01: The Altarboys

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When It Happened (Chronicle Time): August 17-27, 2001

Who Was There: George Phillapoussis (Storn), Jonathan Wertham (Matt), Mark Donovin (Eric), Nemura Kentaro (Chris)

What It Was

Mary Phillapoussis, George's sister, believes she's seen her son, Ben, who died years ago. While trying to find out if Ben is still alive, the four men investigate a tragic bus accident that left several altarboys dead. The trail of evidence soon takes them to a seminary north of Grand Rapids, Michigan, where they uncover a small conspiracy of priests conducting terrible experiments.

The Full Horror

It's been two years since the auction at Christie's, but Jonathan is still having bad dreams about it. Terrible visions of serpents, and of bodies twisting and transforming. Each dream ends with the same voice screaming something at him. He thinks the voice is trying to give him a message, but Jonathan always forgets what the message is when he wakes up.

Then on August 17, 2001, he has a new dream: a wide, bone-dry, lake bed where hundreds of rabbits are digging hundreds of holes under a dusky gray sky. When at last a hole is dug, it's time to dig another one. The clouds in the sky darken, turn black, and then a sickly green. Suddenly, from out of each hole, a serpent leaps up and sinks its fangs into a rabbit. The dream ends with hundreds of screams, all of them rising and then blending together into the same horrible scream that Jonathan has dreamed so many times. Only this time the message is different. But, once again, Jonathan can't remember it when he wakes up.

Ordinary Men

A few days earlier, Mark Donovin and Nemura Kentaro are staring down the gun barrel of a disgruntled employee of Great Lakes Sales. Ken had gotten interested in a case of fraud involving one of his medical students, and he had hired Mark to help him find the man who had stolen his student's savings. The evidence led them to Michigan and a man named Michael Hase, the second husband of Mary Phillapoussis, George's sister.

When Ken and Mark met with Mary, she told them that Hase died in a car crash in April, 1999. But Mary still had some of his old files in her closet, and the documents in them helped the two men find Hase's ex-partner in crime, who was still running scams, including the one on Ken's student. When the two men then confront the man at work, he pulls a gun, thinking he can get the drop on Mark Donovin and slip away. Mark quickly takes the man down with minimal blood loss, and he and Ken assume their case is closed.

But on the day after she met with Mark and Ken, Mary thinks she sees her son, Ben. This is a serious problem, because Ben supposedly died in a terrible bus accident in May, 1999. Mary immediately calls her brother, George, who is reminded of the last time Mary said she saw her son, barely six months after the accident. The strain of losing her second husband and her son within a month had overwhelmed her, and it had been up to George to sign the documents admitting her to an asylum. She ended up staying there for nearly a year.

Mary begs George to come out to Michigan to help her find Ben. Worried that she's slipping again, George agrees, and Jonathan offers to come along to give support. A day later, George and Jonathan are in Mary's living room, hearing about Ben and about the visit she received from the "two detectives" (Mark and Ken). George wonders if their visit might have triggered Mary's sighting of Ben. Meanwhile, Jonathan is taking in all the Catholic memorabilia scattered throughout Mary's house: crosses, rosaries, votive candles, and copies of a newspaper called Credo on the coffee table.

While they're talking, Mark and Ken arrive, returning the files they borrowed. The four men meet, and when Mark and Ken hear about Ben, they are intrigued enough to agree to help George and Jonathan figure out what's going on.

An Early Grave

They start by reviewing the evidence from the accident. It had happened a few miles north of Grand Rapids, when the school bus collided with a tanker truck carrying flammable materials. Ben had been one of several altarboys on board the bus, heading for a weekend retreat at Holy Spirit Seminary. Everyone on the bus had been killed in the impact, or in the terrible fire that followed. At least, that's what the official records say. But the more the four men look into the case, the more questions they have about it.

The police report was sloppy and careless, and the officers on the case never seemed to question their first impressions. There were no autopsies of what was left of the bodies because everyone "knew" what had happened. The driver of the tanker truck had also died in the accident. He had a history of substance abuse. The police quickly declared the case closed.

The four men also decide to look into the death of Mary's second husband, Michael Hase. The police report filed on that accident is much more professional, but also strange. The car Hase was driving had slipped on a patch of black ice. But the officer who filed the report was never able to explain how a patch of black ice had been able to survive a very warm spring. He was still following that up when he and his wife moved to Kentucky. Apparently, his wife had been offered a job with the Catholic Maryknoll sisters there. Now that he was two states away, the officer had to let go of the case, and no one else in the department picked it up.

The men then go to the Grand Rapids garage that had employed the driver of the tanker truck. They meet with the dispatcher, who tells them the driver had been one of the few guys who didn't mind hauling dangerous loads. But he had gotten into a fight with another driver the night before the accident, and the incident had been too serious to ignore. In fact, the dispatcher had decided to fire the driver when he got back from that last run to Sault St. Marie, but the accident happened first.

