Chapter One (Saturday, March 16)

Adelphi Gaillardia turned the custom Bennitti armchair a full hundred eighty degrees and sat down.  He leaned slightly forward to provide a better view through the window.

Winter had yet to fully relinquish its grip on the expansive grounds below, but an army of groundskeepers and warm Mediterranean breezes had left the land eager to return to life at this first harbinger of spring.  For generations Adelphi’s family had been friends with the family which owned this ancestral estate and he’d visited here many times.  His late father had contributed to the current owner’s rise on the world stage when the Roman Lake League was unknown beyond the Italian peninsula.

As Adelphi continued to survey the pleasant sight a red and yellow bird landed on the window sill immediately in front of him.  The tiny creature cocked its head repeatedly from side to side, as if fascinated by the human face on the other side of the glass.  Adelphi smiled at it.  Although he had stayed in this guest suite several times before, and had seen this species of bird many times, none had ever noticed him, much less studied him so intently.

He wondered if the bird could somehow sense what was about to take place in this room.

A knock at the door startled him and he turned to stare at it.  Since his wife was someplace else on the vast estate, touring with his two friends’ wives, he knew there was no one but him to go open the door.  As a drowning man might clutch at a rope he seized upon the thought that he didn’t really have to go through with this—that he could not be forced to go open that door.  But the thought proved not to be a rope but a thin thread, and it snapped before it could prevent his rising.  The all-consuming words which had filled his mind an hour ago compelled him up and across the room toward the gentle rapping.

With his hand on the latch Adelphi paused to take a calming breath before pulling the door open.  From the hallway an attractive young woman smiled back at him.  She wore a classic maid’s uniform and held a silver tray in both her delicate hands.  Adelphi’s eyes were drawn immediately to the three offered snifters and to the gleaming liquid they each contained.  He already knew it would be Vieux Calvados brandy, vintage 1937.

“Compliments of Signore Vicente Romani,” the maid said in Italian, as she thrust the tray toward him.

Adelphi’s hand trembled as he lifted one of the three identical glasses.  He forced a smile and even managed a slight bow.  The young woman promptly curtsied, turned to her right and glided toward the next guest suite down the hall.

Adelphi closed the door and returned to his window seat.  There he placed the brandy on a small oak table beside the chair and sat back down.  The bird was still there.

Adelphi knew more than expensive liquor covered the bottom of the snifter.  This morning’s vision, and the words accompanying it, had been as clear about that as they had been about what he had to do next.  He eyed the room one more time—then lifted the snifter and took the liquor down in two large gulps.

Surprised that the familiar taste of the Calvados had not been spoiled by what had been mixed with it, Adelphi returned the empty glass to the table.  When he did his eyes fell on the hand-written note dictated this morning by the same voice which had insisted he drink the Calvados.  He closed his eyes, leaned back…and waited.

Life had been so very good to him.  He had enjoyed much wealth and many women.  He’d been elected president of Italy by a significant majority of his fellow citizens and had enjoyed a high position within the Roman Lake League as well.  He hated to leave such a life behind.  But…the vision had been so beautiful and the words arising inside him so…persuasive!

Adelphi opened his eyes and watched the red and yellow bird as it began hopping excitedly up and down on the windowsill.  Although he didn’t know the bird’s species, always before he’d associated it with the arrival of spring, and always before he’d associated spring with the renewal of life on this beautiful green earth.  But that was before the vision had filled his guest chamber…and before the irresistible words had filled his mind…words which had offered such promise if he but accepted their offer.

As his muscle spasms began, he remembered something else from those words.  He looked over again at the suicide note and the empty snifter.  The mysterious inner voice had assured him that his two closest political allies would be seated in their own guest suites just down the hall from his, and that they would be looking out their own windows at this same pre-spring morning.  Adelphi pictured them writing their own dictated versions of the suicide note before opening their doors to the same beautiful young maid.  He wondered if sufficient time had elapsed since they’d consumed their brandies that they would be having the same difficulty breathing as he was.  If so, they would soon accompany him into whatever lay beyond.

