A Novel by Malachi Stone
Published by Malachi Stone on Shakespir
©2012 by Malachi Stone
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without permission of the author. All the characters in this book are fictitious and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
And when they were come to the multitude, there came to him a certain man, kneeling down to him, and saying,
15. Lord, have mercy on my son: for he is lunatick, and sore vexed: for ofttimes he falleth into the fire, and oft into the water.
16. And I brought him to thy disciples, and they could not cure him.
17. Then Jesus answered and said, O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? how long shall I suffer you? bring him hither to me.
18. And Jesus rebuked the devil; and he departed out of him: and the child was cured from that very hour.
19. Then came the disciples to Jesus apart, and said, Why could not we cast him out?
20. And Jesus said unto them, Because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.
21. Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting.
Matthew 17: 14-21, King James Version.
11. And God wrought special miracles by the hands of Paul:
12. So that from his body were brought unto the sick handkerchiefs or aprons, and the diseases departed from them, and the evil spirits went out of them.
13. Then certain of the vagabond Jews, exorcists, took upon them to call over them which had evil spirits the name of the LORD Jesus, saying, We adjure you by Jesus whom Paul preacheth.
14. And there were seven sons of one Sceva, a Jew, and chief of the priests, which did so.
15. And the evil spirit answered and said, Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are ye?
16. And the man in whom the evil spirit was leaped on them, and overcame them, and prevailed against them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded.
Acts 19: 11-16, King James Version.
“There’s some serious money to be made in deliverance ministries.”
“I thought you were an exorcist.”
“Best damn exorcist you’ll ever meet. Exorcism. Deliverance. New name, new game.”
“A rose is a rose is a rose,” Mag said. “That’s Shakespeare, isn’t it?”
“How the hell should I know? The way to do it is, you find yourself a local congregation and get them to invite you in. Have them call a special meeting to meet the nice visiting pastor who’s anointed with a special gift of deliverance, see? Wednesday nights are good. Make sure to build up a little advance publicity a week or two ahead of time. Gets them all stirred up and antsy, to where they can’t help wondering whether Aunt Ethel or Little Earl might be possessed by a demon.”
“What kind of advance publicity are you talking about, Mike? It’s not like we have any money or anything.”
“Who said anything about money? A free demonstration. Like the Good Book says, seedtime and harvest. Works like a charm, but you have to watch for every opportunity and act fast if you want to plant the seed in these hayseeds. Before you know it, it’s the night of your special meeting. By eight PM or so, you’re steady working your Missouri hoodoo and popping demons out of the faithful like a teenager popping his zits in the bathroom mirror. That’s when you pass the plate a couple times, set up a table to sell literature—no, a coupla tables—and start stacking the money. Hey, did I ever tell you about vaskania? The evil eye? You ever find yourself stranded in a town with a lot of Greeks you can make some money casting out the evil Eye. I can teach you. It’s easy. Technically it’s supposed to be performed by an old woman, but hey.”
“That rules me out. Doubt there’s that many Greeks around here anyway. Where did you ever pick up all this creepy stuff, Mike?”
“From paying attention. ‘From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it.’ Quick: what’s that from?”
“What’s what from?”
“See? You’re not paying attention. You gotta know these things cold, Mag. These people we’ll be dealing with? They may be ignorant in many ways, and not smell so good, some of them—okay, all of them—but they know their Bible. They can spot a backslider at forty paces. Now tell me who it was that said, ‘From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it.’”
“I don’t know. Marco Polo?”
“I’m telling you, Mag, you go handing flip answers to these hillbillies, they’ll flag you as a poseur and run us both out of town on a rail.”
“So who said it?”
“Our ancient enemy, that’s who. Old Scratch. Captain Howdy. Lou Cypher himself.”
“Quit it, Mike. You’re giving me a headache.”
“Book of Job, first chapter. The sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan was also among them. You know what’s interesting? Some versions leave out the also. What do you think of that, Mag?”
“I think a hamburger and fries would hit the spot right about now. It must be over three hours since I’ve seen so much as a MacDonald’s along this godforsaken county road. Are we there yet?”
“You’re looking at it. The Ozark foothills. God’s country.”
“He can have it.” They passed a road sign that said Reynolds County. The face of the sign was pockmarked with buckshot, rust running down from the buckshot holes like tears tinged with blood.
“Don’t you want to hear the rest of it? So anyway, the Lord asks Satan, ‘Whence comest thou?’ They talked like that back in Bible days. And Satan comes back with the quote I just gave you. Cool, huh?”
“We’ve been driving for hours and you still come off like a coffee’d up spaz. What’s with you tonight, man?”
“Filled with the Holy Spirit, I guess.”
“Don’t blaspheme, for Christ’s sake. Especially about that.”
“This from an erstwhile riverboat casino dealer. What are you, getting religious on me all of a sudden?”
“That sixty grand a year plus tips came in handy while you were ‘building your ministry,’ as I recall. If hanging around my apartment watching Christian television all day while you drank me out of Red Bull at two bucks a pop is ‘building your ministry.’”
“You want to know what I was doing day after day, Mag? Are you the least bit interested? I was on my knees praying for inspiration, that’s what. They say Saint James spent so much time kneeling, back in the day, his knees looked like a camel’s. I know what they meant. Take a look at my knees some time, Mag. Here, reach out and touch, if you don’t believe me, Doubting Thomasina.” Mike rolled up his pant leg and offered his right knee for her inspection, taking his foot off the accelerator.
“Eew! Don’t show me that.” Mike’s knee was rough and darkened with healed carpet burns. Mag turned to look out the passenger window at the wooded landscape speeding by. She cracked the window and the cold night air rushed in.
“And I’ll tell you something else, Mag: inspiration came. God took his own good time with me, but inspiration came.”
“This is me, Mike, remember? Magdalene Murphy from Bridgeport, not one of your Hills Have Eyes hayseeds. And quit screwing around slowing down like that. We’re liable to get ass-ended out here in the ass end of—”
The crash sounded like a bomb going off. The car lurched over a deep ditch, took to the air and slammed into a dead tree on the other side. Steam hissed from under the hood and seeped through the dash.
Mike groaned once after he came to. He looked over at Mag. Her head lolled.
“Mag, you all right? Baby? You all right?” She made no answer other than a deep moan like one refusing to be roused from sleep.
“Oh, Christ! Mag! Say something!”
A heavyset man appeared at Mag’s window from out of nowhere. He looked to be around forty, with a ruddy beard but no mustache. His face was pasty and he breathed through his mouth. He wore a broadbrimmed caved-in hat that shaded his broad moon face from the moonlight and the reflected glare of the headlight against the tree trunk. “Don’t try and move ‘er yet,” he cautioned. “Best wait on the amblance.”
“Have you called 911?”
“Awready done called the 911 emergency. They went and stuck me on hold. Don’t that put the onions in yer grits?” He held up a Walmart cell phone as though in confirmation, flipping it open like a badge. “You folks ain’t from around these parts,” he added confidently.
“What was your first clue?”
“Them Illinois licen’ plates for one thing,” he said, sounding the s in Illinois.
“Are you the guy that hit us?”
“Shoot, no, I’m the good Samaritan that pulled over to hep y’all, seein’s how it’s my Christian duty n’at. Name’s Jeb.”
“You go to church, Jeb?” It had come to be Mike’s standard opening gambit since having become a self-ordained minister.
“Ever’body goes to church ‘round these parts, Mister. Lucky for you, you happened to wreck smack dab in the middle of the Bible Belt.”
“Yeah, lucky us. How far are we away from Pfisterville?”
“Pfisterville? Why, it ain’t no more’n a hog holler down this here stretch a road. You all got business in Phisterville, Mister? Don’t mean to keep calling you ‘Mister’ but I don’t rightly recollect havin’ caught your name.”
“Don’t recollect havin’ thrown it, beggin’ your pardon, Jeb. Name’s Mike. Folks call me Pastor Mike. Fact is, I’ve been invited as guest pastor by a congregation just outside Phisterville. They’ve asked me to conduct a deliverance service there next Wednesday night.” Mike, having put on a cornpone accent, chameleonlike to match his new friend’s, extended his hand toward the window across Mag’s unconscious form.
“Say, maybe I’d best try that 911 emergency number again,” Jeb said. “She’s been out a powerful long time.” Jeb turned aside to place the call. He hissed with impatience, shook his head and snapped the phone shut again. “Busy,” he said.
Mag stirred, so subtly that only Mike could hear. Something, the same sense that showed him the next card, had already tipped him off that she was alive and waiting. Waiting, listening and holding her breath until she knew the shot. Seedtime and harvest. Mag was one smart chick. Mike pretended to take her pulse, pressing against her jugular with his right index and middle fingers.
“How she doin’?” Jeb asked.
Mike stared at Jeb and said, “She is sleeping,” drawing out the words for effect.
“I took me one a them Red Cross CPR courses back when I’se in high school?” Jeb said. “And one a the things they teach is you gotta look out ‘cause sometimes when it seems like they’re asleep it’s ‘cause they got them a damn closed head injury.”
“Jeb,” Mike said softly, “when I said she is sleeping, I meant it the way Our Lord did when he addressed the crowds before He resurrected Jairus’s daughter. You know that story from your Bible, don’t you?”
Jeb’s eyes widened. “What’re you tellin’ me? You mean she’s …you’re sayin’ she’s …dead?”
“She’s dead, Jeb. There’s no pulse. Feel for yourself if you like.”
Jeb shrank away. Opening his cell phone again, he said, “Best call the sheriff, then.”
“What say you save on your minutes and hold off on that call, Jeb? You see, the simple fact is, I’m not only a deliverance minister but a healer as well. Maybe we won’t be having to roust the sheriff out of bed after all. What do you think about that?” Mike unfastened his seat belt, crossed his hands reverently on Mag’s forehead, tilted his face up toward the dome light and closed his eyes. “Heavenly Father,” he prayed in a loud yet breathy voice like the tremolo of a church organ, “in Jesus’ name we pray that You see fit to resurrect this woman, Your handmaiden and my helpmate, and to heal her of every injury, every disease and every infirmity. We humbly ask it, Father, in the all-holy name of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, amen.” Mike had picked up the trick of never pronouncing the h in humbly. He repeated the prayer two more times with ascending intensity.
He felt Mag stir. She was on board. They were like a dance team, instinctively knowing and anticipating each others’ moves. In a louder voice he went on, “Lord, resurrect and heal this woman Thy handmaiden. Restore her soul into her body, which has been broken. Breathe the breath of life into her nostrils once more, Heavenly Father. Fuse together all broken bones, cure all paralysis, reattach and repair all torn tendons and ligaments, refurbish all soft tissue throughout her body that may have been torn asunder in this terrible collision. Stanch all internal bleeding and take away her pain and suffering, in Thine All-Holy Name we pray, amen.”
There was no sound other than the ticking of the cooling engine and the wind in the trees. Mike glanced at Jeb through one eyeslit. Jeb was praying silently, hat in hand, his lips moving.
Mag sat forward. Mike opened his eyes and met her beatific expression. “I’ve been resurrected!” she shouted. “I’ve been healed, praise Jesus!”
Mike took her hand in his and raised them upward in a gesture of thanksgiving, echoing, “Praise Jesus!” Only then did he look over again at Jeb, whose mouth hung open in awe.
“I ain’t never seen no miracle to match that in all my born days,” he gasped. “You done brought her back from the dead right before my eyes!”
“Only God can raise the dead,” Mike said. “Give God the praise.”
“Praise Jesus!” Jeb shouted at the night sky. “Praise his Holy Name!” Startled crows flapped and cawed, taking flight from the sanctuary of a nearby oak tree.
“Now aren’t you glad you listened to me and didn’t make that call, Jeb?” Mike asked. “Only thing we’ll be needin’ tonight is a tow truck and not a hearse.”
“Only place with a tow truck ‘round here is shut down ‘til morning,” Jeb said, eyes bright with excitement, speech rapid. “Don’t fret none, though. I got me an International tractor that’ll do the job. An I dowanna hear no argument, neither; y’all’re gonna be stayin’ the night with me and my old lady. After what I done seen here tonight, she’d plum nail my hide to the barn door if I let y’all go without her meetin’ ya’s. Both of us’re Spirit-filled believers. My ol’ lady’s a strong believin’ woman. Name a Dorcas.”
“Dorcas,” Mag remarked. “Means gazelle.”
“There now, see how you are?” Jeb said. “It took a preacher’s wife to know that there. You and my ol’ lady’re gonna get along right well, Ma’am. I can tell that awready. The two a ya’s‘re bound to get along mighty fine.”
Jeb had made his way up to the rim of the ditch and was fooling with the cell phone again. Mike climbed out of the car, circled around the tree he had hit and tried Mag’s door. “It’s jammed,” he told her. “Slide over. You’re going to have to get out on my side.” Then under his breath: “How’re you doing?”
Mag glared at him and hissed, “My neck’s killing me and my head feels like it’s in a vise, but otherwise just peachy, thanks to you.”
Mike warned her, “Keep quiet about it. Remember, you’ve been healed.”
“How could I forget?”
“Listen, these people are believers, get it? You’ve just been raised from the dead. I couldn’t have asked for a better break. We play this hand right—”
Jeb ambled down into the ditch again, slapped Mike on the back and said, “All set, Pastor Mike?”
“Ready as we’ll ever be, thanks to your Christian hospitality, Jeb. I was just telling Magdalene here about your kind offer to tow our car and accommodate us for the night.”
“Ain’t no kindness about it. The way I figger, y’all’d do the same for us if the tables was turned. Now ain’t that right?”
