The monster was holed up somewhere in the church, and the agent knew he finally had him.
He removed his boots as quietly as he could and placed them beneath the wooden table in the vestibule. The boots were rubber soled, but even those could make some noise on the marble floors. So far, the monster didn't know he was being followed—as far as the agent could tell.
The agent had been chasing the monster for three years. There were no photos of the monster, no physical evidence at all. Catching him was like trying to capture a wisp of smoke in your fist. The force of your action would cause it to dissipate and re-form elsewhere.
The hunt had taken him all over the world: Germany. Israel. Japan. The United States. And now here, Rome, inside a seventeenth-century baroque-style church christened Mater Dolorosa, which was Latin for "sorrowful mother."
The name fit. The interior of the church was gloomy. With his gun in a two-hand grip, the agent moved as silently as possible along the yellowed walls.
A notice posted on the church door said it was closed to the public for renovations. The agent knew enough Italian to understand that the four-hundred-year-old fresco on the interior dome of the church was being restored.
Scaffolding. Gloom. Shadows. It was a natural habitat for the monster. No wonder he'd chosen it, despite its being a sacred place of worship.
The agent had come to understand that the monster knew no boundaries. Even in times of war, churches and temples were considered places of sanctuary—safe havens for those seeking the comfort of God during their darkest hours.
And as the agent made his way around the metal poles and underside of the scaffolding, he knew the monster was here. He could feel it.
The agent was no believer in the supernatural; he did not claim to have psychic abilities. But the longer he hunted the monster, the more he found that he was able to tune in to his savage wavelength. This gift brought the agent closer than any other investigator to catching the monster—but it came at a cost. The more he tuned his brain in to the monster's insanity, the more he lost touch with what it was like to be sane. He had recently begun to wonder whether his single-minded pursuit might soon kill him. He'd discarded the thought.
His focus had returned when the agent saw the most recent victim, just a few blocks away. The sight of the blood, the torn skin, the viscera steaming in the cool night air, and the marbled beads of fat hanging from exposed muscles would later send the first responders outside to vomit. Not the agent, who had knelt down and felt a thrilling burst of adrenaline when he touched the body through the thick latex of his examiner's gloves and realized it was still warm.
It meant the monster was nearby.
The agent knew he wouldn't have gone far; the monster loved to hide himself and enjoy the aftermath of his work. He had even been known to secret himself within the scene while law enforcement cursed his name.
So the agent had stepped into the small courtyard near the victim's body and let his mind wander. No deductive logic, no reasoned guesses, no gut, no hunch. Instead the agent thought: I am the monster; where do I go?
The agent had scanned the rooftops, then saw the glittering dome and knew immediately. There. I'd go there. There was not a seed of doubt in the agent's mind. This would end tonight.
Now he was moving silently among the wooden pews and the metal poles of the scaffolding, gun drawn, all of his physical senses on high alert. The monster might be smoke, but even smoke had a look, a scent, a taste.
The monster stared down at the top of his hunter's head. He was positioned on the underside of a paint-splattered wooden plank, clinging to the gaps between the wood with his skinny, strong fingers and equally powerful toes.
He almost wanted his hunter to look up.
Many had chased the monster over the years, but none like this one. This one was special. Different.
And somehow, familiar.
So the monster wanted to look at his face again, in the flesh. Not that he didn't know what his hunters looked like. The monster had plenty of surveillance photos and footage of all of them— at work, in their backyards, on the way to fill their vehicles with gasoline, bringing their children to sporting matches, and purchasing bottles of liquor. He'd been close enough to catalog their smells, the aftershave they wore, the brand of tequila they drank. It was a part of his game.
Until recently he'd thought this one was merely average. But then the man had begun to surprise the monster, making leaps no one ever had before, coming closer than anyone else. Close enough that the monster had let the other hunters fall away, focusing in on the one photo he had of this one, staring at it and trying to imagine where his weakness lay. But a photograph wasn't the same as real life. The monster wanted to study this one's face while he still tasted the air, gazed at his surroundings, drew its smells into his nostrils.
And then the monster would slay him.
