BlackJack: Leap of Faith
Written by Chris Ryan
Sheila Mae Gene approached one of the corner tables on the balcony of her legendary Harlem nightclub, The Ruby-Gene. The boss, owner and emotional architect of this oasis, Sheila Mae was in warm, welcoming control, most of the time.
But not now.
Not as she approached him.
Sheila Mae was not one for intimidation, not even by this powerhouse of a man, nor his globally formidable reputation. Not until today.
He sat draped in shadow at the corner table, a barely contained storm aching to burst forth, more dangerous than she had ever seen him.
This was a bad time in Harlem. Four men had been beaten on the street, two hospitalized, two pummeled to death. Worse, three women were dead.
The deaths of the women were pushing him to the edge. The most recent murder occurred this afternoon, right outside The Ruby-Gene. Popular waitress Michelle Walker had been found, face down in the alley out back. A single bullet had torn through her spine.
The brooding man had personally recommended Michelle for a job here, to help her finance her dream: a college degree in science, an extremely rare goal for a black woman in 1935. But Michelle Walker was a rare person, one of promise, strength, determination.
At least … she had been. Until today.
Michelle was the reason he sat there now, waiting for reports from scouts around the city. A few had called in already. One quoted a witness, as saying those doing the beating were white men in black clothes. One survivor kept mumbling something about the letter “U.” Another woman knocked down as the attackers fled remembered a man with “tattoos on his fist.” He added these to mental notes he’d made based on his observations of the alleyway crime scene.
He knew he was not a detective, never had been. But that didn’t matter to just about anyone else in the community. They were looking to him for answers, for resolution, for safe haven. Still, how could he track suspects described mainly as white folk? That limited the field of play to just about most of New York City.
But Sheila Mae believed she was about to shrink that list of possibilities … to one person.
“Arron, someone’s out there,” Sheila Mae could see his eyes blaze from the darkness. “In the alley, where Michelle was…”
Before Sheila Mae could finish, Arron Day, the soldier-for-hire known as Blackjack, was across the empty dance floor, passed the abandoned bandstand, and through the fire exit doors.
# # #
“‘Harlem’s no place for the likes of you this time’a’night Cahill Ferguson,’ she says. Murder do’na wait for God’s blessed morning, me love.”
He often spoke to himself, and tonight was no different. He moved carefully, a Blackthorn walking stick in one hand, an oversized flashlight sweeping the alley, his sharp blue eyes scanning every inch of concrete again and again, searching for something, anything–
–Then the monster burst through screeching metal doors, pouncing upon him without a word. Long ago, he had been sideswiped by a rushing squad car. This hurt more.
Cahill swung the flashlight down with everything he had. He’d brain the attacker if he had to. Cahill Ferguson knew he was no good to anybody if he found himself suddenly dead. So swung he did. Once. Twice. Thr–
–The beastie caught the torch, crushing its light out with his bare hand. Without effort, it picked him up. His back crunched against the alley wall. Sharp pain shot through his shoulders and spine. Air fled his lungs.
Consciousness dimming, Cahill lashed out with his Blackthorn, crashing its thick handle down on top of his attacker’s head.
“Get control of yerself, Arron Day! Ye not beating an enemy here, boyo!” Cahill called out as loud as his aching lungs would let him.
It worked. Slowly, the monstrous arms lowered his shaking body back to earth.
Tremendous hands released him, reluctantly. Furious eyes narrowed to cold scrutiny. The beastly sneer receded to an elaborate frown that hovered over the considerably shorter, extensively more bruised victim.
“Even though you’re … an old man,” Arron Day hissed, “you have just five seconds to convince me you shouldn’t be a suspect in these attacks.”
“Sorry to … disappoint ye,” Cahill Ferguson said in a dry raspy voice. “But … it’ll take twice that time … just to catch me breath.” The old man’s blue eyes shone into the face of death. “But fear not there, friend, I ain’t yer man. I’m workingthe same side O’the Street on this one, Arron Day. Or should I call ye … Blackjack?”
Blackjack was not sure what he was looking at here in this alley, but it didn’t fit. He knew this little man was way out of place but he wasn’t sure why, or how.
First, he was clearly in his sixties. What was an apparent retiree, this white man, doing here, in a Harlem alleyway, at this hour of night? A thick head of wavy bright white hair highlighted a ruddy pink face undeniably created to smile. Blue eyes so crystal clear they arrested your attention sparkled up at Arron with an informed mirth that gave him pause. What does this guy know?
“How do you know my name?”
Cahill Ferguson tipped his head to one side and smiled whimsically. “Don’a ye remember a diamond ring yer father wore when you were but a wee lad?” The smaller man lifted his jaw, offering up a distinctly shaped scar to the left of his chin. “Ol’ Mad Dog Day thought he saw a patrolman looking a bit too long at his wife. One punch nearly broke my jaw. Took all I had to prevent responding officers from shooting him right there on 125th Street.”
Cahill picked up the remnants of his battered flashlight and shrugged as the pieces fell from his fingertips. “A colored man striking a white man, and a police officer to boot, was a dangerous deed twenty-some-odd years ago.”
“Still is,” Arron replied coldly. He studied the little man before him. “My father was not in the habit of being mistaken.”
“And he weren’t that day neither! Yer mother was the second most beautiful woman I’ve ever been fortunate enough to lay eyes upon.”
“Second?” Arron couldn’t help smirking.
“Right after the dear departed Margaret Agnes Ferguson, a’course. Twas yer mother who resolved the situation, inviting me to dinner to make up for the misunderstanding. All that beauty, and a quick, sharp mind to boot.”
Cahill rubbed his bruised shoulder, gingerly. “Ahhh, I use to be a tougher bird than this,” he mused. “Anyways, I came to dinner, and sat between your father and you in your high chair, gobbling up sweet peas like they were going out of style. Do’ya still fancy them, Arron Day?”
“So, you knew my father –”
“Twas that dinner, and his help on a case I was baffled by back then, that got me my detective’s shield.”
“My father helped you on a case?” Arron said in amazement.
“That he did,” Cahill replied cheerfully. “It involved cocaine smuggling, a young and pretty British socialite, and a nasty bit of work with a straight razor. But that’s a story for another time, me lad.”
“None of this explains your presence in this alleyway.”
“Don’cha see yet? I’ve come for you, Arron Day. I’m here to ask you to honor my memory of your father by lending your help in stopping the killings. It’s not just Harlem been attacked, my friend. Someone hates all of us minorities.”
Arron Day stared hard at Cahill Ferguson for a long tense moment. He’d never heard a white man describe himself or his people that way. And God help Cahill Ferguson if he was lying. But … God help those behind all this if he wasn’t.
“Come inside,” Arron said slowly. “We need to talk.”
END OF PART ONE.
Written by Chris Ryan
“We have much in common,” Cahill Ferguson smiled. He sat now across a table from Arron Day, a mug of beer raised to his lips.
“We, ah, ‘minorities’ is it?” Aaron’s drink of choice at the moment was ice water.
Cahill shrugged. He apparently didn’t mind having his own words thrown back at him. “Tis simple truth. Yours and mine, Arron Day, have both been slaves. Disrespected. Robbed. Cultures raped, left in the gutter. Am I lying to ya, young man?”
Before them on the table were plates of steaming food: ribs, corn bread and greens for Cahill, steak and pasta for Arron. And a side order of peas that Cahill ordered when Arron had stepped away from the table to take a call. They sat next to his plate, untouched.
