Isaac had a mind like a steel trap. Unfortunately. Stuffed into his car, surrounded by empty coffee cups and not-so-official paperwork, he tried to utilize his gift to make sense of the chaos creeping ever closer. His head was beginning to ache.
“I know you’re connected,” he told the two papers he held—one in each hand. Glaring between the reports, he dragged a particular priest’s face from the depths of his memory. “There’s a clear link between these cases. But what else are you hiding, Father Martin Rice?”
A couple of months prior, Isaac’s cousin Levi had been assigned to investigate what turned out to be a demon in disguise in Waterview. One of the involved clergymen had confessed to questionable activity upstate and so, a few weeks ago, his other cousin, Levi’s sister, Liah, had unofficially poked her nose into a gathering of priests in Red Leaf City.
She’d uncovered an orgy, and possibly a dangerous plot making its way up the Church hierarchy. She’d also been taken hostage, along with a number of kidnapped women, and put on display at a secret Satanic Mass, led by an imposter in cardinal’s robes. During Liah’s rescue, Isaac had caught a glimpse of a familiar face.
Father Martin Rice.
The priest had stood by a hidden exit, waving the pretend cardinal and his demonic whore to safety. Isaac had only seen a portion of the man’s profile as he took off his mask, and the bastard was across the room, the torchlight dancing dramatically over his cheekbones…
But Isaac never forgot. He never forgot a single thing, which was both his gift and his curse. He remembered the man’s image, as well as a labor-intensive pencil sketch matched to Vatican records he’d pulled up on his computer. He remembered…
“God damn.” Isaac let one sheet of paper drop to the car’s seat so he could rub at the pain centered in his chest. Looking up, scanning his surroundings through the windshield didn’t ease the tightness, either. The sidewalks were cracked, the gutters filled with trash and a few cars lining the curb were either without tires or spray painted with graffiti. “What the hell are you doing here?”
The question was not directed at himself. Jericho—his pain and salvation, both—had looked into Father Martin Rice more than a year ago. She hadn’t gotten far. Soon after picking up the trail, she’d been pulled into a different investigation concerning a demonic minister who’d developed a cult following and a habit of human sacrifice.
And that’s when life had fallen apart.
Isaac couldn’t afford to think about it just then. Determined to hold onto his courage, he organized his papers as quickly as he could and stuffed them back into their folders. With a deep breath, he grabbed a knife from his glove compartment because the neighborhood was alarming, and focused on the task at hand.
“Just knock. That’s all. Knock and ask. The bossman’s gonna need validation before he puts resources on this thing and you’re the only one with any sort of notes on this dude.” He practiced his speech for the hundredth time. “We need what you’ve got, that’s all. Whatever you had managed to find, because I never got a chance to talk to you about it before…”
Isaac faltered. Words always seemed to get stuck in throat at that point, so he still didn’t know what he would say after that. With a shrug, he decided to wing it.
His cell phone rang before he could open his car door. Putting off the inevitable with injudicious relief, he didn’t even check the screen before he answered. “What’s up?”
“Where are you?”
Isaac’s eyes widened and he sat up in a rush—not that he had far to go. The steering wheel punched into his sternum, stealing his breath long enough that he managed to find an response to the question. “Uh, hey, Bossman. I’m in my car. Why?”
Enoch wasn’t technically family, a cousin by marriage only, but he’d been put in charge of their branch of Garguiem operations nonetheless. That had caused friction and a fair amount of distrust, which wasn’t aided by his gift for uncovering truths. The man was persuasive, charismatic, and had a way of making people want to confess their secrets to him. Almost hypnotizing, to Isaac’s way of thinking—and definitely dangerous for the secret mission he and his cousins had undertaken.
“Where is your car, Isaac?”
“Car’s on the street, bossman, just where cars belong.”
Enoch must have known something was going on—after all, half the family agents in his employ had bailed on Christmas dinner and Isaac hadn’t been to the office in over a week. He didn’t want to get into hypnotizing range. Liah would skin him alive if he revealed the truth about her new boyfriend, and Enoch would roast him over actual coals if he was caught in a lie.
“Which street?” Each word came slowly, clearly, and greatly emphasized.
Isaac cleared his throat, unwilling to divulge such sensitive information. “What’s going on? Is something wrong?”
“Yeah, the people supposedly working for my branch of Garguiem operations are all currently AWOL.”
