Chapter 1

ROME, ITALY

Roland Ronovich, team leader of elite Special Forces unit DELTA BLACK, also known to many as simply "the Ghost", felt a calming sensation run through him when the church bells rang signaling the early morning three o’clock hour, as he trained the crosshairs of his rifle on one of the three armed jihadists standing on the church steps.

Roland was positioned one hundred yards away, halfway behind a building which provided him with sufficient cover but also allowed him to lock his scope on the unsuspecting target. Fish in a barrel, Roland thought. He then eased up a bit, lowered his gun and checked his watch. Just a few minutes more.

Roland jerked his head when he noticed a fourth terrorist in a sniper’s position on the church roof, but out of the corner of his eye could see one of the members of his chalk, Tao Recoyama - call sign Reco - efficiently scaling the west wall of the holy edifice, as his black outfit blended with the starless night.

The terrorists struck vigilant poses on the steps of the Santa Maria del Popolo, a notable Augustinian church located less than a mile from Vatican City. These weren't your run-of-the-mill Islamofascists, Roland thought - no sir. They were wearing red turbans.

Roland heard Jack "Hammer" Shane's gruff voice through his earpiece: "Roland...," he said, "did ya see the-"

"Turbans? Yes I did," Roland replied, finishing and then answering Hammer's question.

Red turbans were worn by only one group in the world - a terrorist organization called Adl, which meant “to serve justice” in Arabic. The group was a conglomeration of jihadists from countries like Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

And Adl made al-Qaeda look like boy scouts. Members of the group had beheaded a U.S. ambassador on videotape six months ago that was broadcast around the globe on CNN and al-Jazeera.

All three Adl combatants had dark long beards and donned tan-colored camouflage jackets. The middle man appeared to be an Arab with a long, proud nose that was accompanied by a brooding grimace. Just a few feet to the brooding man’s left stood another Arab - an elder comrade whose age was belied by a much grayer beard. The soldier on the far right had a fairer complexion, and Roland guessed he might be a Pashtun from Afghanistan.

"Let me know when you're in position," Roland whispered to his team members through his mic.

"Hammer. Check," Roland heard Jack Shane say, confirming he was ready.

Roland glanced across the street to see Hammer in a similar prone position as Roland, raising one of his bulky arms and giving him a thumbs up sign. Dr. Ian Daniels, medic and psy ops specialist, call sign Doc Ion, was on one knee to Roland’s left and also gave a thumbs up. Then the other team members began whispering in their status to Roland.

"Aura. Check," said Sadie Summers.

Sadie, the team's linguistics and cultural expert, must have made it to the east side of the church. Roland couldn't wait to see the looks on the faces of these terrorists when they are taken down by Aura, the United States' first female Special Forces soldier. A black female to be precise, which would be an affront to their archaic sensibilities, considering a woman couldn't walk the streets without her husband's permission in places like Afghanistan.

"Russ. Check," Russ Logan reported, who was stationed on a store rooftop a block ahead of Roland. Russ was a sharpshooter from Jackson, Tennessee, and far as Roland could tell, the only thing Russ specialized in was cold-blooded killing.

Special Forces operatives typically felt an adrenaline-induced “high” on missions, especially before taking out targets. But for Roland, it was even more - something indescribable - like some sick serenity that made him whole. It was a state of mind and being abhorrent to the average civilian, yet vital to a successful career in Roland’s profession.

But one thing unsettled Roland, namely, the mission's ultimate objective - which was to kill a Vatican priest. Roland was a devout Catholic and wasting bin Laden-looking Islamists was one thing, but killing a holy man of his own faith was an entirely different matter.

****
General Clint Crenshaw provided Roland with a photo of the target in D.C. right before the mission. Father Salvador Mellini, a high-ranking priest on the Vatican Council. The priest was an olive-skinned Italian man, cloaked in a long maroon-colored robe with jet black hair, sunken cheeks, and a long pointy beard. Crenshaw told him that not only must they find and kill this priest, but they had to find an ancient artifact that puzzled Roland: a gold necklace with a round medallion that encircled what looked like a red hippie peace symbol. And that's all he was told, but he concluded the object must be pretty damn precious, considering senior level defense department officials and Crenshaw were both adamant about rescuing the object, lest it fall into the wrong hands. Like Adl's.



