by Michael Kingswood
The shriek that left the girl’s mouth was guttural, profane, and inhuman. A roar from the Pit of Hell itself, something that her vocal cords could never have produced on their own.
Joseph knew the sound well; he had been evoking it from demons for years.
The girl was fifteen, wearing a sweat-dampened and torn yellow-white nightgown, and writhed against the bonds he had placed on her wrists and ankles, keeping her tied down to the little four-poster bed that dominated the bedroom where he stood.
She would have been beautiful, except she had shaved the sides of her head and dyed her hair a mix of pink and blue and green, and inset garish ear gages that distended the lobes of her ears grotesquely. She had pierced her nose and her tongue, and probably other places as well. Through a tear in the sleeve of her nightgown Joseph could see the ink of at least one profane tattoo on her arm.
But as much as she had disfigured herself, the demon had done worse. It fought against the spiritual bonds Joseph was throwing at it as much as the physical, and it had twisted her face into something bestial, human only in its most basic structure. Her teeth, grown razor sharp, snapped at the air, trying futilely to get at him, and she—or rather, the demon—gazed at him through eyes that were completely black except for burning red pupils, filled with an all-consuming hatred.
Not just hatred for him, but for all humanity. And for God Himself.
Another surge against the bonds, and again they held. But the sulfurous stink surrounding the possessed girl increased, and Joseph knew he must act quickly. He drew a breath.
“Pater noster, qui es in caelis. Santificetor, nomen tuum.”
The demon shrieked again as the words of the Lord’s Prayer filled the room, louder than Joseph could have spoken them on his own. He felt the power of God flowing through him as he called upon the Father in the name of the Son, amplifying his prayer and focusing the words.
The Latin wasn’t necessary. Papal writ had changed that decades ago, but even if it hadn’t, it was the meaning of the words and the faith behind them that were the weapons Joseph wielded. But Joseph liked the Latin; it brought him closer to the power of the Logos, the living Word.
And the demons always seemed to feel its punch stronger than from the vernacular. So he used it.
He finished the prayer and pulled out a vial from the pocket of the black robes he wore.
“In the name of God and by the power of Jesus Christ,” he said, unstoppering the vial, “I command you to begone!” He shook the vial, letting holy water splash onto the girl’s face.
The water hissed to steam as soon as it struck, and the demon’s shriek amplified again. It arched upward, flailing wildly until only the back of the girl’s head and the heels of her feet were touching the mattress.
“Begone!” Joseph shouted, and made the sign of the cross in the air between himself and the beast.
As he completed the cross, the beast let out another shriek, this one long and drawn out. But this time it gradually grew more quiet. Not like it was shouting its defiance any less forcefully, though. More like it was continuing to shriek but being drawn away down a long and distant tunnel, until the last of its cries became nothing more than a faint echo.
There there was silence.
The girl’s body collapsed back onto the bed, her limbs spread limply and her hair, what little of it there was, soaked with sweat and plastered about her head.
Her chest rose and fell in long slow breaths, and her head lolled to the right, facing Joseph. He could see her skin had reverted from the reddish tint the demon had lent it, and her jaw was less distended, back to its normal shape.
Joseph watched her closely for a moment, then reached out and parted her lips.
Reaching up to her eye, he lifted the eyelid to peer beneath. White sclera.
He withdrew his hand and inhaled. The odor of sulfur had faded, leaving only the frankincense he had lit at the start of the ritual.
The girl stirred and made a little whimper.
Joseph replaced the vial of holy water into his pocket and withdrew a different vial, this one filled with a a translucent gold-yellow liquid. Unstoppering the vial, he dripped some of the anointing oil onto his fingers, then reached down again.
“Ego te absolvo e pecatis tuis,” he said, and began drawing the sign of the cross on the girl’s forehead with the oil, “in nomini patri, et filii, et spiritus sancti.” He withdrew his hand again and restoppered the vial. “Amen.”
The girl, still asleep, let out a sigh, and tension seemed to leave her body as it slumped back into full relaxation.
“Rest, child,” Jospeh said. Replacing the vial in his pocket, he took a moment to untie the girl’s bonds, then he turned toward the bedroom door.
The living room outside was cramped; but then so was the family’s entire apartment. A threadbare couch, faded to grey from years of use, rested against the wall to Joseph’s right, a darkly-stained wooden coffee table in front of it.
The girl’s mother, late 30s and full figured, was kneeling between the two, her elbows resting on the coffee table and her hands clutching at a rosary. Her head was lowered over the beads, her long black hair obscuring her face as she bobbed her head occasionally. She was praying frantically in Spanish.
The girl’s two brothers, one older and one younger, knelt with their mother, praying over their own rosaries, though less frantically, and perhaps less zealously, than their mother.
Her father stood apart from them; he had clearly been pacing back and forth across the worn brown carpet while his family had been praying. When Joseph entered the living room, his was the first head to turn. His round, tanned Mestizo face was lined with worry, his brown eyes red as though he had been crying, but trying to conceal the fact.
He was a working man; his jeans were stained and torn in a few places, from actual labor not from fashion, and his red and white plaid shirt needed washing as well. His wife and sons’ clothing was equally simple. No family of means, this, but they had an earnest charm that Joseph had found endearing from the start.
“Is – ” the father—Enrique—said in heavily accented English as Joseph stepped toward him, and the wife and two sons stopped their prayers and focused in on him like a laser.