“Do tell,” Arron’s smile was bordering on cynical.
Cahill continued, “The very things that drive us apart also bring us together, once crisis hits.”
“Y’see, by my way o’thinking, each nationality in this town has its own community. The Irish have Hell’s Kitchen. Coloreds have Harlem. Chinamen o’course have Chinatown. The Italians keep to Little Italy. The Jews have the Grand Concourse up in The Bronx. And so it goes.”
“Not a one of these ghettos have any money. Money is its own nationality. What they do have is pride and love, in their community … and their religion. And fierce loyalty to both.”
Arron Day stared, waiting. Cahill Ferguson busied himself with a rib, using his napkin often. Finally, he continued.
“Hurt a community’s pride, it will strike back. That’s divisive; us vs. them.”
Arron was beginning to doubt this man had anything to say, or, if he did, that he would ever get around to saying it. “You’re telling me someone is trying to turn communities against each other?”
“Come now. Yer better than that, lad. If division was the aim, suspects would have been easily found. Or dupes set up, more likely, to fan the fires. This madness seems to me more of a herding. Someone’s driving these folks on, paying close attention to our communities, the better to exploit local scandals.”
Arron offered only silence. He was tired of prodding.
Ferguson nodded, understanding. “Each community has its dirty laundry, don’t you know; the little corruptions and human failures that only their block speaks about. Suddenly now, these little failings are front-page news. They’re tied to the beatings and the killings. And everyone has dirty laundry of their own to be worried about. Ye see what I’m getting at here?”
Arron checked his watch. Ferguson’s eyes grew wide, as if he were offering the secrets of the universe. “Am I boring Mr. Arron Day himself now?”
Arron eyed the old man skeptically. “You’re suggesting these crimes are all linked? As if someone is snooping into every community, with some sort of city-wide terror as the goal?”
“That I am.”
“What proof is there? Michelle Walker was a church-going girl. She sang in the choir.”
“And recently the right Reverend Hunt took her to task before that choir for putting her professional goals before her duties to God and family. Am I right?”
Arron barely nodded. “How did you know?”
“Word gets around, my friend. That is exactly our problem. Now take Angus McBride. Shocked the Hell’s Kitchen community by marrying a Jewish gal from the Concourse. Both found themselves dead. Horrible for two ghettos. Or Stephen Flynn, found shot in the back two days after being caught in the arms of another man. Or Gail Anne Harrington, left for dead after her husband complained that she refused to have children by himself, drunken sot that he is.”
“Complained to whom?”
“Come now, Arron Day, even you know how talk goes round the neighborhood. Take a friend into confidence and the word goes out to everyone on the block. That’s what comes from friends, eh? Explains why you have so few of them, doesn’t it?”
Arron tossed his own napkin onto his now empty plate. “You want me to help you combat neighborhood gossip mongers? I’ve heard enough.”
“No,” Cahill’s smile vanished now, and his eyes burned in a way that kept Arron riveted to his seat. Very few people could do that to him. “Don’t you dare dismiss me like some old fool. What, is Arron Day himself too high and mighty to consider an uncomfortable truth?”
Ferguson wasn’t the only one losing his patience. Arron bared his teeth. “What is it you want?”
Ferguson bristled right back. “I want you to consider the possibility that there exists a group in this city for whom allegiance is of paramount importance. A group that wants to unite all communities … through fear.”
“And gossip. Right.”
Cahill pressed on. “If you won’t help, have the decency not to sneer at these victims’ plight, thank you very much. Hmmphrph. At least there’s some comfort for these poor lost souls. In these same communities, following each murder, oddly unaccredited wall posters appear, all saying simply: ‘Return to God.’” He stood now. “Coincidence? I think not.”
Arron ran a hand over his face. He shook his head. “So God’s a suspect now?”
“You are not naive enough to ask that question,” Cahill shot back. “You yourself have fought self-righteous fanatics, on more than one continent. As did your father before you.”
Cahill Ferguson grabbed his Blackthorn. He tapped the walking stick for emphasis. “Now, there is an Italian priest whose affair with the parish widow has just been exposed. I’m going down to Little Italy to prevent his murder. Here’s the address. If you’re not too full of yerself to help those in need, I’ll see you there. If not, I’ll share the shame your father must feel, God rest his soul.”
Blackjack let Ferguson walk a good fifteen feet before testing the old man’s hearing. “Your brogue is gone.”
Cahill Ferguson never even looked back. “Self-preservation,” he called over his shoulder, reaching for the door. Suddenly the thick Irish lilt reappeared. “Tis nigh impossible to beat a leprechaun.”
For one last moment, the two men stared hard at each other. Finally Cahill spoke, contempt right out front. “But then again, you learned well the lessons of self-preservation. Seems to me Arron ‘Blackjack’ Day is your sole concerned after all. More’s the pity.”
With that he was gone.
Arron stared at the table, specifically the small white card with an address scrawled on it in the shaky hand of an aging warrior. Finally he sighed, and reached for that bowl of peas.
“Ah, Margaret Agnes, another place I never took you, lass. The Church of the Immaculata holds within its walls the kind of reverent beauty usually reserved for the old country. They love Jesus here, darling. Love him through gorgeous statues, intricate stained glass, glorious oil painting. As to their daily prayers, well …
“Immaculata might have been the smallest church in Little Italy, but its congregation is large, loyal and hanging their heads shamefaced these days.
“Actually, more shamefaced than usual, me love. After all, Immaculata is the church where Lucky Luciano got himself married, don’t you know? Where his crew baptize all their children. Of course, their patronage paid for the school, but still shame lingers on the older, unmade members of the congregation, if you get my meaning.
“Now, Father Romano found with the widow Salmieto? It was unthinkable. How would the black-clothed matrons of the 6 a.m. daily mass be able to shop on Canal Street now?
“And how Broome Street was alive with gossip! People knew or manufactured detail after detail. How the widow’s brother-in-law found the two of them in her apartment (maybe even her bedroom!). Sure, Father Romano claimed he was comforting one of his flock, but did he have to comfort her naked? Everyone also knew for a fact that Father ran out without his pure white collar. Hadn’t the brother-in-law stormed up and down Broome Street waving it?
“Everyone was talking, but no one dared approach the church. Who in their right mind would challenge those chosen by God himself?
“No one ever accused me of being in me right mind, Margaret.”
The neighborhood hissed as the hobbling, shamelessly nosy Mic bastard gimped right up to the church doors, only to find them locked. Without a moment’s hesitation, he wrapped on the doors with that shiny black cane of his, then didn’t even let the ensuing silence slow him down. He just strolled into the alley, heading for the sacristy entrance. How dare he? You could just feel the eyes in the windows, all muttering, wait until the neighborhood hears about this …
“Nobody home? Seems strange, doesn’t it Margaret, that no one was left to guard the fort during the storm? Surely at least a maid should be in the sacristy …”
He tripped over the body before he saw it, old legs buckling over the surprise impact, walking stick flailing, wind escaping painfully as he landed.
“Mary, Mother of God!” Cahill Ferguson sucked at the elusive air and scrambled off the corpse. “Tell me I’m not too late.”
The body, clothed entirely in black save for the small square of pure white at the Adam’s Apple, had most probably been Father Romano. The priest had been shot below the belt. Obviously someone’s idea of poetic justice.
Cahill Ferguson knelt over the body, searching frantically for a sign of life. Cursing his shaking hands, he could only feel hints of a pulse, weak, or imagined. He wasn’t sure.
