The Fire of Mars

Preface

Monday 20th November 2006. St Andrew’s Church, Charleston, South Carolina, USA

Everybody stared at the exposed entrance door to the burial
holding vault. Some were wide-eyed in disbelief, some were
making the sign of the cross, and others, including Naomi and
Carlton, were shocked. But nobody was more horrified than
Reverend Hughes; he was stunned into silence, and for a while,
didn’t know what to say.
The vault door was metal, it was padlocked, and it had a
large, black, inverted cross painted on it.

Taffy Brewer, who’d been working on the trench, walked
over to the vault and saw the entrance door. He said, “Whoa!” He
looked at the shocked faces and then walked across to the Deacon.
He said, “I’m sorry to have to tell you, but Ryan and the guys
don’t want to go anywhere near that.”
Carlton looked at Naomi and said, “Does that mean what I
think it does?”
Naomi said, “I don’t know.”
“Surely it’s not witchcraft or anything like that?”
“Unlikely. This type of vault was constructed around 1820,
and most of the witch executions, including the famous Salem
Witch Trials, were over by 1700.”
“But what about individual, narrow-minded, communities
dealing with what they saw as a local problem?”
Naomi looked up and nodded. She said, “Hmm, maybe… ”
“This isn’t part of what you heard is it?”
Naomi looked at the door and tried to focus her psychic radar,
but nothing happened. She said, “I don’t think it is, but it may be
connected.”
The Sheriff spoke up and said, “Reverend, sir, this is your
church and your jurisdiction. Have you ever come across anything
like this before?”
Reverend Hughes raised his eyebrows and said, “No, I have
not.”
“And can you give us any inclination about what might be in
there?”
“No I can’t.”
“Then do you have any objection to us proceeding?”
“And opening the door?”
“Yes sir.”
Reverend Hughes considered the situation and then looked at
all the expectant faces. He said, “I think that I should say a short
prayer first.” He walked to the top of the stairs, made the sign of
the cross, and then put his hands together and bowed his head.
Everybody followed suit.
“Lord, we ask your blessing to enter this place. Please protect
us and guide us, and give us the wisdom to handle this situation
with understanding and compassion. Amen.”
Everybody repeated, “Amen.”
Reverend Hughes looked up and said, “Okay, now you can
proceed.”
The Sheriff looked at Taffy and said, “Sir, will you?”
Taffy was unsure. He looked at the door, and then at the
Sheriff. He said, “I don’t know ma’am. It looks a bit…well, you
know… ”
“I’ll do it.”
Everybody turned and looked. “I’ve had experience of this
type of thing before,” said Naomi, “so I’ll do it… ”