Joseph nodded and answered before Enrique could finish the question. “It is done.” Then he stepped aside as the mother, followed closely by the brothers, charged the room where the girl now slept peacefully, free of the demon that had been plaguing her.
Enrique hesitated, then moved to follow them, and Joseph turned toward the apartment’s front door.
A younger man, darker than the family with a shaved head that gleamed in the electric lights of the apartment and wearing black robes like Joseph’s, stood adjacent to the door. He held Joseph’s silver crucifix-headed cane in his left hand and a his broad-brimmed black hat in his right, and a black canvas duffle bag sat on the floor at his feet. As Joseph’s eyes met his, Thomas raised a questioning eyebrow.
“Let’s go,” Joseph said, and Thomas stepped forward, holding out the cane and hat.
Joseph was just reaching out to take them when Enrique spoke from behind, bringing him up short.
“Padre,” Enrique said. “Gracias, padre.”
Joseph turned and saw the father, open tears now streaming unashamedly down his cheeks. Through the doorway to the bedroom, he could see that the girl had awakened.
Enrique held out a hand that clutched a rolled-up collection of bills. Joseph couldn’t tell all their denominations, but the outermost one was a fifty. It was a thick roll; probably several hundred dollars total.
He shook his head and cupped his hands over the money, then gently pressed it back toward Enrique until the hand and the money were both pressed against the father’s chest.
“I don’t do this for money,” Joseph said, smiling gently at the man. “And I’m not a priest.”
Enrique blinked, confusion sweeping the elation from his face. “Not a priest?” he said.
Joseph shook his head. “Just a man of faith.” And if you had any actual faith, you could have done this yourself, he didn’t say.
It was an uncharitable thought, and he hated that it had swept through his mind. But he couldn’t prevent it, all the same.
The family had all the outward signs of piety. Crucifixes above the doors, a painting of the Sacred Heart on the wall above the couch. But if this man had been the strong spiritual leader that his family needed, and that God called husbands and fathers to be, his daughter never would have fallen astray into the occult and witchcraft, and opened herself up to the servants of Satan.
Joseph chastised himself inwardly. That was easy enough for him to say. Though he had not taken the holy orders after seminary, he had made his vow of chastity. And he kept it. He had not married, and never would. Not fathered a child, and never would. He had given those parts of his life as a sacrifice to God, in order to focus on his mission. But that meant that though he knew the responsibilities and challenges a man like Enrique faced intellectually, he didn’t truly understand them in his core.
Judge not this man, lest ye be judged, Joseph said to himself.
He released the man’s hand and money, instead resting his hands on Enrique’s shoulders and giving them a gentle squeeze. Glancing toward the bedroom where the girl was already showing signs of getting back her strength, he said, “See to your daughter. She will need you.”
Enrique nodded quickly and began to pull away, but Joseph tightened his grip slightly, holding him in place.
“But more than that, she will need God. You must lead her back to Him.”
He locked eyes with Enrique, and saw that he fully understood what Joseph was saying. Both the mission he had to perform, and his earlier lack. A flash of shame, then guilt, passed through Enrique’s eyes. Then he drew himself up with a quick inhalation. He nodded more briskly, and Joseph saw the simple, earnest strength of the man. The desire to do right.
“Si, señor,” Enrique said.
Joseph nodded approval and released him. Enrique turned away and hurried back to his family.
Joseph watched them for a moment, and felt reassured that Enrique would work to set things right. Then he turned back toward Thomas, and the front door. He met his assistant’s eyes and saw the silent question there. Joseph nodded to him, and they walked out.
* * * * *
Joseph met Monsignor Bruce Hennessy in the outdoor patio of Cafe Lamierre five minutes before their appointed lunch meeting.
The Cafe was on the tenth floor of the Peninsula hotel downtown, its patio outside with a sweeping view of the surrounding cityscape and the hustle and bustle in the streets below. Though Joseph was early, Bruce had already procured a table, a glass-topped setting for two in the left rear corner of the patio.
As he approached, Joseph noticed the table was just separated enough from its neighbors as to give them a bit of privacy.
So this wasn’t just a social call between friends.
Bruce stood as Joseph reached the table. He was in his priestly habit, unlike Joseph who wore civilian attire. He wasn’t actually a priest, after all.
They were of age, but Bruce had three inches and about thirty pounds on him, and his blond hair was receding rapidly. Joseph didn’t want to think about how deep the lines on his old seminary classmate’s face had gotten; his would no doubt be deeper still. He didn’t truly feel his years yet, but he still didn’t like the reminder that they were passing.
Bruce smiled, his round face seeming to glow and his blue eyes twinkling in the sunlight as he extended his right hand to shake. “Good to see you well, Joe,” he said.
Joseph shook and found Bruce’s grip as firm and commanding as always, then pulled the brushed aluminum chair back from his side of the table and took a seat.
It was hard, unyielding, but not uncomfortable.
“And how is life in the diocese?” Joseph asked. Bruce had taken up a new post as the Bishop’s personal assistant; a prestigious position, though it did take him away from actual priestly duties. “Do you miss tending your flock?”
Bruce’s smile slipped slightly, and he gave a little shrug. “We all have our assigned duties,” he said. The drinking glasses at each of their settings were filled with ice water, and he picked up his to take a sip. “The Bishop heard about the aid you gave to the Hernandez family.”
“God aided. I was just the instrument.”