Extreme situations tended to inspire Cahill’s self-deprecatory side. “Spent too much time on Mr. Arrogant Day, and all for naught, you old fool.”
The deeper shadows of the alley came alive then.
“Guilt’s a powerful thing, isn’t it?” Cahill Ferguson called out, still desperately trying to register a pulse on the victim. “Was it the reference to your father, then?”
“That helped,” Blackjack admitted, emerging from the darkness coming closer. “But ‘Mores the pity,’ sealed the deal though.”
“Classic line, that. Learned it from me own Mehr, who used it often enough on me in her day,” Ferguson sighed. “Wasted words, it seems. I’ve failed again.”
“You couldn’t have prevented this.” Arron Day crouched down next t him.
“So absolutely-Blackjack-sure of this too, like every other fact in the known world, eh?”
Arron ignored the dig. “I arrived five minutes ago, and I was too late as well. Heard the shot. Muffled. Sounded like a homemade silencer. Thought I saw the shooter and gave chase, but no dice.” Arron let out a long sigh.
“Help me with the pulse at least,” Ferguson insisted. “My hands are old … Can’t get a good sign here.”
Arron moved alongside this one-time friend of his father’s and put his fingers lightly on the priest’s neck. “Weak, definitely fading. We’ve got to–”
“Get you filthy murdering’ hands off the fadda! Dat’s what you gatta do!”
Neither Arron Day nor Cahill Ferguson needed to look up, but they did anyway. They saw exactly what they expected.
Eight guns. Each held by a member of Little Italy’s strongest organization. Each ready to shoot. Each aimed directly at the unlikely partners.
Cahill Ferguson leaned slightly toward Arron Day. “Still glad you decided to show, lad?”
END OF PART TWO.
Written by Chris Ryan
After a second count, Cahill Ferguson was sure it was actually ten guns were pointing at them. He turned to Arron Day and grinned. “Hope yer quick,” he whispered.
Then he stood up, addressing the mobsters. “Glad ye finally decided to join us, lads.”
A short, thick gangster in the middle seemed amused. “Join youse? We’re here to kill youse, ya moron!”
Cahill didn’t move. He just leveled an eye so sure even Blackjack wondered what he had up his sleeve. “Then Lucky Luciano himself will kill you, sure as I’m standing here.”
“You don’ know what your talkin’bout. Lucky’s the one sent us.”
“Then he’s a more patient man than me, y’damn fool. We’re not the one needs killing,” Ferguson pointed to the dying priest. “Whoever did this to the priest, Father Romano, who married Lucky Luciano himself, that’s who needs killing.”
Shorty merely raised his gun higher. The other nine guns raised as well. All pointed right at Cahill’s chest. “I’ll decide who needs killin’round here.”
Cahill marched right toward the guns.
Shorty was shocked. “Ay! Where you tink you goin?”
Cahill pushed passed, marching on, turning the mobsters around as he walked through them. “We have but two minutes to save that good man’s life. I’m calling an ambulance and praying it proves faster than The Lord’s own Angel of Death,” Cahill turned now, locking the thugs’ eyes with his own. He had their full attention. “And the Angel of Death moves swiftly indeed.”
Blackjack knew a cue when he heard one. He grabbed a large metal garbage can, heaving it onto two mobsters. He flung the can’s lid dead-on, stunning another. Using a low hanging fire escape, swinging up with one hand, he leaped, letting forward momentum carry him. The force of his own large athletic frame landing on three others knocked them down, guns skittering across the alley floor. Without pause, Blackjack rolled to his feet, snatched the garbage can once more, and brought it across first one, then another surprised would-be shooter. All of eight seconds had passed. The ninth got the honor of knockout by fist.
Before he could gasp, Shorty was standing alone against a very much alive spirit of vengeance. Shaking, he raised his lone gun toward Blackjacks much more formidable form.
Cahill Ferguson took that option away with one swipe of his Blackthorn.
“Who are youse guys?” Shorty spat, throbbing hand cradled near his chest.
Ferguson leaned in close to Shorty’s face. “We’re ta be yer boss’s next appointment. Have yer men get the good Father an ambulance, and a priest. You, lead us to El Capo, my friend.”
Shorty looked at the old Mic who wrecked his hand, then the huge colored now stowing all their guns into a canvas bag, and finally, at his groaning or unconscious crew. So this was what the final night of his life was going to be like. He nodded to a bruised mobster struggling to stand. The thug wobbled off to call for an ambulance. Shorty himself began what he was sure would be the last walk of his life.
Blackjack fell in alongside Cahill Ferguson. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Getting us help on the case, lad,” Cahill answered happily.
That tone of strained patience returned to Blackjack’s voice. “I am not working with the mob.”
Cahill paused for several seconds, apparently deep in thought. He came back with a pat to Arron Day’s back. “You got a point there, big fella. I agree. You should not work with the mob. You work with me. All right then?”
Blackjack began to nod.
“And I’ll work with the mob,” Cahill said. A playful twinkle shone in his eye as he walked ahead of the flustered global adventurer.
Without hesitation, Cahill Ferguson entered a nondescript restaurant, following closely behind Shorty.
“Fools rush in,” Blackjack murmured, shaking his head. This little Irishman is good, he had to admit, but he is not good enough to get me to walk into this den of killers and be outnumbered and outflanked.
No way. This is naive. Reckless.
Full of reluctance and a very bad feeling in his gut, Blackjack opened the thick wooden door.
A tall, broad gorilla in an expensive suit blocked his path. “No coloreds allowed. Bad enough the Mic–”
Blackjack swallowed the man’s shirt and silk tie in his right fist, pulling the outraged bouncer from darkness inside the door to the relative streetlight brightness of the sidewalk in one smooth motion.
The first slam against the restaurant’s stone front wall seemed only to anger the brute. The second, far more forceful impact, got his attention.
“The name is Day, Mr. Day to you. Let’s be clear. I am not presently at odds with your employer, and I am not looking to start any problems. But I am going to accompany Mr. Ferguson. Anything you do to stop me will be considered an act of war … and will be met as such. Do you understand?”
“Go right in, Mr. Day,” was all the gorilla could manage.
Blackjack released him, returned to the door. Just before entering Blackjack turned, showing the winded thug what was in his left hand — the gun for which the mobster was frantically searching. Blackjack dropped this piece into the canvas bag he’d picked up in the alley, adding it to the other guns. The mobster cursed, though a smile of professional admiration flickered as well.
Inside, Blackjack’s keen eyes needed a moment to adjust, and another to find Cahill Ferguson. When he did locate the Irishman, he found himself wishing he hadn’t.
There was Cahill Ferguson at a corner table, breaking bread with the infamous Mafia boss, Lucky Luciano.
Illegal gambling. Speakeasies. Drugs. Extortion. Prostitution. Murder. This was what Blackjack saw sitting across from Cahill Ferguson. And the old man was clinking wine glasses with it.
Cold steel interrupted the thought, as a gun muzzle touched Blackjack’s temple. Another henchman, this one coming from shadows that Arron was sure held many more such playmates.
“You’re kind ain’t welcome in heah.”
“I’ll say this once: Do not point guns at me.”
Blackjack spoke loudly. Even Lucky Luciano was paying attention now, a crooked smirk playing up one side of his face.
