Chapter 5

The rental car’s headlights broke through the obscurity of the Georgia woods and illuminated a ceaseless stream of black maple trees that flew past Septer at a steadily increasing rate. Dermot pressed heavy on the gas pedal and adeptly negotiated turns, guided by a bending incandescent yellow line that split the hilly country road down the middle. As Septer tried to make sense of Dale Junior’s suicide, the metallic blue Maxima sedan sped towards the residence of one Jacob Caldwell, Junior’s godfather and Uncle Dale’s only sibling, and now the only living lead the two detectives had left.

Dermot and Tom had attempted to interview Jacob earlier that afternoon, but he refused to see them. However, about an hour ago, immediately after they had examined Junior’s corpse, Dermot again contacted Uncle Dale’s brother. Before Jacob had a chance to hang up, Dermot informed him of his godson’s suicide, and he finally acquiesced and agreed to talk to them.

Besides the engine’s hum, the only other sound that could be heard was Septer furiously pecking away at the keys of his Blackberry. He finished typing a message to Scott Dybzinsky, affectionately known as Scooter, who was Septer’s go-to guy on SECTION ZERO’s research team. He then clicked send and shot Scooter his request to gather intelligence and determine whether or not there were any connections between the symbol that had been etched on Junior’s hand and the archaic incantation he had bellowed right before eating his own 9 millimeter. Witnessing the suicide still had Septer a bit stunned and queasy. After mentally processing the day's interviews, he had a hunch as to why Junior would commit such an act.

“One of Dale’s cousins, Jeb I think his name was, mentioned some rumors about how Uncle Dale had an extremely close relationship with his son," Septer said.

“Aye,” Dermot responded.

“In other words, Dale Senior and Dale Junior were a little bit too close for comfort, if you know what I mean.”

Dermot turned his head, nodded affirmatively with a look of disgust and said: “Aye. Jeb also let us know that the brothers hated each other their entire lives, and that Jacob would kill Uncle Dale if he could get away wit it for messing around wit the lad.”

Dermot had bags under his eyes and shoulder-length dark curly hair that was laced with gray. Combine this with his dry demeanor and Dermot resembled the Irish version of Bob Dylan. The loyal Catholic was born and raised in Dublin, came to the U.S. in the 1980s and had been with the FBI for over twenty years, fifteen of them partnered with Septer. They fought like an old married couple, arguing about everything from politics to religion, but there was never any animus at the end of the day.

“I wonder why Junior did it. He was probably at the graveyard to validate that his father did rise from the grave. And once he saw the empty coffin, he just couldn’t handle the thought,” Tom said.

“One thing I find mighty peculiar meself,” Dermot began, “was his Uncle Jacob’s reaction ta the whole ting when I told him about Junior. The man didn’t seem all that bothered.”

“He was probably just in shock.”

“Na. I’m telling ya, the man acted bizarre…it seemed as if he were half expecting this bloody outcome. I swear ta ya. I couldn’t even comprehend how I’d feel, but I’m quite sure I’d be showing a bit more emotion.” Dermot then looked straight ahead and said out of the corner of his mouth: “Course, the lad will be going straight ta hell.”

He gripped the steering wheel tightly with both hands, leaned forward and peered through the windshield. Septer was raised in an agnostic household by two university professors who preached science and reason over religion so he couldn’t grasp how the first thing Dermot thought of was that God would banish the young man’s soul to hell for taking his own life.

Septer was comfortable with having no soul, and thought the only hell that existed was the one he was living. People like Dermot scoffed at this notion, considering Septer had been afforded a Harvard education, been raised in a well-to-do suburb in Connecticut, and to this day wanted for nothing in life. At least, in material terms. But, he was never happy. Perhaps his misery was self-manufactured and all of his maladjustments resided in his mind, yet this self-knowledge didn’t seem to help Tom cope with his dual diagnosis of alcoholism and bipolar disorder. It was Dermot’s strong belief that Tom’s suffering was a direct result of his paganism, as he would put it, and that a little spirituality would go a long way in curing his maladies. He would find happiness in revelation, Dermot constantly opined, not Tom’s daily consumption of anti-depressants.

They finally reached Jacob’s home which seemed to be located in the boon docks of the boon docks. The white bungalow was sorely in need of renovation, or at the very least a paint job, Tom thought. The duo got out of the car, walked up five rickety steps onto the porch, and then Dermot knocked on the door. After a minute of silence Dermot went to knock again, but when he was about to wrap his knuckles on the screen door, Tom heard a scratchy sound emanate from the house, and barely made out the words:

“Come in.”

They entered and walked into an empty living room that was completely dark save a faint beam of light that came from a bedroom door that was slightly cracked open. Dermot knocked softly and slowly pushed the door open and they both stepped into the bedroom.

Uncle Dale’s brother was lying in bed covered by a single white sheet, the room scantly lit by a small lamp at his side. He looked so deathly pale that Tom thought one could easily pull the sheet over his head and call the county morgue.

“Thanks for seeing us sir,” Dermot said softly.

Jacob stared blankly out the window with glassy eyes, barely acknowledging their presence. The man’s face was riddled with age spots, and had bare traces of gray hairs encircling his head. He sighed deeply and then fixed his gaze on Dermot. Then the old man coughed and began speaking: “Not a problem…the time is near.”