Bruce raised the glass slightly in a half-toast, acknowledging the response, then set it back on the table. Then he leaned forward, narrowing his eyes slightly. “I understand why you did not take the holy orders. But consider how much more effective you could be in your work if you accepted the Bishop’s offer of patronage.”
Joseph had to fight back a scowl. They had discussed this before, several months ago. The Bishop had offered to fund Joseph’s ministry, allowing him to devote his efforts to it full-time. He had refused then, and he had no intention of changing his mind.
“I serve God, not the Bishop.”
Bruce leaned back in his seat and frowned. “That’s unfair, Joe. The church is the bride of Christ. To separate yourself from it is – ”
“The church is the body of believers, not a worldly and corrupt bureaucracy.”
Bruce’s brows furrowed and his lips compressed. But before he could open his mouth to retort, Joseph beat him to it.
“How many sodomites and pederasts masquerading as priests has the Pope defrocked and excommunicated this month?”
Bruce blinked, his anger replaced by a flush of embarrassment. He did not reply.
Still silent, Bruce broke eye contact and looked down at his plate.
A long moment of silence dragged out. Finally, not looking up, Bruce said, “You don’t know how difficult it is, affecting change from within. But I believe the preservation of the Church is worth that struggle. I’ve been fighting the battle for years, and so has the Bishop.” He lifted his eyes again, and there was steely determination in them. “But these things take time.”
Joseph had to admire Bruce’s optimism, and his faith in this regard. He himself had given up on the Roman Catholic Church—not the faith, the organization—when he had seen its ultimate corruption back in seminary. To Joseph, it seemed like the parable of the seed thrown onto bad soil: it needed to be ripped out, root and stem, and burned to make way for something better.
But Bruce still had hope mother church could be reformed, and was determined to fight for that. And fight he had; that could not be denied.
Joseph sighed and lifted his own glass. “Until that change comes, my answer remains the same,” he said, and took a drink. “But you didn’t ask to meet me just to rehash old arguments.”
Bruce spread his hands in a “Hey, what are you gonna do” gesture. Then he leaned forward again, his gaze direct and businesslike. “The Bishop requests a favor from you.”
Joseph raised his left eyebrow.
“Not for himself,” Bruce added quickly.
“For whom then?”
“Governor Willoby – ”
Joseph interrupted him with a derisive snort, and Bruce scowled at him in return.
“Will you let me finish?”
Joseph considered. He supposed it couldn’t hurt to hear the proposal, at least. Shrugging, he made a “get on with it” gesture with his right hand.
Bruce cleared his throat. “The Governor’s nephew has been having fits. Seizures. At first they thought it was epilepsy, but the doctors haven’t been able to find a cause. As you know, the governor is a Catholic and – ”
“He encourages young women to sacrifice their babies to Moloch,” Joseph growled, “and has endorsed legislation to make those sacrifices even easier than they already are. No man who does that can name himself Christian, of any variety.”
Bruce gave him a level, long-suffering look. Consternation was written all over his face.
In truth, Joseph understood his old friend’s point of view. He was part of the system, and Willoby at least gave lip service to being of the faith. It would not do for the Bishop’s assistant, or the Bishop himself, to publicly call the man out on his sin. Might rock the boat.
Joseph knew Bruce hated that aspect of the way things were. And he could respect that. Christ would have hated it too.
But He wouldn’t have gone along with it.
Judge not, lest ye be judged, Joseph reminded himself again. Seemed he had to remind himself that often. Several times a day, at least.
With a sigh, he gestured again for Bruce to continue.
Bruce obviously ground his teeth for a second before continuing. “He often comes to the Bishop for counsel. After hearing the details, the Bishop thinks the boy’s malady may diverge into…your area of expertise.”
Well, it wouldn’t surprise Joseph if a man like the Governor was surrounded by demons, or that they would choose a member of his family to latch onto. Still, to come to the aid of a man who was an active enemy of the faith, and all the worse since he claimed to be a part of it…
Bruce must have seen the disapproval on Joseph’s face. He leaned forward again. “Joe, the boy is ten years old. Whatever you think of the Governor—and Lord knows I have issues with him too—the boy is not a party to his uncle’s sins. Probably it really is a medical condition. But if it’s not and you can help him…”
He didn’t need to finish the sentence. Joseph had already gone there in his own mind. Perhaps revealing the demonic influence on the boy, and then purging it, could be the thing to help rekindle the Governor’s own faith, and help him down the road to repentance and salvation.
After a moment, Joseph nodded. “Very well. When and where?”
Bruce smiled, and there was victory in that grin. “The boy and his family have been visiting the Governor in his mansion the last week. A car will pick you up at 7:30 tonight.”
“Thomas will come with me.”
“Of course,” Bruce said, sounding magnanimous now that they had agreed in principle. Then he smiled broadly once again, and the twinkle returned to his eye. “Well,” he said, and slapped the table lightly, “now that business is done with, you will absolutely love this place’s grilled sea bass.”
He waved his hand, and moments later a perky young brunette dressed in the Cafe’s livery appeared at their table, beaming a smile as she handed them menus.
Joseph accepted his with a feeling of resignation. He expected this evening would be trying, in any number of ways.
* * * * *
The car arrived promptly, pulling up out front of Joseph’s apartment building at precisely 7:30. Joseph looked out his front window and down two stories to where the sedan sat running while a man in a charcoal grey suit got out of the front passenger seat and walked toward the building’s entrance, and frowned.