“Thank you very kindly, Jeb,” Mag said in her sweetest pastor’s wife tone, smiling until it hurt. “Just let me scoot my poor old body out of this poor old car and we’ll join you.” Mag was a quick study.
“Door stuck?” Jeb grabbed the handle with both hands and yanked on it. With a sound of wrenching steel, something gave and the door popped open. “You jest gotta talk to it a little,” Jeb said.
“You’re a strong one,” Mag marveled. “Like Samson.”
“My ol’ lady says it’s ‘cause I got the strength of the Lord in me, but I dunno. My pappy, he was a strong ‘un, workin’ on the farm ever’ day of he’s life. My brothers and me, same thing.”
“They grow them big in your family, do they?” Mag asked.
“Yes, Ma’am they do.”
“Call me Magdalene, Jeb.” Mag took his hand and gazed into his eyes.
Jeb pulled his hand away shyly and looked down. “My ol’ lady’ll be gettin’ worried about us. Best get you folks on home. Your husband can help you down the side a that ditch and up t’other, Ma’am.”
Mike held Mag’s arm and steadied her around the waist as they climbed out. She remembered to grab her huge vinyl satchel of a purse. Mag lost a shoe and Mike had to go back for it, slipping and sliding on the wet ground.
“Muddy for November,” Jeb remarked, extending Mike a hand when they had neared the top. “Been stayin’ warm all season. Trees still got all their leaves, you notice that? Downright unnatural for this late in the year, least around these here parts.”
There was a white Ford F-350 pickup at least thirty years old and covered with dents parked on the shoulder, engine idling. To Mike it looked as big as a semi cab. “Plenty a room in Old Betsy here,” Jeb said. “Climb on in and we’ll head for home.”
“Guess there’s no need to lock our car,” Mike said.
“She ain’t a’ goin’ nowhere ‘til I hitch her up to the tractor, that’s a fact.”
“Our luggage is in the trunk, though.”
“Trunk’ll come right along with the rest of her once I hitch up the drag chain and tow her out.”
Jeb drove no more than a mile along the two-lane blacktop before turning down a dirt lane almost completely obscured by trees. “You know,” Mike said, “We drove right past this lane a few minutes ago and never knew it was there. It’d sure be awful easy to miss. You ought to put up a mailbox or a reflector or something.”
“Don’t got no mailbox,” Jeb said. “And don’t git much company. Folks ‘round these parts like their privacy. Makes for good neighbors.”
The lane twisted and turned, headlights illuminating the leafy bower overhead, reflecting an unnatural verdancy as though the witch of November had enchanted the trees themselves with an uncannily extended life.
Jeb downshifted as the truck entered a clearing. The F-350 climbed a small rise. There in front of them, looming like a phantom, stood a wooden covered bridge, or at least the carcass of one. The hammerbeam timbers of its roof were mostly gone; moonlight shone through the bones of the skeleton that remained. The dilapidated sides were wood lattice truss. Jeb downshifted again, remarking, “Gotta take ‘er down to granny gear for this here,” and drove onto the bridge at no more than five miles per hour. The pickup barely fit inside the structure. The hammering of its tires against the floor joists shook the ruined bridge like the noise of a workhouse in hell. Mike and Mag each breathed a sigh of relief after they had made it across without falling into the rocky churning rapids below.
“That there bridge’s near two hundred years old. Can you believe it? Ain’t on no historical register, neither. That’s ‘cause this here’s private property and allays has been. Me ‘n Dorcas and the young ‘uns, and Grammaw too, we all live off the land like the Good Lord intended.”
“That’s fascinating, Jeb,” Mag said. She had planted herself between the two of them when they had boarded the truck and was now thoroughly enjoying her game of making Jeb uncomfortable. Flirtation came to Mag as naturally as breathing. “You know what seeing that bridge reminds me of? That story we heard as children, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Remember that one? There was a covered bridge in it that the Headless Horseman was forbidden to cross because evil spirits supposedly can’t cross running water.”
“I read that ‘un once,” Jeb acknowledged. “Didn’t advance me spiritually none, though. I try and keep from filling my head up with garbage from story books like that ‘un.”
“Ghost stories under a full moon,” Mike said.
“Whadda you think a that Sleepy Holler story, Pastor Mike?”
“D’ya think evil spirits can cross running water?”
Mike paused a bit. “It just so happens, Jeb, that you’re talking to a man who knows a thing or two about evil spirits—demons, we call them. And I have to go with what my Bible tells me. Read your book of Job. Your demons can only go as far as God permits and no further. I guess that means they can cross running water but only if God gives them permission first.”
“That’s what I figgered. See, if you was to look at a survey or a plat map, this whole place is built on an island. That bridge we just come over? That’s the only access. You’d have to be ol Joshua hisself partin’ the Jordan to make it acrost that there turgid water we just got done crossing. Otherwise you’d get kilt tryin’ to wade acrost, either from drownin’ or bustin’ your head against them big rocks. The Little Hoot Owl rapids, folks around these parts call ‘em, are what marks out the east boundary of the property. The Little Hoot Owl rapids break free of the Black Fork River, run faster’n the devil all the way around the eastern boundary and feed over a steep waterfall right back into the Black Fork that marks the western side. Sounds nigh unnatural but that’s the way it’s allays been. See what I mean?”
“I’m not quite sure, Jeb.”
“Why, supposin’ a demon like in one a them story books was to pop up here on the home place? She couldn’t never get free of it ‘cause it’s surrounded on every side by running water.”
“Beg pardon, Ma’am?”
“You said ‘she.’ I was wondering why you would refer to a demon as feminine.”
Jeb rubbed his beard. “I dunno,” he said.
“The Bible teaches that God created the angels neither male nor female,” Mike said. “Our Lord tells us that in Heaven they are neither married nor are they given in marriage. All demons are is fallen angels, so it follows that demons aren’t male or female, either.”
Mag, as she always did when Mike talked religion, nodded and smiled like a politician’s wife.
Jeb squinted into the headlights ahead, their beams swarming with bugs so late in the year. The unflattering angle of the light made him look weary. “They’re liars, ain’t they?”
“Christ says that Satan is a liar,” Mike agreed.
“Then maybe some a his helpers have got purty good at dissemblin’ over the years,” he muttered.
The way was choked by tall weeds. Thistle taller than a man stood up in the truck’s path, their huge clover heads encircled with guard-spiked collars. “County won’t come out this far to spray,” Jeb explained as he drove through the sea of weeds. Wave after wave of the plants made a swishing sound against the bumper and the undercarriage, seeming to whisper a warning as the truck whished over them.
“Their flowers are so lovely,” Mag said. “It’s a shame you have to run over them that way.”
“They’s plenty more where they come from,” Jeb said. “They grow like weeds around these parts.”
“They are weeds, right, Jeb?” Mike joked.
“Ya got ya a point there. Some say when thistle’re left to grow that big the nectar in them purple flowers turns to deadly venom. I ain’t fixin’ to get close enough to find out.”
“And this late in the year. It’s amazing they haven’t died down by now.”
Jeb leaned forward over the wheel and shot Mike a stern look. “I done told ya,” he said, “it’s been a powerful warm fall this year.”
A broad vista opened before them, and in the center of it all a stately mansion with double gallery porch, gabled windows and a widow’s walk guarded by wrought iron pike that reminded Mike of the spikes that surrounded the thistle heads along the lane. The house was nearly choked with overgrown vegetation that seemed to glow an unearthly green in the light of the full moon. Huge trees in dark goblin shapes and shadows crowded against the stone foundation in a death embrace. Their twisted limbs had broken and poked through the upstairs windows like a mess of snakes and had dislodged many of the antique cedar shingles. Dead ahead was an ancient one-room schoolhouse with a rusted tin roof.
“It’s so beautiful,” Mag sighed. “Like something you’d see on an old picture postcard.”
“Yep,” Jeb said, pointing to the mansion. “There she sets: the mill house. Still got an old mill wheel facin’ where the rapids run along the back side of ‘er, just shy of the waterfall. I know exactly what you folks are thinkin’. Truth be told, it has seen better days, and a lot of ‘em. This whole home place was built around 1850 by a family of Irish. Steamboat Irish, folks took to callin’ ‘em back then—behind their backs a course—and it stuck. O’Brien’s, they was. Come over here with nothin’ but the clothes on their backs and got rich as Croesus off the riverboats.”
“Rich as Croseus?” Mike said. “Still waters run deep in your case, don’t they, Jeb? I never thought I’d hear an expression like ‘rich as Croesus’ way out here in the boonies.”
“Musta read it somewheres,” Jeb said shyly. “I try and read some. Books mostly. They won’t run cable out as far as these here parts, so they ain’t much to do once it gets dark except to set by the stove and read. We could prolly order us up one a them satellite dish doohickeys, but me and the ol’ lady don’t believe in television anyways.”
“You don’t believe in television?” Mag asked. “Why’s that?”
“It’s a devil’s box,” Jeb stated matter-of-factly. “Same goes for them there computers they got now.”
“You know something, Jeb? I do believe you’re right. Although I’ve often thought that if the Lord were to bless me with a Christian ministry to where I could broadcast my message to a wide audience of folks over television or even online, why it would be like the Lord were to open the windows of Heaven and pour down a blessing upon us so big that you know what? We purely couldn’t contain it all.”
“Malachi Three,” Jeb said. “I hear ya. The thing is, though, me and the ol’ lady’re afraid that havin’ television around might interfere with the home schoolin’ and that. Matter of fact, all of us live in that lil ole schoolhouse up yonder. It may not look like much but it suits us fine. O’Brien’s money built that, too.”
“If ye’ll peardon a lady for stearin’, Jeb, ye look kind of Irish yerself,” Mag teased in a brogue. “Got some Irish in ye, me lad?”
“Aw, naw,” Jeb said, wagging his head and scratching his red beard. He may have blushed; it was hard to tell by the dashboard light. “I get that ever’ now and then. Last name’s Bagby. Don’t sound Irish at all, now does it?”
“Sounds more Scottish to me,” Mag said.
“Well, there you go.”
“So excuse me for asking a personal question,” Mike said, “but if the O’Brien money built all this, how is it that the Bagbys wound up living here, Jeb?”
“Well, now, that there’s a right interesting story,” Jeb began. “Remind me to tell it to ya sometime—oh, lookie there! That’s my Dorcas standin’ on the front porch wavin’ like a schoolmarm!”
Jeb threw open the driver’s door and sprang out of the truck, loping toward the woman on the porch. She was not waving, but rather stood still as a ghost—a ghost holding a kerosene lantern in her hand. She wore a long homespun dress and a white bonnet like that of a pioneer woman. Dim flickering firelight shone through the open door. She extended her arm with the lantern, holding it out straight as a gallows beam. The shifting patterns of light transformed her expression from sullen to haunted.
“That is the most depressed woman I’ve ever laid eyes on,” Mag remarked under her breath.
“Now that you mention it, she doesn’t look too happy. Bet she tells a hell of a redneck joke, though, once you get a few drinks in her.”
“I’m serious; she looks clinically depressed, even suicidal. I know I would be if I had to live out here in these conditions.”
“You mean to tell me you didn’t notice anything funny on the drive here, Mike?”
“You know the feeling you get when you sense something’s missing? Something that you see every day and always take for granted, but when it’s gone you notice it kind of subliminally, out of the corner of your eye? How it nags at you? Well, that’s what was going on in my head until I realized.”
“No utility poles. No poles or wires ran past the blacktop road anywhere along the lane. None. And do you know what that startling observation made me wonder, Mike?”
“Jeb told us they don’t believe in TV or computers. Maybe they don’t believe in electricity either. Tell me.”
“If they don’t have any electricity, “Mag said, “then tell me how our charming host charges that phone he’s been pretending to use?”
“Maybe he works in town and does it there.”
“You hear him mention a job? It’s obvious these people live off the land like he said.”
“Maybe he used one of those chargers that runs off the cigarette lighter in the truck.”
“Do you see one?”
“I didn’t pay any attention.”
“Well, look.” Mag pointed to the dashboard. Instead of a cigarette lighter there were loose wires and a gaping hole like a gouged-out eye.
“So maybe they don’t believe in smoking.”
“C’mon, Mike. Get serious for once in your life.”
“So he was only pretending to be using a cell phone,” Mike said. “What’s the big woop?”
“The big woop is, when he told us he was calling 911? And we were pulling our little resurrection-from-the-dead scam?”
“Maybe we were the ones being played.”
They both jumped when Jeb’s grinning jack o’lantern face suddenly reappeared, this time at the driver’s window. Dorcas stood staring in at them from Mike’s side, illuminated like a cemetery statue from the lantern she carried.
Jeb jerked open the door of the truck, leaned his head in and said in a hearty voice, “Come on in and make yourselves to home.”
The old schoolhouse had been built up high on a stone foundation, its red-painted clapboard siding now weather-faded and worn. A belfry perched at the front peak of the pitched tin roof so that the structure might have passed for a backwoods church. At the very center of the roof was a tottering brick chimney. Four high narrow windows ranged along either side of the building like four sets of astonished eyes. Dancing beams of firelight escaped through their panes of glass—green-marbled like clouded emerald baguettes—and cast strange distorted patterns across the ground. Walking arm-in-arm with Mike a few paces behind Jeb and Dorcas, Mag murmured, “Fairy wings.”
“What?” Mike asked her.
She pointed to the sickly-green reflections. “They look like the wings of fairies dancing around a bonfire.”
“You’re seeing things, Mag,” Mike whispered hoarsely. “Fairies dancing? I guarantee you these Bible-thumpers aren’t the type to believe in fairies. Better keep your mouth shut. Remember, you’ve been hit in the head. Act like it, and don’t do anything to torque off our charming hosts.”
