decimus himself, the scourge of the church in Gaul during the time of Caracalla.  Damasus had a scribe make a copy and sent it to me, and it is grim reading.  I will not copy it here verbatim, but this quote does much to explain our errand here: “The most Excellent Marcus Decimus was pleased to have captured the Christian leader Sebastius, who had murdered a fellow prisoner and helped two of his co-religionists escape not long before.  He was sentenced to be torn apart by wild beasts during the Feast of Lupercal, but the lions could not kill the Christian, although they inflicted many grievous wounds upon him.  As the day waned, his strength seemed to grow instead of waning, and he slew a lion with his bare hands.  At this point the Tribune, recognizing that the Christian was under the bane of blood, ordered his Legionaries to bind the man, and they placed him in a bronze coffin bound with chains of silver, and buried him alive underneath the Temple of Mars.  It was said that his cries could be heard coming from underneath the flagstones for many months thereafter . . .”

          “This is getting better and better!” Josh said.

          Duncan gave him a baleful glare.  “And if you keep interrupting, it will get nowhere!” he scolded his young friend.

          “Sorry, Father – I mean, Duncan,” Josh said with a rueful grin. The former cleric favored him with a wink to show he was only kidding, and then continued.

          “That was as much of the ancient source that Linus quoted at that point, but a few entries later he referred to the narrative again.  Here was the gist of what he wrote:

          Once the altar of our church was complete, I bade my men to tear up the floor of the Temple of Mars (for it was long abandoned, like most of the old Roman temples in Gaul), and seek for the coffin of Sevastre.  It was found after many hours of digging, and while the bronze had blackened with age, the silver chains were still tightly bound around it. The men carefully carried it to the crypt below the new altar, where we had prepared a niche for it.  After it was lowered into place, I put my head against the lid for a few moments.  Although it was very faint, it seemed to me that I did indeed hear something stirring inside, albeit feebly.  I placed a crucifix on the lid and crossed myself, trying to forget the barely audible rustling and scratching!  We kept vigil beside the coffin all night, lifting earnest prayers for the soul of Saint Sevastre, a good Christian who apparently was enthralled by darkness.  The next day the crypt was sealed, the altar consecrated, and our order continued to work on the station where six of us will dwell from now on, guarding the church and the crypt, lest the evil that engulfed Sevastre visit this district again.

          “The rest of the codex simply laid down the rules of the order, and the responsibility of the local bishop to make sure an ordained priest was always in attendance on the church there.  Needless to say, the narrative caused quite a stir among the dig crew when I read my translation to them!  Some of them – perhaps some of your relatives, Joshua -”  he winked again at his American friend “- were already saying we had found the Catholic Dracula!  Bishop Klein scotched that talk pretty quickly, of course.”

          Duncan took a sip of his coffee, which he had flavored with a small dash of Scotland’s namesake beverage, and continued.

“We continued excavating for a couple more weeks before we uncovered the altar stone of the ancient church.  The inscription on it was chilling.  It simply read: Ecclesia Sancti Sebastius  -  Faxit Deus ut non evigilabit.”

          “The Church of Saint Sebastius – God grant he not awaken again,” Josh translated softly.

          “I am getting seriously creeped out here, Duncan!” said Alicia.

          “I think my husband is pulling our legs,” Katharine said with an arched eyebrow.

          “As a man o’the cloth, me dear lass, I assure you that is not the case,” MacDonald told her.

          “Well, then, tell us the rest of it!” Luke Martens interjected. “It’s not polite to leave your friends hanging like this!”

          MacDonald laughed, and looked at the group.

          “I have forgotten how much I missed this,” he said.  “It’s been too long since we were all together.  Now, where was I?”

          “The altar stone,” Isabella said.

          “Aye, lassie, that was it precisely!” he said.  As always, when he was telling a story, his Scottish brogue came on thick and strong.  “It was mid-morning by the time we had that stone with its inscription uncovered and photographed, and of course all of us were dying to see if that bronze coffin was still there.  Bishop Klein pretended to be indifferent, but even he was curious, however hard he tried to conceal it.  So after lunch, he gave the order for us to lever the stone up and see what lay beneath it.  T’was beastly heavy, but we managed to lift it up and pull it aside with damaging it.  There was a gaping black hole underneath, and the smell of ancient soil and damp and rot rose up thick.  I’m sure it was my imagination, but there was something different about this smell, unlike any tomb or catacomb I’ve ever explored.  I can’t really explain it, but if evil has a smell, that was it!”

