This is a standalone short story that takes place in the same universe as two of my novels, Morning Blood in Mio (currently in the last stages of editing prior to publication), and Chasing Rapture, Bobbing for Apocalypse (on deck to be edited, as well). As far as the timeline is concerned, it takes place during the latter.
“The Church of Luke” is probably my favorite from this month. It started with a couple of questions, as a lot of stories do: what would those leftover after the Rapture turn to for belief and stability in their lives? And who would stand up for them against those that seek to take advantage of their fragility? Thus, Chase Cross, Church Auditor, was born… er, Reborn out of the ashes of his failures in Morning Blood in Mio.
This is the second to last story in my “April Challenge”, but it certainly won’t be the second to last story I write–I’m just getting started. Stick around after; you just might enjoy the ride as much as I do.
The Church of Luke
by Curtis A. Deeter
The gymnasium at St. Paul’s Reformatory for Boys was all hustle and bustle.
Dour men in over-sized crimson cassocks, wearing black birettas with little red poofs on the top and capes that cleaned the dust off the basketball court floor, weaved in and out of one another. They brought in folding chairs, massive speakers with built-in subwoofers, card tables for refreshments, and velvet ropes to separate the masses from the Chosen. Near the far side of the room, a gaggle of them worked in perfect discord, sawing, hammering, and scratching their heads, as one lucky guy constructed the stage.
A chorus of helpful suggestions sounded over the racket, all falling on deaf ears.
“Do you know what you’re doing, Jerry?”
“That doesn’t go there.”
“It’s the pointy end that goes in first. The pointy end, Jerry!”
Distracted by the onslaught of voices, Jerry brought the hammer down on his thumb. He swore and sucked at the pain.
“I’m no carpenter… but I don’t think that’s how it’s done.”
“Nope, definitely not like that.”
Evelyn Monroe, self-proclaimed Disciple of Luke and founder of the Church of Luke, paced the span of the gym, clipboard at hand, the corner of her upper lip raised in her best Billy Idol sneer. Leadership was a good color on her. She’d spent most her years before The Rapture underwriting life insurance policies… for how much good those did in the end. Now, she brought assurance of a different kind.
She stopped, appraised a couple newcomers as they draped linens over the punch table, and grimaced. A third stood, knee cocked, holding the punch bowl, its viscous contents sloshing gently.
“Be careful with that, now,” Evelyn said, pointing her staff wickedly at him. “Bear in mind the last poor soul who spilled the ichor of our God.”
“Yes, ma’am. Sorry, ma’am.” He went statue straight, sloshing the contents of the bowl to the brim. A single drop threatened to spill over the edge, but saw the look on Evelyn’s face and decided it best to trickle on down to rejoin the rest.
“Carry on, then,” she said.
The two draping the linens bowed and darted off in opposite directions, leaving the third with the great responsibility of placing the punch bowl in the center of the table without incurring additional wrath.
Satisfied, Evelyn continued on her way.
Tonight has to be perfect, she thought, tapping the bottom of her staff on the wood grain floor. She circled her congregation like a hawk circles the hare, all the while tapping rhythmically with the staff. Tap. Tap. Tap-tap. Tap.
She couldn’t remember who had the idea first. Maybe it was the fat man. She’d disliked him from the start, but his oafish selfishness was wearing her down. She had to respect someone who’s utter disregard for the well-being of others rivaled her own. Such dedicated egotism took moxie, a trait all too rare these days. It’s funny, when the entire world suddenly became murderers and thieves, the criminal veterans lost their confidence.
He’d come to her service one blustery afternoon. She’d been in the middle of a sermon which she had put little thought into the night before. To be honest, she didn’t put a whole lot of thought into any of her sermons. She found as long as she said it loud, it didn’t really matter what it was that she said. The doors of the church flung open, cracking at their hinges nearly to bursting, and a flurry of leaves and urban tumbleweeds spilled in. One could barely make out the hillside or the crypt beyond the intruder’s silhouette.