Chapter 1

Thursday, 2nd November 2006. Deacon Del Morrison’s house,
Charleston, South Carolina.
Deacon Del Morrison looked at the email on his bedside table and
noted the date. It had been nearly six months since he’d solved the
final part of a nineteenth century puzzle leading to the
whereabouts of a very rare and valuable ruby, and he hadn’t done
a thing about it.
Alan Farlington was a distant cousin of English professional
historic researcher, Naomi Wilkes, through his side of the Chance
family. In the early 1800s, one of his forebears named Valentine
Chance, had sent two enigmatic clues to his father in England,
leading to the hiding place of a very large and very rare ruby
named ‘El Fuego de Marte’, or ‘The Fire of Mars’. The first of the
clues had been solved by Naomi and her colleagues in England,
and had led the Farlingtons to Old St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church
in Charleston, where Del was a Deacon. But the second clue
hadn’t been solved because nobody had been able to find the
place to which it led.
The search hinged on being able to find a grave that bore the
name ‘Matthew’ or ‘Chance’ and when one had been found with
the name of ‘Chance Mathewes’, everybody had thought that the
ruby would be found; but when the Farlingtons, aided by their
friends the Robiteauxs, had arrived from Dunnellon to investigate,
they’d been informed by the local feisty Sheriff, Bonnie-Mae
Clement of Charleston Police, that the grave had two nights’
earlier, been desecrated.
It had turned out that the location of the grave had been
disclosed by an ex-work colleague of Naomi’s in return for a large
sum of cash.
A few days later, and in order to be able to capture the people
who’d carried out the desecration, a trap had been set by the
Sheriff, and most of the perpetrators had been arrested, including
the man behind the whole operation, Adrian Darke.
But all of it had been for nothing, because the Chance
Mathewes grave had been the wrong one.
Being a Deacon of St. Andrew’s and one of the major
participants in the arrest of the erstwhile grave-robbers, Del had
been given a copy of the second clue by Alan who’d asked him to
make contact if any further information had come to light.
And it had.
Through a caprice of fate, he’d learned the whereabouts of a
hitherto unknown and unmarked grave bearing the name
‘Mathews P. F.’ and it had fitted, to the letter, with all of the clues
– but despite his promise to Alan, he hadn’t informed another soul
about it, and right then, he’d known that providing it was still
there, he’d got the exact location of The Fire of Mars.
He’d also known that he was a Deacon – a man of the cloth.
A man in who people sought comfort and in whom they could
place their trust. But, within weeks of establishing the ruby’s
whereabouts he’d changed. On the outside, he was the same. On
the inside, he was a different beast altogether. He’d also met the
exciting and bi-sexual Julie, and had started to experience a
stimulating and sexy side of life that he’d never known before.
Just the thought of her sleek, naked body writhing with another
naked woman, and then the two of them, under, and on top, and
wrapped around his naked body, would have him walking around
with a diamond-hard erection that wouldn’t go away for hours.
In short, he was now in the grip of lust and rapaciousness,
and The Fire of Mars was the catalyst that empowered him. The
thought of it lying in his churchyard waiting to be retrieved, and
that he was the only person who knew where it was, was a potent
aphrodisiac, and it had become all-consuming.
He looked down at the email again and saw that it was from Alan
Farlington, asking him if he’d had any further clues to the exact
whereabouts to the ‘Matthew’s P. F.’ grave site, and informing him
that he would be visiting St. Andrew’s with Naomi sometime
before Thanksgiving.
“Honey, check out the time!”
Del snapped out of his fixation and looked at his watch – it
was 2:40pm and he had an appointment with his regional manager
at 3:30pm.
“Okay, I’m coming,” he called back to his wife. He checked
his appearance in the full-length bedroom mirror, picked up his
jacket, stuffed the email in its inside pocket, and headed
downstairs.
Janet Morrison was waiting by the front door with the car
keys in her hand and said, “Come on honey, you know how I hate
you to be late.”
Del looked at his wife; she was perfect, everything that a
respectable man in his position could want. She was older now,
granted, but she still had her looks, she had good dress sense, kept
a near perfect house, and since the death of her mother, she’d
been loaded.
The trouble was, that wasn’t what he wanted any more. He
wanted to discard the robes of the church, he wanted to move to a
different part of the country, and he wanted to be with Julie.
Being a parish deacon however, wasn’t well paid, and his
supplementary job, running a Christian bookstore in Charleston’s
French quarter wouldn’t finance such a venture either, which was
why The Fire of Mars could be his meal ticket; his gateway to the
new and exciting life.
Now – how to get to it without being detected, and how to
sell it if he found it, were the big questions.
Within fifteen minutes of the appointed time with his manager, he
hit solid traffic as he headed south on King Street in downtown
Charleston.
“Shit – just what I need,” he said out loud. He paused for a
few minutes and remembered that if he hung a right at nearby
Fulton and then picked up Archdale, he could cut through the
back to New Street.
Inch by inch his car moved forwards until he drew level with
Fulton Street; he indicated right, waited until it was clear, and
then accelerated into it.
What happened next took place in one continuous blur.
As he drove past one of the properties in Fulton Street, a man