          Isabella Sforza-Parker had never liked horror movies or scary stories, and as Duncan spoke those last words, she gave a small shudder and snuggled a little closer to her husband, who hugged her supportively.  Mentally she was chastising herself – one of the world’s most well-known archeologists, and here she was mentally cowering at an old man’s tall tale!  She deliberately leaned forward in order to hear Duncan’s every word as the story continued, defying her fears.

          “I got a torch and shone it down into the hole, and we saw a very narrow set of steps, carved into ancient limestone, trailing downward.  I was a young fellow then, and very spry, so I got two graduate students and headed downward into the crypt – although I’m not ashamed to admit I crossed myself as we dropped out of the sunlit world into that unholy chamber of death!”

          “The chamber was small, but deep – the stairs went down a good six or seven meters below the surface before widening out into a rectangular chamber.  A rectangular block of stone had been left protruding from the carved floor, a natural pedestal, about a half a meter high.  On top of it rested an ancient bronze sarcophagus, clearly Roman in origin, decorated with beautiful reliefs of fauns and satyrs dancing as Pan played his pipes – although the details were obscured at first beneath centuries of dust and grime.  A long silver chain was wound around the casket in loops about four or five inches apart, from the head all the way down to the foot.  Heinrich Klein descended the steps at this point and carefully surveyed the scene, and our resident photographer, Thomas Reasoner – he was a bright lad, killed in Kosovo later on while serving as a relief worker there – snapped multiple pictures of the coffin and the inscriptions on the walls.  Most of those were Latin prayers and scriptures from the Vulgate.”

          Duncan took another sip of fortified coffee and continued. 

          “It was after three o’clock, but there were still several hours of daylight left.  We had a tent set up to curate most of the artifacts in – nothing like the nice mobile labs we all had on the Isle of Capri, I can tell you that! – and a very rough trailer that all of us diggers slept in.  But the modern church was actually temporarily vacated due to the construction at first, and our dig later, so we decided to bring the casket into the sanctuary in order to have room to study it and to keep it out of the elements.  There were large rings sticking off of either side of the casket’s bottom, so we went back up topside and came back with some sturdy metal poles that had been left over from the scaffolding on the sides of the church.  Surprisingly, the sarcophagus was not that heavy – I think it may have been bronze-plated wood instead of solid bronze.  Six of us were able to lift it easily and slowly carry it up that narrow staircase on our shoulders and into the light of day.”

          “How awesome that must have been!” Josh said.  “Knowing that it had not traversed those steps in sixteen centuries or more!”

          “The thrill of discovery has been the fuel of archeology since Heinrich Schliemann discovered the ruins of Troy, if not longer,” Duncan said.  “We were all excited about discovering the remains of an ancient saint!  So we carried the sarcophagus into the church and found an old wooden table that looked sturdy enough to hold it.  I will say, though -” he paused for a moment.  “This may be my imagination, but as we carried it across the threshold of the church, that bronze coffin seemed to grow heavier for just a moment, as if it did not want to enter consecrated ground.  Of course, I had spent two days studying and translating that codex, so I was primed to believe odd things about Saint Sevastre at that point.”

          “Once the casket was settled on the table, we went over it with brushes, cleaning away the dirt and grime and photographing the beautiful reliefs. The bronze was darkened with age, but this thing was a beautiful example of late second century Roman craftsmanship.  I’ve often wondered if it was a casket prepared for Marcus Decimus himself.  After the photography was done, Bishop Klein carefully began removing the silver chain that bound the sarcophagus shut.  Our excitement mounted as we realized that we were about to gaze up on the features of a saint from the early days of the Church, before the time of Constantine even.  I was doing the math in my head, trying to think of when Sevastre might have been born, and I realized that his grandfather could have known the Apostles!  I said something to that effect out loud, and several of the others began commenting excitedly, and even Bishop Klein looked up from his work and gave me a smile and quick nod.  He was a good man, a fine scientist and a devoted son of the Church.  I miss him cruelly to this day.”