The agent looked up. He could have sworn he saw something moving up there, in the shadows of the scaffolding.
The dome above him was a strange quirk of seventeenth-century architecture. It was fitted with dozens of stained-glass windows that took all incoming light and shot it to the peak of the dome, as if exalting God with his own radiance. In the sunlight it would be breathtaking. Tonight's full moon gave the windows an eerie glow, but everything below the dome, from the vaults down, was draped in dramatic shadow. A stark reminder of man's place in the universe—down in the unknowing dark.
The dome itself was adorned with a panorama of heaven, with floating cherubs and heralds and clouds, as if to taunt man even more.
Out of the corner of his eye, the agent saw a flittering of white and heard the faintest pull of something that sounded like rubber.
There. Over by the altar.
This hunter is goooooood, the monster thought from his new hiding space. Come find me. Come let me see your face before I rip it from your skull.
The silence was so absolute, it was almost a pulsing, living thing, enveloping the church. The agent moved swiftly, hand over hand, climbing the scaffolding as silently as possible, gun tucked in his unsnapped side holster, ready to be drawn at a second's notice. The wood was rough and sharp beneath his searching fingers; the poles felt dusted with motes of dirt and steel.
The agent slowly crept around another platform, climbing higher now, looking for any kind of reflection or hint of the monster. But there was little available light. He took a quick, sharp breath and lifted himself to another level, desperate to see over the edge as he exposed his head and neck to the unknown. If only he could see . . .
I see you, the monster thought. Do you see me?
And then he did.
The agent saw the monster's face for the first time. Two beady eyes looking out from a blank visage—as if someone had taken a hot iron and pressed away all of its features . . . except for the eyes.
Then it was gone, scurrying up the side of the scaffolding like a spider ascending its webbing.
The agent abandoned stealth now. He tore after the monster with a speed that surprised him, pulling himself up the crossbeams of the scaffolding and around the edges of the planks as if he'd been practicing on an FBI course back in Virginia.
There he was again—a glimpse of a pale white limb, whipping around the edge of a platform, just two levels above.
The agent climbed even harder, faster, more frenzied. The monster was moving closer to the heavenly dome. But heaven was a dead end. There was no way out other than the exits below.
For the first time in decades, the monster felt true fear. How had this hunter sensed him? How was he so fearless as to pursue him up here?
The face of his hunter looked different now. This was no mere law enforcement officer who'd followed a hunch and caught a lucky break. This was something new and wondrous. The monster would have tittered with excitement if it wouldn't have slowed his ascent.
For a glorious moment the monster had no idea what would happen next. It reminded him of being a child. Just a few square inches of pressure on his hunter's trigger and the right trajectory could end everything. The monster was many things, but he was not bulletproof.
Will it end up here? Are you the one who will bring death unto me?
The agent had him.
He felt the trembling of the wooden plank above him—the last bit of scaffolding before the dome. The agent whipped past the last two crossbeams. He pulled his gun.
There he was—pressed flat against the uppermost plank. A moment passed as the agent stared through the gloom into the monster's eyes and the monster stared back. What passed between them was the length of a heartbeat, impossibly short and yet unmistakable—a primal recognition between hunter and prey in the climactic moment just before one claims victory and the other collapses in death.
The agent fired twice.
But the monster didn't bleed. It exploded.
It took only a split second for the agent to recognize the sounds of splintering glass and identify the mirror he'd shattered with his bullet—no doubt meant to help the experts with their restoration work. The mistake could have been fatal. But as he whipped around to fire again he knew the monster was already gone, could hear him smashing his way through a stained-glass window and out onto the rooftop of the church. Colored glass rained down, opening a gash under his eye as he lifted his gun and fired blindly through the jagged hole in the glass. The bullet hit nothing, soared away into the heavens. A scampering sound could be heard running down the outside of the dome . . . and then nothing.
The agent raced down the scaffolding, but in his heart he knew it was futile. The monster was loose on the rooftops of Rome, an invisible tendril of smoke wafting up and away, nothing but the faintest lingering trace left to prove he had ever really been there at all.