But, as his muscles continued to tighten throughout his body, and as his thinning breath finally began refusing to inflate his lungs at all, the fact that he would not embark alone on this final journey gave little comfort.

Panic rose within him as he felt his fingers involuntarily binding him to the arms of his chair.  He wondered if he might yet be able to force open his fingers, drag himself through the door, scream for an antidote, swallow it when it came, regurgitate the poison and…and return to his lovely life!

But that flimsy fantasy faded as his fingers refused to budge.  He realized then the absolute sovereignty of the words when they had denied him the right to recant once he had accepted their offerDefeated, he ceased trying to force his fingers—or any other muscles—to obey his commands.  He simply waited.

Adelphi’s normal eyesight soon failed, but through a set of eyes he’d not known before he watched in horror as a black blob began unfurling in the air behind his feathered witness.  Despite the dread evoked by that rapidly expanding cavern he was powerless to arrest his movement toward it.  After floating past its cusp and gaining ever more speed, he came face-to-face with that for which he had exchanged his remaining years on Earth.

The words had lied!  In the bottomless pit before him no life whatsoever could exist, eternal or otherwise.  What he saw engulfing him was not eternal life as promised, but a new form of death, a death which would render the physical death he’d just suffered the highpoint of his forever, for before him lay an eternity of dying—and it had only just begun!

Chapter Two (Tuesday, March 19)

For maybe the third time this morning Daniel Goldman reached his hand deep into the wall safe at the back of his closet.  Having foreseen that guns and ammunition would one day be banned, for months he had proactively kept this safe full of thirty-eight special handgun ammunition.  Thankfully he’d had no occasion to use much of it.

Wriggling his fingers around at the back of the safe he soon confirmed it was empty—which proved his recollection of having already sent his whole stash to the shelter along with Dwayne and Catherine was not a false memory.  As he closed and relocked the safe, he shook his head at his recent descent into such obsessive behavior.

After making sure one last time that the rest of his closet remained empty, he stepped out into the sitting area of his master bedroom suite.  Four or five paces into the room he stopped, rested his fists on his hips, and surveyed his lushly furnished surroundings.  There lay the Persian rugs—and the stuffed chairs and ottomans now covered with white protective sheets.  There was the coffee table in front of the fireplace with its floral arrangements, over which Mrs. Harper had continued to fuss as recently as last night.  And at the far end of the room were the potted plants.  His personal space was as it should be—and as he wanted always to remember it.

He knew it was childish, but sometimes he regretted having learned so much about what lay ahead.  But of course, because of his calling from God, he’d had no choice but to study Bible prophecies about these times.  Using the extensive notes and commentaries of the late Rabbi Kagan Magid, he’d thoroughly robbed himself of whatever cheap bliss his previous ignorance had provided.  And because of all that knowledge he now knew beyond doubt that everything was about to change.  And for the worse.  The false Christ would now fully reveal his true nature, and a Big Brother style government would emerge to a degree never before seen on Earth.  And in response to the increasing tyranny, worldwide rebellion and anarchy would follow.  There would be global war, famine and death on such a scale that only a fraction of the world’s population would survive.  Even many true believers would not survive.  At the end of the three and a half years, Christ would return—but not until terrifying phenomena in the atmosphere and even in the solar system had signaled the climax of God’s wrath upon a world which had rejected His grace.  Yes; their future was clear—which was why Daniel had not been surprised when God, in His latest inner voice message, had told him to take his family and change addresses.

Daniel looked up at the four foot by six foot oil painting hanging above his fireplace mantle.  The portrait was of himself and Mr. Sperling.  Daniel had commissioned the painting a few years earlier from a budding artist who had become a believer.  The artist created the formal portrait using a handful of photos of the two subjects taken years earlier by Smitty, Daniel’s Investment Manager for Europe and Great Britain.  The painting captured Henry Sperling’s innate intelligence and integrity in the brightness of his eyes and the gentle contours of his smiling face.  Regarding his own portrayal—which showed Daniel smiling over at Mr. Sperling with his right hand on the older man’s left shoulder—Daniel thought he’d been portrayed as wiser and more mature than he had been at the time of the photos.  But, other than his perhaps subconscious flattery, the artist had fulfilled his commission well and professionally.