dressed in black lurched into the road from his left, and stopped
straight in front of him.
He had no chance; he swerved to his left in lightning-quick
time, but it was too late.
The car slammed into the hapless man and sent him spinning
onto the right sidewalk.
He looked through his rear-view mirror and saw the man fall
into a crumpled heap.
“No, no, no!” he said. He stopped the car fifty yards further
up the road and prepared to jump out. He looked at his watch and
saw that it was now minutes before his appointment. He said,
“Damn,” and opened the door.
He looked up the street and saw that nobody had come out of
any of the other properties. He looked both ways – there were no
vehicles, no pedestrians, and nobody at any of the windows. He
looked one last time at the prone man, and then, in an act of
supreme folly, climbed back into his vehicle and accelerated
away.
As Del’s vehicle sped out of sight, and turned left into
Archdale Street, a swarthy looking man stepped out of the
adjacent house and looked down Fulton in amazement. He looked
across at the prone figure lying on the sidewalk and said, “Holy
shit Lennie – the bastard’s gone!”
Lennie looked up from his position on the sidewalk, looked
left and right, and said, “No? – Did you get his licence plate?”
The swarthy guy, nicknamed Muz, because throughout his
life folk had told him that he was ‘angrier than a muzzled dog,’
still couldn’t believe his eyes. He said, “Yeah, but I can’t believe
that he just drove away like that.”
Muz and Lennie had perfected a small-time scam that they’d
named ‘rolling the hood.’ Lennie would step in front of a slow
moving vehicle, roll over the hood, and Muz would witness it.
Once the distraught driver had run back to his victim, Lennie
would groan and say that he needed hospital treatment. They
would then ‘suggest’ that the accident could be dealt with
privately if the distressed driver paid as close to five-hundred
dollars as he could, for the required medical expenses.
It was a ruse that had been very successful on numerous
occasions – until today.
Muz stood rooted to the spot unable to believe what had
happened, and then an idea started to form. He said, “Quick, run
up to Bekkie and ask her to make you up like you was dead.”
“What? – Dead?”
“You heard – dead; and move your ass, ‘cos I’ve got an idea
that’s gonna cost that dude five big ones instead of five hundred.”
Lennie nodded and ran up to the upstairs room. He knocked
on the door and entered.
Bekkie looked at Lennie and said, “That was quick, what
happened?”
“Muz wants you to make me up like I was dead.”
Bekkie frowned but knew better than to argue. She said,
“Okay sit down here.” She pointed to a chair in front of a dresser
mirror.
“And be quick Beks, we gotta get this done and get outta
here.”
Lennie sat down in front of the mirror on the dresser as
Bekkie got to work.
Rebecca Fisher or ‘Bekkie’ to her friends was an ex-top rate
Hollywood make-up artist who had worked with a lot of her big
screen idols. The trouble was, she wanted more than they were
prepared to give, and when the police had visited her apartment
following reports from suspicious studio officials, they’d found
more than three hundred pieces of personal belongings, including
watches, jewellery, cigarette lighters, and more than seventy items
of underwear from both the male and female stars. And the latter
items had been her downfall when she’d sold numerous of them
on the internet accompanied by a photo from whom they’d been
taken.
Following her release from custody, she’d followed her longterm
boyfriend, Muz Appleton, a serial offender of personal
scams, across the southern United States, wherever there were
easy pickings to be had, and wherever they weren’t wanted.
Within less than five minutes, even Lennie was impressed. He
looked at his reflection and said, “Sweet Jesus, if I didn’t know better,
even I’d think I was dead!” His skin was pallid and stained,
and blood appeared to be emitting from his mouth, nose, eyes, and
ears.
“Okay,” said Bekkie, “go.”
Lennie hurried down and said, “All clear?”
Muz looked and said, “Holy crap, she’s good. You look like a
zombie.” He turned and opened the door, waited until a pick-up
had driven past and then gestured for Lennie to take his position.
He checked left and right, removed a digital camera from his
pocket and took three photos of him lying in the place that he’d
landed after being hit by Del.
Upon completion he said, “Okay, get in the car.”
“What? Where are we going now?”
“To Wal-Mart. And keep out of sight!”
Thirty minutes later, and armed with a newly purchased
shovel, they swept through a maze of streets, until they picked up
Route 17. They crossed the Ashley River and headed west. They
followed the highway for several miles until they reached an old
and deserted shack set back in the trees.
Muz checked that no other traffic was around and then drove
the car to the rear and switched off the engine.
Lennie looked around and said, “I don’t know about this
Muz.”
Muz said, “Quit whining, the sooner we get it done, the
sooner we can get out of here.”
“Are you sure this place is deserted?”
“According to an old soak in one of the downtown bars, it’s
been empty for years. I’d noticed it on the way in, and was
considering using it in case we ran out of cash.”
Lennie looked around and then said, “Okay, let’s get it done.”
Muz opened the trunk, grabbed the shovel, the camera, and
headed for the nearest trees. They found a suitable spot and dug a
shallow grave.
When it was deep enough to be convincing, Lennie laid in it
in a way that made him look as though his body had been dumped
in.
Muz took several photos, and said, “Okay, job done.”
They refilled the ‘grave’, returned to their car and headed
back to the house in Fulton Street.