The man’s voice was too smooth, too calm. In-law or not, Isaac didn’t fully trust him, and especially not with so much going on. “Not all of us are missing.”
“Liah’s off the roster pending her appeal, Levi took off for parts unknown with Marcella and you’re not behind your desk, where I expected you to be over an hour ago.”
“That’s not all of us, Enoch. I mean, come on, there’s still—”
“I know my team, thank you. The people I want to see, however, aren’t here. I have a problem with this, Isaac. A big problem that’s making me rethink what, exactly, could be capturing the attention of my best operatives.”
“Like you said, people are taking some time off for important life moments, bossman.”
Isaac started to sweat. “I’m looking into something.”
“Oh?” Enoch’s tone turned sugary. “You’re looking into the file I just put on your desk, perhaps? The one ordering a full evaluation of Archbishop Hallie?”
Hallie was the man who had kicked off the entire investigation. The man that had opened the rabbit hole Isaac and his cousins were currently falling down. He was a recovering alcoholic and had mentored a man serving a sentence for murder after a demon’s possession. Hallie had gotten suspicious and called an old friend for some help—a friend who happened to be connected to the Garguiem.
“Why do you need an eval for the archbishop?” Isaac asked.
“Levi emailed me his report on the happenings at both Waterview and in Red Leaf City. I must confess, he’s a better Garguiem agent than anyone had previously given him credit for.”
“Of course he’s good. He’s family, ain’t he?”
Isaac could almost picture Enoch rolling his eyes as his snort came through the phone’s speaker. “We all know he’s a loose cannon, never the greatest agent, though he’s a lucky son of bitch. He’s been hanging on by frayed threads since Gideon fell.”
“And?” Isaac held his breath, wondering where his supervisor was going with his observations.
“And I know I saw him at your aunt’s house during the Week of Wisdom, but he still had time to travel upstate and investigate a group of priests who only meet once a month?”
“Well, he’s got great timing. Lucky, like you said.”
“And he’s got a brand new friendship with a potentially corrupt archbishop.”
Isaac stilled. “You’ve got evidence?”
“No,” Enoch replied. “You’re going to get the evidence. Hallie’s alcohol addiction comes too damned close to corruption for my liking. I want you to compile a dossier on him—”
“I’ve already got one started.”
The sudden anger sweeping through him gave his words a snap he normally wouldn’t direct at his superior. Despite Levi’s assurances that Hallie was an upstanding member of the Church, and even disregarding Liah’s respect for the man, Isaac knew his job. Any time a new clergyman was given a glimpse into Garguiem operations a file was created.
“Enoch, I started putting together a report at my cousin’s request, when the mission in Waterview was passed on to him. By suggesting proper protocol wasn’t followed, you’re implying that I’m either stupid, or corrupt myself.”
“I don’t doubt any of my people.” A sigh came through the phone, reminding Isaac that Enoch had earned the respect of his colleagues for a good reason. His diplomacy skills were second to none. “I haven’t seen any reports and people are asking questions. While the rest of you get to deal with nothing more taxing than demons and asshole priests, I have to handle politics and the Vatican.”
“Someone’s riding you?”
Enoch gave the appearance of complete unflappability, as if he couldn’t care less what sort of orders came down the line. He had his own way of doing things and he’d make sure everything turned out all right—and make his agents look good at the same time. The man’s cousin, much to Isaac’s heartache, used to have the same quality about her.
“Cardinal Murphy wants to know how deep his old friend dug the hole, before he managed to pry himself loose. They’d fallen out of touch around the time Hallie got lost in a bottle and he only contacted him again when shit went sour in Waterview.”
Isaac rubbed his eyes. Cardinal Murphy was their liaison to the Vatican—soon to be their branch’s only one, as the other was set to retire. The man was incorruptible, chosen for his resistance to temptation, a real hard-ass. He and the archbishop had a history, and if he was suspicious, perhaps there was something to it.
“Yeah, okay, I’ll look into Hallie. If there’s something weird about the guy, I’ll find it.”
“I know you will. Where are you now?”
Tricky, tricky. Isaac smiled. “I’ll see you when I see you, Enoch.”
With that, Isaac ended the call and got out of the car before he second-guessed himself again. Leaving his phone behind, he crossed the street, gritting his teeth at the thought of people he loved living in such a run-down, dangerous neighborhood. He supposed that was part of the appeal, however. Plus, she would have a strict budget that would make the multi-family tenement and the wafting stench of garbage a necessary evil.