“You ain’t in no position to make no demands–”
An iron grip encircled the gunman’s wrist. A pile driver fist drove through his elbow, shattering bone in numerous places. Blackjack withdrew his hands and caught the released gun – all before the canvas bag ever hit the ground.
He quickly dropped the gun into the bag, extending his arms so all could see he held no weapons.
Most witnesses didn’t seem to care. Guns flashed all around him in a deadly semi-circle that stretched from the either side of Luciano’s table to flank Blackjack.
He was not surprised.
Luciano was. He was reacting to what Cahill Ferguson whispered.
Luciano waved his men off. “Relax, boys. This guy’s with Fergie here.”
The guns slid back under suit jackets, unhappy killers scowling but afraid to challenge the boss of bosses.
Luciano nodded to the stone figure before him, one scarred, heavily lidded eye helping to create the shark stare he now used on Blackjack.
“You feel like some pasta maybe?”
“No thank you.”
“Glass of wine?”
“No thank you.”
“No thank you.”
“You come to visit, I have to feed you something. Otherwise, I feel bad.”
“Your hospitality is appreciated, but I politely decline.”
Luciano was visibly annoyed by the stalemate. Ferguson smoothed it over. “Please understand, Lucky, the man himself here is a professional soldier, constantly in training. He never knows when a contract will take him to a desert, or a jungle, where he won’t have food available. So he limits himself to one meal a day. Survival skills, ya’ understand.”
Lucky eyed Ferguson, searching for the con. Cahill didn’t blink, his big blue eyes reflecting only the wide-open truth he had just now made up.
The gangster smiled at Blackjack. “A soldier. I can respect that.”
Lucky Luciano glanced around at his men, calling them to attention. “See that? Self-discipline. The man lives by a Code. Leave this guy alone. He’s ahright.” Then Lucky Luciano raised his glass and toasted the warrior before him. “Salud.”
Blackjack fought back the crimson rising in his cheeks. He kept the contempt out of his eyes, allowing only a nod.
But he knew one thing.
He would never play poker with Cahill Ferguson.
The gleeful con artist wiped his lips with a linen napkin and smiled at the king of snakes. “Lucky, this is all well and good, but there’s killers out there stalking innocent civilians. Italians as well as Irish as well as Coloreds. Church going folk. Now priests, even. This is not good. This is not something we can have.”
“Agreed,” Lucky lit a long cigar, offered Cahill one. The old cop accepted, luxuriating in the thick cloud that rose when he exhaled. Lucky, already amused, offered one to Blackjack, who, of course declined. The mob boss eyed his men once more, scarred chin nodding and hand gesturing toward Arron Day with overt admiration. Then it was back to business.
His eyes met Cahill’s, sharp and alert. “Make no mistake, I am aware of who and what you are, or at least were,” Luciano told Ferguson, “but this is bigger than our business differences. I will help you out, as a community service, and as a personal favor to you. What do you need?”
Ferguson moved right in. “Men. Lots of them. Combing Little Italy on the sly.”
“Done. What are they looking for?”
“People putting up posters that read ‘Return to God.’ But your boyos mustn’t take these men down. We need to follow these people. Find where they are coming from.”
Lucky seemed intrigued, like a Great White coming upon a gathering of swimmers. “These ‘Return to God’ guys, they’re the killers?”
Ferguson gave a slight shrug. “Lucky, I honestly don’t know yet. What I do know is that, every time something like the attack on Father Roman happens, right afterwards these posters show up. This is the only pattern I have right now.”
“I don’t know that I buy your thinking, but my men will find these poster guys for you.”
“I’ll check back every–”
“Got it covered. You stay in the neighborhood, we’ll reach out to you with the location, minutes after we find them.”
Cahill Ferguson raised his bushy white eyebrows, nodding slowly.
Luciano was pleased with himself. “So? What are we waiting for?” He turned to this men. “Hit the streets. Keep it quiet. Do this quick. Go.”
His men filed out without a sound, each eyeing Blackjack as they passed. He gave them nothing, his own stare seemingly on Lucky Luciano, though he remained acutely aware of each movement in the room. None of the tough guys made a move on him, however. No one dared go against Luciano’s direct order, no matter their own preferences.
Luciano himself was shaking hands with Cahill Ferguson as the Irishman picked up his Blackthorn. The old liar strolled passed Blackjack, and winked. Arron didn’t react, eyes remaining on Luciano.
The mobster, the killer, the shark now returned the look, a passive challenge. What now?
Blackjack carefully reached down, grasped the canvas bag, lifted it slowly. He held the bag over a nearby table, then gently dumped the contents out. The guns formed an impressive pile.
Blackjack left without another word.
End of Part III.
Written by Chris Ryan
The mobsters shot off in all directions. Arron Day was glad they were out of sight. He walked with Cahill Ferguson, zigzagging up side streets toward the Church of the Immaculata. Their pattern of progress helped check less frequently used blocks for any appearance of the “Return to God” signs.
Forty-five minutes later, the pair stood on the church steps with no hint of the sought-after posters.
“Maybe the mob is in on it,” Arron said.
“Not a chance.
They don’t make sweeping gestures like this. Not their style.”
“Running numbers is a pretty sweeping gesture.”
“Not atall, lad. Running numbers is a public service.”
Arron stared at the smaller man, a cynical smirk suggesting itself at the corner of his lips. Ferguson caught even this small expression and responded.
“Y’see, my friend, people want to gamble, they want to fornicate, they want to drink, some even want … other consumable diversions. Not all now, but enough people desire such things for these … pursuits to be profitable businesses. And that’s what attracts the mob mentality. They’re interested in profits, Arron Day, not fear.”
“No fear in leg breaking, I presume,” Arron countered.
“Ah, but you have to understand, son. The Mafia don’t care a wit whether you’re scared or not. They don’t want you to fear them, they want you to use them to get what you want. Then they have you, and you can fear what you’ve gotten yourself into all you want. If you owe them and don’t pay, they’ll break yer leg or do whatever it takes to get the money, not to make you scared. Fear isn’t profitable. Pain is. People will do anything to avoid pain. To their way of thinking, this is just business.”
Ferguson eyed this younger adventurer. Arron’s eyes remained emotionless, reserved, with just a hint of menace under the surface. The Irishman had not yet won his case. That fact in no way deterred him from continuing to talk. He stretched both arms out, turning in a slow circle.
“Look where we are, lad, and picture who frequents this block, these steps, this church. Little old widows dressed in black, couples awanting marriage, and, later, Sweet Jesus’s own pure blessing on the heads of their wee ones, whom they send right back here for the sacraments and God’s own divine guidance.”
He stopped on a dime, facing the larger man, eyes locking with Arron’s own. “And does the mob stop a one of them? No. They respect the individual’s right to choose. Hundreds and hundreds of honest men and women walk past the mob every day, and the mobsters let them. No recruiting, no advertising, no carnival barking. None needed, boyo, ‘cause the mob, they know –just like Satan himself– that customers awanting their wears will come to them, endlessly.”
Arron Day smiled at last. “And that is why they couldn’t possibly be behind these murders?”
“A’course, lad. Too aggressive. Not their line of work. They work in seduction, servicing people’s needs.”
“So this makes it okay for us to work with them …”
“The enemy of mine enemy is my friend, lad.”
“For now. Though we haven’t seen a trace of them since this search started –”
“Exactly as I hoped.”
Arron’s cynicism thickened the air between them. “And you assume they’re working hard for us?”