And now, everyone would soon be in the right position at precisely the right time - save one. Roland cringed when he heard the heavy breathing of the out-of-shape civilian, and from the corner of his eye noticed the uncoordinated slug’s lack of reflex when he finally clambered into position and slumped against the wall. Mr. Malcolm Giles, archaeologist and journalist extraordinaire.

The pot-bellied, middle-aged Brit had taken quite awhile to even keep up with the group. They were lucky it was the middle of the night or else he was sure to have compromised their position. Unfortunately, Giles was indispensable to the mission, a sentiment that came from the very top of the rank and file. Sweat poured down Giles's face profusely as he breathed heavily sitting with his back against the wall.

"Malcolm...bloody check," Giles said while panting.

It was a sad attempt at sarcasm by Giles that Roland sensed masked a deeper fear. It was finally becoming real to Giles, evidenced by the ghastly expression on Malcom's face. Roland took note at how Malcolm's demeanor had changed quite a bit since they first picked him up just a few hours earlier.

Mr. Giles wrote a world-renowned syndicated geopolitical and op ed column that appeared in nearly every major newspaper on God’s green earth. One could often see Mr. Giles’s mug across a number of political cable news shows dribbling polemics and enlightening the world with his well-informed opinions on international affairs, at least those who could grasp all of the words the verbose curmudgeon spouted. Not to mention that the godless Giles proudly prayed at the altar of atheism, and most deplorable was the fact that the heathen was also a commie Trotskyite.

They had picked up Giles in a Black Hawk on a hill on the outskirts of Rome, who had been outfitted in a floppy tan leather hat and a saddlebag that draped across his shoulder.

“He’s getting a bit old to be dressing up like Indiana Jones,” Roland had said out of the corner of his mouth, which was followed by a few snickers from the rest of the squad.

Malcolm climbed into the chopper and removed his hat, revealing cold gray eyes, a sarcastic sneer and unkempt salt and pepper-colored hair and beard. Roland was caught speechless when he realized the man had a half-empty glass of scotch on the rocks in his hand. Silence ensued as DELTA BLACK collectively stared at the insolent devil as he sipped on his concoction.

Mr. Giles glared back at the onlookers, and a palpable tension thickened within the confines of the small helicopter. Malcolm broke the quietude with a smirk, as if amused by the group’s outrage.

“Well, bloody hell, I do extend to you my most sincere apologies, my dear soldiers of fortune. I have failed you miserably already…as I did not bring enough Talisker for the whole cheery club of us to share. Because, if you are anything like me, then you too must enjoy the hell out of getting cooked before going off to slay holy men,” Giles said.

Malcolm smiled, winked one of his bloodshot eyes, raised his drink, and downed the rest of the scotch. He shook the glass a tad to indicate it was empty and none need worry, and as his eyebrows creased upwards he said: “Lovely.” And then belched.

It was Mr. Giles during the flight over to the landing zone who ironically put the fear of God in Roland, because Giles provided some alarming specifics about their little adventure.

“It will be very hard to kill the priest, by the way, Mr. Ronovich. Mainly because... he’s already dead,” Giles had said.

Roland humphed at first, but Malcolm seemed dead serious for the first time. Giles continued.

“I know it sounds crazy. But I am a reliable source on this one. I actually watched him cut his own throat just a few days ago, when he accompanied me on a dig. Some of the locals believe the site we were exploring was cursed because it was located beneath Golgotha– where Christ had been crucified. Thus, some evil must have drove Mellini mad. But I think they are all crazy and Mellini was mad to begin with.”

Giles told Roland that he uncovered an ancient map and blueprints of Santa Maria during the dig with Mellini, that contained intricacies of the underground labyrinth that lay beneath the church where they would supposedly find the priest and this precious jewelry from antiquity. Roland guessed Adl must have a copy of the same map, and also wondered where the hell they got it.

Roland's thoughts were interrupted by a voice that gave him a jolt of excitement.

"Reco. Check," said the martial arts and recon guru, the final special operator to signify they were ready for action.

It was time.

****

Roland barely breathed while his finger lightly teased the trigger of his weapon, a special operations combat assault rifle (SCAR) fully equipped with silencer, as he lined up the shot.The soldier with the graybeard happened to glance over at the man in the middle and the elder Arab’s jaw dropped. Graybeard grabbed his partner’s arm gawking at a small glowing red dot that had materialized out of nowhere, smack in the middle of the brooding man’s forehead. Before the elder could do anything, Roland squeezed the trigger and launched two rounds at the speed of light. A swooshing sound filled the air and graybeard watched in horror as the glowing red dot on his friend’s forehead was replaced by two bloody bullet holes.