“Charming host and scowling hostess, you mean,” Mag whispered.
Jeb and Dorcas each held open one heavy double door for their guests.
“Reminds me of the first day of school,” Mike joked as he and Mag entered. Behind them, Jeb scolded Dorcas, “I thought I told you’n them young ‘uns to keep that there stove door closed less’n you’re feedin’ wood to the fire.” She made no response.
In the center of the room was an antique cast iron cook stove. The covered indoor woodbox beside it was big enough for two people to sit on. A black stovepipe extended through the high ceiling. Jeb stalked inside and threw open the lid of the woodbox. It held no more than a double armload of split cord wood that scarcely covered the bottom.
“Prid near run us outta wood again,” Jeb rebuked.
“You told me to cook for company,” Dorcas replied in a voice so soft and otherworldly it might have been the wind in the trees that had spoken.
Mag nudged Mike and beckoned for him to lean over so she could whisper in his ear. “Did you hear that?”
“Dorcas just reminded Jeb that he’d told her to cook for company.”
“When did he get a chance to tell her anything? How did he know we were coming?”
“Maybe he called ahead. You know, from the scene of the crash.”
“You see any phones around here? Other than Jeb’s cell phone, that is?”
“Y’all hungry?” Jeb asked.
“I can see somebody’s been busy cooking up a tasty meal,” Mike said. “Everything smells delicious. Is that a turkey in the oven?”
“That’s rabbit you’re smellin’, Pastor Mike. We eat us a good deal of small game this time a year: rabbit, pheasant, even squirrel if the deer ain’t runnin. Whatever the Good Lord in His providence sends our way. My Dorcas knows how to cook up rabbit to where you’d think you was feastin’ on the King’s venison.”
“You’ll have to teach me, Dorcas,” Mag said. “I’ve never cooked on a wood burning stove.” Dorcas stared down at the rough plank floor. There were bolt holes where desks had once been anchored to it. Dorcas looked as though she might want to escape through one of them.
“Dorcas here ain’t never cooked on nothin’ else,” Jeb offered. “Here, help yourself to one a them little bitty wild tomaters from that there bowl on the table.”
“Don’t mind if I do,” Mike said. “Kind of late in the season for wild tomatoes, isn’t it, Jeb?”
“It’s the strangest thing,” Jeb replied. “Folks ‘round these parts call it a ‘witching fall,’ though it’s not very Christian. Yeah, there comes a time every so many years when fall does linger on, like it don’t want to ever die.”
“These fresh wild tomatoes are delicious, Mag,” Mike said, after having selected one out of a bowl of the red-orange fruits and eating it from between his finger and thumb. “Really sweet and juicy. You ought to try some.”
“Sorry, Hun,” Mag said. “Allergy.”
“I never knew you were allergic to tomatoes.”
“Tomatoes, wild cherries, plums, peaches, apricots and almonds. Weird, huh?”
“Kids went out today, picked ‘em right off the plants.”
Mike reached into the bowl for another tomato. “I could live on these.”
Jeb caught Mike’s wrist and gently pulled it away. “Best go easy on them there wild tomaters,” he said.
“Dowanna spile your appetite. Dorcas’s been a’ cookin’ all day long.”
“I guess I’d better cool it then.”
“Chaw down on this here wild turnip instead,” Jeb said, offering Mike a long forked root. “You’re apt to get you a bad case a the trots from too many a’ them danged ol’ wild tomaters on an empty stomach,” Jeb said. Laughing and jerking his thumb toward his chest he added, “I know!”
Mike took a bite of the turnip. It tasted bitter and dry. Not wishing to offend his hosts Mike said, “Like the Good Book says, all things in moderation.”
With a grave look on his face Jeb said, “The Good Book don’t never say that, Pastor Mike.”
Mike took another bite while he thought about how to answer. “Well, I’m paraphrasing, of course,” Mike said. “What Paul tells us in his first letter to the Corinthians is: ‘All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.’”
“Amen,” Jeb fairly shouted to the rafters. Lowering his voice he said, “Matter a fact, there’s a thing or two along those lines I been meanin’ to ask you, Pastor Mike.”
“There’s time. After supper’d be as good a time as any, if you’ll oblige me.”
“Of course, Jeb.”
There was a long silence. All that could be heard was the hiss of the lantern and the crackling of the stove. Mike kept munching on the turnip. His mouth was dry.
“That stove looks like an antique,” Mike said. “I’ll bet it would fetch a good price at auction.”
“Cain’t say,” Jeb replied. “My great-great grampappy hauled that stove in a horse-drawn wagon all the way from the Phisterville railroad station and set it up right chere. My family been cookin’ off it ever since.”
“There’s something I’ve been dying to ask you folks,” Mag said, peering at Dorcas, whose bonnet hid most of her downcast face as she stood tending the stove. “You have such a beautiful house—mansion, really—no more than a hundred paces down the lane, and yet you choose to live in this little one-room schoolhouse instead. I imagine the living conditions must get awfully cramped for you. Why not fix up the mill house and live there instead?”
A dry, croaking voice emanated from the darkness of a far corner in the room, saying, “I’ll tell you why.”
Dorcas held up the lantern by the wire loop handle she still clutched in her hand. An old woman in homespun and wearing a white bonnet identical to Dorcas’s sat in a rocking chair. Her gnarled, liver-blotched hands gripped the chair arms, her wasted body bent forward in a hump-backed posture as though she were about to raise herself up from the chair. She averted her face and protested, “Don’t shine that light on me, girl, it floods my eyes.”
“We all know you cain’t see no light ‘nor nothin’ else, Grammaw,” Jeb said. “Now mind your beeswax in front of company. This here’s Pastor Mike and his wife.”
“I can feel the heat of it against my skin,” Grammaw complained. Mike took two steps closer, intending to introduce and if possible ingratiate himself with the elderly woman. Her ancient features sagged and slacked like melted wax. Sparse cobweb strands of hair on her head caught the light like dried lichens grown from the seams of her skull. It was impossible to estimate her age; she might have been a hundred. Her mouth was cinched to one side, probably from a stroke. But it was her eyes that made Mike stare, eyes that shone unseeing in the lantern glow. The irises were sea-green opals, opaque as the marbled glass of the schoolhouse windows. The stone-blind old woman followed the sound of his steps, staring two feet above his head.
“You’d be Pastor Mike?”
“That’s right, Ma’am. Pleased to know you.” Mike gently reached to pat Grammaw’s shoulder but she jerked away. “Don’t like bein’ touched,” she muttered. “Many’s the curse been put on folks who let others touch ‘em too easy.”
“I don’t particularly like being touched either, Ma’am. Hi, I’m Magdalene, Pastor Mike’s wife.”
“Magdalene,” the old woman mused. “Named after Mary Magdalene, I’d reckon.”
“The Good Lord cast seven demons out of Mary Magdalene,” Grammaw said. “Some say she was a fallen woman but they’re all damn fools that don’t know their Bible.”
Jeb whispered, “Grammaw took to readin’ her Bible by candlelight so much, she went blind.”
“I heard that,” Grammaw shouted. “Waren’t candlelight what stole my sight. It was Satan himself. He couldn’t abide me reading the Good Book late into the night and it was him what struck me blind. Not all at once, but little by little, like he does. My granddaughter’s my eyes now. She reads me from it ever’ night after the chores are done and the young ‘uns put to bed.”
“Dorcas is your granddaughter?”
“Only grandchild still by my side. All the others died off long ago. They was seven of ‘em in all. Dorcas here’s the youngest.”
“That’s so sad,” Mag said, moving closer. “Tragic, really, how so many of your grandchildren could have passed away so young. Was it from some kind of epidemic?”
“You could call it a plague of sorts,” the old woman said wryly.
“The Lord works in mysterious ways,” Mike said.
“This waren’t none a the Lord’s doin’!” she shouted. The wind picked up outside, wailing through the belfry and rattling against the tin roof.
“Pastor Mike always says that in a tragic situation you have to look at the positive, don’t you, Pastor Mike?” Mag said, turning to her husband, her eyes imploring him to intervene.
“That’s a fact,” Mike said in his most soothing preacher voice. “For instance, the Good Lord thwarted Satan’s plan to prevent this godly woman from studying the Word of God by providing Dorcas to read to her. What you ended up with was two people instead of one studying the Good Book and fellowshipping together. I like to say that God can take a tragedy and turn it into a comedy, with Satan winding up as the butt of his own joke.”
The wind blew harder, trees groaning against its irresistible force. A powerful gale hit the schoolbell in the belfry like an unseen fist. The bell tolled once, a mournful sound like a dirge. A sound to shudder the flesh and shiver the bone.
And then Mike heard it, behind the moans of the wind at first, then rising above it and drowning it out. A keening wail not formed in the throat of anything human, yet expressing all the despair of a human soul damned to hell, something between a wolf howl and a woman’s bloodcurdling scream. It was unearthly loud, unbearably painful in the ears and sheer agony to the heart. Mike shut his eyes, bent over at the waist and stopped his ears tight with his fingertips but the infernal wailing went on and on.
Finally all was quiet. “Did I hear Jeb say the two of you are blessed with children?” Mag was asking Dorcas in a normal and calm tone of voice.
Mike said, “Did you hear that?” Meeting no reaction he looked around. “What’s the matter with you people, are you deaf? Didn’t anybody hear that awful sound?”
“You mean the wind outside?” Jeb said uneasily, glancing at Grammaw, who snorted with disdain.
“Mike, honey, you’re all bathed with sweat and your face is red as a beet. What’s wrong?”
“What’s wrong? Are you telling me you didn’t hear that… that thing outside?”
“You all still need to ask why nobody stays up at the mill house?” Grammaw asked, her blind eyes seeming to fix on Mike’s face.
“What can I do to help you with supper, Dorcas?” Mag asked, moving toward the stove, but keeping a wary eye on Mike.
“C’mere and set by me, boy,” Grammaw said to Mike. “What is it you call yourself? Pastor Mike?”
“Set yourself down on this here straw bed and rest a spell. You’re overheated.” Mike pulled up the straw pallet, crossed his legs and sat at the old woman’s feet. “This here’s Grammaw’s corner,” she confided. “Won’t nobody bother us here. We can speak plain, you and me.” Leaning toward him, she went on, “I could tell right off you got the call on you. That’s the only way you could of heard what I know you done heard just now.”
“I heard it, all right. What was it?”
“First you tell me something. You heard a call, boy? Years ago, mebbe? The Lord done called you to serve?”
“Yes, Ma’am. Plain as day I heard him speak to me. And I heeded that call years ago.”
“No you never.”
“Beg pardon, Ma’am?”
“The Lord called you, all right, but you never heeded His call. Not yet, anyways.”
“Why, Ma’am, I beg to differ with you—”
Grammaw cocked her head like a bird’s. “What’d the Lord sound like?”
“When He called you. What’d He sound like to you?”
“Well, like a stirring of the spirit, I guess. A powerful, loud rumbling stirring of the spirit, kind of like a tornado I guess. Like in the Book of Job where the Lord spoke to Job out of the whirlwind.”
“Wrong. Oh, you heard Him all right. You know it and I know it, but what you’re describing ain’t what you really heard. Try again, and this time don’t go lyin’ in Grammaw’s face. Tell me plain what the Lord sounded like and what all He said to you.”
Mike tried to shut out the memory: dead broke, dead drunk, crying and puking outside in the casino parking lot under the big lights in the pouring rain warm as piss that had soaked him to the skin, trying doors of parked cars to find one open, to beat the odds and find just one where he might crawl in and find temporary shelter from the driving downpour. Looking askance for security guards on foot patrol, seeing none. The old Bonneville in the employee section on the far side of the lot, passenger side door unlocked. Once inside, he peeled off his pants and shirt and tried to wring them out, torrents of water splattering on the floormats. His clothes were cold and clammy when he slipped them back on again. Shivering, he drew himself up into the fetal position. He must have slept; it had been twenty-four hours, no, thirty-six hours he’d been awake and he had a load on besides.
Maybe he’d dreamed swiping his debit card in the ATM and punching in a measly forty dollars. His one and only debit card, the one he was counting on to stake him on the trip that lay before him, that lonely flight to nowhere. They’d run him out of the storefront church he’d started, vowing to prosecute him when the forty thousand dollar building fund turned up empty.
The building fund. He’d taken it with him on a platinum debit card. He had scorned the Lord’s advice: Provide neither gold nor silver nor copper in your money belts, nor bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor staffs.
Instead of forty dollars the machine gave him back forty grand in hundreds. He read that as a sign. A player without inhibitions, he had built that initial stake into easily a hundred grand before he started drinking.
Blackjack was his game and he was no card-counter. He sat on last base at a table where the cards were dealt from an eight-deck shoe and they played Aruba no hole card rules. His edge was reading the dealer, but no psychology was involved. His method was hard to describe and impossible to detect except from the fact that he kept on winning. He simply looked the dealer in the eye. A second was all it took, one quick peek and he knew without fail the next card she would deal. It was a miracle he was working with every turn of the cards, a special charism that won him hand after hand for hours on end, until the men in sharkskin suits like a Guys and Dolls revival edged toward the table, showing a menacing interest.
And then he heard it. A still, small voice over the din of the casino. It did not have to compete with the noise; it was as if Mike sensed its compelling force within himself. “Gird up thy loins,” the voice said. It was a voice Mike had never heard before, yet sensed that he had been waiting to hear all his life, a voice he knew from before he was born.
“What?” Mike said out loud.
“Hit or stay?” the dealer repeated.
“Stand up now, depart from this place. I have work for you to do,” the voice said.