“Working hard? Does the Devil need to make an effort? Not atall, not atall. They merely need to spread the word, offer an opportunity, and their legions do the work for them.”
The bright gleam in Ferguson’s eyes sparkled as a long sedan pulled up in front of them. “Case in point, Arron Day.” He strolled toward the car, calling over his shoulder. “Show time, me lad.”
The rear window of the sleek black car rolled down. Shorty leaned into view. “We found’em. Get in.”
Blackjack held Ferguson by the elbow, scanning the car’s interior, assessing the potential dangers of climbing into a car crowded with a clear enemy.
Shorty sat alone in the back. A driver and one other leg breaker were up front, straining to appear cool and unnoticeable. Three-to-one. Blackjack leaned down, whispering into Ferguson’s ear. “You sit on Shorty’s right, close to him. Don’t give him room to move. Keep an eye on his hands. He goes for a weapon, hit him fast and hard.”
“A perfect plan. One we won’t need to use,” Ferguson winked, climbing in and positioning himself as asked. Blackjack himself sat on a fold down stool directly behind the driver. He draped his thick arm along the top of the front seats, ready to smash his elbow into the base of the driver’s skull then slam his fist forward toward the other thug, should they try anything. He positioned his legs to pin Shorty’s, leaving his right hand ready to grab the little Mafiosa’s fleshy neck, if need be.
“You comfortable?” Shorty grinned, loving the sight of the big colored man perched on the small stool.
Blackjack’s eyes burned into Shorty’s with an intensity that shook the mobster’s confidence. “Wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Shorty opted for easier prey, turning his attention to Cahill Ferguson. “Hope you like working for Lucky. You gonna owe him for the rest of your life for this here.”
The Irishman gave a slight shake of the head, threading the needle between Shorty’s ego and Blackjack’s readiness to pounce. “You misread your boss, lad. He’s interested in doing this as a community service, not a favor to me.”
Shorty’s smile widened. “Yer the one misreadin’. Boss don’ do nothin’ he can’t collect on, and collect heavy. You into him for good.” Now he glanced for the slightest of seconds at Blackjack, then back to Ferguson. “You and yours.”
The car pulled up along a curb right behind a large moving van. The van was parked illegally, and sat in front of an immaculate brownstone. Shorty’s eyes slid from one side of the street to the other, checking for movement before he spoke. “Easy as sin, finding these mutts. We put the word out, one of our girls spotted them from her window.” Here Shorty nodded his chin, indicating a well-kept building. “Here we keep the girl’s business inside. Leave our slutty street walkers for Harlem –”
The tension in the car rose dramatically. Shorty gulped, but pressed on. “Anyways they’re up a block and a half. You’re on your own from here.”
Cahill Ferguson patted the mobster’s knee and climbed out. Shorty actually chuckled after him. “Be seeing ya. Often.”
The chuckle died. Shorty’s eyes followed Ferguson out of the car, but the effort was forced, and died on its own, as the small man froze, uncomfortably aware of a complete lack of movement in front of him. This was not the serene peace of a quiet back porch on a cool starry night. No, this was more like the moment a hunter realizes the jungle brush behind him holds a panther … A panther hunting him.
Slowly, hesitantly, Shorty turned his now shaky gaze to Blackjack. While the mobster’s eyes revealed his nervousness, Blackjack’s unmistakably blazed with fury.
“Nothing is going to happen to Cahill Ferguson, or anyone he knows,” Blackjack whispered. To Shorty it sounded like the hiss of Death itself. “If any … ‘accident’ should befall Cahill, or any of his people, I will come for you, and I will hold you completely, and personally, responsible.”
The front passenger seat creaked ever so slightly. Blackjack’s elbow slammed into the driver’s neck right below the skull, stunning him. Before the driver felt the pain, Blackjack’s fist was wrapped around the front seat passenger’s rising gun. He yanked it free, its butt opening a gash across the passenger’s chin.
Before Shorty could register what was happening, the gun was on his lap.
“Pick it up. Use it. This is the only chance you will ever have.”
Shorty eyed the gun. His hand was mere inches from the trigger. He could grab it and fire within two seconds. Point blank shot at Blackjack. He could empty the gun right into this scary bastard. End him. In just two seconds.
It wasn’t enough time.
Shorty had witnessed Blackjack’s speed twice this night. His slumping shoulders confessed that he hadn’t the heart to make it three.
Blackjack plucked the gun from the mobster’s leg and had its bullets in his hand before Shorty could register the shock of physical contact. Blackjack tossed the bullets out one window, the gun out the open car door.
Then he leaned into Shorty, putting them nose-to-nose and eye-to-eye. “Lucky Luciano never contacts Cahill Ferguson or anyone Ferguson knows, or I come for you. Do you understand?”
Shorty couldn’t even blink. “Gotcha.”
When Blackjack was out of the car Shorty could breathe again. First thing he did was reach for the ankle holster holding his own gun to plug that son-of-a–
It too was gone. Shorty swallowed hard, rolled his head toward the street and the colored monster that had just pick-pocketed him.
Shorty’s gun looked tiny in Blackjack’s hands. The bullets he shook out were reduced to pebbles in his open palm. These too were scattered onto the street. Then Blackjack tossed the empty weapon perfectly through the car’s window.
Still too shook up to react, Shorty didn’t think to catch the gun. Instead he ducked. He came up crimson faced and furious. Neither of his men had seen. The passenger was too busy waking up the driver. And Blackjack had already turned away.
But Shorty would remember. He raised the empty gun and took aim at Blackjack anyway, for future reference. Put that arrogant ni–
Blackjack turned and met him eye-to-eye one last time. Shorty dropped the empty gun, dropped his nerve, almost dropped his bladder.
This guy isn’t even human, he thought.
As if hearing him, Blackjack gave a slight nod, turned and walked away.
The odd pair strolled up the block of brownstones, trying hard to be discreet. A tall black man and short, ruddy Irishman in Little Italy had little real hope of accomplishing this. But, it being New York, usually a sense of propriety was enough to conjure some sense of belonging.
Cahill Ferguson knew how to accomplish this. Much to Blackjack’s dismay, he began to discuss exactly the men whose attention they did not want to attract.
“They should be right up ahead, hopefully still hard at work,” he said, rubbing his hands.
“Are we trying to announce our intentions?”
“Best disguise, Mr. Arron Day, is not caring who sees you. If we be obvious and visible, not a man will care who we are. We go skulking about, we raise suspicions.”
Crossing the street, they came upon the first of the posters. Six feet by four feet in size, it was made of thick white paper. Crisp black letters printed read “Return to God,” as all the others did. Blackjack immediately scanned the blocks ahead. Ferguson scrutinized the posters instead.
There was no sign of the men. Ferguson didn’t seem concerned. He ran his hands along the posters. They lined the block covering ever space that was not a window.
“This group must be huge,” Ferguson murmured.
Blackjack heard the low voice, redirected his attention to the old cop. “Why do you assume this?”
“How many organization do you know are large enough to include professional paper hangers and professional printers?”
“Who says these are pros?”
Cahill Ferguson studied his new friend, mirth shining in his eyes. “Use your eyes, will you? Look at the quality of paper, the crispness of the printing. Not a one of those letters has run even after being drenched in paste. That’s a professional printing job all right. And each poster has been hung perfectly: same height, perfectly straight, not a single bump or crease in the lot of them. That’s definitely professional.”
“Oh, please. How hard could it be?”