Necessary because she’d run and never come home.
Isaac clenched his jaw harder. The entrance was locked—hallelujah and praise God for small miracles. Double-checking the address and taking a deep breath to calm his nerves he scanned the identification markers on the call box he was surprised to see anchored next to the front door. Most slots were devoid of names. One had a crude, rounded square etched into the metal.
He pushed that button.
Acid bubbled and clawed its way up his esophagus. There was no answer but he knew the apartment was occupied—oh, yes, he absolutely knew, because if there was one thing in the world he knew it was her, everything about her, her habits, beliefs and idiosyncrasies. And Isaac never forgot.
He lay on the button. Finally, a response came. “Antioch. Did you lose your damn key again?”
“Jericho.” His throat closed, making him unable to go on. Heart pounding, Isaac could not breathe.
He’d chosen correctly, and the full-body tingle setting his spine on fire carried a strange mix of terror and relief. His ears delighted in the harsh, screechy tone that had streamed through the speaker, though his soul remembered when that voice was as sweet as spring’s first flower. Spots danced before his eyes and he had to lean against the wall to make sure he didn’t tumble down the steps as his legs gave out.
The silence finally penetrated his madness. He pressed the button again. “Jericho? Please…I need your help.”
“Isaac. Go. Go away.”
Her voice was strained, stuttering. Suddenly scared that she would walk away and stop responding at all, he rushed on, “Please, listen to me! Father Martin Rice, remember him? I know you have a box full of paperwork, Jericho. I remember, you know I do. I know you’ve got some information on Rice and I need it.”
“I…I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“We need what you’ve got, that’s all, Jericho. Whatever you managed to find, baby, because I never got a chance to talk to you about it but Liah was in trouble and I saw him and—”
“I’m sorry. I don’t have what you need.”
“I don’t know where they are.”
“Please! I remember you telling me you’d found something, but then you had to go because…” Desperation ravaged Isaac’s senses, his throat swelled and tongue dried out. He forced the words, “Because you and Gideon were sent into that fucking church…” Memories swamped him and hijacked his speech. “And the bomb and the explosion and the sulfur igniting and…and he…then you…”
Isaac couldn’t breathe at all. He was sure his lungs had collapsed, as had he. Leaning against the wall, he let his tears flow and drip from his chin as he sobbed. He shuddered as fresh pain ripped him apart again.
“Please, Jericho. I need your help.” He needed her—to see her, to speak to her, to hold her once more. But he had to focus on what was possible to achieve.
“No…I…can’t.” Then harsher, “Why should I?”
“Because Rice is involved in something really big and really bad.” Isaac fought to make the garbled sounds coming from his throat seem more like actual words. “And because…because you’re my wife, my other half, and I need you. I need you.”
But she was gone. Isaac knew. The speaker remained silent and, eventually, he gave up.
For the moment.
From the outside, the former girl’s academy looked like any other building. The city was full of moderately charming brick structures that had been converted into new usage without much remodeling. There was nothing special about the old school except the air of antiquated dignity clinging to the rain-washed bricks. Even the gargoyles decorating the roofline blended into the architecture of the bank next door and, with a bodega pressed to the building’s other wall, there were no grounds to maintain and no signage to advertise what was inside.
Most would never see beyond the darkly tinted front window. Even if they entered the building, they’d only reach the foyer, where they’d be stopped by Ruth, the epitome of grotesques and gargoyles, who guarded this lair of Garguiem with nothing more than a fingernail file and a take-no-prisoners attitude.
Isaac shuddered—and not just from the cold rain sliding beneath the collar of his jacket. In fact, Ruth was the reason he’d decided to enter through the grimy window in the alley, rather than the front door.
The window was a tricky piece of work. Every potential entrance of the Garguiem headquarters was triple protected by a variety of modern security alarms and archaic prayers. Disabling the contemporary technology was easy. Since he was in charge of organizing every bit of information that came through their particular region, Isaac had all the codes, and his memory was infallible.
The prayers were a bit harder. He lifted his hand. “I don’t fucking feel like saying this in Latin, O Lord. Open sesame won’t work and please isn’t always the magic word.”
He winced at his own twisted sense of humor, knowing it had skewed darker in recent months. There wasn’t much left to laugh at, though.
With a sigh, Isaac got serious. “In the likeness of Michael the Archangel, protector of men and leader of God’s Army, I beg entrance for no nefarious purpose, but seek truth in a matter close to my heart and necessary for the survival of the ones I love.”