Over the grumblings and whispers, Evelyn asked, “Can I help you?”
“Name’s Chase Cross,” he said, lumbering, “and I’m here to be saved.”
“We’re all too late for saving, my child. But please, have a seat. You might yet find what you’re looking for here.”
He’d broken the kneeler by the end of the service, but it was clear he was there to stay. Evelyn made her living off strays. They didn’t ask questions, they took things at face value, and they appreciated everything she “did” for them, even if that meant simply acknowledging their existence.
But a concert? What a novel idea; a celebration to keep her more… flaky followers appeased. Something for the kids.
She adopted the idea as her own, put in the proper inquiries, and booked three of the hottest up-and-coming bands this side of the Golden Gates: Iscariot’s Salvation, The Unleavened, and Gentiles and Traitors.
When she’d approached them each individually, explained the Ozzy-esque nature of her church, and asked them to play a onetime-only show, the new sons and daughters of Metal were more than happy to oblige. She was skeptical, at first. Metal wasn’t exactly the church-goers first choice in music, historically, but the times changed.
“Can you play anything else?” she asked the wiry, long-haired lead singer of Iscariot’s Salvation. “Acoustic versions? Some folk songs maybe? I think my congregation might appreciate them a bit—”
“Look, lady. This is The Rapture. We do Metal. We do it loud and we do it fast. Bottom line.”
From behind a pair of twirling drumsticks that might have been fibulas, the drummer belched. “It’s the end times, boss. All music is Metal now, dontchya know?”
The bass player stayed out of mind out of sight. Acceptance of the universal law of anonymity among rhythmic string players made his natural state of being easier to cope with.
“Fair enough,” she said. They made a good point: it was The End. Quality musicians were hard enough to come by without a little apocalypse sprinkled on.
Everything else went off without a hitch, more or less.
She stumbled upon the abandoned school on accident. Ruminating, Evelyn meandered the bramble-thick paths that used to be her hometown. On occasion, people had to let their minds free and wander. Always having a specific destination in mind did a number on the psyche. In some cases, irreparable. The doors to the school were locked, keeping in most of the original Catholic charm and, more importantly, keeping out the rapidly multiplying woodland creatures. It was the bears she worried about the most, but a racoon-free venue also had a certain allure she couldn’t deny.
The sound and lighting equipment had been even easier. Chase Cross knew a guy who knew a lady who used to tour with Led Zeppelin as a… roadie of sorts. Although she never quite got a chance to see much of the road, other than maybe the canopies of oak trees as they flew down 1-75 in their tour bus. The band had a tendency to blow speakers or outgrow older models. Throughout the years, she took them as a token of her vital services, and they collected dust in the dark corner of her parent’s garage.
Generators were abundant. Enough people in her hometown could be considered “Preppers”, and they all kept that sort of thing in stock. Her uncle alone had enough gasoline and generators to power New York and the greater part of Upper New Jersey. He also had a horrible meth addiction, but who was she to judge?
The catering was easy. That’s what the whole thing was about, after all.
Yes, everything was coming to a head.
“Uh, ma’am?” A sniveling sheep named Rudy sidled up to her, holding a gilded, oblong box with a scarlet and silver bow wrapped around. “The ceremonial carving set.”
“Did you get the one I wanted?”
“Well, you see, there was a bit of a snag… we uh—”
“A snag? A SNAG? You’re telling me you had one job and failed?” He groaned. “What did you say?”
He shook his head and held the knife in front of him.
“I asked what you said, my child.”
“I… uh… I…”
There’s always one… “Please, just tell me. Do not fear me, child. We are in this together. Where is the knife I wanted?”
“It’s not like we could just order it on Amazon, ma’am. We did our best, honest we did. Geoffrey didn’t make it back, even. We lost him to the bottom of the Lake of Fire. This one is a close second. I think you’ll like it.”