He had on his robes and hat, and bore his cane in his left hand. It was wooden, painted black, and was capped by its silver crucifix. But there was more to it than met the eye. Still eyeing the street outside, Joseph took hold of the top of the cane, just below the crucifix, and twisted, then pulled upward.
The blade concealed within was tempered steel coated with silver everywhere except on the cutting edges, which had been sharpened to a razor’s edge. He only withdrew it a few inches, to check the smoothness of the draw. It would suffice.
Satisfied, he sheathed the sword and twisted the locking mechanism.
Beside him, Thomas watched this and raised an eyebrow. Joseph noticed the gesture and shrugged slightly.
“I don’t trust these people,” he said simply, and Thomas nodded.
“So I should bring my special gear as well?” he said.
The buzzer from the apartment’s door sounded. Joseph hesitated for a moment, considering. Then he nodded to Thomas. “Yes.”
Three minutes later, they got in the car for their ride to the Governor’s Mansion.
* * * * *
Joseph had seen pictures of the Governor’s Mansion, of course, but it was smaller in person than those pictures had made it appear. Not that he got to see much. The driver and his partner up front in the car got them through security easily enough, then pulled up to the Mansion’s side entrance.
Then a whirlwind of doors, corridors, a flight of stairs, another corridor, and a door later, he and Thomas stood in a oak-paneled study, complete with leather upholstered couch and stuffed chairs arranged around a dark fireplace, a wall of bookshelves stocked with tomes beyond counting, and a massive wooden desk at the end of the room before a broad window overlooking the Mansion’s grounds.
The place smelled slightly of pipe smoke, and bourbon.
Governor Willoby stood in front of the fireplace, holding a glass filled with two fingers of the dark amber liquid that Joseph’s nostrils had detected, and wearing an expression on his face that was welcoming, if not warm. His greying black hair was cut short and his hazel eyes were narrow. He was in his shirtsleeves and his tie was loosened, and much like the Mansion itself Joseph was struck by how much smaller he appeared in real life than he did on the TV screen.
“Father Joseph,” Willoby said, and stepped forward, extending his right hand. “Good of you to come.”
Joseph took the Governor’s hand and found his grip clammy, but firm. “Any friend of the Bishop is a friend of mine,” he said, sounding lame even to his own ears. He gestured toward Thomas, who had lingered by the door to the study as Joseph took the lead. “This is my assistant, Thomas.”
Willoby let out a half-chuckle, pretending at least to see the humor in Joseph’s quip. He nodded to Thomas and turned to his right, sweeping out his arm to take in the man, woman, and child sitting on the couch. Joseph immediately picked out the family resemblance between Willoby and the woman. Her features were more feminine than his, of course, and she was a good ten years his junior, but their common parentage was obvious from the shape of her nose, the line of her chin.
And by those same sharp hazel eyes that examined Joseph, and then Thomas, closely.
“My sister Bethany, her fiancé Carl, and her son, Tim,” the Governor said.
Carl rose. He was a bear of a man, looming a full head taller than Joseph and with muscles that strained the blue polo shirt he was wearing. Joseph recalled hearing somewhere the man had played rugby in his youth, and his ears showed it; the right one had a gap between the top of the lobe and where it would normally have fastened to his skull. A little too much tugging in the scrum pile, no doubt.
“Hello, Father,” Carl said, and crushed Joseph’s hand in his own. He had to fight not to wince at the sheer force of the man’s grip.
“Just Joseph, please,” he said, smiling with what he hoped was reassurance. “I’m not actually a priest.”
Both Carl and the Governor blinked in surprise. They exchanged glances that suddenly looked doubtful.
“I don’t – ” Willoby began, but a snort from his sister cut him off.
“Really, Ernie, you didn’t listen to your friend the Bishop at all, did you? He told you that just this morning.” Rolling her eyes in bemusement over her brother’s antics—or what she apparently considered antics anyway—Bethany also rose. But she didn’t offer her hand, instead helping her son to his feet.
He was small for ten. Sandy haired. Green eyes. He fidgeted, like he was nervous, and he had on an X-Men t-shirt and khaki cargo shorts.
“Say hello to Joseph, Tim,” Bethany said, standing behind him and giving his shoulders a gentle squeeze with her hands.
Tim just shrugged slightly and looked down at the floor. Clearly he was uncomfortable, but whether from the situation as a whole, Joseph’s presence, or both was impossible to tell. Yet.
“Good evening, Tim,” Joseph said, shifting his attention fully to the boy. There didn’t offhand seem to be anything more to his demeanor than what Joseph would expect. Nor did he sense any of the blatant telltales of a demonic presence.
But that wasn’t enough to rule it out, either.
He looked from the boy back up to his mother. “When did the episodes first begin?”
Bethany gave a little shrug. “Two months ago? Three? We’ve been to every doctor, but…” She left the rest unsaid. No need to restate things.
Joseph nodded, then he looked back at Willoby. “I will need to speak with the boy and examine him. It will be easier if we have some privacy.”
Willoby blinked. “Examine him?”
Joseph smiled in a manner he hoped was comforting. “Spiritually.”
Willoby and his sister exchanged glances, conferring without speech.
Carl killed whatever rapport they had by chuckling softly and saying, “Well you guys aren’t priests, so he should be safe enough alone with you.” His tone was flippant, like he found the joke incredibly funny.
Joseph stared at him. Carl’s smile lessened, then faded completely. He swallowed and made an apologetic shrug.
