Excerpt from The Reckoning
Westchester, New York
“Is he dead?”
Father Stanford Aquanine D’Oncetta shook his head patiently as he casually removed a cigar from the darkly-illuminated Savinelli humidor.
“No, Robert, he is not dead,” replied D’Oncetta calmly. “But there is no need for emotion. He will be dead soon enough.”
“Not soon enough for me.”
Stately and imperious, D’Oncetta laughed. Drawing steadily upon a vigilance candle to light his cigar, the priest leaned back against a mahogany desk, slowly releasing a stream of pale blue smoke.
Separated from D’Oncetta by the length of the library, Robert Milburn regarded the priest in the dim light. Reluctantly impressed by D’Oncetta’s authoritative appearance, Milburn noted the deeply tanned hands and face of a man who had actually spent little of his life in dark confessionals or chapels.
The face of this man commanded true power and feared nothing at all.
Above the clerical collar and the black, finely tailored robe, D’Oncetta’s straight white hair laid back smoothly from his low forehead, lending him the demeanor of an elder statesman. Everything about the priest was richly impressive, dignified, cultured and refined – an investment banker wearing the robe of a holy father.
“What are you so afraid of, Robert?” D’Oncetta laughed in his voice of quiet authority, a voice accustomed to controlling and persuading. “How many men is it that you have stationed outside?”
“Eleven.” Milburn met D’Oncetta’s steady gaze.
“And is that not enough to guard a single, isolated mansion in Westchester, especially with the noble assistance of New York’s vaunted police force that even now has a priority patrol on surrounding streets?”
D’Oncetta smiled reassuringly and exhaled again, savoring. Then he looked down at the cigar, turning it in his fingers with familiar approval.
“A Davidoff,” he remarked fondly. “Rich and complex. Always the result of superior breeding. And it’s not even Cuban, as one might presume, but a product of the Dominican Republic.”
D’Oncetta’s satisfied gaze focused on Milburn. “Would you like to try one?”
Turning his back to the priest, Milburn moved to the uncurtained picture window. He stared past the mansion’s carefully manicured lawn and into the shadowed night beyond.
“I just want that old man upstairs to die so we can all get out of here.” Control made his voice toneless. “I don’t like this, D’Oncetta. If Gage is really out there, like your people say he is, then we should just leave the old man alone. Because if Gage claims the old man as family … If he’s put Father Simon under his protection, then Gage will come for him. And if that happens…” Milburn paused, turning coldly toward the priest. “You don’t have any idea what you’re dealing with.”
“But that is why you are here, isn’t it, Robert?” D’Oncetta responded tolerantly, and Milburn suspected a faint mocking tone. “It is your solemn responsibility to deal with such matters. And there is much that remains, for this is simply the beginning. There are even more delicate tasks which will require your skills in the near future. Tasks which, through the centuries, have always demanded men such as yourself. Men deeply inured and intimately familiar with the higher arts. Men who can insure the success of our plans while simultaneously protecting us all from this individual that you seem to respect, or fear, so profoundly.”
Milburn’s face was stone.
“Yes, Robert, that is why we need superb field operatives such as yourself. And that is why you and your men will remain here, guarding us all so efficiently, until Father Simon is dead. We do not want him disturbed in his final, tragic hours, do we?”
Milburn took his time to reply.
“I’m retired,” he said finally.
D’Oncetta nodded magnanimously.
Milburn looked again out the window. Shadows completely cloaked the darkened wood line, untouched by the security lights illuminating the surrounding lawn. Training told him not to look for the faint outline of sentries concealed within the obscured trees, so Milburn allowed his gaze to wander, unfocused, receptive to discerning movement where shape could not be seen.
But there was nothing.
He turned nervously toward D’Oncetta.
“How much longer will it take?”
Black and stately, the priest shrugged.
“An hour,” he said with supreme composure. “Perhaps less. The chemical is quite painless and, I might add, undetectable. Not that we shall have to worry. Validating documents have already been executed. There shall be no confirmation of peculiarity. So it will be tragic, but natural. For, as you know, Robert, all of us are destined to die.”
D’Oncetta released another draw from the Davidoff and smiled again, this time plainly amused. And Milburn made a decision, releasing some of his tension by taking a slow and threatening step across the library.
The priest watched Milburn’s measured step with calm detachment. And when Milburn was face to face with D’Oncetta, he stopped as if he had always intended to stop, emotions tight once more. But as Milburn stood close to the priest he felt a sudden strangeness in the moment, in the tension, and he heard the question coming out of himself before regret could silence it.
“Who are you, D’Oncetta?” he asked quietly in a voice of unbelief no matter what the answer.
D’Oncetta laughed indulgently.
“I am a priest, Robert.”
Milburn’s face was a rigid mask. Slowly he turned away and lifted a small radio from his coat: “Command post. Perimeter check.”
One by one, unseen guards responded.
“Position one, Alpha clear … Position two, Epsilon clear,” until finally the code words, “Position eleven, Omega clear,” emerged from the radio with startling clarity.
“Command clear.” Milburn lowered the radio to his side, refusing to look at D’Oncetta again. But he knew the priest maintained his air of amused calm.
“There, you see, Robert. We are all quite safe.”
James Byron Huggins was a decorated police detective in Huntsville, Alabama, when he published his first novel, A Wolf Story, to international acclaim. He left the force to write full time, and his subsequent novels The Reckoning, Cain, and Hunter all met with national and international praise. After two of his books were optioned for more a million dollars each, he left writing to work on films. Now back to writing, he lives in North Carolina.
Permission: WildBlue Press gives permission to The Other Stories to use the excerpt we provided them from THE RECKONING by JAMES BYRON HUGGINS.
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