“C’mon, Sport, don’t keep us in suspense,” a Shriner complained. “You’re messin’ with my mojo. Hit or stay?”
“Stay,” Mike said. The dealer hit on fifteen and drew a six, simple as that. One of the suits pointed to a waitress who started comping Mike drinks. He ordered a highball. One drink led to another. He never won another hand.
Mike jumped awake from the sudden sound of the driver’s door being opened and a woman’s startled shriek.
Her hands were on her hips. “What the hell do you think you’re doing in my car?”
“Oh, hey hey, I’m so sorry. Musta thought it was mine what with the rain and all. My mistake. Won’t happen again.” Mike’s tongue was thick from drink and stuck to his palate. He squirmed toward the door.
The woman eyed him levelly and said, “Don’t you even recognize me?”
“Yeah, I get that a lot from players like you staring at my boobs all night. You were parked last base at my table for hours, remember? Took me for over a hundred large before you lost it all back to the house. Tough break.” She was petite and dark-haired, with a face like that silent-movie actress—what was her name? The one in all the Fatty Arbuckle one-reelers. She’d lost it to booze and cocaine and died at thirty-something around the time sound came in.
“Mabel Normand,” Mike said at last.
“Excuse me? Have you any chance been hit in the head, Sport?”
In that instant Mike knew that she would be the one hit in the head, that he would pray over her insincerely and that they both would find themselves in mortal danger. The information was useless to him but the facts were as fixed as yesterday’s news.
“Maybe,” he said. “Was I making a disturbance in there? Did some of their goons work out on me? Or was I robbed, maybe?”
“You were robbed by the house fair and square, Dude. You left four hours ago with the clothes you’re wearing and your pockets turned out.”
Mike stared at the glove compartment. “I got nothing left,” he said. “I shoulda listened but I didn’t.”
“What do you mean, you should have listened?”
“Just a figure of speech. Now instead of giving to the poor I’m the one who’s poor.”
“You know what Mike Todd said once? ‘I’ve been broke but never poor.’”
“Mike Todd? What’s a chick your age doing quoting Mike Todd? You a movie buff?”
Her fight-or-flight posture relaxed. “I’ve been accused of worse. Enough of a movie buff to recognize the name Mabel Normand when I hear it. Come to think of it, after a few drinks I probably do look like her a little bit. You’re the first guy who ever noticed.”
“That qualify me for a ride somewhere?”
“Maybe. Where to?”
He shrugged. “I got nowhere special in mind. Someplace where they take in homeless men, give them a meal and a dry place to flop. You know: the kind of place that caters to men who are broke but never poor.”
Mag took him to her place and he stayed six months.
“It was more of a still, small voice,” he said now. “The same way He spoke to Elijah and to Samuel.”
“Ah,” Grammaw remarked. “Not in the whirlwind, then? Not in the thunder and lightning, or the earthquake, or even the fire? No, sir, the Lord speaks to us in the sound of sheer silence. It’s the voice of evil that comes to us in a loud noise, all puffed up big and black as a blacksmith’s bellows, tryin’ to scare us.”
“That… thing I heard tonight? It sounded like evil incarnate.”
“That’s where you’re dead wrong, Pastor Mike. Dead wrong.”
“What do you mean?”
“It ain’t incarnate at all,” Grammaw said. “It just wants to be.”
It was easy sliding Grammaw to the table in her rocker; she couldn’t have weighed ninety pounds. Only when Grammaw was seated at Jeb’s right hand did he motion for Dorcas to call the children to supper.
Mike heard a creaking sound from the darkness at the far end of the room. He could barely make out the tiny silhouettes of children descending the ladder from the loft. There were four of them in all. The largest of them—a girl wearing the traditional white bonnet and ankle-length homespun dress—carried a small boy clinging to her back. As they entered the circle of light cast by the single lantern suspended above the table, Mike noticed with alarm that none of them were normal. The eldest girl suffered from a pronounced harelip deformity severe enough to split her upper lip and invade her right nostril. When she eased the little boy she was carrying down to the floor, he produced a briar cane and hobbled toward the table on a club foot, his left ankle bent inward at a near-right angle. Walking beside the clubfooted boy and gripping him by the right upper arm as though to support him was a beautiful blonde girl of no more than seven. Mike thought she looked like silent-film ingénue Mary Miles Minter in her heyday, that innocent face, cherry lips and milky-smooth complexion. It was only when she drew closer to the table that he realized that he had been mistaken about the reason for her gripping her brother’s arm. Her eyes were as green and opaque as Grammaw’s. She turned her face in random, spastic aspects, heedless of the lantern light.
One last figure descended the ladder: a redheaded boy of about six. Mike scrutinized his face, his gait and his every movement but could discern no affliction. Then Dorcas moved her hands rapidly, looking at the boy, who responded in kind.
“Dorcas taught herself the sign language out of a book from the library,” Jeb explained. “We first found out Zechariah was deaf when he was no more’n six months old.”
Zechariah looked less than pleased at the presence of dinner guests. He scowled and signed impatiently to his mother. Matching his irritation with her firm insistence, Dorcas with striking and slapping of her hands signed something that was obviously a command. Zechariah sat down at the foot of the table, crossed his arms and glowered at the floor.
As soon as everyone was seated, Dorcas rose and began bringing food to the table. The main course was rabbit, slow-cooked and seasoned to perfection, judging from the aroma. There were liberal portions of corn bread and home-churned butter, garden-fresh green beans—in November—and huge mounds of mashed potatoes, all served in wooden bowls. Even after everyone was seated, no one made any motion to eat.
“I’ll tell y’all a funny story,” Jeb said. “Them rich folks up at the Mill house in the olden days? The O’Briens? They had the Bagby family indentured to serve ‘em, and the O’Briens, they fancied theirselves too good to eat off of common wooden bowls and plates and such. No, they had to have the good glazed kind. Anything less was for dogs and servants. So ever’ time the Bagby servants set table, they knew to set out the fine white glazed dinnerware. The wood bowls and plates? Them was strictly for the Bagbys.” Jeb stared eagerly at his guests, the hint of a smile on his face.
“How hard it is for a rich man to enter Heaven,” Mike said.
“Oh, them O’Briens entered Heaven all right, leastways they died. Funny part is, back then the glaze on plates and such was made outta lead, and that there lead had a peculiar way of leachin’ out and gettin’ into the food on their plates, ‘specially food that was good and hot the way they liked it. You ever been around folks that took lead poisoning, Pastor Mike?”
Mike shook his head.
“First they commence to achin’ all over ‘til they cain’t hardly move. Then they’re carryin’ on how their guts ache like somethin’s busy eatin’ its way out from the inside, and how they can’t feel their hands or their feet. But that ain’t the worst of it.”
“What’s the worst of it, Jeb?” Mag asked.
“Why, they turned crazier’n a swarm a bedbugs, them O’Briens did,” Grammaw said. “They steady went crazier ‘n crazier, the whole lot of ‘em. Then, one after the other, they turned up their toes and died.”
“Told ya it was a funny story,” Jeb said, adding, “Who’s gonna say grace?”
After an interval of silence Mike said, “I’ll do the honors if nobody minds.”
“Mind? Why, it’s a pure privilege for us to have a pastor and his wife guests in our home. Go ahead, Pastor Mike. Ever’body bow your heads now; Pastor Mike’s fixin’ to say grace.”
Dorcas signed something to Zechariah. All bowed their heads. Mike began, “Our Heavenly Father—”
The howling began once more, louder and closer than before, a shattering voice bereft of hope and filled with dread. Mike lifted his head and looked up from his prayer.
Mag and Grammaw sat across from one another at the table; Mag and all the others still as wax figures posed as if at prayer. Mag sat with her head bowed, hands folded in her lap, as though she might have sat frozen in that prayerful position for eternity, like a pious statue marking the grave of a saint. Grammaw’s neck turned toward Mike, her crooked face contorted not merely from the ravages of the stroke now, but with silent mirthless laughter, her repulsive green eyes fixated on Mike’s like a snake’s. Her near-toothless maw of a mouth yawned impossibly wide. Mike’s screams could not drown out the unearthly baying that emanated from within her, the baleful siren cry of doom that had found him at last. He sprang from his chair and fell backwards, still facing that awful blighted wail of mourning. It went on and on, a preternatural scream beyond any human lung capacity, neither limited to any human register nor bound by any laws of acoustics.
“They’re all dead, aren’t they, Grammaw or whoever or whatever the hell you really are?” Mike screamed. “Jeb, Dorcas, all of them—dead, maybe a hundred years or more. Dead… only not gone.”
Mag sat motionless beside Grammaw in prayerful posture, apparently still waiting for Mike to begin saying grace. Mike retreated from the horrible noise, crab-walking across the floor on heels and palms trying to get away. His guts cramped; his stomach tore at him as though it were a bag of knives. There was a prickly pins-and-needles sensation that robbed his hands and arms of any strength.
“Lead poisoning!” he screamed at Grammaw. “I’ve got lead poisoning, haven’t I!”
The wailing ceased as suddenly as it had begun. “Land sakes, how should I know whether you got lead poisoning? All you ate was one little bitty tomato and a turnip.” Grammaw said calmly. “I ain’t no doctor, just a poor blind old woman. And as to your first question, I reckon it all depends on what you mean by ‘dead.’ If they can set theirselves up and talk to ya, rear up on their hind legs and walk around, read the Good Book to an old woman, cook up a mess a rabbit for company, do prid near ever’ thing but eat and drink, and if you’s to up and ask ‘em to their face whether they’re dead or not, why, they’d maintain that they’re ever’ bit as alive as you or me. Does that sound dead to you, Pastor Mike? Mebbe so, but if that’s true, well then they’s a powerful lot a folks walkin around dead right this minute, ain’t they?”
“Who—who are you?” Mike gasped.
“Why Pastor Mike, you need to ask me that question after all we’ve shared tonight?” Grammaw said. The Ozark accent had vanished; she spoke now in a lilting Irish brogue. Mag sat at table, still as a museum figure.
“I need to know.”
“I’m an old family retainer. Very old. Have you at least a passing acquaintance with the family history of the O’Brien clan?”
“What are you, kidding?”
“The O’Brien’s came over from Ireland over a century and a half ago, to escape the Great Hunger. At least that’s the reason they gave at the time.” There seemed to be a touch of malice in her smile.
“You’re saying that’s not the real reason?”
“Are you fond of this property, Pastor Mike? Does its humble—” not pronouncing the h—“charm appeal to your sense of the bucolic? I assure you, your lovely wife has already fallen under its spell. Oh, but she is not truly your wife, is she? That part was a falsehood?”
“If you say so.”
“Indeed I do say so, and I am right in saying that she is not your lawful wedded wife. Nevertheless, in one brief sojourn she has found herself so enamored of these grounds that she is even now their literal captive.”
Sheets of rain began thundering down on the tin roof overhead. Mike said, “We’ll see about that, Grammaw. Over the river and through the woods and we’re out of here.” He moved toward the door.
Grammaw snapped her fingers and listened with a languid anticipatory smile, holding her fist poised in midair. A crack of lightning flashed through the windows on the side of the schoolhouse that faced the rapids, followed a split-second later by a nearby peal of thunder. Then came another crash, harder to define.
“That would be the bridge collapsing into the rapids,” Grammaw said. “Pity, after two hundred years. Still, nothing lasts forever. Of course it would mean suicide for any mortal to take it upon himself to ford that swollen river, let alone coax a loved one to join him in the futile attempt.”
Mike threw open the double doors, hunched over against the driving rain. Sure enough, the bridge had disappeared. Not one timber remained.
“You must learn to trust your ears, Pastor Mike. It appears that you and your lovely… consort, shall we say… have been made our guests by a cruel trick of the elements.”
“Cruel trick, huh? Jeb’s truck is parked outside with the keys in it. We ought to be able to cross the rapids in that with no problem. Jeb said something about a tractor, too.”
“Before relying too much on infernal machines, Pastor Mike, why not ask your beautiful consort whether she intends to join you in your hasty departure?”
Mike slammed the doors to shut out the rain and wind. When he turned again to the table, Jeb, Dorcas and the children were seated there once again. Mag said, “Mike, weren’t you going to say grace for us?”
“Jeb’s great-great grandfather bought these entire grounds for a song—a siren’s song, one might say—from the last surviving O’Brien male, who was downright eager to sell,” Grammaw resumed Jeb’s story, ignoring the others. “In fact he insisted, but he had an ulterior motive, you see. One might say an infernal motive. He sold to the Bagbys so the curse would pass with the land, from the O’Briens to the Bagbys. O’Brien blood has flowed through Bagby veins ever since the day Silas Bagby, Jeb’s great-great grandfather, was born. Silas Bagby was the bastard son of the scion of the O’Brien clan by a Bagby servant girl.”
“Aw, there ya go tellin’ all our family secrets, Grammaw,” Jeb said sheepishly.
“As you no doubt have observed,” Grammaw went on, “the land is improved with a lovely mill house mansion, but Jeb’s family won’t live in it. They prefer this dilapidated old schoolhouse instead. That’s because there’s a haint in the mill house mansion.”
“A haint?” Mag asked. “You mean the mill house is haunted?”
“Now, don’t y’all go listenin’ to Grammaw and her ghost stories,” Jeb said.
“If the mill house isn’t haunted, Jeb, then why don’t you and Dorcas and the children live there instead of in this cramped little one-room schoolhouse?” Mag inquired.
“You know what ol’ Count Leo Tolstoy might have had to say about that,” Jeb answered. “How Much Land Does a Man Need? Now come and set down at table with us, Pastor Mike. You was about to say grace.” He bowed his head and waited.