Then everything happened at once. Sadie Summers with her long lean legs popped out of nowhere from the east side of the church and double-tapped shots into graybeard’s temple. At the same time the sniper from the church roof fell from the sky and plopped right next to graybeard with a knife in his back. And as all this was happening, Russ Logan had finished off the Pashtun with perfect marksmanship.

1 minute elapsed. Four dead terrorists. Giles stood frozen with mouth agape, likely never seeing, nor even imagining anything like the proficient massacre.

Everyone rendezvoused on the church steps. Roland paused for a nervous few seconds before he nodded to Hammer who gripped the large iron handle and opened the church door.

Roland’s heart jumped as he heard the sound of footsteps that seemed to be fading. He peeked inside and saw a terrorist jetting down the main aisle towards the altar. Roland unsnapped a handgun and silencer from his belt and aimed it at the fleeing man’s back. The terrorist dropped to his knees and attempted to yank open a trapdoor in the floor. But before the jihadist could do so, Roland fired two rounds between the man’s eyes.



As they shuffled down the main aisle, Roland was awestruck by the ancient architecture, the ornate gold mosaic on the dome ceiling with painted depictions of God at the center and gold-lined boxes containing the images of angels with big feathery wings. On the sides of the church were small alcoves that housed marble images of figures like St. Peter and St. Augustine.

Giles had told the team a tale earlier about how the evil emperor Nero's ashes were buried beneath a walnut tree where the church now stands, and how folks had reported hearing Nero calling to them. In 1099 Pope Paschal II had the tree chopped down and performed an exorcism ritual on the site. Childish folk tale, Roland had thought at the time, but right now it didn’t seem so puerile.

Roland stopped in his tracks when he saw an eerie bronze statue of Christ that seemed to defy the laws of gravity, impossibly hovering to the right of the altar. Even creepier, behind the trapdoor was an image of St. Michael the Archangel battling Satan. Roland fixed his eyes upon the grotesque image of the demon, as it practically seemed alive. Roland shook his head and moved on.

When they came upon the altar that was shrouded in darkness, Roland opened the trapdoor slowly, revealing a never-ending winding staircase that disappeared into pitch blackness. Roland locked eyes with Giles who leered back with intensity.

Roland thought of Father Mellini's face and shivered, grabbed the scapular draped around his neck, kissed it and gave the sign of the cross. He looked each team member in the face, nodded and began descending the stairs, wondering what type of abomination they would find beneath.

"<<"Introduction | Chapter 2 ">>"


Would be very interested in your thoughts on the story. Please click the comments link below and provide a critique.

4 comments:

  1. The story and plot are good; the facts and details are excellent. Some attention to transitions might help with the build-up of the cliff hanger at the end of chapter one. Looking forward to the next chapter. Also, is it possible that i might forget the details of chapter 1 when i read chapter 2 in two weeks. Just curious if there is any way to narrow the time gap between the publishing of chapters.

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  2. This is an enjoyable pulp adventure, and I'm really curious to see where you're heading with the Big Bad Nero. However, I have some reservations about the cartoonishly portrayed Arab terrorists, and the sneering British Richard Dawkins type. I am also wondering about your use of the word 'Trotskyite.' I've never seen that phrase outside a 1910s-1920s historical context. It seems very out of place, and I would reconsider using a word more relevant to the 21st century.

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  3. Subrbanbeatnick: Good observations, and I agree that the combatants are a bit shallow at this point, as seen through the eyes of Roland Ronovich, who isn't very sympathetic to Arab terrorists. Now, if they were seen through the eyes of Tom Septer (chapter 2), who is more liberal-minded, if you will, would seem quite different. Interesting you think of Richard Dawkins, i actually am glad I struck such imagery. Christopher Hitchens was actually my model for Malcolm Giles, and he and Dawkins run in similar circles. Trotskyite is an antiquated term, but Hitchens was actually one during the 60s and 70s. I thought it might be a more colorful and more complex word than simply describing him as a communist. But I will take that into consideration. And if you know Christopher Hitchens, Malcolm Giles is hardly an exaggeration. I do hope you continue to read, and I think/hope the writing will improve and become more enjoyable. I appreciate the feedback - this is exactly the type of info that will help me out alot.

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  4. Just wanted to say I'm very impressed with how well you take critiques. It's so rare not to see a spoiled child response to helpful feedback. ^^ Kudos to you, and happy writing!

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