Septer tried to clarify what that meant but Jacob ignored the question. However, they did end up having a somewhat fruitful conversation. He told them all about their upbringing, about how Jacob became a successful entrepreneur who owned and ran his own antique store that, relatively speaking, did quite well. But Uncle Dale had underachieved his entire life, rarely held down employment for more than six months. Dale would rather live in fantasyland and remain a Civil War “clown”, as he put it. Near the end of the discussion, Jacob’s face went taut with anger when he told them about Uncle Dale’s inappropriate relationship with Junior.

“They always thought I was the strange brother. But Dale…I knew there was somethin wrong with him, since the very day that boy was born. I was seven years old at the time. I remember a coldness when they brought him home from the hospital. But nothing too peculiar happened until later in life, bout ten years ago I reckon. He was always searchin for somethin, and found it in some sick cult that reminded me of the Masons. To each his own. But he got his poor son involved recently too. And I think that’s what ended up killin em. Y’all think it was suicide? It wasn’t.”

“Well, it sure looked to us like he killed himself,” Septer said.

“He didn’t do it on his own accord, believe you me.”

“Did you see Dale on the night that he allegedly rose?” Septer asked.

“No, but he will come for me,” Jacob said and then turned his head to look directly at them. “The reason I didn’t want to talk to you earlier is because you can’t protect me. Me talking to y’all right now is gonna cost me.”

Then Jacob went dead silent.

A beeping noise then punctured the silence and made Septer jump. He felt ridiculous when he realized it was his own Blackberry. He removed the device from the pocket of his suit jacket and looked at the screen. It was Scooter calling.

“Could you excuse me one minute sir. My apologies for the interruption,” Septer said. Jacob nodded and Septer walked out onto the front porch and answered the incoming phone call.

“Scooter. What do you got?” Tom asked.

“Nothing short of intriguing,” Scotty said, “the expression and the symbol are indeed connected.”

Septer couldn’t believe it.

“Really?”

“First of all, Dermot was right about the chant – it is Latin. ‘Qualis artifex pereo’ loosely translated into English means: ‘What an artist dies in me’.”

“And what the hell does that mean?”

“I asked myself the same question and, of course, did more research and discovered that they were the famous last words uttered by the Roman Emperor Nero - right before he committed suicide. Nero fancied himself a great artist, although he was delusional. But nobody would ever dare criticize Nero’s harp playing or artwork because critics of Nero typically were put to death – and it usually wasn’t pretty.”

“Maybe the kid was a history buff. Was into Romans…I don’t know,” Septer said. “Okay then, now how is the peace symbol connected?”

“Here’s where it gets spooky. The peace symbol, in this case, represents anything but peace. It originated in Rome in the years following Nero’s death. It symbolizes an upside down crucifix. The arms are supposed to be pointing towards hell. It is called the Neronic Cross, and it’s pretty ironic that this ultimately became the sign for peace.”

“But why, what does it mean?”

“Well, if you actually showed up to your history classes at Harvard, you might remember that Nero was one pretty evil dude, and was infamous for persecuting Christians and throwing them to the lions. Christians saw him as evil incarnate. Nero’s Cross is a mockery of Christianity. The inverse. If Jesus Christ is the son of God, then Nero must be -.”

“The Anti-Christ,” Septer said, finishing Scooter’s sentence.

“Bingo,” Scooter responded.

Then he heard a loud scream from inside the house and a chill crept up Septer’s spine.

“Scooter, l-let me call you back,” Septer stuttered into the phone with urgency and hung up.

He dashed through the darkness back into Jacob's bedroom, where he found Dermot trying to restrain Jacob, who was convulsing wildly and yelling.

“God help me….Lord…,” Jacob yelled as Dermot tried to pin his arms down.

“He didn’t say anything for awhile,” Dermot said with his hands around Jacob’s wrists, “but then he started having some kind of seizure.”

“Is he an epileptic?” Tom asked.

“Don’t know, he won’t tell me.”

After flopping around like a fish on the bed for another thirty seconds, Jacob finally stopped and closed his eyes. Dermot quickly checked for his pulse. “He’s still alive,” Dermot said and let out a sigh of relief.

They both watched over Jacob for a few minutes and checked his pulse again. They tried to wake him to no avail and agreed to wait a few minutes more, and if he still didn't come to, they would call an ambulance. Perhaps he suffered some type of psychosomatic delayed reaction to Junior’s death. In the meantime, Septer was dying to tell Dermot about the fresh intelligence.

“You’re not going to believe what Scooter found out,” Septer said.

Tom then relayed the conversation he had with Scooter and showed him more information on his Blackberry that the research analyst provided via email. Dermot breathed in heavily, folded his arms together and rubbed his chin. He looked perplexed as well as concerned, absorbing everything.

“Nero? The Anti-Christ?” Dermot spoke out loud to himself.

Jacob then sat bolt-upright in the bed with his eyes wide open, as if he were in a trance. His skin had turned even whiter then it was before, and Septer realized the temperature in the room had dropped. Jacob looked absolutely terrified but he did not yell. Instead, he whispered softly and slowly:

“He’s here.”

And as soon as these words left Jacob’s lips, Septer heard glass shatter loudly in the other room. Tom quickly drew his gun and his pulse quickened. And as soon as two of the windows in Jacob’s bedroom exploded into a million pieces, Tom’s heart leapt into the back of his throat.

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