The Irishman didn’t answer. Instead he walked briskly to the end of the block, where the posters were exceptionally wetter. He carefully pulled one corner off the wall, peeling back about a third.
Ferguson retreated, making a grand gesture toward the curling corner. “You’re hired, Mr. Arron ‘Paper Hanger’ Day.”
“We haven’t time for this.”
“Then make it quick, Mr. Professional. Come now, how hard could it be?”
With a sigh, Arron smoothed down the corner of the poster. It stuck easily. With an air of triumph he began to walk away, then paused, staring at several bumps and creases in his section. He shot an annoyed glance at Ferguson, pulled the corner back up and smoothed it down again, more carefully this time.
Four large bumps and two long creases remained.
Arron cleared his throat, did it again. Bumps returned. And again. Smaller bumps. And again. A few bumps, a crease and a tear in the paper.
Arron eyed Cahill Ferguson, both men now had mirth in their eyes. Blackjack nodded: “Like I was telling you, definitely pros involved.”
Ferguson smiled broadly. “And if this organization has recruited marginal thugs like paper hangers and printers …?”
“It most likely is large. Let’s move.”
“Had faith in you the whole time,” Ferguson smirked edging toward the corner, motioning Arron forward. “There’s not a poster to be found straight ahead. They must’ve gone round the bend here. Stealth, my friend, is your department. One of many, I presume.”
Blackjack chuckled quietly, stepping to the corner of the building. Slowly he peered around its edge, down the block. “Two of them. Skinny little guys in white overalls. Just finished another poster. They’re heading across the street.”
“Working they’re way back up the block?”
“No, they’ve gone to a truck. They’re packing it in.”
“We can’t lose them, Arron Day. What to do?”
Blackjack scanned the entire street, eyes alive with activity. Suddenly everything about him seemed to align, slamming into focus with the decisiveness of a falling gavel. “Cross the street with me. Just look ahead. I’ll do the rest.”
Without a word, Cahill Ferguson and Blackjack stepped forward, walking casually, Ferguson walking to the outside, flourishing the movements he made with his cane. As they approached the opposite curb, the pair stepped right behind a parked car.
“Trust me,” Blackjack said.
Not waiting for a response, he scooped Cahill Ferguson up over one shoulder. With a laborious bound, Blackjack was atop the car, fluidly shifting into a quick run.
“Careful boy, I’ve been indulging in more than my share of scones lately,” Ferguson exhaled forcefully.
Blackjack leapt from the hood of the first car to the next.
“Ophhhhh, lad, your sure the sidewalk wouldn’t suffice?”
“Rearview mirrors. They’d see us.”
“And the center mirror?”
Another leap. “Their truck has a rear cab. They can’t see directly behind it.”
Another landing drove Blackjack’s shoulder into Ferguson’s side, ejecting all air from his lungs. Ferguson forced himself to speak anyway. “So they’ll just hear the pounding as you land atop their vehicle.”
Still another leap The man was tireless. “Not if you let me concentrate on my timing.”
Blackjack paused on the hood of the last car, directly behind the paperhangers truck. He listened intently, waiting for a telltale click-click as the driver turned the engine over, and leaped immediately. Blackjack and Ferguson landed on top of the truck just as its engine rumbled to life, shaking the entire vehicle … and covering the sound of their landing.
Ferguson sucked air. “Wonderful … foresight. Now … just … let me lay here and die … from these cracked ribs.”
“Unless you want to roll off and hurt yourself worse, I suggest you find something to hang onto.”
Ferguson managed to grab a metal ridge as the truck lurched forward. Still, he found himself sliding sideways, toward the edge. Blackjack steadied him, his strong grip enveloping both jacket and shirt underneath, yanking Ferguson back toward the middle. After some frantic kicking, the small man found a similar ridge to brace his feet against.
“Hope this shan’t be too long a ride,” he smiled. “Bit nippy up here.”
“That’s the least of our worries.”
“Mr. Arron Day?”
“You didn’t think to bring a cuppa tea, by chance?”
Blackjack’s laugh was so loud even the roaring engine barely covered it
The ride was indeed long, and all north. Up through all of Manhattan. Up and over the Willis Avenue Bridge. Up along Eastern Boulevard. Up, up and ever further up.
Blackjack’s eyes, narrowed, alert, sweeping, took in every movement around them. The truck was large enough that no one seemed to notice the pair of freeloaders riding up top. Or at least no one up in these parts seemed to care. They had their own problems. This was after all …
“The Bronx.” Blackjack passed his patrolling eyes over Cahill Ferguson’s own big blues.
“Not the best of signs, lad.”
Blackjack’s cynicism was back. “It’s almost country up here.”
“Don’t let the beauty of the fields and farms and the charm of the bit of tenement development we’ve gone through fool you. We’re heading into the 41st Precinct. And this area’s always been bad news.”
That cynical cut made Ferguson grit his teeth. The young one wanted to know? Well here it comes.
“Yessir, always. This is the area where the first law enforcement officer was killed in the line of duty in the United States of America. In the year 1792.”
“Now you are making this up.”
Cahill Ferguson’s blue eyes blazed out above ruddy cheeks made redder by the chill wind. “Isaac Smith, Deputy Sheriff in what was then Westchester County. He strolled into Levi Hunt’s Inn, a tavern at 167th and West Farms Road, in the Mills area, and came face-to-face with John Ryer, a rogue cattleman and member of The Cowboys.”
“The Cowboys. Right. Of course.”
“The Cowboys, for your information, were a British guerrilla group during the Revolutionary War. They shot, raped and killed indiscriminately. Ryer was among the worst of the lot. Deputy Smith did not know who he was, but Ryer had no intentions of making introductions. He opened fire with a flintlock. Shot Smith in cold blood. Took his life on 18 May 1792.”
Blackjack said nothing.
“The governor at the time put a $100 reward on Ryer’s head. He was taken alive on 4 September 1793. On 5 September he stood trial without a lawyer. Thirteen witnesses testified that Ryer had done the killing. On 2 October, he was hung from a tree until dead, right behind the Westchester County Courthouse.”
“At least we know there’s justice in The Bronx.”
“Depends on what street you’re on, lad,” Ferguson was doing his own search of the streets now. He didn’t look pleased. “I’m hoping you have a plan, there, Mr. Soldier-for-hire. We’re heading for West Farms Road and 174th Street, I’d bet my britches.”
Blackjack met his eyes, expecting more. He got it.
“Do you know only the outside world, lad? Have you forgotten to learn New York City, your home base after all? That up ahead is one of Dutch Schulz’s old bootlegging warehouses. No telling who runs the place now. And we’re heading right for it.”
Blackjack pushed himself up to confirm Cahill Ferguson’s claims. There was a warehouse ahead. A huge one. There were cars parked near the massive structure, but no people, no guards, no telling who was around. One garage door, large enough to accommodate the truck, stood open like a yawning mouth of an impassive stone beast.
The truck rolled straight on, clearly heading through the entranceway. Blackjack estimated the clearance, eyes widening as he glanced over the side of the truck, then back to the entrance.
“We’ve got to move. Now.”
“Easier said than done, lad. Better to take our chances once the truck’s stopped or slowed down.”
“It’s not going to do either until its too late!”
“I do’na follow –”
Blackjack grabbed Ferguson, hauling him to his feet. Suddenly both men were facing a fast approaching brick wall.
Cahill Ferguson gasped, clutching his Blackthorn walking stick. “Mother of God! There’s but three inches clearance!”