She unwrapped it slowly, careful to make an ordeal of the process. His eyes widened as she loosed the bow, allowing it to drop feather-like to the gymnasium floor, and he skittered back when she dropped the ornamental box behind it.
“Does this blade even have a name?”
He shook his head reluctantly.
She ran her fingertips over the smooth, obsidian blade, felt the lopsided roundness of the weapon’s pommel, and tossed it back and forth for good measure. It wasn’t what she imagined, but it would do.
“I deem this the Blade of Judah.” Evelyn gestured to two men like shadows. They grabbed Rudy under each armpit and lifted him off the ground as if he were air. “Thank you, Rudy. Your sacrifice in this matter is greatly appreciated. You’ll be rewarded in the afterlife.”
“Can’t I just be rewarded in the current life? That seems much pleasanter.”
The sneer that crossed Evelyn’s face invoked visions of jack-o’-lanterns and clowns. She worked to get it just right because it was the last thing Rudy was ever going to see.
After he was dragged off from the gymnasium floor, she glanced around to make sure no one had noticed the scene. If they had, they were doing their best to pretend they hadn’t. They scurried about, busying themselves with the mundane tasks she’d assigned.
Yes, things are coming along as they should. It’s only a matter of time…
Then, the fat man showed up.
She watched in utter disbelief, powerless to contain Hurricane Cross, as he blundered towards her. First, he caught himself in the streamers decorating the railings of the bleachers. Then, he continued to drag them across the floor like toilet paper on the back of his shoe as he knocked into row after row of folding chairs. They fell like scared dominoes. He topped off the charade by tripping onto the stage, bumping into the microphone, and falling headlong into the drum set some poor stage hand had only just recently assembled in the precise arrangement required by the obsessive-compulsive drummer of the Unleavened.
Finally, as if nothing had happened, he stumbled to her side. “G’afternoon, ma’am. Anything I can do to help?”
“No,” she said without hesitation, “you’ve done enough already. Just… go sit over there. I’ll call you if I need you.”
“You got it, ma’am.”
“And Mr. Cross?”
“Stop calling me ma’am. I feel old enough as is.”
The rest of the set-up went smoothly. The congregation filed in, bringing with them their families and, as it seemed, any Joe or Nancy they could find on the streets. This was going to be the event of the Rapture. These people needed some joy in their lives. They needed an opportunity to hunker in, let their guard down for a few hours, and not worry about being robbed in the street or taken by marauders from the next town over.
All of this after Mass, of course; all of this before her dreams finally came to fruition.
Out of the corner of her eye, Evelyn watched Chase Cross like a hawk. He was skulking, sidling between parishioners, hunkering in close and talking with hushed urgency. She didn’t approve of secrets. If any of her people had something important to discuss, they could discuss it with her. Period.
Oh well, it’s too close to Mass to worry about him now. And, right on cue, the opening processional began.
I’m getting close. I’ve almost got this… this witch. Chase Cross squeezed by an unlucky family, careful not to knock them backwards with his gargantuan backside. “Excuse me, excuse me,” he said, stepping on their grandmother’s toes and spilling a plastic cup of extra-viscous “punch”.
The crimson-robed acolytes crept down the aisles and rocked jewel-encrusted thuribles back and forth. A thick, yellowish smoke poured out of the brass containers, descending on the crowd, but it did not smell of frankincense.
Whatever it is, Chase thought, these people sure are awfully docile. Beside him, a tall, dark-skinned man wearing a Slayer T-shirt lulled, his tongue sticking out of his mouth and drool trickling down his cleft chin. His eyes, however, were wide open and focused on Evelyn as she chanted. The words seemed wrong. The melody was there; the intent was there, but the words themselves sounded almost eldritch.
She sure knows what she’s doing… He had to admit he was impressed. If he didn’t know better—if his gut wasn’t kicking and screaming about the whole ordeal—he’d have thought this another ordinary Catholic Mass: rites, liturgies, the whole ordained ordeal.