The embellishments didn’t appear to hurt his cause. The dirty glass beneath his fingertips rippled with yellow light and, though soft, it was bright enough on that dreary day that Isaac took a quick look around to make certain he was alone. A muted click told him the window had unlocked.
He tumbled across the smallest opening he could get his broad shoulders through. Inside, the hallways were cool and quiet, echoing a bit much for Isaac’s peace of mind on the best of days—and today was not the best of days. The building seemed hushed and tense, the sound of his breathing bouncing off the walls. Isaac sluiced the rainwater from his hair, pushed the window back into place and wriggled his shoulders until he was certain he wouldn’t drip all the way down the hall.
Then he held his breath and crept toward his office.
Power pulsed around Isaac’s senses. He may not be a warrior like his cousins, he may not have Jericho’s intuition, Liah’s empathy or Levi’s nose, but there was no mistaking the aura of the Garguiem. His people were descended from angels—banished to the earth after refusing to pick a side in the heavenly war. Made mortal and charged with the task of protecting the world from evil and corruption. Gifted with talents regular humans would never believe.
Isaac never forgot. Some fucking talent, he thought.
He tried not to be bitter about being left behind, relegated to desk duty simply because he could remember various bits of information—including the workarounds to the ever-changing, highly sophisticated firewalls the Vatican employed on their computer networks. His ancestor Gargouille may have been recruited by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, but that didn’t mean his followers believed in the dogma or belonged to the traditions. The Garguiem policed the clerical hierarchy up to and including the Pope in order to prevent demons from infiltrating and conquering the organization. Isaac reminded himself that he used weapons of a different sort—no less cutting, and every bit as important as the swords the warriors he worked with wielded.
Making his way through the halls, Isaac finally reached his final test. The silence had given way to a murmured, one-sided argument occasionally interspersed with a loud curse word or two. He paused, then risked a glance around the corner. A quick peek told him Enoch was in his office. Isaac had to find a way past.
He supposed he could simply stroll by, casually raise a hand and toss out a careless ‘Hey, Bossman,’ as he normally would, but he didn’t want to take a chance of being stopped. And, with so many others having gone AWOL, Isaac knew he’d be stopped. Questioned. Especially after the last conversation he’d had with his supervisor, just days ago.
Even now, he was afraid that his commander would somehow sense the way his heart raced, maybe feel the temperature difference as Isaac hid and waited, swallowing down the worst of his panic as his temples beaded with sweat. Enoch’s gift seemed unnaturally persuasive sometimes—not just getting the truth out of someone, but compelling it. Seriously, the man was downright eerie. And with Levi and Liah avoiding their superior, Isaac had gotten caught in the crosshairs.
“Shit,” he whispered soundlessly. “Why me?”
But Isaac already knew the answer to that question. Enoch was his cousin by marriage, though that thought was too painful to dwell on some days. A few years ago, in a move nearly unprecedented in any Garguiem unit, and especially one with a host of eligible leaders like theirs had had, the powers-that-be decided their particular family group needed to be led by an outsider. Enoch was sent in and his reception was chilly, to say the least.
But he’d brought his beautiful cousin with him. And Isaac had taken one look at her and fallen deeply, madly, blindly in love. His entire body had tingled and his soul had grown wings. Jericho was undeniably his other half, his gift from God. The one person in the whole world that was meant for him. His salvation and his glory.
His eternal pain.
Their relationship had given Isaac just a little more leeway with Enoch than anyone else could claim. In Isaac’s opinion, it should have garnered a bit of sympathy too, especially after the past year and all that Jericho’s leaving had wrought, but the commander had ridden his IT tech harder than ever before. Enoch had kept him too busy for the misery that waited in the wings—Isaac knew, understood and some days even appreciated it. That didn’t help the current situation, however.
He took another peek. Enoch’s shadow moved restlessly against the wall and the sound of his breathing seemed to rush through the corridor. The man was irritated, agitated, not in a good mood. Isaac gritted his teeth and prayed his heart wouldn’t burst through his rib cage as he slipped a few inches closer.
“No, Cardinal,” Enoch growled. “She hasn’t gone back into the training program yet, but I will let you know the moment she—”
Isaac stopped, sucked in oxygen and pressed his spine to the wall. His superior was talking about Liah. She’d been ordered back into the Garguiem training program after one too many suspensions from duty. The Cardinal had to be Padraig Murphy. He was a stickler for the rules and he’d been riding Liah for a while.