The truck’s nose entered the opening without slowing. Blackjack spun Ferguson around and both men fled toward the rear of the truck, the wall in hot pursuit.
“We’ll break our–”
Blackjack knocked the remaining words from Ferguson’s shout, wrapping the older man in his arms and leaping clear of the wall. He rolled in mid-air, landing heavily on his back, Ferguson right on top of him. Blackjack used his thick forearms to further cushion the impact as they rolled to a stop.
Several seconds passed as the two men sucked air, forced themselves up on all fours, and struggled to stand. Blackjack knew before he opened his eyes that they were surrounded. The surprise came when he finally raised his head.
Forming a loose, welcoming circle were … white men in black clothes.
“Priests, lad,” Ferguson seemed shocked, almost theatrically so. “The posters are coming from priests.”
Quietly the black clad men offered the confused pair shoulders to lean on, leading them gently inside the warehouse. One man helped Ferguson steady himself, offering a hand to the older man. Blackjack noted inky marks trailing back from the knuckles. Tattoos on his fist.
They were lead inside the warehouse. The interior was dark, but the echo of their steps told Blackjack the old building was cavernous. Bits of metal gleamed from various corners of the huge room, much more of it arranged around some structure dominating the vast middle area. The immense shape was indiscernible in the shadows, but loomed large enough that the truck was able to drive around and disappear behind it. A moment later the engine died, and the two skinny poster hangers returned to view, stripping off their coveralls, revealing that they, too, wore priestly garb.
One of the priests murmured something about tea. Ferguson brightened dramatically. “If you don’t mind, sir, that would surely bring me back to life.”
“Only the Almighty can do that.”
The voice was strong, resonant, and came from the shadows directly in front of them, somewhere near the mountain of shadows. From either side and before them matches flickered, and dozens of candles were lit. The soft warm glow revealed more priests, many more, a veritable army of them. They all wore black, with small white squares at the center of their collars. There was a mark on each white square, but Blackjack’s eyes had yet to adjust enough for him to make it out.
At the end of the line stood a regal chair. In it sat a man only slightly older than Blackjack. The soldier-of fortune estimated him to be about six foot tall, with the build of a powerful middleweight boxer clothed in the similar clothes as the others, although his were a dark, maroon that conjured for Blackjack thoughts of spilled blood. The man’s hair was jet black, his eyes somehow blacker, with a gleam that made it clear his mind bristled with activity.
With the help of the candlelight, Blackjack saw that behind this man loomed a towering edifice … of wooden crates.
The gleaming metal were partially revealed in the candlelight as well. They seemed to be stylized crucifixes of various sizes. Odd crosses.
“I thank you for coming,” the center priest said. “These are dangerous times. We need all the help we can get.”
Blackjack glanced at Ferguson. The mirth in his eyes was gone. In its place flickered a wary vigilance that put Blackjack on alert. The older man stepped slowly forward, his walking stick clacking off the stone floor.
“We will, of course, do what we can, Your Grace,” Ferguson offered. “May I ask the proper way to address you?”
The priest smiled, bowing his head. Neither motion eased Blackjack’s sense of alarm.
“‘Your Grace,’ I like that.” The priest spoke in soothing tones. “But I am afraid the title is not mine. We are of the Order of Saint Elbis. I am Brother Set.”
Ferguson nodded, recognition flashing across his face. “Clear enough, Brother. May I ask the meaning of your ‘Return to God’ posters?”
Brother Set raised his hand, one finger extended, a request for Ferguson to pause. “Mr. Ferguson, I have known of your interest in these matters for some time –”
“Some covert operator am I.”
“We have our sources, sir. But rest assured, your performance has been most impressive.” The brother turned his attention to Blackjack. “But you, Arron Day, we’ve only heard of you in legend: Your conquests in Middle East against The Cobra; Your war against the Dead Hordes of Mansa Musa; Your battles in Europe. Truly you have exhibited a power most exquisite.”
Blackjack stood motionless, every fiber of his being on fire, coiled, ready to strike at an enemy he could sense but not lock onto. “I have no power.”
“Modesty is an overrated commodity, sir,” the brother waved a dismissive hand. He leaned forward, those bright eyes drinking in the warrior before him. “Your power is undeniable.”
“I am just a hired gun –”
“And we have need of your services, Blackjack, for the coming war to save all of humanity. You would be a formidable ally. Name your price.”
This priest had them off balance. Blackjack had expected to find a psychotic horde, a Klu Klux Klan, a fascist sect bent on world domination, terrorist. He found himself faced with holy men offering tea, even if Ferguson had yet to take a single sip. Now their leader wanted to hire him. He needed time to sort all this out.
“I do not take on contracts unless I know the situation. And I did not come for a job, I am working with Mr. Ferguson to resolve a crisis. Please answer his questions.”
The red garbed leader studied bother men before coming to a decision. “I will answer anything he asks, if you agree to do the same for me.”
Blackjack was thrown. He looked to Ferguson, then back to the brother. “Excuse me?”
“Quid pro quo. I answer him, you answer me.”
Blackjack glanced at Ferguson, who nodded slightly, never removing his gaze from Brother Set.
“Agreed. Ferguson goes first.”
The brother’s smile widened. There was something carnivorous about it.
“Ask away, detective.”
Ferguson tilted his head slightly, considering, eyes studying this being before him. “I ask again, what is the meaning of ‘Return to God?’”
“Exactly what it implies. Only by returning to God can humanity be put on the path of Elbis, their ultimate destiny.”
Blackjack and Cahill Ferguson exchanged a quick glance. The tension was palpable.
Brother Set seemed to enjoy it. “My turn: Why are you called Blackjack?”
“My enemies created that name. It is supposedly a term used in fear.”
Ferguson spoke quickly. “How far will you and your brethren go to get people to ‘Return to God?’”
“Whatever is deemed necessary. This is just the beginning of the process.” He shifted his gaze to Blackjack. “Are you so named because you are considered a bringer of death?”
“Only to those who force me to do so.”
Ferguson fired his question point blank, finally shaking Brother Set’s icy calm. “Are you responsible for the deaths of Michelle Walker, Angus and Sarah McBride, Stephen Flynn, Lewis Johnson, Donrek Taylor and Gail Anne Harrington?”
Brother Set recovered, shaking his head, as in mourning. “The sad fact is that we are at war. These are acceptable losses.”
Blackjack fumed, arms moving quickly toward his guns. “Not to me–”
To his shock and Ferguson’s dismay, he was, for once, not quick enough. In a flash, all the holy men were pressing weapons against Blackjack’s frame, and Ferguson’s temple. There were too many even for this warrior.
Blackjack lowered his arms, slowly.
Brother Set regained his composure, smiled benevolently, seemingly unaware of the gleaming firearms all around him. “I apologize if I sound cruel. I am a spiritual man, but also one with a mission. At times the urgency of the situation overcomes me. Will you allow us to continue, Arron Day?”
Blackjack blinked. He shot a glance at Ferguson; but Cahill wasn’t seeing anything but Brother Set. Still wanting to buy time, Blackjack feigned deep consideration, shot disapproving looks to those pointing weapons at him. Brother Set noticed and motioned the men to lower their weapons, creating a bit of breathing room, which the warrior planned to exploit.
Ferguson leapt in. “Do you pledge yourself to God the Almighty?”
“I pledge myself to the All-Powerful.” Once more, Brother Set shifted his attention. “Blackjack is not the only name by which they call you. Are you not also known as Dark Angel?”
