Dissections logo scissors body by Deena Warner

 


Dissections logo pterodactyl by Deena Warner


 

 

 

 




Painting The Joker by Raechel Gasparac

Artwork: The Joker by Raechel Gasparac

Darkest Before Dawn

Richard Ulrich

“And the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great…and the thoughts of his heart were only evil…”
~Genesis 6:5~

Father Michaels heard the sound of footsteps drawing close. The sudden noise turned his blood into ice and every muscle in his body froze still. The only exception was his racing heartbeat. It felt as though an entire herd of horses were stampeding just beneath the man’s ribcage.

But he’d survived the unspeakable horrors that lurked within these prison walls for nearly three nights; he refused to let those efforts go in vain now. He refused to die without having regained his stolen freedom.

The old priest darted silently down the pitch black corridor. He was unsure who else now shared this hallway with him but he doubted he’d enjoy finding out.

He’d seen the carnage the other prisoners were capable of. He’d already witnessed one murder, suspected there had been more, and knew he refused to be the next victim. So now more than ever he needed a safe refuge. And fast.

He ran down the corridor searching for a room, any room in which to take cover. But each and every doorway revealed the same results. A few construction supplies…maybe some plumbing pipes or electrical wiring strewn about the floor…but each room was otherwise barren. They were likely to become offices one day for some high rise building, but for the moment remained nothing more than empty shells of concrete, steel, and glass.

All were dimly lit by the neon lights of Chicago’s midnight skyline that lay just beyond the Father’s grasp. The city with its vast forest of skyscrapers stood there in the night mocking him.

Staring out at them he could see his freedom…hear it…smell it…but couldn’t quite take hold of it. He found himself in the position of a castaway who saw a distant ship on the horizon. He could shout and exhale every last bit of oxygen from his lungs. He could jump; he could wave his arms frantically until he collapsed from sheer exhaustion. But nobody was coming to his rescue. Or at least, by the time they did come it would be far too late.

Those on a late night stroll down Michigan Ave. would simply see a dormant construction site. Nothing out of the ordinary in the sprawling metropolis that made up Chicago.

So on his own, the priest continued his quest to find safety. And as he searched he almost entered into a room that wasn’t a room at all. It was an elevator shaft. And like all of its counterparts, it too was an empty shell. A deep dark abyss.

The Father caught himself before taking a fatal plunge. Michaels stopped for a moment, standing at its edge. He tried to listen again for the sound of the footsteps.

Nothing. Perhaps his pursuer had left.

He waited for another minute then letting his curiosity get the better of him he risked turning on his flashlight. Standing at the shaft’s edge the light’s beam danced briefly down into the seemingly endless recesses of the chasm. The Father was not generally one to be afraid of heights but he now found his legs trembling. He must be some 15 or 16 floors up.

It was in that moment he again heard a noise near by; closer than before. He killed his light but it was too late. He’d been spotted. The priest hurriedly took cover behind several boxes that littered the hallway. But he knew that he was only postponing the inevitable. The boxes would afford little protection to the scouring eyes of the others.

The shadowy figure approached the open doorway where he’d seen the light. He stood where Michaels had been just moments before. Michaels strained to see the man but to no avail. It was too dark.

It was then that a horrible idea jumped into the mind of the Father. He was faced with a terrible decision. He didn’t want to kill. He didn’t like the idea of it. In fact every cell in his body despised the very notion of it. But he also knew the grim truth.

The last days had turned into a glorified game of Russian roulette. In the end only one man would walk away alive. Many others had already perished and it now seemed that one more would join their ranks. But it didn’t have to be the priest.

His very life now depended upon what his own faith urged him never to do. But deep down, hidden in the crevasses of his soul also lurked something else. Something that in the moment overpowered his usually unwavering faith.

Though it had been suppressed, it had not been extinguished. Though it had been neglected and starved through the rigorous disciplines of the priest’s spiritual vows, Michaels now found that the primal emotion was just as vibrantly alive as ever. That brazened, unashamed, selfish desire for self preservation. That simple understanding that if he didn’t kill his adversary now, the man might not afford him the same mercies later.