          Joshua nodded.  He barely knew Klein, since the German cardinal had been killed in the bombing of the Museum of Antiquities in Naples nearly a decade before, after the discovery of Pilate’s Testimonium, but during his brief acquaintance the man’s knowledge of Christian history and his passion for archeology had deeply impressed him.

          “After the chain was removed, Bishop Klein pointed out that there was only a simple latch holding the casket closed.  He called on us to gather around, and said a simple prayer for the dead from the old Latin mass, words that would have been familiar to Sevastre himself sixteen centuries before.  Then he worked the latch loose and lifted the lid on the casket.  We were prepared to see something awful – after all, this poor man had been buried alive after enduring torment at the jaws of wild beasts!  But when the lid finally gave way and lifted up with a screech of ancient hinges – what met our eyes drove me to my knees in reverence.”

          “Reverence?” Isabella asked, her dark Mediterranean eyebrows arching in surprise.

          “You must understand, lass, I was a deeply religious Catholic raised in the pre-Vatican II church,” Duncan explained.  “One thing that was driven into our heads at seminary was the old doctrine that the bodies of the saints were incorruptible!  And Saint Sevastre – I get goose bumps to this day when I remember what we saw in that coffin!”

          “Well out with it, man!” Luke said. “This suspense is unbearable.”

          The wind outside had reached a howling crescendo, and as the thermometer dropped the sheets of rain were giving way to the unmistakable rattle of sleet on the windows.  Despite the warmth of the fire, Alicia shivered slightly.

          `Duncan laughed.  He was a master storyteller, and all four of his friends – and his wife – were hanging on his every word.

          “All right, lad,” he said.  “The first thing I saw were the scratch marks on the coffin lid.  I was right about it being bronze plate – the interior lid was dark, fine wood, probably mahogany, and there were deep gashes etched into it, desperate attempts to escape from a man who had been buried alive.  But as for poor Sevastre – well, first of all, he looked like he died yesterday.  His skin was slightly darkened, but every feature of his face was perfectly preserved, and he looked serene and calm.  His hands were neatly folded under his chin in an attitude of prayer,  as if he had realized his struggles were in vain and called on the Almighty as he felt his end approaching.  But in forty years of archeology, as both a student and a field archeologist, I have never seen a human body so perfectly preserved – especially since, if the account was true of his burial, there had been no attempt whatsoever to embalm him!  All of us felt it – I was not the only one who knelt in awe.  For several minutes no one said a word, and finally it was Bishop Klein who broke the silence.  He looked at us all and said: ‘Whatever his faults, this man died at peace with God, and the church was clearly correct in canonizing him, for his flesh is as incorrupt as any saint’s has ever been.’  Then he began barking out orders, and Tom began snapping pictures, and the spell was broken.  Don’t get me wrong, we were still excited, but it was a different kind of excitement.  After the pictures were taken, Klein lowered the lid on the casket, and we went out to our mess tent and enjoyed supper prepared by a local woman who had agreed to serve as our caterer for the duration of the dig.  I remember that she turned pale when she overheard us talking about seeing the face of Saint Sevastre in person, although when I asked her about him later, she insisted that the name meant nothing to her.”

          He sipped the last of his coffee and held the cup out to Josh, who got up and poured him a bit more.  Duncan decided to forego the dash of Scotch this time, and sipped the bittersweet brew, relishing its heat as he listened to the ice falling outside.