“We’ll be right outside,” Bethany said, and walked past Jospeh toward the door. As she passed Carl by, she shot a glare at him that would make a palm tree wilt at a hundred paces.
Carl, looking glum, turned to follow her out.
Willoby did the same, but he looked, if anything, amused by the whole interchange. Once past the door frame he turned and smiled back at Joseph, then he pulled the door to with a solid thunk.
Joseph tried to put his annoyance with Carl aside as he turned back to Tim. He needed to be on his game, and not encumbered by any vice, during the examination.
He gestured toward one of the stuffed chairs, and Tim sat back down. Joseph did the same. He leaned forward, placing his elbows on his knees and watching the boy closely.
“Does your mother bring you to church? Do you know your prayers?”
“Then pray with me, please.”
The boy lowered his head and clasped his hands together.
Joseph began the examination.
* * * * *
Joseph waited until Carl had led Tim out of the study and sufficiently down the hall so there was no chance the boy could hear what he had to say, then he turned to where Willoby and his sister stood waiting anxiously in front of the study’s desk.
He put on a reassuring smile. “I can’t see any signs of demonic interference.” And thank the Lord that was the case.
Bethany let out a breath she had been holding, and pressed a hand to her mouth. “You’re certain?”
Then he was being crushed in her arms, as she threw herself across the space between them and hugged him. In his ear, he heard her say, “Thank you.”
Joseph shifted on his feet, uncomfortable by the sudden contact. She was an attractive woman, and vow of chastity or no, he was still a man. He needed as little temptation as he could manage.
Carefully taking her by the forearms, he pressed her back from him and smiled. “You’re welcome,” he said, then carefully guided her away from himself by turning to the right and nudging her toward the door.
She seemed to understand the source of his reluctance to touch her, and her lips turned upward ever so slyly. She held his gaze for a moment, then turned to follow her fiancé and her son as Carl led the boy away to bed.
Joseph took a moment to collect himself, clearing his throat. Then he looked sidelong at Thomas, who had an amused expression on his face—no vow of chastity for him—and nodded toward the door. Time for them to go as well.
Thomas smirked slightly then hefted the duffle bag of equipment he always carried on their excursions and stepped out of the room.
Joseph moved to follow, but Willoby’s voice brought him up short.
“A moment, Joseph,” the Governor said.
Joseph turned back around to look at the man. He was frowning slightly, not looking at Joseph but rather watching the retreating back of his sister as she moved away down the hall.
“There is no doubt in your findings?” Willoby asked.
Joseph shrugged slightly. “The only certainties in life are death, taxes, and God’s love,” he said, earning a look of amusement from the Governor. “But no, I have no doubt. No demon has come near that boy, thanks be to God.”
Willoby nodded slowly. “Good,” he said. Then he drew himself up and gave a more firm nod of his head. “Good,” he said, in a more settled tone.
Joseph narrowed his eyes. “Beg your pardon, Governor. But you sound almost disappointed.”
“What? No.” Willoby looked askance at Joseph for a second, then smiled sheepishly. He flushed a little. “No, but I was hoping the boy’s ailment would be something simple to cure. Now…” He let the thought die off, and made a vague gesture with his hand.
Joseph sniffed. “Be grateful all it is is a physical problem,” he said. “The consequences of a demonic intervention are far worse, and far more long-lasting.”
Willoby looked sidelong at him, then nodded. “You’re right of course.” He sniffed out a half-laugh. “The politician in me, just looking at the physical.” He sounded like a man who was trying to convince himself of something he didn’t really believe; or of a man who was trying to put on that he believed it for another’s benefit.
Either way, Joseph wasn’t buying it, and that just sealed his opinion of the Governor.
He was a fool.
“Well, just in case, here is my card,” Joseph said. He reached into his pocket, pulled out two of his business cards, and held them out to WIlloby. “If anything happens with the boy, call me. There’s one for your sister as well.”
Willoby took the cards and nodded. “Thank you, Joseph.”
“My pleasure, Governor.”
Then he turned and left the room, Thomas in tow. It was well past time he was out of there, and back home to his ministry, and real work.
* * * * *
Joseph woke up to his phone ringing.
At first he couldn’t figure out what was going on and where he was, he was that groggy. He looked around at the the dark room surrounding him, shapes all blurry and non-distinct, and came up with nothing.
Then he zeroed in on the noise that had woken him: his personalized ring tone, Holst’s Mars.
He snapped to focus and registered where he was. His apartment. He flailed his arm across to his nightstand and found his phone, which was still ringing. Pressing the answer button, he lifted it to his ear.
“Joseph?” The voice was masculine, and vaguely familiar. “It’s Carl, Bethany’s fiancé.”
Joseph’s eyes widened in the darkness, and he sat bolt upright in bed. “What can I do for you, Carl?”
“Bethany’s gone. So is Tim. And Ernie too. I asked the security people where they went, but they won’t tell me anything. I found your card in the trash can in our bathroom, and…” His voice was plaintive. Scared. “You haven’t heard from them have you?”
Joseph pulled the phone away from his ear and looked at the time display. 2:45 AM. He sighed and rolled his eyes, then put the phone back to his ear. “No, Carl, I haven’t. I’m not in their social circuit, you know?” He was fighting to suppress annoyance—anger, almost—at the interruption of his sleep cycle, and failing.
“Well, it’s just that I overheard them saying something before we all went to bed. Something about a ritual? I thought maybe it was something to do with you, and…”
An icy shard of dread skewered Joseph’s belly.
“Bethany has a cell phone, yes?”