At one point, she called upon a man in the crowd. He hobbled down the aisle and, half-reluctantly, joined her behind the makeshift altar which consisted of a wire bin of deflated basketballs draped with black finery. He kneeled before her, hands clasped and facing the congregation, and she placed her palm on his forehead. The man was covered in boils and scars. Chase assumed from drugs, not leprosy, but it all had the same effect.
“My son,” Evelyn said, “you are woe-stricken and a unfortunate wretch. What is it that has brought you to our service today?”
“Lady, if you are willing, can you please make me clean? Can you deliver me from my sins?”
She smiled a smile like a hyena and nodded. “I am willing, my son. That is precisely why we are here, isn’t it? To become clean, again.” Addressing the congregation as a whole, she said, “This is a wicked, low, and dirty world we are living in. A world we did not ask for and that we do not deserve. In our direst hour, we were seemingly abandoned, cast out into the storm, but I will not abandon you. Any of you, for you are my children, I your mother. Hark, and give praise, for there is a divine plan at work.”
“Hail Luke! Hail to the Mother!”
“Praise Jesus,” she said at a whisper that projected to all corners of the gymnasium.
Her command invoked images of snakes in Chase’s mind. Looking at the obedient faces in the crowd, he raised an eyebrow. It was all he could do to not throttle them and scream at them. How can they be so blind? How can they not see beyond their immediate needs to catch these so-called prophets in their lies? Skepticism wasn’t proof enough, though. Not for his purposes.
Going from the altar, the man danced back to his seat. He did look really happy, and probably for the first time in ages… still, if Evelyn Monroe was up to no good, if this “church” was merely an instrument to her own wicked means, Chase had a sacred duty to put an end to it. Even if she provided fleeting happiness to her parishioners along the way… Especially if she provided that kind of false hope…
Like any decent Mass, the offering was held, but instead of checks and crisp bills, the people dropped in trinkets and junk. Small tokens accumulated in a world where money was meaningless; rings and necklaces, pop tabs, nuts and bolts. Bullets. Old coinage. Pretty much any readily available thing with no value was dropped into the baskets, but it didn’t matter. Chase knew, like with many of these rituals, it wasn’t really the monetary value involved that counted. It was the act itself; the undying, unconditional devotion tithing symbolized.
She led more prayer, offered the congregation the sign of peace, and took a moment of silence for the many members of the church who had mysteriously disappeared over the last few months. That is what had tipped Chase off in the first place; that is why he came. He listened to their names and crossed himself with all the others after each, but kept attention on Evelyn; boiling heat was rising within him.
“Meridith McClure, gone from us too soon.”
“Joseph and Diane Fischer.”
“Kyle Offerman, who was laid to rest earlier this week.”
The large, creaky double-doors of the gymnasium swung open after the last name. Everyone turned to see a of crimson-robed acolytes wheeling what appeared to be a gurney down the center aisle. Whatever mass it held was covered with a black cloth, similar to the material draped over the altar. As one, the congregation craned to follow them, watching with hunger in their eyes all the way to the front, all the way to where Evelyn Monroe stood, arms folded in front of her, head bowed in mock-reverence.
“Children, it is time for our weekly communion. Then, I’ve prepared something special for you, but please join me in prayer.” They did, without hesitation. Without question. After the prayer, she unclasped her hands, drew an evil-looking dagger from her robes, and said, “And by taking with us Jesus Christ, our bodies become his body. By accepting him, under the careful guise of our Saint Luke, as our savior, we become one with his body. Behold, the sacrificial lamb. Behold, the body and blood of our Lord and Savior, and eateth, for we are the chosen few remaining on God’s green Earth.”
Two of the acolytes bowed and ripped the cloth off the gurney, revealing the body of… someone. By the looks of it, and Chase Cross was by no means an expert, the man before the altar had not been dead long. He’d been washed and dressed, but life had only left him an hour or so before this horrible… presentation. When Evelyn sliced off a piece of his flesh, Chase gagged and bile clawed up his throat, threatening to spew over the rows in front of him.