          “What happened next was a dream.  Let me emphasize that right up front.  It had been a deeply emotional day, and I had breathed in quite a bit of ancient fungus down in that crypt, so I do not think for one moment that what I saw that night was real.  But it does show just how strongly the day’s events weighed on my mind, and that’s why I include it in my tale.   I went to bed shortly after eleven, having said my nightly rosary, and sleep came almost instantly.  At first, my dreams were snatches of various moments from my life – my mother, urging me to become a priest, my first tour of a Roman ruin, snippets of lectures from my years in seminary and graduate school, a dig in Beirut from a few years earlier -”

His voice caught for a moment, although only his wife knew why.  Then he swallowed hard and continued.  “But then I dreamed I got up and put on my shoes, afraid that something had gone horribly wrong in the church.  I walked across the campsite, from the rickety trailer they had housed us in.  It was raining softly, and the front door of the church was standing open.  When I entered, I saw that the coffin was open again.  A strange sense of dread and wonder overcame me, and I crept forward to look on the saint’s face once more.  But then I saw that the coffin was empty!  I turned to run to the cottage where Bishop Klein was staying and tell him about it, when I saw a figure standing in the door of the church, silhouetted in the faint light.  Then it stepped forward and I saw none other than Sevastre himself.  He was wearing the same simple brown tunic he had been buried in, and although his skin was still dark, his lips looked red in the light of the candles.  When he saw me, something dark and savage flared in his gaze for a moment – but then he looked more closely at me, his eyes also tinged with red, and he saw my clerical collar.  His features underwent a strange transformation, as hunger gave way to a look of profound regret and shame.  Then he gestured with at me with his hand, and all went black.  I woke in my bed the next morning.”

Alicia looked at him with a mixture of awe and skepticism.

“Are you SURE you’re not making this up?” she said.

“The lack of trust among you children these days is so disturbing,” the former priest scolded.  “I told you this story was true, and I meant it!  Well, when I woke the next morning, I noticed two things.  First of all, my shoes, which I had left neatly at the foot of my bed, were now lying alongside it, carelessly tossed down.  I figured one of the others had kicked them getting dressed in the dark, and thought nothing of it.  But when I came out of the trailer, there was quite a stir in the camp.  Bishop Klein was, as you Americans put it, on the warpath!  Someone had crept into the church overnight and opened the lid on the casket, and left it that way.  Of course, Saint Sevastre was still there, looking exactly as he did when we found him – nearly enough.  His skin had lightened a bit, and some of the creases in his face were not as deep as they had been.  Klein grilled us all as to who had done it, but no one would confess, and he was out of sorts all day long.  He spent a good part of the day back in town, on a long distance line from the local bishop’s house to Rome, trying to get instructions as to what he should do with the body of Saint Sevastre.  There was some stir in the town, because a young woman had been attacked walking home from her brother’s house that evening.  She was not seriously harmed, just some cuts to the neck, but she was so traumatized by the event that she had no memory of it at all.  When Madame LeFlour brought our food that night, she was unusually nervous and out of sorts. All of us seemed to be on edge, and two of the graduate students who were digging up the last outer wall of the old church even got into a fist fight.  That night I had the same dream again, and again, the next morning, the coffin lid was open, and Sevastre’s face was lighter and even more lifelike.  Obviously, the scientific explanation is that his naturally mummified body was slowly rehydrating, but it was extremely unnerving to see him lying there, so well-preserved that I expected his eyes to open any minute.  Klein was even more angry now – he was prepared to send the lot of us back to Rome, I think, if someone did not speak up soon – but the thing is, looking at the faces of my comrades, I don’t think any of us did it.  We were, for lack of a better word, scared to death of what we had found.  That fear intensified when the local bishop came up to see the body of the saint and told us that another woman had been attacked in the night – the owner of a local tavern had found his wife out back, next to the ash cans, her dress torn and her neck lacerated.  She, too, was expected to recover in full, and she, too, had no memory of being attacked.”

He took another sip of coffee, looked at the cup, and decided to pour a bit of liquor into it after all. Despite the roaring fire, the old memories had chilled him a bit.  He pulled Katharine closer to him, relishing the freedom, after thirty years of celibacy, to be physically affectionate to a woman he loved.

“By now Klein was more worried than angry.  That night, before we shut the church doors – more and more curious local priests and parishioners were showing up that day, wanting a glimpse of the ancient saint – the Bishop took his crucifix and placed it on the corpse’s breast, then lowered the lid of the casket.  It was still shut the next morning, and there were no reported incidents that night.  All of us were looking at one another, and a few had already begun whispering the word that was on all of our minds – vampire! Of course, it was the late twentieth century.  No one actually believed that sort of thing any more.  We told ourselves that over and over, and as long as the sun shone in the sky, I think most of us believed it.”

