|The Willie Button Series|
Albert J. Manachino
The steel door of Willie's cell slammed shut. There was the muted sound of a key being turned in a well-oiled lock and the echoes of footsteps receding into the dark. He was alone with the newcomer.
"Good evening," said a pleasant, well-modulated voice, a public speaker. "I'm Father Brown."
Willie studied the priest suspiciously before responding. "I'm pleased to meet you. Possibly you know who I am?" He thought it would not be above his kidnappers to insinuate a plant on him to further their mysterious purposes.
"No. You were never mentioned to me. I don't know who you are or why we've been brought together in so singular a fashion."
Willie introduced himself and asked, "Are you a prisoner also?"
The priest glanced about the cell and responded wryly, "Technically, I am an employee, not a prisoner, though I do admit there doesn't seem much difference in our positions." He groped through his pockets and eventually produced a tobacco pouch and a pipe which he proceeded to fill. "I will say that my employer's hiring methods are somewhat unorthodox." Finally he located a book of matches and lit the pipe. The priest exhaled a plume of smoke with satisfaction, "How did you get here?"
Willie shifted his position on the cot to make room for his companion. Father Brown accepted the implied invitation and sat.
"In all probability you will not believe this, Father. I was walking along the street, minding my own business, when a large black limousine pulled up alongside me and stopped. Two men wearing stocking masks got out, overpowered me, threw me into the car and brought me here."
"Odd, very odd. The limousine smacks of great resources. The men who kidnapped you were probably hirelings. I don't suppose there were any witnesses?"
"I doubt it, the street was a lonely one."
"Were you robbed?"
"They took my blue canvas carrying bag and searched me for weapons but did not so much as look at my wallet."
Father Brown reinspected the cell. The pipe jutted aggressively from his mouth like the bowsprit of a sailing vessel.
"Hmm! I don't see your bag so I assume that was the object of their robbery. Was there something very valuable in it?" He glanced at Willie's neat but far from pretentious clothing and answered his own question in the negative.
"To certain people, the contents of the bag would be priceless." Willie's reply surprised the priest.
"To some people, eh? And, by inference, not to others. That makes it sound like a collector."
"I'm afraid you're right."
Their cell was a cage built into the corner of a vast basement. Although both had been delivered into it blindfolded, they were positive the structure it supported was immense. Two of the sides, obviously the foundation, were of poured concrete. One side and the front were of cement blocks. A heavy gauge wire mesh acted as a ceiling. A single bulb of low wattage dangled from a drop cord above the mesh and provided their only illumination. Obviously, the cell was a temporary structure meant to be torn down as soon as it served its purpose. The small light bulb was intended to provide illumination without revealing details. Father Brown exhaled another cloud of smoke and spoke thoughtfully.
"The fact that they did not inspect your wallet implies they were certain of your identity and that money was not the object of their crime. Would it be too personal of me to ask what was in the bag?"
"Not at all," Willie replied, "a book." Father Brown leaned back against a wall. "Strange, so strange." "Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?" Willie asked.
"Not at all, turnabout is fair play."
"You said you were not a prisoner?"
"Supposedly so, but I think this," and he waved a hand at their walls, "blurs distinctions."
"Who is your employer?"
"I don't know, I've never met him. It was done by telephone. He made me an offer and I agreed."
"Was your employment explained to you?"
"Yes, I was offered one thousand dollars to open a book."
"A thousand dollars to open a book? You agreed, of course?"
"Of course. There is always need of money, especially in these times."
"Did you ask yourself why it was necessary to hire someone to open a book?"
"My first impression was that it was an eccentric way of making a charitable contribution."
"Yes, I see."
"In fact," here the priest tapped his pipe out on the floor. "There isn't any reason why our unknown host couldn't open the book himself or have a servant do it, is there? I didn't take any of it seriously until I was brought here and confronted by a man who had been abducted and was being held a prisoner against his will."
"But there is a good reason why our host would not care to open the book himself. That of danger a very great and personal danger."
Father Brown did not understand. "The only danger I can imagine is that the book must contain an explosive device fanciful, eh what?"
"Fanciful, yes, but I'm afraid the peril is far greater than that."
"Intriguing. I imagine the book referred to is the one you were carrying?"
"And it must be a very rare and valuable book? You can't open it because of your familiarity with it am I right?"
"It is a very rare book; there is only one copy in the world. It is valuable to some people. I suspect you were offered the opportunity to open it because your capacity as a man of God would in some small measure protect you."
"I don't pretend to understand you but you seem to be enduring your circumstances very well."
Willie did not explain that he was immune to physical torment, that he had died many years ago.
"Have you ever heard of the Devil's Bible written by Lucifer in his own hand?"
"No, my son, never. Lucifer is not a living, breathing entity, but a metaphoric embodiment of all that is evil in the world."
"You really think so, Father? How strange to hear that from a priest."
"You are overwrought abduction the imprisonment "
"Satan exists," Willie insisted. "I have seen the effect of his bible upon those who have looked in it."
Neither had a watch. They had lost track of time. Father Brown cocked an ear at the darkness outside the cell.
I believe I hear someone coming."
Willie listened and heard the faint echoing footsteps of someone descending cellar steps.
"There's more than one. Probably the two thugs that grabbed me. Our host must be ready to receive us."