Mike sat down and looked around at the others patiently waiting for him to speak. Even Grammaw lowered her head and clasped her hands together in her lap. He prayed sincerely, for the first time in months, over the food and drink. When he had finished, Jeb and Dorcas passed them hot steaming roast rabbit and all the side dishes until their plates were filled. Neither Jeb, Dorcas nor any of the children made any move to eat, nor did they prepare Grammaw’s plate. They all sat with their hands folded politely in their laps and waited. Maybe it’s some rural custom where guests eat first, Mike thought. Or maybe they’re afraid they don’t have enough to go around. He ate heartily albeit self-consciously; the supper was delicious. He had nearly finished before noticing that Mag had not touched her food.
“What’s wrong, Hon?” he asked.
Mag glared at him with disdain. “I didn’t want to eat before our hosts,” she said icily, “unlike some people I won’t mention.”
Maybe he wanted to rescue Mike. In any event, Jeb stood and rested his meaty hand on Mike’s shoulder. “It’s time me and you had us that little talk, Pastor Mike. Let’s step outside and set a spell while the others partake their supper.”
“But you haven’t eaten either.”
“There’s time. First I want us to have that talk.”
The rain had ceased and the wind had died down to a slow and unseasonably warm breeze from the south. A harvest moon had risen. There was a bench on the front porch of the schoolhouse but Jeb headed out to the truck and climbed in. Mike opened the passenger door and sat beside him.
“Guess you musta heard them goin’s on afore supper,” Jeb began. “So now I reckon you got me figgered for some kind of a ghost.”
Mike shivered, then shook his head. “I don’t know what to think. You look and sound normal. I could feel the weight of your hand on my shoulder just now.”
“But ya ain’t at all for sure yet, air ya?”
“No,” Mike whispered. “No, I’m not. And I’m starting to get a little scared, to be honest with you.”
“Can’t say as I blame you on that there. Even a preacher who casts out demons for a living must get a mite fearful ever now and again, I reckon.”
“Especially a preacher with the anointing and the power to cast out demons. If I told you some of the things I’ve seen it’d curl your hair.”
“Is that a fact?” Jeb wondered. “You know, Pastor Mike, I’m commencin’ to think it was the Good Lord Himself what bringed us together, you and me. There was a providential purpose in our meeting, and it was all His doin’. Do you get what I’m a’sayin’?”
“I think I’m beginning to. Just what do you think that purpose is, Jeb?”
“Why it’s as plain as the nose on your face,” Jeb said with a hopeful smile. “He brung you here on account of He wants you to drive out the demon.”
Jeb rolled down the window a crack and looked away. “Have you ever come acrost the term banshee, Pastor Mike?”
“I’ve heard of it, sure. Everybody has.”
“Everbody may have heard of it, but I’ll wager tonight you heard the thing itself with your own two ears. I’m right, ain’t I?”
“I—I suppose. I know I heard something. At first it sounded like it was coming from outside, on the roof of the schoolhouse maybe, but then I could swear it came straight out of Grammaw’s mouth. Like a ventriloquist trick or something.”
Jeb nodded. “It’ll fool ya if’n it can,” he said. “Demons purely love to fool ya.”
“She talked to me, in a different voice altogether. Something about being ‘an old family retainer.’”
Jeb nodded sadly. “And I reckon you know what an ancestral curse is, Pastor Mike.”
“I do. In Exodus, right in the part about the Ten Commandments, we read where the Lord is a jealous God Who punishes the children for the sins of the parents down to the third or fourth generation. In Deuteronomy the Lord said through Moses: ‘A bastard shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord; even to his tenth generation shall he not enter into the congregation of the Lord.’”
“And sometimes the besetting sins of the parents are so bad that the curse carries on even longer, generation after generation down though the family line. Ain’t that right, Pastor Mike?”
“Besetting sins,” Mike mused. “I suppose if the children are under the original curse, they might very well sin some more. A curse could go on and on that way.”
Jeb impulsively threw open the driver’s door and sprang out of the truck. He looked up at the sky and stood brooding, his silhouette traced in moonlight. “And a familiar spirit?” he asked. “I bet you know what that is, too.”
“Well, that’s kind of the same thing. It’s an evil spirit, one that attaches itself to a family for some reason or other.”
“An’ sometimes for no reason at all. It ain’t for nothin’ I done, nor any of my kin done, but this here one’s fastened herself onto the lot of us like the Devil’s own shadow.”
“What are you talking about, Jeb?”
“That familiar spirit? She’s the one settin’ in that rockin’ chair.”
“You mean Grammaw?”
“You hear her commence to howlin’? She ain’t nobody’s Grammaw. Not no more she ain’t. Somethin’s done took her over tonight and I know what it is.”
“So tell me.”
Jeb’s eyes darted left and right, then widened in fear and dread. Under his breath he said, “The Banshee.”
“Like I told you, I heard something. I can’t say quite what it is I heard,” Mike said.
“You heard the wail of the Banshee, is what you heard. She’s hitched herself up to my family and me and won’t let loose of us nohow,” Jeb whispered hoarsely. “I’ll tell you what brought her down on us; it was the sins of them O’Briens.” Jeb slapped the inside of his forearm as though his hand were a scourge. “O’Brien blood flows through these veins,” he said. “The curse of the O’Briens runs right along with it, kinda like a blood taint.”
“A blood taint?”
“A ruination of the blood.”
Jeb’s gaze slowly passed from the sky to Mike’s face. The moon went under a cloud and the night air turned cold. “Notice how it’s getting chilly? Cold as the Devil’s icebox all of a sudden?” Jeb said. “That’s her doin’.” He gestured toward the house. “Course, I’m the only one who knows the truth about her,” he added. “She likes havin’ it that way, slippin’ into Grammaw when she’s settin’ there all quiet, rockin’ back and forth in that chair a hers night after night, listenin’ to my Dorcas read to her from the Good Book and her not believin’ a single word of it, all the while musin’ like a cat with a mouse under its paw, bidin’ her time. Why, when the banshee is in Grammaw she ain’t no blinder’n you or me. Ever so often I catch her winkin’ at me, for pure spite. Truth is, she sees things we don’t.”
“What kinds of things?”
“The future. Who’s about to die. Them kinds a things.” He tilted his head and stared at Mike, as though daring him to believe. “Ain’t nobody else knows her secret, not even Dorcas,” he gloated. “Nobody ‘cept me. And now you.”
“I—I don’t understand. How is that possible?”
“I’ll tell you how. Somethin’ done give you and me the power of discernment tonight. Somethin’ that grows plum wild all over this whole place, like as though the land itself was tryin’ to warn us off.”
“You’re losing me, Jeb.”
Jeb nodded eagerly. “It was the wild tomaters, Pastor Mike. Them tomaters you and me et tonight afore supper done opened our eyes of spiritual discernment. It allays wears off after a spell, that power, but when it’s on you it can show you things. Things you’d rather not know but have to know. Things that can save your life, even your immortal soul. You believe me now, don’t ya?”
Mike hesitated. “Why do you think there was a curse on the O’Briens, Jeb?”
“They was… ungodly,” Jeb said, barely above a whisper.
“Ungodly? In what way?”
“The way that puts a man outside the pale of the Lord’s mercy. Look around you. Do thistles grow higher’n corn, it bein’ the middle a November? You seen that happenin’ anyplace you ever been before? And what about that mill house yonder? Nigh upon two hundred years old, that mill house. Why you figger it looks every bit as new as the day it was built, even with the weeds and the vines all growed up around it?”
“I don’t know. Why?”
“Sure makes a feller wonder, don’t it?” Jeb said. “And look what she done to them kids of ours if’n you still don’t believe me. Ain’t none of ‘em right, and they ain’t done nothin’ to deserve their grievous afflictions. Look at ‘em! They’s kids, they ain’t evil. What sins could they be guilty of, less’n it was them O’Briens siccin’ the Devil down on us?”
“Having a disabled child doesn’t necessarily mean anybody has sinned, Jeb. Remember that story in the Bible about the man born blind, where the disciples ask Christ whether it was the blind man or his parents who sinned in order to make him blind from birth? Remember what the Good Lord said to them?”
“He said, ‘Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.’”
“That’s exactly right, Jeb.”
Jeb grabbed Mike by the shoulders and shook him. “Then let the works of God be made manifest by you, with all your anointing and your power to cast out demons!”
“But Jeb, I—”
“Make her go away!” Jeb implored, half-kneeling. “Make her go away! That’s why you come to us, Pastor Mike. That’s why the Lord brung ya to us, can’tcha see? It’s a sign, I know it: a sign of deliverance at long last!”
As he and Jeb re-entered the schoolhouse Mike heard Mag asking, “Those ceiling tiles are lovely. Are those flowers?”
“Them ain’t flowers; they’s thistle,” Jeb answered. “Remember we drove through a mess of it? Thistle’s a weed. Grows plum wild around these parts.” He glanced warily at Grammaw. “Them O’Brien’s I tol’ yas about? See, they was Irish a course. Celtic, they called it. Thistle has come down to us as a sign of Celtic royalty. No sooner they’d come into some money, right off them shanty Irish O’Briens got biggedy, thought they was better’n everbody, to where they up and built them this here schoolhouse for them and their kin to learn in, private-like. O’Briens picked out the most expensive tiles that could be had, and so naturally they had them fancy thistle designs stamped on ‘em and had pony loads of ‘em brung down by river barge and horse cart all the way from Saint Louie, just to put on airs and remind theirselves and the whole wide world how they’s highfalutin’ royalty.”
“Is that right?” Mike said. “Antique stamped metal tiles like that must be worth a fortune nowadays.”
“Thistle’s a fittin’ sign for royalty,” Jeb said. “Know why?”
“Neither one’s good for nothin.’”
Grammaw rocked her rocker. A cat yowl split the air. Mike jumped.
“What was that?” he gasped.
“Grammaw musta caught the kitty’s tail,” Jeb said.
“I never noticed any cats around, Jeb.”
“You know how cats are. They tend to make theirselves hard to see.” He drew back his foot and kicked into the shadows, hard. There was an angry screech, then a menacing cry, more like a wildcat that anything domesticated.
“See what I mean?” Jeb said.
“Oh, please don’t be mean to it; I love cats,” Mag said. “What’s its name?”
“Ain’t nobody under this roof namin’ no cats,” Grammaw said. “Namin’ a cat’s same as summonin’ up a demon.”
“Aw, come on, Grammaw,” Jeb taunted. “Ain’t no reason to be a’scared about cleppin’ a lil’ ole pussycat, now is there? Why, we could clep her Beelzebub, or Old Scratch, even Mephistopheles, we’s to have half a mind to. Any ol’ moniker we’s to choose, I’d say.” He leered over at Mike for approval.
Mag said, “Why not a Christian name for the kitty instead of all those awful demons?”
“Pastor Mike knows,” Jeb said. “House cats ain’t mentioned nowhere in the Good Book, air they, Pastor Mike?”
“Not to my knowledge, although I have to admit I never made a close study of the question.”
“Not nowhere in the Good Book, that’s a plain fact, and I’m talkin’ Old and New Testaments. It was them pagan Egyptians, not the Chosen People, that was partial to cats. Why, do you know that archaeologists have dug up more cat mummies than human mummies over there in Egypt?”
“I didn’t know that. They sure must have loved their kitties, huh?” Mag said.
“I read in this one old book how the ancient Egyptians actually worshipped the cat. They believed the cat was sacred to a demon they worshipped—a pagan goddess they called Bastet. Now Bastet would supposedly appear in a woman’s body but with the head of a cat. They had them a regular Bastet cult going at one time. Do you know whenever a cat a theirs died them Egyptians would go into mourning and even shave their eyebrows?”
“Shave their eyebrows?” Mag remarked. “How bizarre!”
“It was how they done their deep mourning back in them days, seein’ as how they was about as primitive as can be.”
“Where do you come up with all these factoids, Jeb?”
“Old books. From the library, mostly. You wanna know what else? They was so many a them cat mummies turned up in Egypt that back in the mid eighteen-hundreds they was shipped allaways back to Britain by the ton, auctioned off and ground up into fertilizer.”
“Is that right?”
“Yes, ma’am, and not only that, but because it was so danged cheap, a whole passel a that there cat mummy fertilizer wound up bein’ spread on the potato fields of Ireland.”
“You don’t mean—?”
“I do mean. Them that done it had committed an abomination and cursed the land. Sure enough, not long after that the Potato Famine broke out, and them Irish? Well, they commenced to starvin’ to death. Whole droves of ‘em.”
“I never knew that.”
“Oh, yeah. That’s when the British landlords evicted the Irish peasants, stoled back their land and shipped ‘em off bound for Canada in what was known as “coffin ships,” so called because nobody expected hardly any of the passengers to finish the trip alive. But them O’Briens fooled ‘em. They come a’struttin’ down the gangplank offa that coffin ship hale and hearty soon’s they put into port at Quebec City, and before long they’d walked clean acrost the border into America. And here’s where they made their fortune.”
“That’s an incredible story, Jeb,” Mag said.
“And it was cats what drove ‘em here. Mummified cats sacrificed to a demon. The Irish was allays superstitious about cats. I heard tell how them O’Briens followed an old Irish custom and walled up a live cat in the hollowed-out cornerstone of the mill house to ward off evil spirits. Some say yis can still hear it yowlin’ of a quiet night.” He looked at Grammaw and added, “Not that they’s been all that many quiet nights ‘round these parts lately.”
“What a hideous idea!” Mag shuddered.
