Chapter 4

A place there is below, from Beelzebub
As far receding as the tomb extends,
Which not by sight is known, but by the sound
--Dante Alighieri, "Divine Comedy", 1321

Pleased to meet you
Hope you guess my name
But whats puzzling you
Is the nature of my game
--Rolling Stones, "Sympathy for the Devil", 1968

Roland crept down the winding staircase that had been carved into the earth underneath the Santa Maria church. He descended what felt like four stories below surface level, and as soon as his boots touched down on the rocky ground floor, he jerked his weapon chest-high and aimed it into the darkness. The flashlight scope perched atop his weapon illuminated the timeworn stone-gray walls of a tunnel that took a turn leftward after about one hundred feet, matching the serpentine depiction of the underground labyrinth on Malcolm's map that they had reviewed mid-flight on the Black Hawk. The underground passageway’s curvature concerned him because it produced a blind spot, impairing one's ability to see potential hostiles that might be coming around the bend.

The rest of the team joined him in short order, entirely cast in black with the exception of Malcolm Giles who was wearing faded jeans and a navy blue button-down shirt. Hardly visible once they hit the floor, like shadows in the night, nearly every inch of the Delta operatives’ outfit was black including accessories: gloves, Kevlar flack vests, body armor, knife handles, utility belts, backpacks, automatic weapons, and the signature black Delta Force head gear that resembled a hockey helmet. Roland’s light knifed its way through the obscurity as he lead the line, immediately followed by Giles and a batting order of Sadie, Doc, Reco, and Russ, with Hammer taking the rear.

The curving corridor was tight - six feet wide with a ceiling that reached about eight feet high. The air was stale and its warmth grew increasingly uncomfortable. Halfway before the first turn Roland jumped as he felt a poke in his back. He turned around and quickly realized it was just Malcolm Giles trying to gain his attention. Giles pointed to a diagram of the underground lair that had been scribed on crinkly yellowish age-old paper.

“It would seem that if the key on this thing is anywhere near correct, we should be hitting a fork in the path-,” Malcolm started to whisper then stopped abruptly. He creased his brow and looked about as if he heard something.

Then Roland heard it too. And felt it. A whooshing sound filled the catacombs followed by a stinging arctic wind that blew right through him. It whipped against his face and he turned his head, writhing in pain, as the temperature suddenly seemed to drop to below freezing. The wind continued to blow and he heard a barely audible hissing. Voices whispered into his ear as if someone was standing right beside him. He spun entirely around and found not a soul, but the scratchy sounds of the unseen relentlessly assaulted his ears, their tone escalating louder by the second. He strained to focus and discern what they were saying.

His teammates swirled in confusion, their heads snapping back and forth as they tried to find the source of the rising clamor, their guns jutting every which way.

Then the voices ceased. The whistling wind faded and died, replaced by a creeping heat that rose to its former level, before the biting Lake Michigan-type gale had washed over them.

“Did anyone understand…?” Doc asked, his question answered by heads shaking in the negative in unison.

Before they took another step, however, Giles hesitated and with a blank stare murmured: “Golgotha.”

“What was that?” Sadie asked who had been standing right next to Malcolm.

“Golgotha.” he repeated. “The cold wind and the voices. The whispering. Father Mellini and I experienced something similar. And I must admit it sort of shook me then, but I thought there must be some explanation."

“That ain’t cool brother,” Hammer chimed in, “you told us the padre friggin’ offed himself. Cut his own throat to boot. What are we walking into here?”

Jack Shane’s lower right lip protruded with chewing tobacco. He turned and spat a brown stream of dip spit, then deliberately wiped a remnant of spittle from the corner of his mouth with the back of hand. The six foot four giant’s bare muscular arms glistened with sweat as he held a heavy SAW machine gun. He was the only one in the group insane enough to leave his arms unprotected. Yet, even Hammer seemed unnerved by the raspy unintelligible words that had filled the air. As a matter of fact, everyone had been jolted into a state of unease that he hadn't seen his soldiers in before. The only who wasn't, not surprisingly, was Russ Logan, who leaned against a wall in his typical brooding silence. Ever the enigma - he wondered if the seemingly unflappable Logan was truly that cool or simply a master at disguising his emotions.