He didn’t need any more convincing.
As fluidly as a man of his rotund stature could spring up, he sprang up. He reached under the folds of his jacket and produced The Inquisitor, his custom-made, ivory-handled revolver. He’d stuck a sticker of a cross around the barrel and fastened large, ruby and sapphire-colored sequins to the grip. All in all, The Inquisitor left much to be desired, but the blessed ammunition it held made up for its genuine lack of pizzazz.
The said ammunition was only useful, however, when it was housed snuggly inside the cylinder. As Chase drew the gun from its holster, he spilled the bullets on the floor in front of him and nearly tripped. It was like a scene from an Acme cartoon where a character, hot in pursuit, slips and slides on a river of marbles.
“Seize him!” Evelyn yelled, howling like a banshee.
Her acolytes were fast, a handful of them already converging on Chase’s row, sharp, nasty-looking knives drawn. The two shadows standing behind her on the altar, hidden in obscurity, were raising crossbows, and had them trained on him. It didn’t take a genius to see he was screwed. Once again, he’d blundered his way into quite the pickle.
But then, at once, everything froze around him. A blue-gray haze settled upon the gymnasium. Harps sounded from nowhere and everywhere.
“Gabriel,” Chase said, rolling his eyes like a teenager.
“Mr. Cross.” The archangel appeared before him, a half-scrawled scroll in one hand and a quill in the other hand. “Here I was, trying to get some work done, when I get a message. Do you want to guess what that message said?”
Chase shrugged and shrunk into himself. “That you won an all-expense paid cruise around the Bahamas?”
“No, sadly not. It said, and I quote, ‘he’s done it again.’ And I don’t suppose you know who had done what, do you?” Chase shook his head. “You, Mr. Cross, had been in the process of completely screwing up another mission. Sound familiar?”
He looked at Evelyn, mid-shriek, and then at all the acolytes. He perused the faces of the parishioners, shock and awe and disappointment showing in wrinkles on their cheeks and foreheads. He avoided Gabriel’s accusatory glare.
“We had high hopes for you, Mr. Cross. We thought you could help us make the world right, again. Did we make a mistake?”
“Uh, no sir. I just… I didn’t mean to…”
Gabriel raised a hand. “Silence. I don’t want excuses, Mr. Cross. I want you to be better. Now, pick up your bullets. I’d take the two at the altar first if I were you. No offense, but I don’t think you capable of outrunning bolts. Or turtles, for that matter, but that’s neither here nor there. It will happen fast once I unfreeze everything, so be ready. And Mr. Cross?”
“I won’t bail you out, again. Bye, but not the good kind.”
Gabriel snapped his finger and disappeared. Time melted back into itself, giving Chase the slightest window to make the shots. He pegged Minion Number One between the eyes and Minion Number Two just left of his cold, black heart. They fell, one dead and one bleeding out on the recently constructed stage. Somewhere in the crowd, Jerry sighed.
Evelyn Monroe ducked, but it was already too late for her. Chase pulled the trigger twice, to be certain of a job well-done, and it was over.
The congregation was in a frenzy. Folding chairs were flipped, people were tripping over each other in a scramble to get to the doors, and the acolytes converging on him were pushed back in a wave of bodily panic. He used the riotous distraction to sneak out with the flood, stopping to cross himself for the lives lost before he was able to intervene.
Hopefully, he thought, I’ll be better next time.
From the staging area behind the altar, the lead singer of Iscariot’s Salvation slumped in a chair. His band mates cursed and moaned.
“Does this mean we’re not getting paid for this gig?” the drummer asked.
“Ah, bollocks,” he said, breaking his drumstick over his knee. “Why does this keep happening to us?”
The bass player remained silent. They wouldn’t have noticed him, anyway.