“Grammaw here’s right powerful skeered a cats. Ain’t that right, Grammaw? See, back in Grammaw’s day if a cat was to so much as wander into the same room where a corpse was laid out, why, that cat would have to be caught and killed.”
“Because in olden times folks believed the cat had to power to snatch away the dead person’s soul. Just like a demon.”
“People have certainly believed some strange things over the years, haven’t they?” Mag said.
“Who’s to say they was wrong?” Jeb said. “Late at night when the fire burns low and the shadows grow long, they’s lots a strange things begin to seem real—dark things that live in them shadows.”
A powerful blast of wind outside the schoolhouse gusted down the chimney and into the schoolroom, blowing out the lantern. The fire in the stove went out like a dead match, plunging everything into darkness. Mike blinked, his eyes straining to penetrate the gloom. When he stared in Grammaw’s direction he saw two unblinking eyes red as coals floating in midair, rocking back and forth. A soon as he met those eyes the wailing began again, louder than the wind but deadly and close by, piercing as a siren. Someone screamed, a high-pitched shriek of abject terror.
Jeb struck a match. In the dim flickering light, Mike saw Zechariah, the deaf boy, doubled over, still screaming and covering his ears as if to shut out the terror of the banshee’s keening wail, although that wail had ceased with the striking of the match.
Dorcas touched Zechariah’s shoulder to summon his attention and then shook her head at him with a sharp reproving expression.
“Child’s mighty afeared a the dark,” Jeb explained. “I reckon that, bein’ deprived of one of he’s five senses already, he’s that much more scairt a losin’ holt of any of the other four.”
“Oh, you poor little thing!” Mag exclaimed, rushing to Zechariah’s side. But when Mag touched him he screamed even louder, until at last Jeb ordered the eldest, “Abigail, take him on upstairs to bed.”
“But he hasn’t had any supper!” Mag cried.
Abigail’s harelip quivered. Jeb and Dorcas looked uneasily at each other. Jeb said, “We’ll tote some vittles on up to him by and by.”
“But none of you has eaten yet, either,” Mag said. “You offered to let us eat, and you’ve all done without. Why?”
“I think I get it now,” Mike said. “Shall I tell her, Jeb? Or would you prefer to be the one doing the explaining?”
“Ain’t nothin’ to explain,” Jeb said.
“Oh, isn’t there?” Mike said. “Well, then, Jeb ol’ buddy, why don’t you humor your guests by moseying on over to that dinner table and helping yourself to a nice big juicy bite of roast rabbit. Sounds like mighty good eating, doesn’t it, Jeb?”
“What with all the excitement of the evening, to tell the absolute truth I ain’t got me much of an appetite,” Jeb said.
“Aw, come on, Jeb. Hippety hop yourself on over to the supper table and take one itty bitty bite of delicious, mouth-watering rabbit for company. Just one measly bite, Jeb. What do you say?”
Jeb shrank away from the table and from Mike. “Can’t accommodate you there, Pastor Mike. Maybe after a spell.”
“No, not after a spell, Jeb. Right now. No harm in taking one bite, chewing it up and swallowing it, now is there?”
“I reckon not.”
“You reckon not?” Never breaking eye contact with Jeb, Mike walked to the table, selected a rabbit drumstick and thrust it in Jeb’s face. “Eat up, Jeb. Now’s the time. Unless you’ve plum forgait how to eat. You haven’t forgait how to eat, have you?”
“Mike,” Mag huffed, “What’s gotten into you?”
“Forgait how to eat? What kind of damn fool notion is that?” Jeb said warily.
“Cursewords from your mouth, Jeb? My goodness mercy sakes! Have you forgotten your manners? Maybe you can’t remember how to eat food, either. After you’ve been dead for so long, that is.” Turning to Mag, Mike added, “You see, Mag, Jeb and his little band of backwoods Missouri pioneers aren’t exactly what you’d call among the living. Isn’t that right, Jeb? You and Grammaw and your whole fam damly? Kinda on the dead side, aren’t you?”
“I brung you here for a purpose,” Jeb muttered under his breath, shivering. “I thought you was gonna help us. Air you gonna help us, Pastor Mike, after all you done seen tonight?”
“How can I help you, Jeb? You’re beyond the pale. Accept it. Move toward the light, good buddy. You’re expired. Game over.”
“Mike, you must have completely lost your mind!” Mag said. “Remember, we’re guests in this house!”
“I reckon you et yourself a few too many a them appetizers, Pastor Mike.”
“What was in those wild tomatoes and turnips, Jeb?” Mag demanded.
“We call ‘em tomaters and turnips ‘round these parts, but they’s other names for ‘em: mandrake fruit, mandrake roots, Devil’s apples. Mandragora officinarum, them botany fellers call it. Ain’t that a country mouthful? Grows wild all over this here home place. Some say the fruit of the mandrake was the selfsame apple what tempted Adam and Even in the Garden, and that’s why the Good Lord cursed it so, making it grow close to the ground the same way a serpent goes. O’Briens brought mandrake with ‘em from the old country and planted it right chere on the home place. Some say they used it for witchin’. Mandrake can cause a feller to see visions and dream dreams and that. Bad dreams. I think that’s what you’re havin’, right about now.”
“You mean Mike’s been hallucinating from something you gave him, Jeb? What on earth would possess you to do a thing like that?” Mag demanded.
“I had to be sure,” Jeb said slowly.
“Sure of what?”
“Whether I could trust him. Whether he’s the man for the job. And whether he could trust in himself and reckon for himself that he truly is a good man down deep inside, even though the Devil’s got him believin’ he ain’t. A man good enough that he could see with his own two eyes all the evil what I seen, and still agree to come back here and help us, no matter what cost to hisself.”
“Help you how? And what do you mean, come back?”
Jeb jammed his hands into his pockets and stared at the floor. “Ain’t no good less’n he does it of he’s own free will. Long’s he’s bein’ held prisoner by the evil that’s done trapped my family here all these years, what I need him to do won’t take.”
“Then have her let us go,” Mike said, pointing to Grammaw, whose eyes glowed red once more as she rocked quietly at table, gloating.
“Don’t you see, Pastor Mike? She won’t never let the both of yis go. Mag here, she’s bound to stay.”
“You can’t hold us here! There are laws against that kind of thing, even in Reynolds County Missouri!” Mike shouted. The only response was Grammaw’s cackling laugh.
Mag touched Mike’s inner elbow and said, “Don’t be so upset, Mike. It’s all right; I want to stay.”
“I love the thought of the two of us spending the night together in the old mill house. Do you know, that lovely home has captivated me so, why I feel as if I were born there, spent the happiest years of my childhood there. Why, once upon a time I might have been married in that house.” With a wistful and faraway look in her eyes Mag added, “I might even have died there.”
“Died there? Have you lost your mind, Mag?”
“But for an accident of history, I mean. Oh, Mike, haven’t you ever felt a déjà vu sensation when you’ve driven past a big old house that you may have seen only from the road? That you’ve lived before, and that very house had once been your home? That’s the way I feel about the mill house, Mike, and that’s why I want us to spend the night there, tonight.” She turned to Jeb and added, “That is, if you and your family don’t mind.”
“Mind?” Mike shouted. “Why should they mind? They’re dead I tell you!”
“For heaven’s sake, Mike! Watch your mouth.”
“Aw, we don’t pay him no never-mind, Miss,” Jeb said. “It’s them mandrake roots a doin’ the talkin. Y’all go right on ahead and spend the night in the mill house. A blind man could see you got your heart set on that very thing, and I know how it is when a woman gets her heart set on somethin’. You just be sure and take yis a lantern to light your way, once you get Pastor Mike calmed down.”
“Mag, don’t you remember? They’re expecting us in Pfisterville.” Mike turned to Jeb and Grammaw and said, “Somebody’s bound to come looking for us if we don’t show up in Pfisterville.”
“Oh, Mike, that’s not ‘til Wednesday night,” Mag chided, leaning gently into Mike’s chest. “Come on, humor me just this once. I need somebody to keep my feet warm. Spend the night with me in the spooky old mill house. Pretend it’s my birthday.” She grabbed her purse and made a tentative move toward the door.
Mike looked around the room. Jeb, Grammaw, Dorcas and even the children gave him eerie smiles of encouragement. To Mike their faces appeared pallid, their eyes hollow as faces carved in raw potatoes that had then dried in shriveled and desiccated patterns. “All right,” he replied. “But just one night.”
Mag embraced him tightly around the waist and kissed him hard on the mouth. He whispered to her, “Anything to get us away from this crowd.”
The swish and sway of the rain-heavy thistle, tall as July corn, made the nighttime walk to the mill house seem like wading. The lantern was all but darkened, rendered useless by the closeness of the dripping plants. Mag, carrying the lantern in one hand and big purse hanging from her opposite arm, rushed eagerly ahead while Mike followed in her wake. Soon the old mill house loomed ahead, towering over the wild sea of weeds that waved and parted as they passed, caressing and embracing them in clammy wetness like a host of departed spirits longing to return to the flesh.
Mike turned and looked back over his shoulder. The old school house was totally obscured by the choked vegetation. As he resumed slogging his way toward the mill house, the thick weeds suddenly gave way like the parting of a curtain. He found Mag standing in a clearing directly in front of the house illuminated only by the pale light of the full moon. It was as though the weeds had shied away from the mill house in fear of who or what might lie in wait within.
“Isn’t it simply the loveliest thing you’ve ever seen?” Mag sighed.
“Compared to what?”
“I hope the front door isn’t locked,” Mag said, giddy with excitement.
“Too late to ask the original occupants for a key,” Mike said. “Or is it?”
Mag grasped Mike’s hand and ran headlong toward the house. Other than the sounds of their footfalls on the rocky path to the front door there were no sounds. No crickets, no owls, no rustling in the grass or thistle, no wind or dripping rain. The night was deadly quiet.
“I feel silly tonight,” Mag said, hesitating before going in. “If I asked you for something, would you do anything I say?”
“If a man were to ask a woman that question she might be insulted.”
“It’s nothing like that. I want you to carry me across the threshold.” Mag made a coquettish face and said, “Please? Carry me across like I was your blushing new bride?”
“What if I just dragged you by the heels,” Mike asked, “like a blushing new corpse?”
“C’mon, carry me.”
“It sounds like a barbaric custom, but okay. Just try not to set fire to my shirt with that lantern.” Mag leaped into Mike’s arms. He pretended to groan under her weight. She kissed him with playful abandon. He reached for the doorknob.
A shock current of negative energy seemed to run down Mike’s arm, like electricity being drained away from every nerve of his body. It felt as though he were a battery being drawn down by—what?
“Do you feel that?” Mike said. “What is that?”
“Open the door and let’s go in, Darling. I’m dying to see the inside.” As Mag uttered the word “dying” the shock ceased. The plain bronze doorknob he had grasped was polished to the ghostly sheen of a coffin handle. There was a filigreed keyhole escutcheon to the side, pristine as though newly-installed. With Mag held squirming in his arms, kicking her legs like an impatient newlywed, Mike turned the knob, pushed open the door with his shoulder and stepped inside.
A sound emanated from within the old mill house, the sound of a dying exhale. The front door groaned like a death rattle on its hinges. As soon as Mike and Mag were inside it slammed shut behind them. Mike jumped, startled by the noise. Gently setting Mag down on her feet he remarked, “I thought that kind of thing only happened in the movies.”
Mag wasn’t listening. Instead she stood marveling over the house’s interior. When she turned to Mike her face even in the lantern light was flushed and radiant with excitement and the thrill of discovery.
“Will you look at that gorgeous staircase? Why, it’s like something right out of Gone With The Wind.”
“More like The Uninvited. The ghost story one with Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey.”
“And Donald Crisp; I remember. Didn’t Donald Crisp always remind you a little bit of George Washington, or was it just me?”
“That’s not a bad trivia question. Did Donald Crisp ever portray—”
From the uppermost part of the house came an unearthly howl, a funereal wail forced from the organ bellows of a wolfish chest and shaped by demon lips curled into an obscene rictus of despair. An inhuman voice, yet undeniably feminine. The unspeakable howl sounded on and on like a siren of warning from atop the house. Then something changed. Almost imperceptibly, Mike sensed that the howler had found them out. It seemed to descend the sweeping stairway as though stalking them like cornered prey.
Mag moved eagerly toward the stairway.
“Stop! Are you crazy?” Mike yelled.
“Don’t you want to see the upstairs?”
The wail became a trilling sound, like the warning of a rattlesnake given voice, directly above Mag’s head on the staircase. “I am. I’m absolutely dying to see the upstairs,” she said. At the word dying the house stilled. All was quiet.
“Race you to the top,” Mag squealed. She raced up the stairs, taking them two at a time, the wobbling lantern reflecting wildfire patterns on the red gilded wallpaper.
“Hold on, Mag.”
She paused midway up the stairs. “What?”
“Don’t you notice anything weird? I mean, every single thing has been weird since we got here, but what I mean is, it looks like somebody lives here, doesn’t it? Look around you; there’s not a speck of dust anywhere, no cobwebs. And where’s that musty closed-up house smell? It’s supposed to have been, what? A hundred fifty years or something?”
“You are such a buzzkill,” Mag said. “You heard what Grammaw said. They’re afraid to live here because they think the place is ‘hainted.’”
“You go listening to Grammaw, you’ll wind up with patches on your rear end. Or worse.”
“Is that so?” Mag made an impudent face. “I think you’re the one listening to Grammaw. You actually believe her, don’t you? That’s why you’re so scared. Grammaw says there’s a haint on the home place and you, Pastor Mike, you think she’s right.”
“I think if Jeb and the others are too scared to live here, then they’re too scared to perform janitorial duties, either. Somebody is keeping this mansion in immaculate condition, though. Look around you. Everything is ready for a house tour to come through.”