There was the sound of a key being inserted in the lock and the door swung open. Willie recognized his kidnappers by their clothes. A third man was dressed in butler's livery. He also, wore a stocking drawn over his face.
"Mr. Diabolicus will see you now," he announced in a dull, flat butler's voice.
They were blindfolded and led out of the cell.
Reaching their destination seemed to take forever. The Priest was aware of having climbed at least two flights of steps but finally, his sense of direction failed him.
The room was illuminated by two fixtures intended to simulate fires burning in metal braziers. There was one on either side of the table that served as an altar. The surface between them was lighted but the rest of the room, which Willie estimated to be of considerable size, was dark. Their escorts had either disappeared upon delivering the prisoners or were invisible in the darkness.
Their host wore a black robe decorated by a crimson, five-pointed star that stood on one of the points, in a silver circle. His face was hidden by a mask in the likeness of a goat's head. A Satanist priest, Willie thought.
"Good evening," the masked man greeted them in a low, cultured voice, a man of learning. "I am Mr. Diabolicus."
Would it be possible," asked Father Brown, "for me to withdraw my acceptance of your employment?"
The mask shook regretfully. "I'm afraid not. Surely, you must have suspected unusual circumstances considering the unorthodox terms I offered you. But your greed won."
"I'm afraid so," Father Brown confessed.
Be of good cheer," the Satanist told him. "I rarely employ priests, you may regard this as a distinction."
"That is a comfort," responded Father Brown.
"Would it be unseeming to inquire the purpose behind this confrontation? Willie asked.
"Not at all, Mr. Button. I think you strongly suspect." The mask emitted a short laugh. "Am I correct?"
"It has to do with the book that was taken from me."
Mr. Diabolicus brought his hands into the light of the braziers. The hands were gloved and holding an ancient volume that Willie recognized immediately, the Devil's Bible. He set it down in the center of the altar where the illumination played on it from both sides.
"It's a pity," Willie continued, "that this book exercises such a fascination for men of great learning and I take you to be a man of learning."
The Satanist bowed his acknowledgement, "The challenge of the unknown," he responded smoothly.
Father Brown, who had been studying the book from a distance spoke to Willie. "Yes, I see what you meant. It is a compelling as well as a repelling artifact. Something like that could have been written by the devil. It goes far toward convincing me you are correct that Satan is a living, breathing entity."
Willie moved closer to the altar. He forced himself to place a hand on the ancient tome.
"I am going to ask you to reconsider don't open this book. The last seven people did so to their everlasting regret. Three died. Three became insane. One will be afflicted with horrifying nightmares the rest of his life."
"The book's reputation has been called to my attention." Willie sensed Mr. Diabolicus' smile behind the mask, "But it would be incongruous for a person of my persuasion to be afraid to open his own bible. Mind you, I really believe that most of the stories I've heard are nonsense. Still, one can't take chances, which is why I have employed the good Father to do it for me." He turned his head to look at the priest. Father Brown still remained in the background, to the right of the altar. "If you will be so good as to perform the honors."
The priest hesitated, his reluctance was obvious.
"Come now," Said Mr. Diabolicus. He reached inside his robe and brought forth a white envelope which he opened to display its contents. "Ten one hundred dollar bills. "Father, they are all yours the moment you open the book."
Willie protested. "Don't force him to do this. He is an innocent man and shouldn't suffer."
Mr. Diabolicus betrayed that his patience was wearing thin by an edge in his voice. "The fact that he is an innocent man will protect him against the alleged baleful influences. Now, Priest, I warn you, I can become every bit as unpleasant as the master I serve."
"I have no doubt," Willie's companion responded.
He came to the altar and reached for the book. It seemed to Willie that the priest almost playfully ran a finger up and down its edges before pressing a fingernail between the pages. "Are you ready?" he asked.
"I am ready, Father Brown." The priest raised his hand, the book opened.
"Now, look, Father Brown."
He forced himself to look and then he laughed, a little hysterically, Willie thought.
"It's a blank page." He stepped away from the altar.
"Mr. Button, it's your turn to look." The Satanist locked eyes with Willie.
"I refuse," Willie stated flatly.
"A man of discretion, eh, Button? Very well then, the priest was unharmed. Let it not be said that the followers of the Lamb are bolder than those of the Goat." He stared down at the book.
Mr. Diabolicus seemed to freeze. A dreadful cry. fought its way through his throat. He clawed at the mask which seemed to have become one with him and fell.
Magically, the masked kidnappers and the butler materialized and raced behind the altar. Piteous moans rose from the floor. The butler produced a flashlight.
"Oh, my God!" he gasped. His two companions stared in horrified silence at what the light revealed. Then they turned and fled as one. Willie closed the book without looking at it. He wrapped it in the cloth that covered the altar.
"We may as well leave."
"Aren't we going to help that poor devil?" asked the priest.
"There is nothing we can do." The moans had stilled.
Eventually, they found their way outside. It was as they guessed, a very large mansion.
"I don't understand," said Father Brown. "I was not affected by looking at that blank page.
"He should have kept watch on my hands," Willie replied. "While his eyes were locked with mine, I turned the page."
Albert J. Manachino
Kevin D. Duncan
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Willie Button Series