Duncan heaved a long sigh and looked at all of his friends.   The skepticism in their faces was gone, replaced by pure fascination.

“Now, as for this last bit – I want you to understand, I SAW nothing myself.  At least, nothing of what happened in the Church.  I had said my rosary, and was not quite sleepy enough for bed yet, so I decided to pull my shoes on and walk around the ancient church we had uncovered.  I was standing there, beside that altar stone with its strange inscription, when I heard the door of the modern church slam loudly, and Bishop Klein came running out, as pale as a sheet.  I asked him what was wrong, but he said nothing, only crossing himself before hopping into his auto and gunning it straight to town.  The next morning, two large vans pulled up onto the site.  In an hour’s time, they loaded up the codex, the altar stone, and the official site report, unfinished though it was.  All that went into one van, and then they opened the back door of the second van and carried a heavy, solid silver chain into the church.  They went right by me, and I saw that every single link had the sign of the cross etched into it.  Moments later, they emerged, carrying the closed sarcophagus, now tightly bound with the chain.  They loaded it into the van and drove off.  Cardinal Klein called us all together and told us that we were bound by sacred oath never to speak of the excavation, or our discoveries, again, under pain of excommunication.  And I have kept that vow until tonight, my friends, with one exception.”

“Don’t worry, Duncan, your secret is safe with us,” Josh said.

“Of course it is,” Luke added.  “But – may I ask one final question?”

“Absolutely!” Duncan said.  “But I canna guarantee I’ll be able to answer it.”

“What did Klein see?” Martens inquired.

“Oddly enough, he violated his own injunction about ten years later,” McDonald replied.  “We were on a dig in Jordan, near the city of Petra, looking for the copper mines mentioned in the Old Testament, and stayed up late into the night talking.  I asked him that very question you asked me now, and I could tell he was eager to answer it, despite his initial reluctance.  Finally he opened up and told me.  He had suspected, of course, the same thing we all did – that’s why he put his crucifix on Sevastre’s chest that third night.  But he was curious, too.  So shortly before midnight he went into the church and raised the lid of the casket.  Sevastre lay there, calm as ever, hands still in an attitude of prayer. Klein looked at the Saint’s face, and it seemed to him as if the expression had changed.  One moment, there was serenity and peace, but the next, some stark, raving hunger lurked behind that sleeping countenance.  Fascinated, Heinrich reached down and removed his crucifix from the ancient corpse.”

Duncan looked at his coffee, then shook his head and took a quick pull from the steel flask he carried in his pocket.  He swallowed, grimaced, and continued.

“As God is my witness, friends, this is what Cardinal Klein, God rest his soul, told me that night in the desert, and it gives me chills to this day. He lifted the crucifix and started to put it back around his neck, when suddenly Sevastre’s eyes opened wide, and his lips drew back.  He did not have long fangs, as the movies portray, but rather every single incisor had a needle point on it.  Heinrich started to recoil in terror, but that bony hand shot out and grasped him with a terrible, supernatural strength.  Heinrich said the hunger on that face was so intense that he feared for his life, but suddenly the features twisted.  That serene and peaceful face was fighting for control with the ravening beast, and for just a moment, it prevailed.  Then Sevastre spoke, and cried out in Latin:  Propter Deum, posuit illud!’ -  ‘For God’s sake, put it back!’  Klein dropped the crucifix back into the casket, and suddenly the ancient corpse resumed its former pose, hands folded, face serene.  He came running out of the Church, drove to town, and called the Vatican directly.  You all know, now, what happened the next morning, and that is why the name of Saint Sevastre is nowhere to be found in the calendar of saints to this day.  Still, I like to think that he retained enough of his godly nature that he would rather be chained till Judgment Day than be driven to prey on the innocent any further.  Perhaps his canonization was not unwarranted, under the circumstances.”

Duncan MacDonald stood and stretched, taking Katherine by the hand.

“That my friends, is the full story,” he said.  “You asked for something dark and frightening, and that’s the darkest thing I have ever been a part of.  I bid you all a good night and pleasant dreams.”

As it turned out, none of Josh’s guests, except Duncan himself, slept soundly that night at all.