Mag shrugged. “Whatever, Grammaw’s boy. You coming with me or not?”
“And there’s something else.”
Mag huffed impatiently, letting her shoulders droop to show her exasperation. “Now what? Boogiemen in the shadows? Hillbilly spooks?”
“Hold on a minute, okay? I want to talk to you about something.”
Mag sat down on the steps, balancing the lantern on one knee. In that light she looked like Ruth Hussey lit for a Hollywood ghost story. “So talk.”
“Just now I was trying to remember where I’d heard that term.”
“Ululation. It’s the word they have for the way the ancient Egyptians mourned their dead. A few years ago they moved the mummy of Ramses II from some museum to perform studies on it. They moved him at sunset. There was this chorus of professional mourners that followed along, wailing the same way they would have done in the royal funeral procession thousands of years ago. The sound they made was called ululation. It’s something they do by moving their tongue real fast while they emit this sustained wailing sound.”
“You encounter that in your Bible studies on Christian television?”
“I saw it in a documentary, but it’s in the Bible, too, in Genesis. Joseph’s father Israel dies and is mummified according to the Egyptian tradition, meaning they embalmed him for forty days and mourned him for seventy. Then Joseph asks Pharaoh, ‘Let me go and bury my father.’ Remember that line?”
“That’s almost exactly the same thing a guy gave for an excuse when Jesus called him as a disciple: ‘Lord, first let me go to bury my father.’ And Jesus said, ‘Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead.’”
“I think it’s interesting, that’s all.”
“You really are into this stuff, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, I am. Anyway, Pharaoh not only lets Joseph go to Canaan to bury his father, he sends a whole contingent of chariots and mourners along with him. When they get beyond the Jordan, these mourners, it says in Genesis, ‘mourned with a great and very sore lamentation.’ You know what that means, don’t you? They were making that ululation sound. And it went on for seven days. That’s how the ancient Egyptians mourned their dead.”
“If you say so.”
“The point is I heard that exact same sound a moment ago, coming from directly above your head like it was seeking you out or something, like it wanted to rip your throat out. It was loud as hell, and scary? I can’t believe you didn’t hear it.”
“They gave you some kind of down-home psychedelic drug. That’s all it is, Mike. You have to give it a chance to wear off, Baby. Everything’s fine, trust me. You heard what Jeb said.”
“Yeah, I heard what Jeb said all right. Jeb said a lot of things, didn’t he? You know what? Maybe Jeb’s been right all along. It was Jeb who told me what’s been making that hellacious howling noise.”
“Sure, Baby. Whatever you say. C’mere, take my hand, okay?” Mag’s solicitous, condescending tone was beginning to grate on Mike but he climbed the stairs and slipped his hand into hers. Hers was cool to the touch from the rainwater, but seemed to exert a calming effect on him. He followed her up the stairs to the landing. A long dark corridor extended on either side, lined with doors that probably led to bedrooms. “The O’Briens must have been a big family,” Mag said. “This place looks like a hotel.” Her voice echoed in the huge cavern of a house.
“Hope they don’t mind us checking in without a reservation. And with no baggage, either. Ours is still locked in the trunk of your car back there in the ditch.”
“We’ll survive without it. I have to confess I’m kind of excited about roughing it with you tonight, Mike. I have the strangest feeling we’ll find everything we need here.”
“Maybe you’re right. I need to give that Jimson weed Jeb slipped me time to wear off.”
“That’s the smartest thing you’ve said all evening.”
“We both probably could use a good night’s sleep before taking on Pfisterville.”
“Phisterville. Yes, we’ll see.”
“What do you mean, ‘we’ll see?’ They’re expecting us Wednesday night. I gave my word.”
“Oh, right, you gave your word. Your word didn’t mean all that much when you took off on your last congregation, did it, Pastor Mike?”
“Why are you getting pissed all of a sudden? I thought we were both on the same page as far as making money off these Missouri hayseeds.”
Mag withdrew her hand from his. “I don’t know; now and then I guess I expect better things out of you. Out of both of us.”
“My thinking is all screwed up right now, Mag. Maybe it’s the funny tomatoes and the electric turnips, but whatever the reason, I think we should both sleep on it. Twenty minutes ago I had myself convinced that Jeb and the others were all dead and that Grammaw was some kind of demon. You know as well as I do that kind of thinking is for the suckers, not for the likes of us.”
“Is it? I’m going up to see the top floor. Are you coming or not?”
Above their heads soared a flying staircase as though floating in midair toward the upper reaches of the house. Behind them on the landing Mike saw a scarlet love seat elaborately carved from blond wood.
“You know how afraid I am of heights,” Mike said. “You go on ahead since you seem to be so curious. I’ll rest here and wait for you.”
“Chicken,” Mag teased. She bounded up the steep winding stairs that seemed to levitate in the midst of the near-darkness, carrying the flickering lantern with her. Within moments she was gone. The old mansion was shrouded in darkness. Only the starlight that seeped through the narrow casement windows lent any illumination. Mike found his way to the love seat. He pressed his palms against the velvet cushions to test whether the elegant old piece would support the weight of a man. It seemed as solid as the day it was made.
“Old world craftsmanship,” Mike mused to himself. “Can’t beat it.” He sat down on one end of the love seat and waited for Mag. Minutes passed. Mike closed his eyes. He may have slept. Whether it had been the mandrake root, its seductive Eden’s apple or his own exhaustion, his dreams that night seemed to have invaded his waking mind. It was as though the walls had broken down between sleep and wakefulness, between the land of the living and the land of the dead.
One thing was sure: the house was deathly quiet at last. The howling had ended, at least for now.
As he sat and rested, eyes closed against the darkness, all at once Mike started awake. There was a sound close by, a sound coming from directly beside him and an arm’s length away, to his left at the other end of the love seat. It was a sound like the stealthy breathing one makes while watching a sleeper. He opened his eyes and stared straight ahead, but fright stiffened his neck and prevented him from turning to glimpse the source of the sound, his abject fear telling him that if he were to turn his face to the left, he would find no one there, not so much as a swirling dust mote.
A soft and feminine voice at his left ear made him jump. She whispered, “You needn’t be so distant. So prim and proper. Why, one might suspect your collar starch to have seeped into your very neck as well, or that the threat of imminent decollation had rendered you rigid as a new corpse.” Hers was a lilting, teasing voice from a bygone age, a voice bridging the chasm from another, long-lost time. Yet Mike dared not so much as glance in her direction, though with all his being he desired nothing more. He shut his eyes tight with terror as he had not done since he was a child shivering under the bedclothes from fear of ghosts real or imagined.
“Why do ye clamp your súile shut tight as the gates of Hell?” the voice mocked.
“Nothing to see,” Mike intoned slowly, arching his neck in a paroxysm of dread. “Nothing to see.” He felt the deathly cold fingers of a silky glove caress his cheek and linger at his Adam’s apple before he was done speaking.
“Hush,” the voice said as gloved fingertips swept across his brow soft as a feather’s gliding touch. “Open your súile. Your eyes. I’ll nay bite ye.”
Dead slow, as if there were pennies over his eyelids, Mike opened his eyes and turned to face who, or what, was speaking. Instantly his fear transformed itself into basest lust. Seated beside him was a comely young woman no more than twenty dressed in a long silken gown. The sheer gown and the woman’s skin were pale and bloodless as bone china, stark against her blood-red hair done up in an elaborate antique coiffure. The transparent gown left nothing to the imagination; the woman’s voluptuous body was fully exposed to Mike’s approbation, belying her chaste posture and attitude. The gauntness of her thin face accentuated the depth of her dark eyes. Her expression was that of one who has witnessed infinite sadness and cruelty. Mike could not bear to meet her eyes. He looked down and saw that she was barefoot, her legs primly crossed at the ankles, hands folded in her lap in demure manner as though she were being courted in her father’s parlor. She wore opera-length satin gloves with beading in floral patterns and white fur trim above the elbows.
“In answer to your question I’m nary a’cold,” she said, a playful smile parting her lips and displaying her perfect teeth. “’Tis a warm witching November to be sure.”
“Where are your shoes?” Mike asked and immediately regretted the fatuity of the question. He found himself wanting to impress her, to court her as her attitude and the surroundings seemed to impel him to do.
“What need have I of footwear?”
“Well, I don’t know. You might stub your toe or get a sliver or something.” Mike smiled weakly.
The woman smiled again, indulgently. “You are kind to show such tender concern,” she said, “but I tread lighter than a vixen and I know the measure of this house passing well.”
“I’m sure you do,” Mike said. “What’s your name, anyway? Mine’s Mike.” He extended his hand like a Rotarian.
“Mine’s a name to conjure with, and I will nay give it up, except to the one man with whom I shall spend eternity.”
“You mean your future husband? I like that. There’s a kind of extreme chastity in not revealing your name.” And yet Mike could not resist. “I’ll bet it’s Bridget,” he said, “or Deirdre. Katie? Molly?”
She made no response other than to reach out her right hand and touch Mike’s eyelashes with a fingertip. “You fancy yourself a pastor,” she said. “I perceive that your súile—your eyes—need darkening.”
Mike grasped her hand and eased it away. “Sorry, I can’t stand fingers coming too close to my eyes,” he said. Her hand was icy cold to the touch but soft and alive with movement. He could not place where he had experienced a sensation akin to touching her, but he had, years ago when he was a child. He cradled her hand in his, glancing over her shoulder to make sure Mag was still exploring the upstairs. The woman locked eyes with him, her hand a busy thing in his, never idle. But what was that sense memory, that buried impression that touching her had reawakened?
“Come on. Tell me your name, I told you mine. Who’s to say I’m not the man of your dreams?”
She laughed, a musical cadence that seemed to come from everywhere, from the very walls of the house. “Who’s to say you are? Have you so soon forgotten your young lady friend tramping all about the manse swinging her lanthorn like a cowherd?”
“Mag? Listen, Mag is more of a business partner. The only reason I brought her along was because I owed her a favor or two. We were on a moneymaking trip to these parts when a car accident left us stranded.”
“Then am I to take it the two of ye are not affianced?”
“Not even close.”
“No parish priest has read the banns over ye?”
“I don’t even know what that means, so no.”
“And ye wish to know my name because of your great love for me?”
In his mind Mike explored the contours of the young woman’s body even as his eyes beheld her through her gauzy attire. He visualized the two of them coupling on the love seat, their dizzying passionate lovemaking, with Mag none the wiser.
“The milkmaid will nay trouble us,” the woman said.
“Then absolutely,” he said. “Because of my great love for you. You got it.”
“Will ye plight me your troth, then, before even knowing my name?”
Mike visualized their bodies writhing on the cold floor, the pumping rise and fall of his loins as he penetrated her. “Till death us do part, Nameless Beauty.”
“I was rather hoping for a more lasting commitment.” She withdrew one long pearl-headed pin. Her lush tresses of carmine hair loosened, cascading over her shoulders and down her back, transporting Mike with desire. Her eyes sparkled with mischievous glee.
“You got it, Babe,” he said. “Forever and ever. Now let’s have that name.”
“Impetuous lad. Promise not to tell? For once you hear it spoken aloud, the enchantment cannot be withdrawn and ye are bound forever to your solemn pledge.”
Mike crossed his heart and said, “Scout’s honor.”
“Very well then. My name… is Mórríghan.”
“Mórríghan,” Mike repeated. Strange faint voices seemed to cry out from within forgotten rooms somewhere in the mansion. “That’s a beautiful name. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it before. Mórríghan.” The voices, louder now, seemed to keen and wail like mourners.
She laughed again, a triumphant laugh, and the voices died. Her eyes, her face, her lips, even her laugh all were achingly beautiful. She drew closer, offered her upturned face and whispered, “Come seal our bargain with a kiss, Pastor Mike. Bind us together, flesh and spirit, for all time.”
Mike’s body was aflame with passion for her. Never in his life could he remember wanting a woman as much as he wanted Mórríghan at this very moment. He wanted her long, lithe legs grasping him between them, her ankles resting on his shoulders as he entered her, violating her purity. Her mouth was a ruby vortex drawing him into its center with intimated forbidden pleasures. He let go of her hand, grasped her yielding shoulders and impulsively embraced and kissed her. But what was that uneasy feeling, strange yet familiar, that came over him every time he touched her? What was that loamy hint of turned soil now that he had her in his arms? And what was that small thing moving at the corner of her mouth?
Then it came to him: it was like that first time fishing at the lake. One of the older boys had had him close his eyes and then plunged his hand into a coffee can filled with nightcrawlers.
Mike shuddered and recoiled from her touch. Something clung to his lower lip. He spat it into his palm and looked at it. Some kind of a white grub or slug, still wriggling.
She elevated her chin and regarded him with a gloating, contemptuous expression, smiling all the while. “A grave worm to be precise, Pastor Mike. Me whole body’s alive with the blasted things. As to the shoes, they buried me without them. A quaint old-country custom to discourage the dead from roaming about.”
“No!” Mike gasped. “No, it can’t be!”
“Can I not assume a pleasing shape, Pastor Mike? Air ye nay pleased with me, more so than what appeared to ye in the body of that sightless crone?”
“This isn’t happening! This is a nightmare or some kind of waking sleep paralysis or something.”
“Shall I hymn ye, Pastor Mike? I know many hymns by heart. Funereal hymns as a rule, of which I’ve heard and sung many, and heard sung over meself. Solemn songs to welcome the dead.” She stood over him, nearly six feet tall, and began a mournful dirge in a strange tongue. All the time she was singing he racked his memory, revisiting every occult belief he had ever studied.
