19 Men in Black

“Can we talk somewhere more private?” Avram asked.

“We’ll be in the chapel, Micky, if anyone needs us,” Tom said.

As they walked, Avram asked, “The detective can be trusted?”

“He’ll keep his mouth shut,” Tom said. “His business depends on privacy, but also on people not thinking he’s crazy. Plus he was New Orleans homicide for five years….”

“Been there, done that, then,” Avram nodded.

“Well, very few people have actually seen a demon manifested, Avram,” Tom said.

“So that makes two in one week?” Avram asked rhetorically. As they stepped into the empty chapel, he asked, “What is going on here?”

“You ever hear of a book called the Azazel Codex?” Tom asked.

“That’s what they’re after?” Avram asked, wrinkling his brow.

“It’s in my house,” Tom said with a nod.

WHAT?” Avram yelled, before remembering where he was. “That book is not supposed to exist! Not on this plane of existence anyway!”

“It’s here and they want it,” Tom said. “Helen attacked Rabbi Steinmetz and me when we showed up at the cemetery….”

“So ultimately, whatever they’re doing, the book is the key,” Avram said. Then after an awkward silence, Avram asked, “He … knows I’m coming?”

Tom started to answer when a voice from the door said, “He knows you’re here.” Avram tensed up noticeably and turned.

“Judah,” Avram said, his voice betraying an almost childlike, awe-filled hopefulness, combined with old hurt.

“Avram,” the older man replied. “It has … been a long time.”

Avram, a serious man, usually quite unreadable, looked on the verge of tears as he said, “It has.”

“I should … give you two a moment,” Tom said, deeply uncomfortable at witnessing this reunion. “I’ll be in the waiting room. Who knows when the others will arrive….”

“Thank you, Tom,” Judah said, then took a few steps into the room. When they’d first met, Avram had been a mature teen, and Judah a fearful young adult. Years at their relative professions had closed the gap. Judah lived a relatively comfortable existence as a beloved congregational rabbi, only occasionally taking up his father’s mantle and wading into the darkness. Avram, on the other hand, had dedicated his life to the elder Rabbi Steinmetz’s profession. That had aged him physically, though his eyes still shined with youthful vigor.

Judah sat near where Avram stood, but across the aisle. “Avram….”

“Can we not?” Avram asked with more bitterness than he intended. He sat down where he stood, a couple of rows ahead and faced forward petulantly.

“Can we not what?” Judah asked.

“The past is past! I’ve got to let it go,” Avram said darkly.

“And yet, in nearly twenty years you haven’t!” Judah declared. “Declaring that we must does not mean we will let it go! You’ve been in love with Tom for how long, and you’ve still not let it go”

“I’m not in love with Tom … anymore,” Avram claimed, grudgingly. “Wait, we?”

“Yes, we, Avram!” Judah said with feeling. “For God’s sake, surely you must have known how I feel about you?” Avram heard the feeling and looked over his shoulder. “We were kids and I was scared! I didn’t know how my father would feel! I was in rabbinical school already, and in those days not even the liberals were ordaining gays! I wasn’t ready to walk away from my path to have a dalliance with a teenage boy! Especially since I didn’t even know if I was gay.”

“I don’t dally,” Avram glowered.

I KNOW THAT NOW!” Judah said, throwing up his hands. “But then, all I saw was a beautiful, intense boy who could destroy everything with a word!” Judah looked away and said, “Don’t think that, as the years have passed, I have forgiven my cowardice!”

“Judah,” Avram said, but the man cut him off.

“I am very happy, Avram! As happy as a lonely man can be. Surrounded by people who love me, and whom I love, I remain alone. A very wise man once wrote that ‘it is not good for a man to be alone,’ and it is a truth I can confirm,” Judah explained.

“But why? Why not move on?” Avram asked, voice heavy with deep emotion.

“How could I? My world forbade me what I desired. I could not lie,” Judah said.

