Forty-five minutes after the church alarm began screaming, the entire neighborhood heard the police arrive. The altar was pitch black. The blue votive light near the crucifix no longer quivered. The red sanctuary lamp behind the tabernacle was cold. There were two chairs near the altar. And Daniel was gone.
* * *
You can catch a glimpse as you drive by -- spires, columns and arches representative of millennia of traditions, assumptions, and expectations. And when you enter on Sunday mornings, the sunlight beams thorough stained glass windows, and myriad candles illuminate crucifix and icons within the peace of a well-attended church service.
During these times, you may forget -- as Daniel did -- how different a church is in early morning darkness when moonlight slithers beneath trees and through venetian blinds to cast horizontal slashes over paintings of cadaverous saints crowding the walls. Each saint either impaled, starved, beheaded, beaten, or crucified. Not a smiling face to be found -- most appearing somewhere between disappointed and angry (the way Hugh Hefner must have felt when he first glimpsed heaven).
* * *
Daniel's cell phone erupted with the Ride of the Valkyries -- his ring tone for the church's burglar alarm. He twisted his head, opened his left eye, saw the green-on-black flash of 2:37 across the screen. As the only parish council member who lived in town, Daniel had volunteered to be first on the church's emergency phone tree.
He hadn't slept well that night, kept replaying the funeral of Father Leo -- resting on a white satin quilt inside an oak casket, pale fingers intertwined across his chest. That frail ninety-one-year-old with crevassed face, artistic hands, a world of knowledge, and the full beard of a prophet had befriended Daniel years earlier.
The church sat shielded within a landscaped two and a half acres on a curved road just three blocks off a heavily trafficked street. Daniel liked the isolation of the grounds with sections overgrown next to well-tended stone plots and low limestone walls that enhanced a sense of separation from the outside world.
The wind cuffed the back of Daniel's head and shoved him along the path leading to the century-old building with its charcoal tinted windows, unlighted porch, and heavy front door. The sky was leaden -- nothing there save clouds that curtained a partial moon. The streetlamp forty yards from the church cast a hazy, discolored glow.
He approached the front door; pressed the thumb latch. It was unlocked. His breathing now jagged, interspersed with gasps then coughs. He pulled, heard a creak -- metal on metal, dry and loud -- jerked his hand away. He hesitated for a moment, then pressed the latch again, pulled. The vestibule air was heavy with the aroma of incense from yesterday's funeral. He shivered, leaned to his right, pressed his hand against the wall, and stopped. His ears tensed as he heard the tinnitus of an empty church. The humming. That constant humming. His heart -- only a few hours from its required medication -- beat erratically.
He crossed into the sanctuary. Waves of light floated across the walls. The solid mahogany iconostasis -- a highly decorated nine-foot wall separating the priest from the faithful -- appeared. Light slashed the life-sized paintings of Christ, Mary, the archangels Gabriel and Michael. On his far left John the Baptist carried his own severed head on a platter. A heavy maroon curtain shielded the gated entrance. He approached, then pushed. When the gate slammed against the iconostasis, Daniel flinched.
He backed away from the iconostasis wall, veered to his right and stopped. Contours from crucifix appeared, faded, grew larger, then followed him. Suddenly the crucifix disappeared. He made an about-face, rushed back through the sanctuary, the vestibule, and into the fellowship hall. No one was there. Then into the kitchen. No one. He exhaled, took a breath. Then up the four back steps into the maze of hallways surrounding the altar on three sides.
Past the windowless room with candles, sacramental wine, overfilled shelves. Into the connecting walkway before entering the vestry -- its small window muddled by trees, hanging vestments, dark cassocks, dust-laden papers, and a rope for the stairway to the attic.
The air shoved down on him. He ran his hand across his forehead, shook off the sweat.
The only light from the altar was a single candle hanging next to the tabernacle. The curtain over the iconostasis gate was partially open. He saw a pattern reflected across the icon of Christ smashing the Gates of Hades.
A door creaked.
The humming stopped.
Two chairs had been moved close to the altar.
Sitting in one of the chairs was Father Leo.
"Daniel. Are you ready?"