“Is it there, or does she have it with her?”
A pause, then he replied, “It’s not here. Why? What’s going – ?”
“Give me her cell number, and yours. I’ll call you back in ten minutes.”
“I don’t under – ”
“Give me the numbers!”
* * * * *
Thomas picked up before the end of the first ring.
Joseph pulled the phone away from his ear and looked at it in bemusement for a second. Did the man never sleep? Then the gravity of the situation struck him again, and he got back to business. “I need you to trace the location of a cell phone. Right now.”
“What? Joe, that’s not exactly – ”
“It’s Bethany’s phone, Tim’s mom. I think something horrible is about to happen.”
A heartbeat’s pause, then all protest left Thomas’ voice. “Give it to me.”
* * * * *
Saint Paul’s Cathedral was ten blocks east of the Governor’s Mansion. At that time of night, it was dark, and shut up tight as a drum.
Or at least, it was supposed to be.
As Joseph and Thomas pulled to a stop in front of the cathedral, though, they saw a dim light shining through some of the stained glass windows on the building’s side.
From the passenger seat, Joseph looked sidelong at Thomas. “You’ve got your special gear, yes?”
Thomas nodded, his lips compressing into a look of grim competence, and he patted Joseph on the left shoulder. He felt some of that special gear stick into place.
“Then let’s go.” Joseph opened his door and stepped out into the night.
He was just turning toward the Cathedral’s front door when he spied a set of headlights down the street ahead. They were approaching, and approaching fast. They resolved into a sedan—a Cadillac?—that was far exceeding the speed limit as it careened down the street toward the Cathedral.
Joseph’s hand went unconsciously to the grip of his cane sword even as he considered the only person the driver could be.
The car skidded to a stop across the street and the door opened, and Joseph’s suspicion was confirmed.
Carl sprinted across the street and met up with him and Thomas in front of Thomas’ car. He was breathing heavily, and bent over to put his hands on his knees as he caught his breath. Joseph looked at him askance. Not enough time exercising since rugby, apparently.
“I told you to stay put, and let us handle this,” he said.
Carl looked up at him—first time for that—and shook his head. “No way. If Bethany and Tim are in trouble, I’m helping.”
Joseph appreciated the thought, but he had the sinking suspicion they both weren’t in trouble. Still, hard to argue with a spirit that was willing. He reached out and clapped Carl on the shoulder. “Very well. But keep back and let me take the lead.”
Joseph looked away from him to Thomas. “We’ll take a side entrance. Can you get the door open?”
Thomas grinned, then he strode quickly toward the side of the Cathedral, disappearing into the gloom as he made his way down the length of the structure.
Joseph moved to follow, but paused when he felt Carl’s hand on his arm. He looked back to see the man staring at him with a strange look, a mixture of confusion, disbelief, and shock.
“Your assistant knows how to pick a lock?”
Joseph smiled thinly. “We don’t have the funds to do this full time. Thomas is a man of God, yes. But he’s also a private investigator. That’s how he knew how to locate Bethany’s phone. He’ll get us into the building.”
Carl’s hand dropped off his arm as the man’s eyes widened even further.
Joseph turned away, moving quickly to follow Thomas around the building to its side entrance.
Behind him, he heard Carl moving to catch up.
“So you’re not a full-time whatever-you-are either?”
Joseph shook his head. “Correct.”
“What are you then?”
He paused for a second, then looked back at Carl. “I’m a freelance computer game programmer. I’ve written code on probably every game you’ve played in the last five years.”
Carl’s mouth dropped open. “Seriously?”
He hurried to catch up with Thomas.
By the time Joseph reached him at the side entrance, Thomas had the door unlocked and cracked open. They gathered briefly outside, and Joseph reaffirmed that Carl would hang back. Then, one by one, they slipped through the partly-open door into the dark interior of the Cathedral.
Except it wasn’t all that dark.
There were candles planted all over the sacristy, not the creamy-white candles used during mass but red and black, waxy candles that gave off thick black smoke as they burned and dripped wax freely onto whatever they had been set upon. All the same, the candles cast a good light, bathing the alter area in a golden glow that should have looked pure, serene.
Except that the light also illuminated the desecration that had been done there.
Either blood or red paint—most likely the later—had been drawn all over the marble stones making up the floor. It was impossible to make out all the details unless one were high up, but Joseph had seen enough in his study of demonology and the occult to know what the design had to be. A pentagram surrounding the alter, and the glyphs corresponding to the names of the cherubs and archangels who had followed Lucifer in his revolt.
And, tied to the top of the altar, stripped down to his underwear, was Tim.
He was asleep, somehow. Probably drugged from the stiff way he lay. Red designs had been drawn on his torso and legs as well. But his chest still moved; he was alive.
Joseph thanked God for small miracles.
A group of four people were gathered around the altar, one on each side. Two of them were concealed by cowled red robes. But the other two were plain to see, dressed as they were in the same civilian attire Joseph had seen them in earlier this evening: Willoby and his sister.
Behind him, Joseph heard Carl gasp in horrified shock as he took in the scene ahead of them, and he knew he would have to act quickly or the rugby man would rush in and possibly spoil everything in his inexperience.
So, leaving stealth to the wind, Joseph straightened and, using his cane with his left hand, he strode down the aisle between the pews in the cathedral’s side chamber.
“Looks like you really were disappointed after all, Governor,” he said, in a voice that carried easily throughout the building. He thanked God for the help with his volume, but also thanked acoustics.
