Brother Emerick sauntered down the long, dim north corridor of Holy Face Abbey, hands buried deep in the hip pockets of his monastic habit. He was on a casual sort of mission, checking in on a visitor to the abbey, but the sight of light at the end of the dark, tunnel-like corridor suddenly filled him with unease. He knew it was nothing more than the last ray of sunset, slanting in through the arched window of the back wall, yet he paused a moment, remembering a recent near-death experience—he’d had several—where a similar light tried to pull him from the dark and into the afterlife. It suddenly made him particularly nervous about what was waiting for him in that last room at the end of the hall.
Compline and evening prayers had just ended, but the sun still low hung in the sky as the solstice approached. The sticky heat of Appalachian summer had begun to permeate the stone walls of the abbey, prompting the monks to shed their cowls, roll up their sleeves and adopt Emerick’s personal habit of going barefoot. And it was the cool slate floor tiles that did, at last, ground Emerick, bringing him back to his senses, the stone soothing against his hot and blistered bare soles.
I’m just going to check on him, he told himself. Make sure he’s okay, not sick or anything, not gonna stick around for any of his chit-chat. Not even gonna step inside, just gonna peek in on him and leave…
The abbey was silent, but for the buzzing and chirping of outdoor insects and crickets, and some of the monks had already retired for the night, to get in a little sleep before the 2:30 am Vigil bell. So no one heard Emerick as he loped down the hallway, least of all his intended visitor: the disgraced former Archbishop of Massachusetts, Julian J. Gannone.
This particular corridor was a relic of the mid-twentieth century, when ‘Hard Cider’ Abbey teamed with men burning with monkish vocation. At that time there had been some fifty professed brothers, and another dozen ordained priests, completely filling the one-story, cross-shaped stone building that sat nestled into the eastern face of Stilton Mountain, above the old mining and manufacturing hub of Skerritville, West Virginia. Now all the monks—which, counting novices and priests, numbered a mere dozen—fit into a single wing of the building. The scandal-plagued visiting archbishop had been given his own lonely wing, to keep him in seclusion from the others, in an effort to encourage some repentance and humility on his part. This had not, however, kept him from trying to worm his way into the monks’ company whenever possible.
Hence, Emerick’s mission this evening: No one had seen Gannone—who they had been ordered to address as ‘Brother Julian’—since the evening before. He had not shown up at meals, nor at liturgy, and the monks had begun to hope, feebly, that perhaps he had fled the abbey for good.
Maybe last night’s noxious stew had done the trick, Emerick thought. A fat timber rattler had been caught near the cider barn, carved up and cooked into a concoction that curiously resembled canned chicken noodle soup. It was then served with great flourish as dinner to the former prelate—as chicken soup. When informed, after he’d eaten two bowlfuls, that it was actually snake-meat, Brother Julian had merely smiled in a bitter way. “Best damned meal I’ve had here yet,” he remarked, before stalking off.
And that was the last anyone had seen of him.
If the archbishop had indeed escaped, the Abbot would not be happy to hear it, from long distance. Dom Frederique was away tending to his elderly mother in France. He had specifically asked Emerick to keep an eye on the abbey, paying particular attention to their troublesome and uninvited ecclesiastic guest. Nothing could happen to Gannone, he had warned, as the bishop was only at the monastery for ‘safekeeping,’ awaiting a full Vatican tribunal into his alleged misdeeds. And if anything did happen…it would all be on Emerick’s head.
He stood now before the prelate’s door, listening for activity within. He could not be asleep already, could he, at only nine in the evening? Emerick knew Julian was something of a night owl, since the only liturgy he attended reliably was middle-of-the-night Vigil.
“Bish—I mean, Brother Julian?” He tapped lightly on the door. He waited a moment, and knocked a bit more forcefully. “Hey, y’all! You in there?”
None of the monk-cells had locks on the doors—not even so-called important visitors were given one—so Emerick carefully turned the doorknob and creaked the door open a bit, peering inside. The archbishop’s room was like every other dormitory cell in the abbey, small and narrow, the walls a drab green gray, a single window, single bed, desk, crucifix. Someone had dragged in an old armchair at Gannone’s request, so he could sit and read. Emerick saw first the bed, neatly made and empty. The remains of the day, filtering in through the single window, glinted off the gilt frames of the artwork Gannone had brought with him. Not just art, but jaw-dropping classic paintings, from distant centuries, filling nearly every inch the tiny room’s walls.
And then he saw the archbishop.
Sitting straight up in his borrowed armchair, dressed—not in the farm-laborer’s garb he wore by day in the fields, or the novice’s white robe the Abbot had ordered him to wear inside the monastery, but in the black clerical traveling suit he’d worn his first day at the abbey. He seemed to be in some kind of reverie, staring off into the distance, eyes glazed behind no-nonsense tortoiseshell spectacles.
“Julian? Brother?” Emerick set foot into the room, his toe hitting a pair of packed suitcases set by the door. “Hey! Are you planning on leaving us? Are you…” When the man did not respond, Emerick inched closer to him. “Hey! Bishop!” He waved a hand in front of the man’s face. No response.
Panic ripped through Emerick: He had seen years ago in the Army, in combat and later at the Veteran’s Hospital, men die with their eyes wide open. He grabbed the man by his shoulders, and found him warm to the touch, not cold or stiff. But he didn’t seem to be breathing… Emerick shook him frantically. “Hey, Bishop, wake up! Wake up now, this isn’t funny!” But the bishop’s only response was to pitch forward toward Emerick, his eyes still wide open. Emerick pushed him back into the chair and grabbed his wrist, struggling to feel a pulse.
He then grabbed his cellphone from the pocket of his habit, punching in a single digit. The infirmary monk, Gabriel, answered right away.
“Gabe! It’s the archbishop! He’s…he’s…dead! But he’s still warm! Either he’s dead…” His eyes fell to the nightstand table, where he saw a half-finished glass of wine along with…a small hypodermic needle. “Or someone went and turned him into a zombie!”
Want more? Hang in there: I’m hoping to have this up for sale on Amazon by July 15th, in both Kindle and paperback format, and as always, at an affordable price.