Hammer had been referring to Father Mellini’s suicide, committed while the priest was excavating the hill where Christ had drawn his last human breath. Giles had pedantically provided them with an unsolicited history lesson earlier that day, and as much as he thought him a windbag, he remembered Malcolm’s explanation vividly. Golgotha was the Aramaic name for the site, in English it was called Calvary, but both translated into the “place of the skull”. Biblical scholars believed the Gospel writers had labeled it as such because the knoll was shaped like a skull. Many devout Jews even believed it to be the final resting place of Adam’s skull, buried their by Noah’s son, Shem. Giles was a veritable walking Catholic Encyclopedia, which he found interesting considering Malcolm was an atheist. Yet, he was an atheist that knew more about world religions than the religious.

“I’m not sure exactly what we’re walking into. At Golgotha the workers there said we had awoken protective spirits. I thought it rubbish then…,” Giles said, his voice fading.

“But now you think they were right?” Doc Ian asked.

Giles shook his head, looked down and said, “I’m not so sure anymore.”

Roland could hear his heart thumping as an uneasy quietude blanketed them. He sighed, waved to the rest of the pack and they resumed the march.

Fear had typically been a great motivator as far back as he could remember. He honed it as a tool and actually thrived on it; the adrenaline rush gave him a buzz like dope does a drug fiend. He felt a surge of it right before a good fist fight as a youngster. Truth be told, he hardly ever fought during his teenage years - there was no need. One would think he would've been dragged into a fair share of scrapes, growing up with a Russian last name like Ronovich in an all Irish and Italian neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. But not a soul messed with Roland Ronovich after what he had done as a sophomore in high school to a twenty-year old scumbag by the name of Johnny Hovee.

Hovee was a derelict gangbanger who sold drugs to young teens – when he wasn’t beating the crap out of them. Sure, everyone started drinking booze at a young age in his old hood, but drugs were an entirely different matter. He had seen Hovee ruin lives. And not only with drugs. Hovee got off scot free once after shooting and killing Tony Ciaravino, one of his classmates. Why? Because Ciarvino had the audacity to go on a date with Hovee’s ex-girlfriend.

That Saturday night after the St. Rita Grade School carnival is etched in his mind forever, when he and Terry Cunningham came upon Johnny Hovee in an alley trying to push some drugs on freshman Mickey Sullivan. Mickey had recently been released from rehab number two – at the early age of fifteen – and he knew Sully wanted desperately to get clean and sober. The next thing they saw was Johnny badass with his hand around Sully's throat, then watched as he violently slammed the boy against the garage door. Roland ran over, grabbed Hovee’s arm and hissed directly into his ear: “Let go of him now or I’ll knock your fucken’ teeth out.”

Hovee, with his dirty blond mustache and matching mullet, sneered, pushed him off and then threw a wild punch. But Roland ducked, which then provided him with a window of opportunity. He wound back his fist and let loose "the punch heard ‘round the neighborhood" - a wallop that would go down in South Side lore for years.

His clenched fist struck the bridge of the twenty year-old's nose, a connection that made a crunching sound so grotesque that afterward Sully said it nearly made him vomit. He followed that up with another right that, well, knocked out two of Hovee’s front teeth. The second punch dropped him upon impact. It wasn’t so surprising that Roland handled the bully, considering he had taken martial arts classes since 8th grade. What was shocking was the ferocity he displayed after the piece of white trash hit the ground. Roland jumped on top of the depraved drug dealer and began head-butting him incessantly, while Hovee screamed and blood spurted from his nose and mouth. Sully and Terry Cunningham had to peel him off of the bloodied gangbanger, who by that point was out cold.

What Roland recalled most of all was how badly he wanted to kill the sociopath. He didn’t want to stop. Justice had to be served - a mindset that served him well over the past nearly twenty years. But the phobia that caged him at present felt much different - it was an unnatural and irrational trepidation because it shook the foundation of his faith. The heavy despair in his heart weighed him down, yielding indecisiveness and hesitation. A moment of pause could end his life.