“It is not a name I call myself, but yes some have called me that. They tend to be those who have spent their lives doing wrong. For them it is a term of dread. That’s their business, I don’t see myself as anything evil or fearsome. I do what I do. Those avoiding trouble have nothing to fear from me.”
Ferguson smiled now. “Have some also called your god, your true god, the Dark Angel? Isn’t he the one you want people to turn to, after they’ve ‘Returned to God’ and found no solace?”
Set wouldn’t even look at Ferguson. Instead, his gaze bore into Blackjack.
The warrior felt a dreaminess enveloping him, and a word surfaced in his mind: hypnotic. Blackjack forced himself to look away.
He gazed at the crosses. They were easier to distinguish now. And more disturbing.
There were hundreds of them, roughly hewn, jagged edged, imposing … not right.
Blackjack stared more closely until he could make out their entire shape. He recoiled only slightly, but ice encased his spine.
Each cross was upside down.
He shifted his gaze to the priests, focusing on the small white collar of the nearest one. In the center of that white square was a small mark.
Blackjack strained; the mark took shape. On each collar blazed a tiny, stylized U.
A mark of the demon.
Blackjack fought to control his breathing, turn his eyes upward. He searched deeper into the shadows, forcing himself to clarify the crate markings, studying the hint of letters in the darkness. He locked onto them, willing himself to read what they said.
“I will ask you again,” Blackjack heard Ferguson saying. “Have some also called your god the Dark Angel?”
Blackjack sensed Brother Set’s voice, but it seemed far away, increasingly unreal, intoxicating.
“I have been called that, just as have you, Mr. Ferguson, usually while arresting the one doing the naming. But enough. Blackjack, we must discuss business. We have need of you. Are you for hire?”
Focus, focus, focus. The letters were slowly separating themselves from the shadows, coming into view at an agonizing pace. “It depends on who is offering.”
Ferguson shot his question immediately. “If you embrace God in Heaven, and Jesus Christ his son, how can you accept these lost lives? Is not murder the work of evil?”
The priest shot a malicious glance at Ferguson, but addressed only Blackjack. “Our church is coming under attack this very day, and we need your protection to prevent it, to allow us to do our work. Will you give me an answer?”
“Quid pro quo.” Blackjack could almost make out the letters: there were three of them.
“You question the judgment of the Creator of All! He has allowed war and death throughout time. These losses were no different. Now, Blackjack, will you turn your back on holy men?”
The first letter was all he could clearly make out.
“I never turn my back on the just.”
Ferguson stepped forward. “Are you Satan or an emissary of the Lord of Darkness?”
“I am Who Am! Blackjack are you not the Dark Angel?”
… T …
“Only to those who have a reason to see me as such. That is not how I see myself.”
Ferguson kept pressing. “Will you admit you are a murderer, here to bring Hell to Earth? Will you admit that you want people to turn to God only on their way to embracing Lucifer himself? Are you not trying to lead people to Hell?””
“Hell is subjective, as is Nirvana! You have no idea what true order and peace will be like.”
Brother Set leaned toward Arron Day, eyes gleaming, his presence almost suffocating. “Arron Day, work with us. You must help us. You will help us.”
Ferguson whirled to face Blackjack. “He’s seducing you lad! Hypnotizing you. Fight him! HE is the Dark Angel! Shoot him! Kill him!”
Blackjack focused only on the letter. “I don’t shoot unarmed men.”
Ferguson shook him. “He’s neither!”
Brother Set was on his feet now. “Dark Angel, search your soul! Feel the hate, the vengeance that fuels your life! Can’t you see your destiny?”
Blackjack could only see: T
“Can’t you see those deaths were righteous, our offering to peace, to order, to the Almighty? Cannot you see this is the only true way? Economy doesn’t work. Government doesn’t work. Faith in God doesn’t work. There is only one true solution. Come, Dark Angel, you must see the truth.”
Blackjack continued to see only: T
“Look into your heart. You know this is true.”
Blackjack knew what he was seeing:
Blackjack knew what the letter meant, in more ways than one.
“I am more than a holy man, Blackjack! I am The Most Holy. The One True Spirit, calling you to action. You know in your heart you are the Dark Angel! Be the Dark Angel for me!”
“I will.” Blackjack turned to Ferguson, in full warrior mode, eyes blazing right into those of the shorter, older man. He drew his weapons. One of his eyes shut for the briefest of moments, as close to a wink as Blackjack ever came.
The gleam in Brother Set’s eyes swirled now. “Dark Angel, remove mine enemy!”
“I will,” Blackjack repeated, raising both guns, pointing them right at Ferguson.
“You know what is right, lad,” Ferguson whispered.
“You know what is right, Dark Angel,” Set shouted. “Do it!”
Blackjack tightened his grip on the triggers, raised his arms high, and unloaded both weapons …
… right into the letters on the crates.
Those letters spelled out: T N T.
The first explosion was immediate, hot and deafening. Fireballs roared into the other crates, fire belching as if Blackjack had just swung wide the Gates of Hell. The Dark Angel had indeed come.
The priests, many of whom had pulled weapons when Blackjack raised his arms, were thrown to the floor. More dynamite detonated, send shards of inverted crosses tearing through Brother Set’s chosen.
Ferguson was already running, his walking stick swinging a pathway through the remaining false priests. “Rain check on the tea, lads! I’m sure it was laced with Arsenic anyway!”
Blackjack holstered his guns on the run, scooping Ferguson up as the heat and volume of the explosions multiplied. With the older man in his arms, Blackjack ran straight for the ominously lowering garage door.
“Drop me, lad, ye’ll never make it otherwise!”
“I don’t drop friends.”
“Ye parents taught you well, they did!”
Blackjack dove for the floor and the two feet of space left under the closing doors. He and Ferguson skidded on their stomachs, slid and rolled under thick metal, and rolled across the dirty sidewalk.
The rest of the crates blew, creating an inferno, sending shrapnel in all directions. The windows of the warehouse blew, fire roaring forth, jagged chunks of crosses flying all around them. The building itself shook, a far wall collapsing. The rest was engulfed in flames.
Blackjack checked Ferguson for wounds, then himself. Bruised, scraped and cut up a bit, but otherwise unharmed, they limped across the street to safety.
The pair of warriors leaned on the wall of a coffee shop, catching their breath, ignoring the gathering crowd.
“That wasn’t really …” Blackjack began.
“If it was, surely your guns would’ve turned to stone. But he thought he was. And his army thought he was. Lost souls, the lot of them.”
Blackjack nodded, watching the fire.
“Sometimes we all are.”
“Wise words for a man your age, Arron Day.”
Cahill Ferguson slowly rose, leaning heavily on his Blackthorn walking stick.
Blackjack watched him. “Where are you going?”
“Inside for a cuppa tea. I need it more than my next breath. New York’s Finest can take my statement in there.”
“You going to keep in touch?”
“You, Aaron Blackjack Day are a man worth knowing. I’ll not forget you saving my hide more than once this night. You’ve got a friend for life, sir, if you’ll have me.”
“The honor’s all mine, old man.”
Cahill Ferguson smiled, and gave a wink before he climbed the pair of stairs leading to the coffee shop. He paused. Finally, he turned around. “Care to join me, son?”
Blackjack smiled broadly, climbing the stairs with a wince. “Only if they serve peas.”
In Memory of Stephen Saccone (1963-2001), a man — and a friend — worth knowing.