Daniel stepped over to his favorite place, his reading alcove, and scanned his book shelves to make sure none of his previously packed books had somehow found their way back to their customary places.  None had.

He next turned to the window and pulled back the drapes.  Now he was looking out on his private lake.  At the sight of its placid surface one word came to mind: yesterday.  He lifted his gaze to the copper and slate roof of the Sperling estate beyond the lake.  That now-empty mansion brought to mind a whole phrase: once upon a time.  Although he’d never thought of himself as a poet, Daniel felt he’d just captured nostalgia more perfectly in that single word and in that spontaneous phrase than if he’d struggled for hours to describe his feelings in prose.  And why shouldn’t he feel nostalgic?  Although he knew only the broad outlines of the future, what he did know was guaranteed to produce a longing for a simpler time.

Actually, it was that lack of details about the future which accounted for much of Daniel’s dread of coming events.  From Scripture he’d inferred that Vicente Romani would soon perform miracles at least as astonishing as those performed by his sidekick, Akiva Sharabani—when that so-called rabbi cast multiple, vivid visions into the air over the heads of vast audiences.  Scripture was clear that Satan would increasingly impart his own power to both his beasts in the coming days, but it offered only a few examples of the specific abilities which that power would confer upon them.  This limited revelation especially troubled Daniel now, because time had run out to seek answers as if they were merely interesting theological puzzles.  He would soon be called upon to take specific actions, and that required specific information.

A case in point was his most recent divine instruction, in which God had told him to move into the shelter in Southern Missouri, to forget all geopolitical efforts and to focus only on individuals.  That inner voice from God had been as clear as always, but it had left out the details of his new assignment—such as what he was to do after he’d moved into the shelter.

The question of scale was another troubling part of his new assignment.  Since Daniel had always possessed the necessary resources to operate on a large scale, it had always made sense to do so.  But the notion of focusing only on individuals had sounded exactly the opposite of operating on a large scale.  It had made Daniel wonder if perhaps the scale of his previous activities had never been as important to God as it had been to him.

But, on the other hand, God hadn’t told him not to operate on a large scale—which was why he’d developed a plan which would comply with God’s new directive…but in a big way.  His plan made use of a pair of talented computer-hacking brothers, and of an intriguing set of technologies they’d brought to his attention.  When fully implemented it would allow him to inform thousands if not millions of believers about what was coming next according to his understanding of Biblical prophecy.  The Hacker Brothers, as they were nicknamed, had assured him that from his new sanctuary in Southern Missouri he’d be able to reach audiences scattered throughout North, Central and South America.  That was large scale in itself.  But Daniel had quickly realized his reach would be extended even farther as people learned to trust the messages and passed them on to others.

While in exile from the Compound, Daniel would thus be following God’s directions to the letter.  He would be serving individuals—but he’d be doing so on a really big scale!  All he had to do now was learn to recognize specific ways in which prophetic events were being fulfilled in real time, so he could warn his hearers.

Unfortunately, that was the part of his plan which had yet to become clear—in stark contrast to these familiar surroundings—which lay crystal clear all around him.  And saying goodbye to them felt a lot like dying.

——–

Vicente Romani’s stomach growled as he stepped into the walk-in closet of his yacht’s master suite.  His tongue felt dry enough to crack if he tried to speak.

Not that there was anyone to speak to.  He had just come from looking out at the harbor off the coast of his ancestral estate, where his yacht was moored, and he could personally verify that he was still the only flesh-and-blood being to walk these polished decks and pristine corridors.  The internationally renowned chefs and honored guests would all board later.

From the racks and shelves of fine clothing, he selected his newest Stefano Ricci tuxedo and carefully laid it out on the dressing bench.  Next he chose a fresh Bonolos shirt with matching accessories and the Berluti-Alessandro shoes with Asberly over-the-calf socks which he believed best complemented the tux.  He placed these items beside the tux and turned to the full length mirror.  Time to review his progress.