“There are men,” Avram said. “Jewish men! You could have joined the Reform, or the Reconstructionists….”

Judah looked down at the floor and said, “What do you want me to say? Since the day you told me to admit to you how I felt about you or you would leave, since you kissed me in my father’s study, there has been no one else! I would have done it for you, but I was too proud to admit how cowardly I had been!” Judah put his head on the pew in front of him and tried to control his breaths.

When he felt hands on his shoulders, Judah slumped and began to cry. “Judah,” Avram whispered, “Judah, it’s alright! You speak as if our lives are over, when perhaps they are just beginning?”

Three men in dark overcoats and hats converged at the edge of a pond in the park just off the town center. “It’s dangerous to meet like this now, so close to our goal,” the tall one said.

“Close?” the man with the deadly eyes, clearly the leader, asked angrily. “We had nine, but we need thirteen! And now Helen!”

“What?” the portly one asked. “What do you mean had? And what happened to Helen?”

“Corman exorcised two! And he incapacitated Helen at the Jewish cemetery. She’s in custody!” the leader announced angrily. “By the way, he’s realized most of the crimes are covers: soon he’ll discern the pattern! And he’s called in help!”

“Help?” the tall man asked.

“White witches from all over the world,” the leader said. “A strange coven….”

“What do you want us to do?” the portly man asked.

“We need to expedite our plans. The remaining six must be summoned quickly. There’s only so much that can be done to stall Corman without making him suspicious.”

“Why not kill him?” the tall man asked.

“Better than you have tried. I can’t afford to lose any more warlocks capable of raising demons,” the leader responded. “Better to finish and let THEM deal with him.”

“What about Helen? Should we spring her from the hospital?” the portly man asked.

“She’s sedated,” the leader replied, and no one asked how he knew. He always knew somehow. They’d understand if they knew who he was, but he always appeared only under a glamour to change his appearance. “Grab Strange and cook up a curse. I want her dead before she regains consciousness. She’s only a liability now!” Then he walked off. The others would leave together about five minutes later to find their colleague, glad it was Helen, and not they, who had failed the master.

Tom was reading when he heard a silence fall over the waiting room. Looking up from his book, he smiled brightly. A young man and woman, both dressed in startling white, which contrasted beautifully with their tan skin, stood in the door. They were clearly twins, their blond hair and blue eyes shining, and the young man was as beautiful as his sister. Tom rose quickly and hurried to them.

“Misha, Alexa!” he said. The twins each hugged him and kissed him on the lips, though Alexa’s was a chaste and sisterly European hello, while Tom eventually lost the war to keep Misha from slipping him a little tongue.

“Tom!” Misha smiled glowingly. “Delicious as ever!”

Tom blushed and said, “And you, Misha are as indiscreet as ever!” He knew the young man would take it as a compliment.

Alexa took Tom’s hand and asked, “How is your friend, Tom?” glaring at her brother.

“Aiden,” Tom said. “He woke up for a bit last night. We’ve been doing healing magic for a couple of days, so I’m hoping he’ll improve dramatically, soon enough.”

“Thank heavens,” she said. “Now what is going on here?”

“Let’s wait until we’re all together. I don’t want to go through this five times!” he laughed. “Let’s all have dinner at my place tonight and I’ll explain to you all what I know….”

“Then we should go to our hotel and have a nap!” Alexa said.

Before she could drag her brother off, Misha hugged Tom and whispered, “I’m happy he’s doing better.” Tom was about to smile at how sweet that was when he felt the man’s hands on his ass and jumped. Alexa grabbed her brother with an apology, and began railing on him in Russian as she dragged him off.

Perhaps an hour later, Doreen emerged into the waiting area with a smile. “He’s awake! Come, come,” she motioned for her husband and Tom to follow. Tom quickly texted Peter with the news and followed her smiling. He found Aiden sitting up in bed, uncovered above the waist, his bandages reminders of his serious injuries. He looked well drugged, but his smile brightened significantly when Tom arrived, and he patted the bed next to him. Tom sat almost shyly, the first time they’d both been awake and together with Aiden’s parents.