“It’s me or him…” whispered Father Michaels through quivering lips.

And trying not to give it a second thought, the priest stood to his feet and rushed forward. He closed the gap quickly between the two and with all his strength gave forth a single bold push. And with a gasp, Julia Cooper, fell headlong down the dark shadowy shaft.

Michaels gasped too as he realized who it was. His hand stretched down into the void to grab her arm but it was too late. His fists snatched nothing but the empty air as his eyes were forced to watch the young woman’s terror stricken face fall into the darkness below.

And as he did so the Father finally realized his priestly heart had become just as black as Judas’ the night he betrayed Christ. Michaels had just sent an innocent life to an undeserved grave. That thought alone made every bone in his body shudder and cringe at the atrocity he’d just committed.

In the aftermath of the moment the Father could only think to do but one thing. He fell to his knees in repentance. Tears welled up in his eyes and his heavy breaths came in long deep gulps. He repeated the sign of the cross over and over and over. He was a murderer.

***************************************************************************

Hours passed in anguish. The Father had long lost count of the number of Hail Marys he’d proclaimed. He’d forgotten how many prayers for restitution he’d made to each member of the Trinity. But even so he felt he’d become his own Pontius Pilate. No matter the number of times he tried to wash his hands clean, the proverbial blood of his victim still remained. He had not been absolved of his appalling act.

His mind replayed the events over and over again in slow motion. He pictured the young woman walking through the corridor, perhaps even unaware that the priest was nearby. He imagined that maybe she’d been drawn out of her own hiding, just as the priest. Not to kill, not to see any sort of harm done to him, but simply out of sheer hunger. At the insistent requests of his own stomach the Father too had been roaming the corridors in a search for food.

And now the young woman was dead. An innocent life taken by a once innocent priest. Somberly Michaels asked himself if he would have been able to commit such a crime a mere 72 hours earlier. Before his imprisonment here…before those acts of human depravity he’d been forced to witness…before he’d seen Solomon’s letter.

He knew of course it was wrong to say his unforgivable actions resulted from a simple letter. But he stilled blamed the inanimate object all the same. Father Michaels pulled out the torn envelope still resting in his pockets. He slipped out the now wrinkled paper and decided once again to read its contents.

“Morality.

“The dictionary defines it as the ‘Principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong, good and evil.’

“Wars have been fought over this word. Empires, dictators, and regimes have crumbled; revolutions have erupted because it was believed that those in power no longer conformed to the ‘right’ or ‘true’ or ‘correct’ definitions of this term.

“But I submit that deep within the human psyche morality does not exist. It never has nor ever will.

“Selfishness and greed are all that govern the inner engine that is the human mind. Elevated principles of lofty ideals are merely a coating of glimmering white paint designed to put humanity more at ease. Designed to make coexistence with one’s fellow man more palatable. Designed to make us pretend we’ve forgotten the cruel atrocities we are each very capable of committing.

“Of course this is all just my pet theory. Just my humble opinion on this vast subject. But unlike other philosophers I want truly explore this hypothesis; I want to put it to the test.

“So hidden in this building are two objects with which to concern yourselves. The first is a small Rugar P89 pistol. It is complete with a single 9mm round already chambered for your convenience. The second is a young woman.

“Find the first to dispose of the second and I’ll let you live.

“If you choose to take this innocent life, you will once and for all prove me right. If however you to cling to those intangible morals that have no real existence or value then you will do so at the expense of your own lives.

“The doors of this building will not be unlocked until her life has been taken. Or all of yours.

“Happy hunting,
~Solomon~”

For a short while the priest clung to the elusive hope that Ms. Cooper would suffice as Solomon’s “innocent life”.

But hours later and the tower doors remained tightly sealed, which told Father Michaels one thing…there was still more bloodshed to come.

Now the old man roamed the various floors of the building once again. He remained silent as he walked but an even eerier silence crept in over the corridors. He felt as though he was walking through some long deserted ghost town.