They plodded forward following the twisting tunnel until the passage did finally split into two, and he chose the entryway on the left, per Malcolm’s blueprint. He stepped into the new pathway and saw a light in the distance. He gave his crew a thumbs-up.

According to the map, the path led to an underground cavern, and he figured the source of the light must be one of its entrances. As he approached the opening, the tunnel widened considerably - and then he froze. He saw two bodies lying on the ground and reacted quickly by jumping to his stomach while pointing his rifle at the targets.

“Get down!” he shouted. Everyone hit the deck.

But the bodies appeared lifeless. He cautiously walked towards them accompanied by Doc Ian. He hesitated when he saw two red turbans strewn about in the vicinity of the men that certainly appeared dead, unless, of course, they were experts at playing possum.

As he drew closer, he doubted they were faking anything. The first combatant was lying on his stomach with a knife jammed between his shoulder blades, and the second sat upright against one of the walls, a knife protruding from the right side of his stomach. Doc removed the dagger from the first body, flipped the carcass over, looked for signs of life, but found none.
He noticed out of the corner of his eye the short figure of Reco walking over and standing in front of the body that had been propped against the wall. Suddenly, Reco drew his firearm.

“Check this out,” Reco called out.

Roland ran over and aimed his piece at combatant number two. The Arab’s lips trembled.

“He’s still alive,” Doc Ian said.

His face had an unhealthy pallor about it, and he lacked the requisite beard and moustache that Adl typically demands of all of its members. The man looked up and locked eyes with Roland, and at that moment he realized why the boy didn’t meet the minimum facial hair requirements established by the terrorist group's leaders.

“This kid can’t be older than sixteen,” Roland said flatly.

He crouched beside the boy and covered his mouth in anticipation of Doc Ian removing the blade from his stomach. The young man screamed into his gloved hand and then began weeping. Doc grabbed medical instruments from his backpack and then gently helped the boy lie down while the young terrorist looked befuddled.

Doc’s bald head resembled a shiny cueball as he wiped sweat from his eyes, and he scrunched his thick black eyebrows together, intensely engrossed in the task of trying to suture vital organs that had been ripped apart by the large dagger back together.

Doc motioned to Sadie who walked over, sat next to the boy and held his hand. She spoke to him in Arabic as she dabbed his forehead with a wet rag. Roland figured she must be consoling him. A knife to the stomach is excruciating. By the look of the amount of blood that had spilled from his gut onto his robe and the floor already, he knew the kid had precious few minutes left to live.

Just as this thought crossed his mind the young Muslim soldier began choking. His face red, eyes filled with tears. Then, suddenly, he began speaking frantically amidst the sobs. Sadie asked him questions and, as the boy answered, he kept pointing towards the cavern entrance.

He paused and grabbed both of Sadie’s shoulders and pleaded with her. Then a moment of silence ensued. The teen’s eyelids looked heavy, then began to close slowly. The boy mumbled to himself, Roland guessed they were the last prayers to his maker. The young Arab closed his eyes and a peaceful smile slowly grew across his face. His chest ceased heaving and settled, then went motionless.

“I lost him,” Doc Ian said, shaking his head.

Sadie stood up slowly with a pensive look on her face.

“What did he say?” Roland asked.

“I asked who had done this to him and all he kept saying was: ‘I resisted them and will die for Allah on my terms’. He said they had deceived him. But I do not know who he meant by ‘they’.”

The image of Johnny Hovee’s wicked grin popped into Roland’s head as he looked at the dead teenager. This poor kid had been indoctrinated by Adl to fight and die for some perversion of Islam; they had exploited the faith of young men like this to serve their own political agenda. Just as Hovee promised paradise by snorting a few lines, the Mullahs promised the same via strapping explosives to one's chest and blowing up an orphanage.

“Why was he pointing at the cave?” Doc asked.

“He was giving us a warning to stay away, he pleaded for us to leave immediately.”

“Why?” Roland asked.

“He said they had promised he would be united with Allah in paradise, but he swore, to all that is Holy, that the last thing he had seen was the face of God."

Drawing a deep breath, Sadie looked directly into the eyes of each team member.

“But he believed, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that what he had seen was…the face of Satan.”

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