Nonetheless, the dispatcher insists that, while the driver did do drugs on his own time, he never took anything on the job. He had been very sober the morning of the accident. And the funny thing was, the driver had still been mad about the fight the night before, and he called the dispatcher about it from a phone at a diner in Rockford, which was on his way north. The dispatcher remembers that because the accident happened four hours later and three miles south, in Belmont. The dispatcher tried to tell all this to the police, but they ignored him.

At the crossroads near Belmont, where the accident happened, not much evidence is left after two years, only a few blasted stumps. The trees and brush do obscure the lines of sight at the crossing, but not enough to explain the accident. There are no houses nearby, only fields and undeveloped land. It's a very lonely spot considering how close it is to Grand Rapids.

At Holy Cross Seminary, an elderly priest takes them to the office of Father Mark van Laaden, who runs the day-to-day operations there. Van Laaden is friendly, and he recalls how sad the accident was. He is a native of Grand Rapids, where his family was once important and influential. He left to become a missionary with the Catholic Sojourners in Zaire for a few years. Now he was back in the diocese at the request of the bishop, Thomas Donnelly.

Van Laaden remembers Ben as a morally centered young man, unlike so many his age. He and the rest of the altarboys had been "willing to give so much of themselves, offering their very bodies, their very souls, to raise a monument, a great, wonderful monument to the glory of god and his kingdom."

He has little to offer about the accident that the four men don't already know. He heard the news that day on the radio, while he was making his pastoral rounds. He went immediately to the seminary, fearing his help would be needed to tend to the injured and dying, but once he got there, he learned there had been no survivors.

On the Run

While they are still gathering evidence, George gets a frantic cellphone call from Mary, who says Ben has just turned up at St Mary's Hospital. The men pick her up and head for the hospital, where Ben is indeed alive, though barely. Ken can tell right away that something seriously wrong has been done to the boy's chi, but he can't figure out exactly what happened.

A few minutes later, Mark van Laadan and Thomas Donnolly stop by. Mary introduces them as "old friends," though George has never heard her mention them. Van Laaden helps Donnelly administer the Sacrament of the Sick (Extreme Unction) to Ben. Amazingly, the boy shows immediate signs of improvement. Skeptics that they are, the four men suspect there's something less than godly about this recovery. For the moment, though, they concentrate on guarding Mary and Ben.

The doctors want to watch Ben for a while, and Ken is able to convince the staff to let the four men stay close to his room. George and Mark take first watch, freeing Jonathan and Ken to grab a quick dinner at a nearby diner. While heading down the street, the two men meet an unstable elderly woman who tells them she had been at the seminary on the day of the accident. She insists the men are too late: "those boys are already in hell." She had seen them from the window as they came, stumbling and crying, right up to the back of the building. Then she watched them march, step-by-step, down to "hell."

It only takes Jonathan and Ken a moment to realize the woman is really talking about a basement beneath the seminary. Perhaps she would have reported what she saw to the police, but something seems to have made her mind snap before she had a chance to do that. Ken suspects she's been this way ever since.

Home, Home Again

Two days later, the doctors, amazed by Ben's recovery, say he's well enough to go home, provided Mary brings him back for regular check-ups. The four men escort mother and son back to Mary's house. Ben is still groggy, but glad to be back in his own bed.

No sooner does Mary have Ben tucked in when the men hear two tremendous crashes from downstairs. The front and back doors have just been kicked in by what passes in Grand Rapids for a "gang." Led by Mark, the four men quickly subdue the thugs, and then wonder what the hell is going on. The attack just doesn't make any sense at all. They don't expect to get anything out of the "gang," but they do manage to get a description of someone who sounds a lot like van Laaden. With nothing else to go on, the four men decide to go to the seminary and find out what is really happening there.

Us and Them

The truth is appalling. After driving up to the seminary in dead of night, the four men make their way down to the basement and discover a horrifying laboratory. Beyond the main room, there are cells to hold prisoners. The main chamber itself is dominated by a phonebooth-sized box that has a chair with straps inside it. Connected to the box are a bank of batteries and a control panel. Various pieces of laboratory equipment and documents are scattered across several tables, and after examining them for a while, Ken sees several references to "orgone" and "uranur," terms he remembers from articles by a psychologist named Wilhelm Reich. But whatever has been happening in this basement--whatever experiments van Laaden conducted on his defenseless victims--they were a monstrous abuse and betrayal of Reich's work.

Then they hear a noise from the top of the stairway. Within seconds, the men find themselves in a brutal, bloody and very surreal fight with eight knife-wielding, elderly, yet amazingly strong priests. Behind them is van Laaden, whose body literally crackles with a strange and awful blue electricity. Van Laaden manages to burn Jonathan and Mark before he and the eight priests fall. Battered and bleeding, the four men burn the seminary to the ground and head back to Mary's house.

All That's to Come

George and Jonathan are ready to head back home. Jonathan and Mark still have burns from the fight, so Ken suggests to Mark that they should all go to New York, so he can monitor their recovery, and make sure none of them are suffering effects from exposure to that strange, blue energy. Mark decides that's a good idea.

One week after the battle in the seminary, Bishop Thomas Donnolly disappears. Shortly after that, the diocese of Grand Rapids takes the very unusual step of selling the land around the seminary back to neighboring farmers.

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