Down on the third floor he came across the first crime scene. He could smell its rancid stench long before he entered the room. And as he did enter, both nose and mouth securely covered by the sleeve of his shirt, he saw Jonathon Nickles still lying in a pool of dried blood.

“I’m a doctor at St. Luke’s,” he could hear the dead man cry.

“My entire medical profession has been dedicated to saving the lives of others. Why would I turn back on all of that just to bring harm to an innocent woman?”

The priest recalled the young doctor’s response to Solomon’s letter so vividly it was as though the man’s ghost was standing in his presence.

Michaels said a quick prayer for Nickles’ soul and left him to rest in peace. He quietly explored the hallways further until two floors up he again stumbled across that oddly familiar stench of death.

This time it was Scott Jones. His body lay at an odd angle in one of the room’s doorways. No pool of blood surrounded him but a closer inspection showed a thick braid of electrical wiring still wrapped tightly around his neck.

He’d been strangled. But judging by the numerous bruises dotting the man’s arms and fists, he hadn’t left this world peacefully. He hadn’t gone down without a fight.

The priest walked away leaving his body to rest too, but made no effort to pray for his soul. Jones had been the one who’d bludgeoned the doctor to death with a lead pipe. Michaels had been present when it happened.

Odd that the soldier, who like Nickles, had had many things to say concerning the value of life, had been capable of murdering the man in cold blood.

“What’s the point of defending freedom abroad if we’re simply going to allow twisted scum like this Solomon to roam the streets back home?” The soldier’s ghostly voice echoed down the hallways.

But of course those words had been spoken before Jones had read the second letter. In a somber moment of reflection the priest slipped out the other piece of paper that had been resting in the depths of his pocket.

“Only the man who takes the innocent life will be set free. All others will perish with her.

“Happy Hunting,
“~Solomon~”

The initial envelope had been laid atop the coffee table for all eight of them to see. There had been much discussion about the letter. Much arguing. Much debating. It had unified their ragtag group with strong proclamations about the preservation of human life.

Nobody discussed the second letter. At least not openly. Each had had their own copy tucked away in his or her pocket, placed on their unconscious bodies just before awaking in this prison. One by one they’d each made the discovery of the morbid addendum.

No one ever acknowledged it aloud; nobody was sure if anyone else had received the additional instruction. But if one listened to the subtleties in the conversations that ensued over the course of that first night and beyond, one would have known that things had suddenly changed.

“I don’t think we can trust him,” the doctor had said privately to the priest.

“Who?”

“Jones. He keeps saying we need to find this woman from Solomon’s letter.”

“Perhaps we should find her. If she’s locked up in this tower like us, I’m sure she’s just as afraid as us. Especially if she’s all alone. It certainly couldn’t hurt to add one more mind to the group. One more person to help us figure a way out of this mess.”

“Look Michaels. I know you’re a priest. I’m sure you care about this girl as if she were your own. But I’m telling you…if Jones gets anywhere near her, I think she’s as good as dead.”

And Nickles wasn’t the only one to house suspicions.

“Michaels,” Jones had said shortly after. “What’s the Doc. been talking to you about?”

“Just ways to get us out of here,” lied the priest.

“Well he says anything else to you, you tell me. I don’t think we can trust that man as far as we can throw him.”

“Why not?”

“All that talk about him devoting his medical profession to preserving life? Nonsense. He’s not looking to save anybody’s life but his own. That chick comes across his path and she’s a goner.”

And with each passing hour the tensions grew. With each passing conversation distrust and paranoia mounted.

Everyone was affected by it to a different degree but all were affected. Jones. Nickles. Even Father Michaels, Julia, and the others.

The priest had heard the hushed conversations of Julia with two of the other women. They were frightened. They all knew the grim truth. Only one would make it out of this ordeal alive. And if they weren’t the ones with enough guts to kill and to do it first, then it wouldn’t be them who would be given the privilege to leave.

“Father Michaels?” Julie had said to him.

“Yes?”

“Do you really believe in a God?”

“Well I see no other way to understand or explain this complex universe.”