“She just needs a break. I gave her some time off.”
Enoch was lying. After Liah had walked out of the Garguiem headquarters a few weeks ago, she’d gone to Red Leaf City. Isaac didn’t think investigating missing girls, stumbling over a group of corrupt, orgiastic priests and nearly being sacrificed in a Black Mass ritual would count as time off at all.
Liah had gone rogue without a single glance back, and she’d committed herself to a man who would be summarily murdered if Enoch even suspected his existence. And Isaac had to keep all of that secret from a man with a gift for uncovering the truth.
Biting his lip and sliding another inch toward the door, he contorted to peer beyond its edge. Enoch faced a false window. Stuck as they were between two other buildings, they’d installed square light panels in the walls and decorated them with curtains. Productivity had gone up. Just then, anyone would have believed the portal was real, judging by the way the bossman stood before it.
“I’m simply hoping time away from the stresses of this job will do her good. No, Cardinal, I haven’t spoken to her brother, either. Levi is also on vacation with his new fiancé. I thought they deserved some time—” Enoch’s shoulders straightened with a snap. “Of course I know where my people are.”
Holding his breath and wincing, Isaac threw himself across the open doorway. He froze, listening to Enoch argue a bit louder, his words rushed and short, biting. The Garguiem didn’t take orders from the Cardinals, but the liaisons they worked with demanded respect. Isaac and most of his cousins would have told the Holy See to get fucked eons ago, but maybe that was why they’d brought in an outsider to lead their unit. Enoch was keen on diplomacy.
Secure in the knowledge that his commander was too wrapped up in his own troubles to notice he’d had company, Isaac continued down the hallway toward his high tech office. The holiest of holies—or at least that’s what he called it. The inner workings of their operation lay beyond a thick steel door guarded by biometric locks designed to allow only him and Enoch access.
Isaac lifted his hand to a metal plate on the wall. The device grew warm beneath his palm as it scanned his prints. He stood still, with his face slightly elevated while twin lasers moved over his ear and gouged into his eye. Fingerprints, retinal scans and ear comparisons complete, he then stuck out his tongue and waited for the drop of holy water. A sharp pinch in his finger where it pressed against the metal plate was immediately followed by a soft chime that made him paranoid he’d be discovered, but the DNA analysis took nearly no time at all and soon the steel door whooshed open.
With a backward glance to make certain Enoch hadn’t heard his entry, Isaac stepped across the threshold into his own domain. A wall of computers waited for another round of fingerprint scans before they would turn on and spill their secrets, but he walked past them, uninterested just then. What he wanted wasn’t in the computers. The only listing associated with Father Martin Rice in the database read ‘Pending input by Garguiem Operative 23875’.
Isaac rubbed his chest and headed back into the stacks of hard-copy documents. Manuscripts and scrolls, medieval Illuminations and hand-written notes, evidence collected in boxes, all piled neatly on shelves stretching from floor to ceiling in three long aisles. He didn’t need to look anything up in there, however. He’d catalogued every single piece of data he’d inherited or gathered since he’d been assigned to the job and Isaac had never forgotten any of it.
At the very back of the large space, in a dim corner where no one ever thought to look, he sought a box without identification. There was no case number on the front, no description of what was inside. A band secured the lid. Coded with a specific, voice-activated password, even Enoch, when that bastard was at his most intrusive, wouldn’t be able to get the seal open without Isaac’s full cooperation.
He prayed while he opened the box. Still, the pain nearly took him to his knees when the dim lighting, high overhead, sparked off a simple piece of gold. Isaac picked it up and, for the first time in a year, put his wedding band back on.
His finger felt as if it had caught fire. Not his ring finger, but the one next to it. The middle finger that boasted the faint Mem, the small mark that told the world that Isaac was one of God’s lawmen too. The same rounded square he’d found etched into a call box in the middle of a ghetto.
He looked at the picture he’d left in the container. Jericho was beautiful, with dark curls and perfect skin, but that wasn’t why he’d fallen so hard for her. Her laugh and her smile, the spark of mischief in her chocolate eyes. The way she’d encouraged his sense of humor and made him feel like her equal even though he wasn’t half the warrior she was. Her kindness and compassion. Her scent. Her taste.
He stroked his finger over the image. “What do you expect me to do now, Jericho?”
Coming in 2018