“So, mom and dad, I guess now you’ve gotten to know Tom,” Aiden said with a smile.

“We could have waited,” Micky said. “How ‘bout next time you want us to introduce us to someone, you just fly home for a long weekend?”

Aiden laughed and grabbed Tom’s hand and said, “We’re in love!”

“We didn’t need you to tell us that, dear,” Doreen said. “It’s obvious!”

“I want us to get married someday, mom,” Aiden said, and Tom gave him a shocked look. It wasn’t something they’d ever discussed, which was obvious to Aiden’s parents.

“He’s on a lot of drugs, Tom,” Micky said with a bit of a chuckle.

Aiden saw Tom’s surprised look. “But, you want that too, don’t you?” Aiden asked softly.

“Very much,” Tom whispered. “I just … I didn’t realize it had ever … I mean, that you’d thought about it much.”

“Whenever I think of you,” Aiden whispered back, “I think about how much I want that for us, someday!”

“We should leave you boys alone for a bit,” Doreen said.

“No, mom! Stay!” Aiden said. “I’m just … so glad to be alive!” Squeezing Tom’s hand, he said, “Life’s too short! I hope you guys understand!”

Doreen began to speak, but Micky piped in and said, “I’m proud of you, boy!” Doreen smiled at her husband; she was proud of both of them.

Soon Peter arrived with two overjoyed boys. David and Sebastien crowded around the bed while Peter tried to be adult about the whole thing. But when Aiden smiled at him and said, “Come here!” his resolve broke and he was hugging Aiden and the others and crying as well. Doreen wiped her eyes a little, crying over how happy they all looked. Even Micky was moved to emotion, but he coughed his down.

After they’d all visited for a while, Tom suggested, “I’m having a meeting at my house this evening for dinner. Could you and Micky stay here with Aiden, Doreen?” When she nodded, Tom asked Peter, “Why don’t you hang out with Billy? And David, take Sebastien home and, if Mitch and Peggy don’t mind, have dinner with them?”

David asked, “Why are you keeping everyone away from the house? What’s going on?”

“We’re going to be talking about what’s going on and how to stop it, David. It’s scary stuff,” Tom said, trying not to say too much in front of Doreen, though Micky seemed to have some understanding.

“I want to hear it,” David said, surprising his brother. “I want to be there!”

Tom looked in his eyes and said, “David?” The boy didn’t flinch. “Alright, but get Sebastien home now, and come straight back. You and I need to sit down before you join us.” Tom hugged the boys before they left, and they each hugged Aiden again. Then Tom addressed the adults: “I need to get the house ready! You guys catch up! Ask him things you always wanted to know while he’s still drugged up!”

“Hey!” Aiden said, as Doreen and Micky chuckled.

Elise and Shirit stood over Helen, hands palm down, chanting. They’d been probing her consciousness for hours. “She’s strong,” Elise said, exhausted. “Even now, she’s strong!”

Shirit, nearly as stubborn as her brother, made one last push into the woman’s mind without regard for Helen’s pain. She nearly collapsed from the effort, but she had something. Just a senseless string of letters, but something: SAHPLAM. She quickly wrote it down as she collapsed into a chair. Elise knelt at her side and asked, “Are you alright, love?”

Shirit nodded, her forehead gleaming with sweat. “Yes, Elise….”

Suddenly Elise looked over her shoulder at Helen and asked, “Do you feel that, Shirit?”

“I feel it,” Shirit said. “Cast a circle! Hurry!”

They could both feel the darkness gathering around them unseen: a fetid, putrid smell began to emanate from the space above Helen. “Good God, that’s foul,” Shirit declared as Elise closed the circle around them.