He was extremely pleased with what he saw.  There was no doubt about his facial appearance compared with the way it had looked just two days ago, when he’d been commanded by a high-ranking Other to leave his private estate on the southern coast of Italy and go spend time alone on his yacht.  That high-ranking Other, who called himself Baal, was the one who appeared in Vicente’s mirror most frequently of late.  He also was the one who conveyed the most specific instructions.

Vicente was certainly pleased with his new face.  But of course that was only part of the test.  He dropped his robe to the floor and let his gaze travel down his nude body.  Immediately his smile widened even further.  Most impressive of all was the new muscle mass in his chest and shoulders.  And the skin across his belly was definitely tighter.  His whole body was that of a man fifteen years younger.  What he saw convinced him he’d done well some forty hours ago, when he’d done something which at one time in his life would have been unthinkable—which was to obey an order issued by someone not named Vicente Romani! 

After grinning once more at his own image he let his eyes focus deeper into the mirror, past his own reflection, where the Others normally initiated their visits.  After several seconds, seeing nothing, Vicente re-focused his gaze upon his own face.  He winked at himself.

When his mirror experiences first began, Vicente would see only his own face through which Another would speak.  In the weeks leading up to his first encounter with Baal, he’d begun to see faces looking back at him which were not his own—they were Others.  Over the course of a few minutes these faces would merge with his own reflection.

Eventually the Others began to appear as distinct faces at the outset of their visit, no longer requiring any merging process.  In time Vicente had arrived at an understanding of this progression: the Others’ degree of distinctness from himself evolved as he himself evolved toward his ultimate destiny!

A few days ago, as Vicente was pondering how to rid himself of three disloyal diplomats from Italy, Spain and Greece, Baal had appeared to him and had explained how to deal with them.  In that same visit he had informed Vicente that One even greater than himself would soon come to Vicente’s mirror.  As final preparation for this event, Vicente was to finish his business with the three diplomats as soon as possible and then board his yacht alone, where he was to remain, without eating or drinking, for forty hours.  Baal had explained that such a humbling experience was necessary before Vicente could hope to endure the Presence of One so highly exalted.

Vicente smiled at his own reflection and considered that word, humbling.  He was certainly weak with hunger, but he didn’t feel humble at all.  He felt godlike.

He focused deep into the mirror again, hoping for some image other than his own.  He still saw nothing—except for a pale grey mist slowly swirling and tumbling.

During his time alone he’d had nothing to do but think, and although the majority of his mental activity had entertained him and helped him pass the time, there had been one recurring question which troubled him.  Why did Baal instruct Vicente to dispatch Adelphi and his fellow complainers in that particular way?  Baal’s instruction to induce simultaneous suicides, using the power of Vicente’s newest evolutionary advances, was elegant indeed.  But to produce the required results, Vicente could have chosen any number of glorious promises to send echoing through the very souls of the diplomats.  So why the promise of eternal life, of all things!

Each time that question recurred during his long fast, Vicente had felt he was close to receiving some immensely significant insight…but then it would fade…leaving him frustrated.  The answer to his question still eluded him, and it still seemed immensely important.

Weary from waiting and weak from lack of food and water, Vicente was about to give up and dress for his gala when he noticed a shape gradually coalescing within the swirling gray mist.  Seconds later it began drifting toward the mirror’s surface.  Soon Vicente realized it did not actually drift.  It walked on two legs, as a man would walk.  Spellbound, he watched it draw closer and closer…until he had no doubt…this was indeed the promised new Other!  Tall and regal, and with a visage more handsome than any Vicente had ever seen, the new Other continued his stately approach until his face was pressed up against the back side of the glass.

Almost breathless with excitement, Vicente tried to speak but his parched throat betrayed him, allowing only an inarticulate squeak to emerge.  Embarrassed but determined, he spent several seconds working up enough saliva to lubricate his vocal chords.  Finally he managed to say, “Baal said you would come!”

The new Other smiled pleasantly back at him.  “Yes.  And here I am.