The four people around the altar gave a collective jerk, and all eyes turned toward Joseph. He sensed surprise, fear even, from the two cowled men. From Willoby and Bethany….nothing. Though they did watch him come with eyes that showed at least some level of discomfort with his sudden appearance.
Willoby glanced to his side at the nearest of the cowled men, who looked back at him. The Governor nodded.
Both cowled men charged at Joseph. Between one step and the next, they produced long, curved daggers from inside their robes, and they separated so as to get on either side of him. No doubt they intended to flank him and then skewer him. Probably thought it would be easy.
No such luck.
He twisted his hand on the grip of his sword cane, unlocking it, then whipped it upward. The scabbard, as freed from the locking mechanism as the blade was, flew forward and upward toward the charging man to Joseph’s left.
He only had time to blink in surprise before the floor end of the scabbard—capped in iron—struck him full in the face.
The man staggered backward, his hands rising to his suddenly broken nose and shattered teeth.
And then Joseph was surging to his right, shifting his sword to his right hand smoothly with a technique he had practiced many times during his saber fencing days in High School and Undergrad.
He whipped the blade around, and suddenly the second cowled man, who a moment before was so certain he was about to skewer Joseph alive, found himself cut in three separate places on his arm, shoulder, and upper thigh.
None of the cuts were deep enough to be fatal, or at least Joseph tried hard to ensure they would not be. He had no desire to condemn the man to hell without allowing him time for repentance. But they were painful, and he dropped the knife from an arm that must have suddenly lost all strength.
A kick later, the man went down on his back, writhing and moaning.
The first man had recovered, and he continued his charge. But he was off balance from the sudden resistance, and it was easy to sidestep his attack.
And that left the back of his knee open to a hamstring cut.
Joseph turned away from the two groaning underlings and found Willoby and his sister had moved to stand next to each other on the opposite side of the altar from him. He ascended the two stairs separating the sacristy from the rest of the Cathedral’s interior and lifted his sword, pointing the tip, stained red from their underlings’ blood, at them.
“You’ve been trying to give him to Satan’s minions for three months now, but you haven’t succeeded.”
They didn’t try to deny it. The Governor simply shrugged. “Apparently small offerings weren’t enough. We weren’t sure, though, until you verified it.”
“Enough for what?”
Willoby smiled broadly. “I’ve accomplished great things here in this State. When I’m President, I’ll accomplish even more. I can be the man to finally drag this country out of the doldrums of its past and into a glorious new future.”
“So you would sacrifice your own flesh and blood. Give your nephew,” he turned his eyes toward Bethany, “your son, to the Prince of Lies in exchange for four years in a political office?” He didn’t even try to keep the contempt from his voice.
They were pathetic creatures, the both of them. If they were not also pure evil, and if they did not wield some real power in this world, it would be laughable.
Bethany surprised him by laughing. “He’s not my son, you fool,” she said, condescending scorn filling her voice. “I bought him from a dealer when he was an infant.” Her lips turned upward into a sadistic smile. “He’s been very useful, over the years, as a plaything for campaign donors and the like. But he’ll be too old to be appealing soon.”
Joseph’s stomach roiled in revulsion as the full import of her words struck him. She could not mean –
But she did. The burning light in her eyes told the truth, plain as day. She had given the boy to be used in every conceivable way—and ways Joseph knew he could not conceive of and did not want to—and now was willing to cast him aside, into the very fires of Hell itself, for just a little bit more power for herself and her brother.
Except that’s not how it worked. Not when Joseph was around.
He maneuvered around the altar toward them, and they backed away. Just far enough.
“Carl!” he said over his shoulder, not taking his eyes from the satanic couple.
Bethany’s eyes went wide when he said the name, and wider still when she must have seen the big man emerge from the shadows behind Joseph and stalk up toward the altar.
He could hear Carl’s footsteps against the floor stones, and Bethany’s face twitched with each one. Her mouth flopped open and shut like a drowning fish’s as she clearly struggled to find words of explanation but came up with none.
Joseph advanced again, coming to the far edge of the altar now. The brother and sister retreated as he moved, and Carl now should have full access to Tim.
“You got him?” he asked.
Behind him, Carl grunted, then said, “Yeah.”
“Get him out of here. Hurry.”
Willoby grinned. “Yes, do hurry.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a transmitter of some kind, which he raised to his lips.
“This is Governor Willoby. My nephew has been abducted.”
The dismay that had settled over Bethany’s face lifted when her brother’s words reached her ears. She grinned at Joseph in triumph.
Behind him, Carl’s running footsteps were growing softer, heading toward the side door they had come in from.
“Give my regards to your master,” Joseph said.
Then he turned to run after the big man, pausing only to pick up his sword cane’s case where it lay on the floor.
* * * * *
“Lose your cell phone,” Joseph said over his shoulder, to where Carl sat in the back seat with Tim. “They can track it.”
Thomas was driving, keeping to the speed limit but still making time away from the Cathedral and toward the other side of town, where Joseph’s apartment was located.
Carl met his eye and nodded, then rolled down his window and tossed his phone out into the night.
“Good. You’re going to need to run. You and Tim both. They’ll be looking for you. If they catch you, you’ll be lucky to be arrested and thrown in prison. More likely they’ll just kill you.”
Carl looked like he wanted to argue against that assertion, but then he couldn’t. He nodded, his eyes haunted as he began to fully comprehend the situation he was in.