“Casting a curse from her comatose state?” Elise asked, cowering beside Shirit.

“As strong as she is, she’s not strong enough to manage this curse alone, even awake,” Shirit said. From within the circle she could not contact her brother by mental power alone, so she reached for her cell. Moments later her brother answered.

“It’s not a good time, Shirit,” he said.

“Avram, it’s Helen…. There is a massive curse working here and Elise and I are trapped!” Shirit said, panicking and hating to sound weak in front of her brother.

“I’m on my way,” Avram said and she could hear him running. “What is it?”

“I’m not sure exactly,” Shirit said. “A death curse!”

“God,” Avram said and slammed his phone shut. A minute later he arrived with a man Shirit did not recognize, who grabbed him to keep him from rushing into the room.

MY SISTER!” Avram roared.

“They’re safe!” Judah declared. “The circle is strong!”

Avram nodded. “What do we do?” he asked, surprising his sister by treating the man deferentially.

Judah shook his head. “The woman is already lost. We have to control the damage! If it seeps out the healthy and strong will survive, but the sick and the young…. Can you contain it, Avram?” The man nodded resolutely and Judah indicated that he should do so. Then Judah took out a pad of paper and drew a ritual circle and pentagram on one page and whispered the rule of three spell on it.

Avram looked at him surprised and said, “Judah?”

“You remember what I used to call this, Avi?” Judah smiled.

“Instant karma!” Judah said as the man tossed the paper into the air. It floated gently onto Helen’s chest under Judah’s exacting control. Suddenly there was a snapping sound in the room and all the negative energy in the room was gone. Judah probed it carefully, and nodded to the women. Elise broke the circle and helped Shirit to her feet.

“What’s wrong?” Avram asked rushing to her side.

“Nothing,” Shirit said.

Elise shook her head at them. “She pressed too hard into Helen’s mind. She’s just weak!”

Shirit glared at Elise and handed her brother the note. “This is all I got….”

“SAHPLAM?” Avram asked aloud. “Does that mean anything to you, Judah?”

Shirit and Elise shared a glance as Judah draped his arm casually over Avram’s shoulder as he looked at the word. “Not a thing,” Judah said. “Nothing at all.”

“We’ll run it by the others tonight,” Avram said. “Someone is cleaning up after themselves. Why do I feel like there won’t be many people to talk to by the time we get this figured out?”

“Because we are fighting people who can do anything, without regret,” Judah muttered.

The man shed his clothes, standing strong and noble, his silver hair shining in the moonlight, and donned his black robe. He cast his circle in reverse, counterclockwise, and called on the four dark elements to close it. Then he reached into a bag and pulled out a fat rabbit. Using a sharp knife, he slit its throat and drained its blood into a brass bowl.

He took a wooden spoon and ran it around the rim of the bowl chanting a dark incantation. Then he poured the blood along the circle. “I call upon the infernal powers, darkest night and vile stench. Appear before me master! Appear!”

“Hello, sorcerer,” the demon said, appearing outside his circle in the form of a man, his body bronze and muscular, and proudly nude. “What news?”

“There … has been a setback,” the man said, his confidence shaken. To the men and women of his dark coven, he was intimidating beyond all measure. But before this figure, he was weak and powerless.

“Did you expect unfolding the will of the spirits of Chaos would be simple? In HIS world?” the demon asked.

“My lord, the professor has called his coven, and a rabbi,” the man added.

TOM CORMAN was always going to be our problem. These … people merely render him stronger. The problem remains unchanged,” the demon said, “and now you must conjure six more of my brothers. And that presumes you can finish the task before they dispatch anymore!”

“Is there nothing you can do, master?” he asked the demon.

“No … I am merely watching and waiting,” the demon said.

“Watching?” the man asked.

“Corman and the boys,” the demon said. “I’ve been watching them from the beginning.” He turned to go before adding, “I can offer you one piece of advice. The time for summoning one demon at a time and hiding your tracks is over. Why not have teams summoning multiple demons simultaneously?”

“The power it takes,” the man began.

“But you’ve been hiding,” the demon sneered. “You’ve already been unmasked as a group. Who are you hiding from now? No more false trails, no more hiding. No more full rituals. Snatch some people, sacrifice them, and RAISE SOME FUCKING DEMONS OR I’LL FIND SOMEONE WHO WILL!” With that, the demon lord disappeared in a flame.

The man closed his circle and went inside the nice old house in the residential neighborhood he called home and sat at his desk. Moments later, a woman looked in and said, “Need a drink, dear?”

“No,” he said, smiling at his wife. “I just need to make a few calls then I’ll be along!”

“Don’t be too late,” she smiled and walked away.

Tom had ordered a huge delivery of Chinese take-out and was setting the table when David got home. “I’m in here,” Tom called. “Give me a hand and grab some forks?”

David came in and began putting utensils down. “David,” Tom asked, “are you sure you want to hear any of this? That you know what you know already is an unfair burden….”

“It … I appreciate that you’re trying to protect me, but I need to know,” David said.

“Your parents’ coven is after a very dangerous piece of magic and we have no idea why, David,” Tom said, looking at the boy. “Is there ANYTHING about these people you haven’t told us? Anyone we need to know about?”

David froze for just a second and Tom knew. There was something. He walked around the table and put his arms around the boy. “I’m not mad, David. I swear! But I need to know if I’m going to protect us all. Not just you and Peter and Aiden, but Sebastien and Catherine and all our friends! You know these people and what they’ll do!”

“I,” the boy began with a sob, “I was just trying to protect you!” David cried on his chest. “I told you dad was afraid of you, but he was more afraid of someone else. A man…. Even my mom was afraid of him. He’s the only person my dad … shared us with.”

Tom closed his eyes in pain, but had to whisper, “Shared?”

“When dad beat us, tortured us … the man would sometimes join him,” David replied, and Tom knew there was more. A moment later he continued, “When dad was finished he’d leave us with the man. He took his time….”

Tom squeezed him tight and asked, “Did he continue what your father was doing or?”

“No,” David said. “He did the kind of things our brother Carter did while we were chained up,” David whispered.

Tom’s tears rolled against David’s cheek, surprising him; somehow it still amazed David that someone besides Peter, who was as broken and pained as him, could care for him. That’s why David was drawn to Tom: he could feel the man’s pure affection.

“Do you know anything about him?” Tom asked.

“Only that my parents were terrified of him. They never said his name,” David said. “But … I can tell you he carried a gun, and he had a scar on his chest and one on his belly.”

“What kind of scars?” Tom asked.

“I don’t know, like surgery scars,” David said. Using his finger he showed Tom where they were.

“What does he look like?” Tom asked.

“Tall and thin,” David said. “Not skinny, just thin and muscular. Probably late 50’s but it was hard to tell. Grey hair. He was good looking for an old guy, I guess,” David said with a blush. “I figured he was rich.”

“Why?” Tom asked.

“Cause he always had on a nice suit, and he smelled like expensive cologne.” Seeing Tom’s surprise, David blushed deeply and said, “I had to think about something.”

Tom drew him in again and squeezed him tight. “I’m so sorry!” But they were interrupted by the doorbell.

Tom found Avram, with his sister and her girlfriend, Judah standing back and off to the side. They all entered with subdued expressions. “What’s wrong?” Tom asked, and they filled him in on what had happened at the hospital.

“God Almighty,” Tom said.

“So we spent all afternoon warding our hotel. Got no rest at all,” Avram said with a sigh.

“Can I get you drinks?” Tom asked.

YES, PLEASE!” Elise declared.

Tom laughed grimly and asked, “Wine?”

“Do you have anything stronger?” the Frenchwoman asked.

“How’s scotch?” Tom asked.

“All around, I think, my good professor,” Judah said. “Seeing a death curse is not something that leaves a good taste in one’s mouth.”

“Death curse?” David asked, drawing their full attention for the first time.

“That’s how the woman, Helen, was killed at the hospital,” Judah explained.

Tom put his hand on David’s shoulder and said, “This is David, my unofficially-adopted son,” making the boy blush proudly. Then Tom introduced the recent arrivals to the boy and explained David’s background as briefly and unembarrassingly as possible.

Soon the food arrived, followed shortly by Dietrich, Cho and Roy, who carpooled. Father Tim Welch’s arrival necessitated further introductions. The man was greeted warmly by Judah and the others. Shortly, the twins arrived, introductions were repeated, and they all sat down to dinner, their drinks refreshed.

As they ate, Tom, assisted by Tim and Judah, brought everyone up to date, and then Shirit and Avram updated them all about the events at the hospital.

“So we have two new pieces of information,” Tom said as they all walked to the living area to get more comfortable. “SAHPLAM, whatever the hell that means,” looking at the piece of paper that had been passed to him before handing it to someone else.

“What else?” Avram asked.

“We have a description of a man I believe to be the head of the cult,” Tom said.

“How?” Avram asked.

“David saw him,” Tom said and gave the description.

“That’s … not enough,” Avram said.

Misha, who’d been watching the handsome teen with more than passing interest, said, “Let me look inside and see him….”

Tom rose to his feet and blocked the path of the gorgeous young Russian. “No!”

“It could help, Tom,” Avram said, giving Misha a suspicious look. It would also show him the young man’s secrets and give them a connection. He hoped Misha wouldn’t leverage that to manipulate the fragile boy, but Misha was sexually aggressive with straight men.

“I … I guess if it,” David began.

“NO!” Tom said, putting his hand on Misha’s chest. “It’s painful and you won’t be able to control what he sees, David!” Of all the members of the little group, Misha was the one Tom had always had little spats with, and he harbored no doubts about the young man’s intentions toward David. He could feel the man’s gaze assessing the boy.

“With the Azazel Codex in play we don’t have time for your puritanical little,” Misha began to try to justify himself, but the subtle narrowing in Tom’s eyes brought him up short.

BACK OFF, MISHA,’ Tom’s mind roared powerfully in the man’s head, making him stagger back, grabbing his head. ‘THIS IS WHAT YOU WANT TO DO TO THIS BOY, MISHA?’ As Misha backed up, Tom advanced. With each word the pain grew. “STAY AWAY FROM MY SON!” Tom added, both in the man’s mind and out loud for all to

“Stop, Tom,” Alexa begged, putting a hand on his arm gently. “Please?”

Tom withdrew and looked at her apologetically. “You shouldn’t want to do things like that to people unless you still remember what it feels like,” he said to her. “And I will do ANYTHING to protect that boy!” Then he cut his gaze to Misha and softened, holding out a hand to the man who was still on his knees. “I’m sorry, Misha.”

The handsome young man looked pale but took his hand with a deep look of embarrassment and shame. Tom hugged him and whispered, “I didn’t see anything I didn’t already know, Misha. You are the way you are and I wouldn’t change that. But I am protecting this boy. He’s been hurt badly, Misha, and he doesn’t need you confusing him right now, okay?”

Misha returned his hug a little. “I’m sorry, too, Tom,” he whispered. “I had forgotten….”

David watched the whole scene with a kind of awe. He nearly jumped when Avram put a hand on his shoulder and whispered, “Our Tom has grown very powerful!”

“I hope he’s powerful enough,” David said, and picked up the piece of paper off the floor. “What’s wrong with this note?” he asked curiously as he read SAHPLAM.

“What do you mean?” Avram asked, looking over his shoulder.

“The letters are backwards,” David said trying to figure it out.

“Oh my God,” Avram said. “That’s it!”