“But how could he possibly allow something like this to happen to his children?”

The priest of course had answered this question a number of times to a number of people. To those who had lost loved ones. To those who had faced great trials. But now as he stood next to Julia, watching the tears form in her eyes, he realized he had no response. Even he couldn’t fathom an answer that could possibly explain how a loving God could idly sit upon a throne and watch these atrocities from above.

Fortunately he wasn’t forced to answer as it was in that moment that he heard the harsh crack of metal on bone and he ran to witness the struggle between Nickles and Jones.

After that things had become a blur. The priest only knew he refused to be a part of the bloodshed, so he’d gone into hiding…that is until his second encounter with Julia.

And now there was a mental war raging within the man’s conscience, gnawing at his soul. He was already sure that the Lord had reserved a very special place for him in the lowest realms of Hades. He’d taken the life of Ms. Cooper. No amount of prayer or supplication could redeem his actions.

But a still small voice now whispered in those raging currents of his mind. It quietly asked the man of God what difference would taking one more life make. After all, guilt already permeated through every fiber of his being, how could one more sin make his heart any heavier.

Half of the priest’s conscience was unsure if he’d be able to murder again. But the other half wondered if he’d be able to stop himself from committing such a crime.

Especially if that was all that stood between him and freedom.

It was now just a few hours before dawn and his aimless wandering had done very little to ease his dilemma. Still no gun…no one else in sight…just seven crime scenes with seven dead bodies. So on trembling legs Father Michaels made his way down to the tower’s base. He made up his mind once and for all. He was setting a trap.

***************************************************************************

The mechanism’s premise was very simple. He’d gathered several sacks of heavy concrete and placed them on an old wooden palate. He’d hoisted them slowly into the air using a thick cord of rope strung through the open paneling in the ceiling.

Inch by inch the sacks begrudgingly rose higher. With each heave the priest’s arms begged for mercy. But soon the task was complete. The old man moored the rope’s tail to a heavy piece of machinery in the room’s far corner.

He tied it carefully so that with a quick tug it could be undone. He looked up at the pallet, now floating just above the doorway. Its boards sagged in the middle and groaned from the hefty sacks, but Father Michaels had been careful. Not too much weight. Just enough to do the job.

And with it all said and done the man had nothing left to do but wait.

***************************************************************************

The trap took minutes to construct but hours drifted by before the Priest could put it to use. Hours that Michaels was forced to spend in solitude contemplating his motives and actions.

He tried to ease his anxieties by explaining away this innocent life was a nobody. A person nobody knew…nobody cared for…that nobody would miss. The Father tried to assure himself that this so called ‘innocent’ life probably wasn’t so innocent after all.

And for a while Michaels had almost convinced himself that what he was doing might actually be right. After all he had a spiritual flock to tend to in the outside world. They needed him. They depended upon him for guidance and reassurance.

Who’s to say that all life was inherently of equal value? Who’s to say that he wasn’t of more value because of the great number of people who looked to him for his advice?

Then somewhere in the midst of his attempt at self-delusion and deception, Father Michaels was brought back to reality by the sight of a shadow. In the early morning rays of dawn he suddenly saw a slender silhouette as it crept down the hallway just outside his hideout. He peered into the corridor to see the source of this new shadow.

Someone of a tall thin stature now stood at the end of the hall vainly trying to tug at the locked doors that made up the tower’s entrance. Somebody who certainly wasn’t one of his fellow prisoners as they were all long since dead.

This was somebody who thought the nightmare was now over. Thought that they’d survived because they had managed not to be killed by the others. And with the rest being gone, now wondered why it was that their freedom had not yet arrived? Why it was that they were still trapped inside?

Father Michaels whispered to the silhouette.

“I found a way out.”

He felt like the very Devil himself for saying such a lie but it was the only way. The shadowy figure stiffened at the unexpected voice, but didn’t turn.

“I know a way out,” repeated the Priest. “We can escape this place together. But you have to trust me.”