Tim as well.
Thomas spoke up. “Don’t use the ATMs. Don’t use credit cards. Do you have a place you can go, friends you can contact, that Bethany doesn’t know about?”
Carl considered, then shook his head. “No. She knows everything. I – She – ” He bent forward in his seat then, resting his elbows on his knees and placing his head in his hands. “Oh God!” he cried, disbelief conflicting with horror and fear and anger and a dozen other emotions as he let out a long, hard scream.
Joseph traded glances with Thomas, and Thomas nodded. They had not faced this exact kind of situation before, but they had dealt with similar needs, at least. Thomas would be able to hook Carl up with enough to keep him safe, at least for a few days.
A few days was all they needed.
* * * * *
Bruce went for a three mile run at five o’clock every morning. It had been his routine since Joseph first knew him in seminary, and he kept it up religiously.
Sometimes Joseph wondered whether he even prayed as religiously as he ran.
Most days, he would have thought that question uncharitable. Not today.
Joseph waited in the bushes on the side of the diocese rectory that housed the door Bruce always took to go in and out on his morning runs. And sure enough, at the same time he always did, the monsignor came puffing into view, still cooling down from his jog.
Bruce stopped almost directly in front of Joseph and lifted one leg. He reached behind his back to grab his foot and pulled back to stretch his quadriceps.
It was then that Joseph stepped out into view.
“You set me up, Bruce.”
“Wha – ?” Bruce said, surprise sending his voice an octave higher than normal as he tried to spin around. He failed and lost his balance, stumbling forward two steps before he righted himself.
“Joe,” he said, finally recognizing Joseph as he drew nearer. “What are you talking about?”
“Willoby and his sister. They’re Satanists. Tried to make a sacrifice for more power, but weren’t successful. Couldn’t figure out how to get it right…until you sent me to be their stooge.”
Bruce’s eyes widened, and he shook his head. “That’s crazy.”
“Did you know?”
“Did you know?” It came out as a roar, and Joseph hurled himself forward at his old friend.
The force of their meeting threw Bruce backwards, and never mind the extra height and weight he had over Joseph. His back struck the bricks of the rectory’s outer wall, and Joseph pressed in against him. He hadn’t realized he’d done it until he saw the silver crucifix up alongside Bruce’s face, but he had drawn half a foot of his sword cane free, and the razor’s edge lay across Bruce’s windpipe, a breath away from cutting him.
Bruce saw it too, and his face paled. He knew Joseph’s sword cane. He had been with Joseph when he bought it, way back in seminary.
He hadn’t realized it was actually a weapon until he’d gotten it back to their dorm.
Bruce spoke rapidly. “Swear to God, Joe. On my mother’s soul, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
That meant something. Bruce could be flippant about some things. But he esteemed his mother more than any other man Joseph had ever met.
Joseph leaned in closer. Bruce’s panicked breathing was hot on his face.
“Did he know?”
He didn’t need to say who. Bruce knew immediately; it showed in his eyes.
Willoby often sought his counsel. Bruce had said that himself, at their lunch meeting. If that were the case, if Willoby and the Bishop were truly close friends…
Bruce shook his head quickly. “I don’t know,” he said, his voice trembling, barely above a whisper.
It was the abject, mortal terror in Bruce’s voice that woke Joseph up to what he was doing. How close he was coming to crossing a line that he could never step back over.
Joseph moved back, releasing Bruce and letting his sword slide fully home into its case. He raised his free hand, palm open and out toward Bruce, and retreated again.
“I’m sorry, Bruce.”
Bruce raised his hand and touched his fingers to his throat, where the cutting edge of Joseph’s weapon had threatened. He looked at his fingertips as he pulled them away, and looked relieved when they came away clean.
“S’ok,” he said in a tone that didn’t sound like he really meant it. “Seems like you’ve been through a lot.”
How much, Bruce didn’t truly know. But he would. Joseph gave him as stern a look as he could. “You need to look into your boss. There’s a good chance he’s working for the enemy.”
Bruce shook his head in denial.
“Willoby is going down. Hard. If the Bishop is on the wrong side, he will too. Make sure you don’t go down with him.”
Then he turned and walked away.
Behind him, Bruce regained some of his vocal strength. “What do you mean, he’s going down?”
“Look on YouTube and BitChute in forty-five minutes.”
* * * * *
Thomas is a private investigator, not a soldier. His special gear is high resolution audio and video recording equipment, and remotely piloted drones.
When he slapped the body camera onto Joseph’s shoulder, it had immediately begun recording. Then he had sent a drone into the Cathedral after Joseph and Carl entered, and got a birds eye view recording of everything that went down as well.
A couple days of editing, and it was ready to go. Joseph had just given him the thumbs up to release it right before he’d gone to meet up with Bruce.
When Joseph said Willoby was going down, he meant it. There was no way he could recover politically from that scene. Desecration of the Cathedral was bad enough. But the things he and his sister had admitted to…
He might not go to jail.
Scratch that. No way he would ever go to jail.
But he was done politically.
And once the video was released, there was no way Carl could get in trouble for kidnapping, or that Bethany could try to argue for continued custody of Tim.
So all’s well that ends well.
Joseph tried to tell himself that was enough. That he should take the win and be happy about it.
Then he looked over his shoulder at the diocese building, and a righteous fury filled his chest. If the Bishop truly had been involved, he would have to answer too. And he would.
A collection of Michael Kingswood’s stories were published and are available here: