The church was a very humble place: the basement of a general store that the owner rented to the church for fifty bucks a month. It seemed to be more of a discussion center than an actual church.
"It doesn't look like a church," observed Holmes.
"Not too many churches look like that nowadays, I've noticed."
A new voice spoke behind them. "That's because it's not a church in the traditional sense. It's a place where interested souls can exchange knowledge." It belonged to a middle-aged man with hands big enough to crush a beer bottle. He must have been an ex-football player, with a build like that. Both Peter and Holmes sensed an aura around him that could have come from a natural charisma or more likely from excellent health and an outgoing personality. Perhaps the possibe causes were the same, just with different names. He was dressed in blue jeans, cowboy boots, and a plain white shirt. No gold-woven clothes or robes with flashing lights here. "Gregory Matthias. I'm the spearhead here." He held out his hand.
"A discussion place then?"
"Yes. But you don't look like you're interested in spiritual knowledge."
"You're right. We're investigating a series of murders." The look of baffled surprise was genuine, both could tell. "It involves some of your parishioners."
"I think we'd better sit down for this." He was all business, trying to cover up his concern and quantum change in emotion. "Tell me everything."
"Well, sir, let's start with the tame snapshots. Perhaps you've noticed that these people haven't been coming to church lately. Here's why . . . "
* * *
Ray and Fraser were in the house of Johnson.
Ray was nervous, "Look -- I don't think we belong here. I mean, shouldn't we have waited for Caine to get back?"
"We're not disturbing a crime scene. We're law enforcement, remember?" Fraser was looking for something, but even he didn't know what. He'd recognize it when he saw it. "A lot of incense burners, you notice?"
"Yes." Ray opened a cover for the largest burner. "Check this out. Smells funky."
Fraser approached and sniffed deeply. "I don't recognize the smell. I wonder if there's any left." They searched through the cabinets until they found a package of what looked like incense. "It smells almost like tobacco, but it's a root."
"No ID tag on it either," Ray noted.
On a hunch, Fraser lit some more of the incense in the burner. That's when interesting things began to happen. Smelled like nothing he had ever smelled, but very heavenly.
* * *
Gregory was really upset. "I had no idea that they'd been brutally murdered! I thought they were busy with other matters in their lives, or were in study! That's a frequent occurrence here."
"Is there anything you could tell us that might illuminate the reasons why they might have been killed?"
He was silent for a few moments, deep in thought. "I know that they were very devout in their studies and were researching the whereabouts of the Key of Solomon."
Holmes became intent. "What is that?"
"Oh, a metaphor more than anything else, though I wondered if they were beginning to interpret it in a more literal fashion. There are several unofficial myths in Jewish lore pointing to the possibility that Solomon was wise enough to have seen the heavens, and supposedly there was a key that opened the doors to heaven. An idea that I find quite fascinating, but I don't quite believe in those thoughts."
"Does the name Asmodeus mean anything to you?"
"The Jewish king of the Demons, and according to some lore, the advisor to Solomon." The response didn't require any intense thought. "If your are interested in Biblical knowledge, we have a very extensive library."
"Does he have anything to do with the Key of Solomon?"
"He would naturally be the guardian, but again, that would require you to believe that such things as Angels exist in our world and not the spiritual."
Peter appeared to deliberate before making his next statement, "Sir? We're going to have to place you under arrest for suspicion of murder. If you are innocent, then think of it as protective custody."
"Because somebody is killing believers?" He nodded. "Quite a logical course of action. I will cooperate, so long as you 'keep me in the loop'. I do not want to be locked away without such sources of news as yourselves and a daily newspaper."
Holmes approved, "That would be the only civilized course of action. So long as the written law permits, we shall accommodate you."
Peter stared at Holmes in shock and puzzlement, but shrugged and said, "We'll call a unit here and have you processed in no time. But I advise you to keep your mouth shut."
"A man named Johnson . . . "
* * *
The driver of the cop car shook his head, "Peter's not going to like this. Thanks dispatch. Over and out."
He found the Gnostic church easily enough. He'd driven by it often enough but had had no idea it was even there. Showed how much he noticed. Finding Peter was pretty easy -- Peter, that Holmes guy, and a third man were standing by the street in a civil-appearing conversation.
"Peter? I got some news for you, and it isn't good. Dispatch just passed it on to me."
"Three things. First, there's another Gnostic Murder, as the press has just named it. Second, the press now knows about these murders and the pattern that you've just started to investigate -- seems there's a knowing leak. Third, your associates from Chicago were found at Johnson's house and are under protective custody at the hospital. It seems that the fumes from an incense burner sent them into an intense experience. Their screaming alerted the neighbors."
That sparked Holmes' interest. "What was the incense?"
"I don't know. A sample was brought to the hospital for analysis, but dispatch didn't tell me anything more."
Holmes faced Peter with a determined air. "We must go straight to the hospital and then to Johnson's house. Quickly! Gregory must accompany us!"
"Why?" asked Peter.
The other cop, though in the field more than in the office, heard the 'Holmes' humor too, and cracked a joke. "Come now, Detective! Do not delay the esteemed Mr. Holmes in gathering crucial evidence."
"Thank you for you support," Holmes nodded to him, ignorant of the jest.
Peter shook his head, "All right -- you want 'quickly'?" He looked at the cop, one he hadn't really met yet but had mainly seen from a distance. "We'll take your car -- lights, sirens, and the whole nine yards!"
The cop smiled. It wasn't too often he saw the fun kind of action. It'd be a nice change to blast through town without having a real emergency on his hands, like a domestic dispute.
* * *
The elder Caine was already there, with a man that Holmes could only call 'extremely venerable'. Both Caines referred to him as 'the Ancient', which fit. The Ancient was examining the Mountie with growing concern, without the supervision of any medical officer. That in itself was unusual -- usually those types were quite possessive of their patients.
"The necklace he wears has done its damage," breathed the Ancient in an exhausted yet firm voice. "The inhalation of the Devil's Foot Root made it much worse than it did the for the policeman."
That was the name that Holmes was waiting to hear, "Radix ped diaboli." As everyone stared at him in incomprehension, he explained himself, "A root. Foot of the Devil. I covered a bizarre murder case in Cornwall, where the most undeserving murder victims were exposed to the smoke of the burnt root and suffered the most violent hallucinations. It was the actions of the physical bodies that caused their deaths while their minds and souls were otherwise occupied. Most killed themselves in horrible accidents while screaming in fear. At first, they were interpreted as unlucky accidents, and later as the actions of a most illusive murderer. It wasn't until the end that I discovered the true cause, when all of his victims were dead."
The Ancient stared at him with something unspoken that desperately wanted to be said. Instead, he said something else. "You describe exactly what I would have said, using a much different story. But what you do not know is that the Mountie is in far worse condition than the Chicago cop, because there is another agent at work, working with the root."
"What agent is this?"
"The necklace." He pointed at the necklace, which was glowing red.
Peter objected, "What could that do?"
The Ancient shrugged, "Nothing more than tell the truth. It has opened Fraser's mind to his soul. Soul and mind are meant to be introduced in the most refined of men. Those unprepared to meet themselves usually wish they hadn't."
Holmes blanched. "Might they go insane or kill themselves, or others?"
"Unpleasant things cause many happenings."
Holmes thought about this while Peter practically yelled at the old man. "A necklace? You've got to be kidding!"
The elder Caine stared sternly at his son, eye to eye, "You, my son, have seen many things denied to the experiences of most. Open your eyes once more."
Holmes spoke softly, "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. But what truth is this? A necklace showing powers unverifiable in the real world? Something that cannot be substantiated?"
"That bothers you?" the Ancient's eyes focused on him.
"Yes. One cannot make conclusions without verifiable data. Otherwise the results could be open to multiple interpretations." He gazed at the necklace. "Only by verification can we worm out the truth, but only if this became common experience to everyone could this be verified. Since this is something unique and outlying beyond the boundaries of our case, I will put the necklace out of my mind, and advise everyone to do the same."
"As you wish, but you defeat your own beliefs."
Peter broke this line of conversation into shards, "Have they spoken?"
Caine shook his head, "Not yet. They are no longer in danger, as the physicians believe, but their souls are still screaming in agony, as much as if they had seen the Devil."
Gregory spoke, having been nearly invisible this whole time. "Ignorance is bliss, and knowledge can be painful; it is up to the individual to make the choice. They might blow it off as a bad drug trip, or they can use it as a wonderful experience." He looked directly at Peter and Holmes, "I can tell you with certainty that the parishioners who died often met me with looks of heavenly bliss that gradually changed to utter fear. If they took this drug, then you might be able to use my testimony as indirect evidence. If this new victim is one of my parishioners, then I wouldn't see any source of contradiction."
"Nobody brought this to your attention?"
"No. They're adults living their own lives. I discourage drug use, but only God can get them to stop if they really are using." He looked sadly at the two men. "I guess God really did tell them. No, nobody approached me about using these drugs either. Probably because they would know my reaction. Those who died were very adventurous and sadly enough, didn't have what it took to deny certain paths. They felt that all knowledge was good, especially those that didn't require the need for patience or faith. This drug must have given them the results they wanted."
Holmes nodded, "I believe that there is only one more knot that we must tie. We must determine the truth surrounding Asmodeus."
* * * *
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