The person turned to see who was speaking. The Father could see the silhouette’s frame was slender like that of a woman. Beyond that he still couldn’t quite see her.

“Please,” said the priest starting to grow anxious. “I know you must be exhausted. Tired. Hungry. You’re nerves must be shot to pieces from this nightmare. Let’s get out of here.”

The priest stood in the room’s doorway motioning the young woman into the room. He also readied himself to spring the trap when the moment arrived.

The woman made her way down the hall towards the priest.

That’s it, thought the Father. Just a bit further… But the silhouette came up short just before the doorway. As she stopped Michaels could now see exactly who this innocent life was.

“Emily?” was the only word that slipped through the old man’s lips. He was too shocked to say anything else.

Emily Wess was a nun who worked at the Holy Trinity Catholic School. Michaels had known her for a good number of years. He’d seen her walk the halls of the old high school. They’d sat through board meetings together. He’d seen her at Mass. And now here he was contemplating her murder.

I really have become the devil whispered Michaels to himself. The priest realized he was now on the verge of a breakdown at the very thought of how close he’d come to killing one of the very members of his own flock. Killing somebody he’d taken vows to protect.

Apparently Ms. Wess felt the same anxiety as the priest saw tears streaming down her own cheeks.

“I’m sorry Father…” said Emily.

Michaels looked at the beautiful young woman confused. Why should she be sorry? He was the one who’d almost committed an unspeakable atrocity.

But that’s when he noticed what was in the woman’s hands. A small Rugar P89 pistol with a single round already chambered.

“Emily…? What are you doing?” stammered the old man, his words fumbling out of his mouth.

“I’m so sorry…” sobbed the Nun. “It’s the only way.”

And that was the last thing Father Michaels ever heard. That and the crack of gunfire.

***************************************************************************

~One Week Later~

Emily sat on the bottom step just outside the Holy Trinity church. Despite the blustery winter winds she finally managed to light the last remaining cigarette from her pack and took in its thick intoxicating fumes. She cast a glance upwards towards the large stone cross that adorned the top of the cathedral and blew a puff of smoke in its direction.

The tobacco’s nicotine flowed through her veins giving her nerves a temporary relief from strife and stress. It cleared her head just enough to think. She’d thought more than once about opening those familiar wooden doors to the church’s sanctuary. She knew she would be welcomed there by the other Sisters. Once her hand had even brushed against the door’s polished brass handle. But something held her back. Deep down within Emily’s psyche, though she was unwilling to admit it, she knew she could never again fall back into that pious life that had once been hers.

Part of it was because she felt betrayed. Betrayed by a priest who once had been her role model of piety and righteousness. But that wasn’t all.

She also felt used. Forced to propagate Solomon’s skewed philosophical ideals as she’d held that gun and pulled that trigger. But that wasn’t the only piece of the puzzle either.

To find the real truth the young nun had to search much deeper into the depths of her consciousness. She had to open long locked doors and peer into the dark, dusty crevasses of her mind. She had to come to terms with the fact that no matter how decadent Father Michaels had become during those seventy two hours…no matter how cynical or twisted Solomon’s experiment had been…she had been the one to pull that trigger. She had sent a priest to an early grave… She had been the one who sold her soul to the devil.

Emily raised her trembling hand and took another puff of her almost finished cigarette. A tear rolled down her cheek. If the woman lived to be a hundred she knew that nothing could ever have more of an impact on her life than those three days of imprisonment; held captive by a man she never even met. She’d seen nothing more of the mysterious Solomon than a fleeting glance of his dark shadow retreating in the distance after he’d unlocked the tower.

Emily didn’t know who he was but somehow, in some way, she felt that he had been right; morality didn’t exist. The young woman could never bear to use terms such as pupil or disciple in regards to her relationship with Solomon...but if nothing else, she at least felt she were a fellow convert to his dark religion.

Emily flicked the butt of her cigarette at the cathedral door and silently walked away. As it hit the ground the last red embers died and faded into oblivion. And with it too, slipped away Emily’s faith in mankind.



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Dissections logo pterodactyl by Deena Warner
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