On route, Muz handed Lennie some wipes and said, “Nice
one buddy, now wipe that crap off your face – we don’t want any
passing cop thinking that I’m driving with a goddamned murder
victim.”
Lennie removed the make-up and said, “Do you think it’ll
work?”
Muz turned and smiled; “Oh yeah,” he said, “It’ll work. I’ll
contact Pete the Pen in vehicle licensing and get that dude’s name
and address. By the time that we’ve finished with him, he won’t
know his ass from a hole in the ground.”

Chapter 2

“O what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practise to deceive.”
– Sir Walter Scott
Thursday, 2nd November 2006. New Street, Charleston.
Del waved goodbye to his bookstore regional manager and
walked down the few steps from the front of his house to the
sidewalk. He turned left and walked towards his car. Without
wanting to draw attention, he looked at the front fender but saw
no obvious signs of impact.
The meeting had gone well, but he hadn’t concentrated on
any of it. All he could think about was the man that he’d left lying
in the road.
He reached his car, feigned needing to tie his shoelace, and
knelt down. Whilst fiddling about with his left shoe, he inspected
the whole area around the front of the vehicle and saw nothing.
A voice behind him said, “Is everything all right sir?”
Del looked round and saw a police officer standing behind
him. He steadied his nerve and said, “Yes – thank you officer – I
was tying my shoelace.”
The cop nodded and said, “I thought so at first, but when I
saw you looking at the front of this vehicle, I wondered if it was
something else.”
Del cursed his stupidity for not checking to see if the street
had been clear before looking, but he’d been so obsessed with
finding any damage, he hadn’t.
“No, it’s not,” he said, trying to appear calm and collected, “it
was just my shoelace; it had a knot in it and that was why it was
taking so long.” The cop nodded, and said, “Is this your car sir?”
In a stupid knee-jerk reaction, Del said, “No it isn’t.” – And
then realised what a huge mistake he’d made.
“And do you live locally?”
Del stood up and turned around.
The cop saw the dog collar and said, “Oh – I see that you are
a man of the cloth.”
“Correct, I am Deacon Del Morrison of St. Andrew’s
Episcopal Church on the Ashley River Road.”
“I know it well sir, my wife and I have visited your beautiful
church on more than a few occasions. Truth be known though, I
would have liked to visit more often, but my duties often occasion
me to work on the Lord’s Day.”
“I understand – the pressures of modern-day living show no
regard for what day of the week it is.”
“True enough sir,” said the cop. He paused for a second and
then said, “Do you mind me asking what brings you to this side of
town?”
“Not at all, I run a small Christian bookshop in Calhoun
Street, and I was visiting my regional manager who lives a few
doors from here.” He nodded down New Street in the direction of
his boss’s house.
“Strange,” said the cop with a frown, “Calhoun is on my beat,
but I don’t recall seeing your establishment.”
Del smiled and said, “That’s not surprising officer er…”
“Beauregard Jackson sir.” The cop extended his right hand
and said, “I am pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“Two very distinguished southern names,” said Del. He took
the offered hand and said, “And likewise, I am pleased to make
your acquaintance Officer Jackson.”
“No need to be so formal between us,” said Jackson, “we are
both officers in our own way, me of the people, you of God, so I’d
be pleased if you’d call me Beau.”
“Why thank you Beau, I’d be delighted. I am Del.” He shook
the cop’s hand and then let go.
“Now as I was saying, it’s not surprising that you haven’t
seen my establishment in Calhoun, because it is attached to
Hildebrand’s Candy Store, and everybody notices that instead.”
Jackson smiled and said, “I have to admit to the same sir –
Del – but next time I’m passing, I’ll be sure to drop by and pay
my respects.” A moment of silence ensued and then he said,
“Okay, it was nice to meet you – now I’d better be on my way.”
“Yes, and it was a pleasure to meet you too.”
Jackson touched the peak of his cap and turned to walk away;
he then stopped and turned back.
“Please forgive my appalling manners Del; my car is just up
the street a short ways, are you in need of a lift back to Calhoun?”
Del’s mind went into turmoil; before he could think of
anything else, he said, “Thank you Beau – that would be nice.”
Fifteen minutes later, Jackson stopped the police car and looked at
Hildebrand’s Candy Store; he saw the small sign indicating the
presence of the bookshop and said, “Here we are Del. You mind
how you go – and I hope to see you at St. Andrew’s real soon.”
Del got out and thanked Jackson, who smiled and bid him
farewell. He watched until the police car disappeared out of sight,
and then turned to see if he could see a cab.
“Hey Del – I thought you were supposed to be meeting Cole
this afternoon?”
Del spun around and saw his shop assistant, Lesley-Ann,
standing in the recessed doorway. He walked over to her and said,
“I just did LA, but then…” he hesitated as he tried to think of a
reason for being at the store, “…I remembered that I’d left my
new Cross pen at the store.”
“Goodness me,” said Lesley-Ann, “Janet would be less than
thrilled if you’d lost your birthday present so soon.”
“I know, why do you think that I’m here?” He followed
Lesley-Ann into the store and then disappeared into the small
office. Seconds later he re-emerged and said, “Got it!” and headed
for the door. He turned and said, “See you tomorrow.”
“Wait,” said Lesley-Ann, “before you go, what did Cole
say?”
Del looked at his watch, saw that it was getting close to 5pm,
and knew that Janet would be wondering where he was. He said,
“Can we talk about it tomorrow? If I don’t leave now I’m going to
get caught up in the downtown traffic.”
“No problem.” Lesley-Ann looked at her watch and said, “I’ll
close up now and you can give me a lift to Wragg Mall.”
Del knew that his car was parked in the opposite direction; he
faltered and said, “Sorry LA, I can’t. Janet dropped me off and
she’s driven to Fulton Five to book a table for our anniversary
dinner.”
“Oh how romantic,” said Lesley-Ann, “when is it?”
Del’s heart sank. It was September and he knew that their
anniversary wasn’t until February – but he was in a hole, and
digging. He smiled and said, “Next week, on the nineteenth.”
“In that case I must get you a card!”
“No, please don’t,” said Del, “we don’t do cards, we think
that it’s… it’s er, exploitation by the card manufacturers.”
Lesley-Ann said, “Oh tosh Del! It’s just my way of saying
congratulations to two of my favourite people.”
“Really,” said a desperate Del, “you know what Janet’s like
when she gets an idea in her head.”
Lesley-Ann faltered and then said, “Okay, whatever you
think.” She hesitated and then added, “Never mind about the lift,
the walk’ll do me good. Say ‘Hi’ to Janet for me, and tell her that
I’ll see her next week as arranged.”
Del’s heart sank even lower. He said, “You’re seeing her next
week?”
“Yes, she’s introducing me to the folks at St Andrew’s.”
Del was distraught. He couldn’t think straight anymore and
said, “Okay, I’ll tell her.
Lesley-Ann followed Del to the door and locked it behind
them. She headed off down Calhoun and said, “Bye – see you
tomorrow.”
Del smiled and waved, and waited by the shop until he was
sure that Lesley-Ann couldn’t see him. He then walked down
Calhoun at a brisk pace, turned into King Street, and hailed a
passing cab. Within fifteen minutes he was back at the top of New
Street.
He looked down its length to see if Officer Jackson was about
and then walked back to his car, and climbed in. As he sat there,
the folly of the day flooded into his mind. He closed his eyes and
leaned his head back on the headrest. He couldn’t believe how
stupid he’d been. First for driving away from the scene of the
accident, second for denying that he’d been the owner of the car
to Beau Jackson, and third for telling Lesley-Ann a pack of lies
that could be exposed within a week.
In an agitated state of mind, he looked at his watch and
gasped at the lateness of hour. He switched the engine on and
engaged drive. He failed to check his mirror, failed to indicate
left, and then pulled out and knocked a passing woman off her
bicycle.