Mórríghan. Morrigan. Morgan.
Morgan le Fay!
She interrupted her singing to reply, “At your service.”
“But Morgan le Fay is no more than a legend.”
“What is a legend but a spirit? A dispossessed spirit left to roam the earth until such time as she is welcomed in.”
“Why am I not afraid of you?”
“Because I will it so. Because you welcomed me, or the flesh you mistook for me, and lusted after me. Man’s flesh is the spirit world’s bit in his mouth. Man’s feelings and emotions are the reins by which he can always be well controlled. Are you so prideful as to presume that you are any different in that regard than the next man or the next after that? I know what is in you, and it is I who choose whether you shall be filled with fear or with lust. They are stairstep sisters, you know, fear, lust, pride, anger, hatred, and they are all my children. I can summon up any or all of them in you as I please. It is my will that rules you now; my will and my caprice, and all because you welcomed me in.”
“What do you mean, welcomed you in? You’re no more than a hallucination from some backwoods witching herbs.”
“The last of the O’Briens to welcome me in stands before ye, or at least, the re-enlivened bodily form of her. Rowena O’Brien, dead these many years. Oft rudely importuned by her father, who was wont to lock her within her chambers as his means of concealing his vile misdeeds and insuring Rowena’s silence, until her rooms became a veritable dungeon for the poor girl, Rowena had only one book to console her: La Morte D’Arthur, which she read every day, all day, and even by firelight late into the night until some say the total immersion of her consciousness in medieval legends unhinged her mind to the point where she sought out the black arts to discourage her father’s unwelcome advances and accomplish her escape from a life of torment.”
“And did she? Accomplish that result?”
“Regrettably for her, the answer is yes.”
“When Rowena’s overly amorous father released her from confinement at last, she remained banished from the dinner table. Her meals were served to her alone in the summer kitchen on wooden crockery as intended disgrace, while her father and indeed her entire family habitually sat at table in the dining parlor and ate theirs from fine glazed china. That china had been transported by wagon from Galena, Illinois, and arrived after Rowena’s confinement. The glaze from those fancy dishes proved deadly as the venom of Cleopatra’s asp. All the O’Briens save Rowena took plumb poisoning and died unshriven, within days of one another. There is a delicious irony in the fact that the mortal remains of Rowena’s immediate family, even those of her dear dead randy pappy, bloated to bursting with their unconfessed sins, lie buried in hallowed ground while hers were denied Christian interment by the parish priest.”
“Why was that?”
“Perhaps the ghastly spectacle of seriatim wakes and burials deranged the unfortunate maiden’s mind beyond all hope of redemption. Despite her dark history of abuse at the unclean hands of the monster who had sired her, she no doubt blamed her own dabbling in black magic for her family’s untimely demise, regarding which her imagination assigned her too principal a role. At any rate, she hanged herself soon afterward, thereby obtaining her release, albeit in a manner she never would have intended.”
“Yes. She was cut down from this very landing and buried without preamble in a potter’s field where she was feasted upon by worms very like the one you so recently tasted. At least, her bones lie buried there. Her ghost haunts this manse. And she is hardly alone.”
“Mike? Who are you talking to down there?” Lantern light reflected from above them. As soon as Mag spoke, the being who called herself Mórríghan transformed into an indistinct shade resembling a flurry of dust motes or the chaff from sifted wheat. The shadow held her form for the briefest of moments, then vanished, but not before giving Mike a look as though she had just slit his throat and he had yet to feel the sting of the blade. Mike glanced around for her but found himself alone on the second-floor landing.
“Didn’t you see it? Or hear it at least?” Mike asked Mag as she descended the flying staircase.
“See or hear what, Darling? I think you’re still feeling the aftershocks of those poison turnips and apples Jeb fed you. I know he had good intentions but I kind of wish he hadn’t done that.”
“I guess you’re right. See anything interesting upstairs?”
“Interesting? Tapestries of medieval fairs and hunts on all the walls. Canopy beds with massive mahogany bedposts and headboards, perfectly preserved, even the satin pillowcases and embroidery, just as though the servants had been in to turn down the beds this very evening.”
“Maybe they did,” Mike said.
“What a crazy notion.”
“Jeb said his ancestors were indentured servants to the O’Briens. Do you suppose the O’Brien family had slaves too? They lived here before the Civil War. Wasn’t Missouri a slave state back then?”
“I can’t remember.”
“Yeah, I think it was. I saw something on television about the Missouri Compromise. Missouri was definitely a slave state at the time the O’Briens owned this house.”
“Oh, Mike, how horrible!”
“I’m not saying they did own slaves. I’m only saying maybe. After all, weren’t they supposed to have died still bloated with all their sins? I seem to remember hearing that they ‘died unshriven.’ Doesn’t that mean they died harboring unconfessed sins?”
“Where did you hear a thing like that?”
Mike hesitated. “Jeb must have said it.”
“I don’t recall Jeb saying any such thing. Your poor mind is still playing tricks on you, Mike.”
“Maybe. Maybe not.”
“You’re in denial, that’s all it is. Come on, I’ll give you a guided tour of upstairs.” She started up the staircase again.
“I hope you’re not still planning on spending the night here, Mag.”
Mag paused on the second step, a hurt and astonished look on her face. “How can you ask me a thing like that?”
“It’s just that I think Grammaw was onto something. Let’s face it, this place is haunted.”
Mag bit her lower lip and turned aside. When she turned again to face Mike her expression was one of suppressed rage. “It’s so like you to try and deny me this one thing, after all I’ve gone through for you on this stupid trip. Hours and hours in the car with no bathroom breaks and no sign of civilization, sleeping in the car to save money on motels, going without lunch practically every day so we’ll have enough to buy gas, while at the same time having to listen to you talk nonstop about how much we’re going to make off the suckers. I mean, what other woman would put up with that? You call yourself an exorcist—”
“See, that’s what I mean. Here you are correcting my terminology instead of showing the least little bit of consideration for my feelings just this once.”
“It’s an important distinction.”
“Deliverance minister, then. So why don’t you say a prayer or something and make this beautiful house un-haunted if you’re so scared? Where else do you figure we’re going to spend the night? Tucked in with Jeb and his clan? I don’t think so.”
Whenever Mike was stuck for a reply during an argument with Mag, his last-resort tactic was to stand still and silently gaze into her eyes with an expression of wistful regret. That’s what he was doing when they both heard the sonorous gong of a grandfather clock strike twelve. Mike flinched and broke eye contact.
“What the hell is that?”
“Oh, that’s another surprise bonus I found upstairs in the hallway outside the master bedroom, this lovely old grandfather clock. It’s the most gorgeous piece I’ve ever seen. You have to come see it with me. It’s like seven or eight feet tall and it’s got all these dials and phases of the moon and everything. It must be over a hundred years old, maybe a hundred and fifty, who knows, and it still keeps perfect time. I checked it against my wristwatch.”
“Well, doesn’t that in itself tell you something about this place, Mag?”
“That it’s perfect for us?”
“No, that somebody must be winding that clock every so often. Didn’t the thought ever occur to you that those old clocks don’t wind themselves? And if Jeb and the others are so deathly afraid to set foot in this house—”
“—then who’s winding the clock? I see what you mean.”
“I’m not trying to be unreasonable about this, Mag—”
She caught him in a quick, exuberant embrace and kissed him. “Good! I knew you’d see it my way. Now c’mon up and see the bedroom.”
The grandfather clock towered over them at the head of the stairs, the moonphase discs of its face gleaming like miser’s gold in the lantern light. “That is definitely an antique,” Mike said. “See those? They’re called ‘penny moons.’ The clocks from around the eighteen twenties had them. The later clocks had larger moon faces, maybe the size of a man’s fist.”
“How did you come by all this arcane knowledge, if I may ask?” Now that Meg had gotten her way and they would be staying in the mansion, her attitude had become playful.
“I used to work at an auction house. Lots of antique dealers would show up. Now and then we moved one of these. I made it my business to learn the lingo. For instance, that thing on the top? That’s called a pediment.”
“I know, Mike. I didn’t just get off the boat, you know.”
“No, but the O’Briens did. Jeb said they came over on one of those coffin ships with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. Nobody would have brought along any clocks on that voyage.”
“They must have bought it later. You know, after they got filthy rich.”
“Filthy rich is right. Filthy rich off all the slaves they owned.”
“Oh, Mike… ”
“Anyway, these things here are called brass rosettes, the columns on either side of the dial look to me like genuine marble, not cheap paint or celluloid. The case looks like carved walnut, not mahogany. That can indicate mid-seventeenth century. This sucker may be over two hundred fifty years old, Mag.”
“Wow! Think of it!”
Wanting to impress her, Mike said, “Did you know that the early clockmaker guilds used to make only the works of the clock?”
“No, I did not know that,” Mag smirked. “Who made the wood part?”
“They subcontracted that out to the coffin makers.”
“Are you serious?”
“Dead serious, no pun intended. This very grandfather clock case may have sat side-by-side on a woodworker’s bench next to somebody’s coffin.”
“That is so unbelievably creepy.”
“Isn’t it? And notice the man in the moon at the very top of the dial. That means it’s a full moon tonight, which we already know it is. And see there? That’s Father Time swinging his scythe.”
“Oh, yeah, I see him. He’s cute.”
“Cute? We’re going to be staying all night in a haunted house and you think an old guy with a scythe is cute? He looks like the Grim Reaper.”
“Anyway, I’m impressed. My little auctioneer boy. Did you stand up there and do that ‘sold, American’ thing?”
Mike made a courtly bow and said, “Call me Colonel.”
“Why should I call you Colonel? You going to put on a white suit and start selling me fried chicken?”
“Every auctioneer is called ‘Colonel’ as a sign of respect, even the women.” Mike petted the carved wolf’s-head in the arched door below the clock face. It was an elaborate carving, nearly life-sized. “I’d love to check this thing out in daylight to see if it’s signed by the clockmaker, and maybe dated. That is, if we happen to survive the night here.” He touched the fangs of the wolf. Even those were flawlessly preserved.
“Perfect as the day it was made—aiee!” Mike drew back his hand. One fang had pierced his ring finger, drawing a trickle of blood. He sucked his fingertip.
“Eew! Don’t do that!” Mag protested with disgust.
“What do you suggest? It’s not like there’s a bathroom with running water or a first-aid kit anywhere handy.”
“Saliva contains germs.”
“Well, thank you very much, Florence Nightingale.”
‘Here, wait a minute. I may have a band-aid and some hand sanitizer.” She unzipped her purse and began rummaging through it.
“There’s probably everything you care to name in that purse.”
“I’m a former Girl Scout. Our motto is ‘be prepared.’ Here we go. Success.” Mag produced a band-aid and a squeeze bottle containing bubbly clear gel, but when she reached for Mike’s injured hand they both saw that the blood and the puncture wound had vanished.
“I could have sworn… ” Mike began.
“Did you wipe it off on your pants or do something equally gross?”
“No. It’s gone. I can’t figure it out.”
The howling began once more, this time seeming to emanate from within the grandfather clock, from the very jaws of the wolf’s head. “I can’t figure it out either,” Mag said, so quietly Mike could barely make out her words over the infernal noise.
“Can’t you hear it?”
“Hear what, Darling?”
“It’s louder than a tornado siren, and it’s coming from somewhere inside that damned clock!”
“Mike, your mind is still messed up from those herbs.”
“I’ll put a stop to this goddamned racket!” Mike yelled. He ran toward the clock, grabbed it from the back at mid-height and pulled with all his strength, dragging it away from the wall and across the landing. When it reached the head of the stairs the tall clock toppled over, crashing down the steps in a retreating cacophony of brass and splintering of hard wood. The howling ceased as suddenly as it had begun.
Mike turned to Mag, who was doubled over with clenched fists held to her mouth as though to suppress a scream. Mike didn’t know what to do, how to comfort her. He tried shrugging, put his hands in his pockets and took them out again. Finally he took Mag in his arms, in the tenderest of embraces and held her there for a long time. She was shivering, or sobbing.
No, she was laughing. Silently laughing, a malicious laugh at his expense, metallic and sharp as steel in its lack of humanity. He grabbed her shoulders and held her at arm’s length.
The face of Rowena O’Brien stared back at him. The lantern flame died, plunging them into blackness.
Mike’s scream was more deafening than the howl of the Banshee.
They were all around him. He could sense them in the blackness, their eyeless sockets staring sightlessly at him as he lay across the canopied bed, the slow scuffle and drag of their bare and callused feet across the hardwood floor, their desiccated yet powerful hands reaching out for him like iron manacles. Slaves, or the ghosts of slaves. Zombies now, bound to this hellish place by the sins of their earthly masters. The ancient Egyptians slaughtered all Pharaoh’s slaves when Pharaoh died so that they could serve him in the afterlife. Perhaps the O’Briens carried the same curse, leached bit by bit from the blighted soil of their homeland, from fields forever befouled by the dust of mummified cats.
They were holding him down now, pressing him into the soft feather mattress on the bed. Soon one or more of them might place a pillow over his face and smother him. And still he dared not open his eyes. Lifeless hands clamped his wrists in a death grasp and formed leg irons of flesh around his ankles, wrenching his body into the x-shape of a St. Andrew’s cross.
He fought for breath. They must be smothering him! Mike opened his eyes a crack and beheld…
No one. Still gasping for breath, he found himself lying across a canopy bed in an elegantly furnished room just as Mag had described, illuminated by moonlight spilling through the arched floor-to-ceiling windows. The storm had passed. He could not remember having been carried to the bed or how much time had gone by. He was all alone in this place. But who or what had taken Mag, and where?
“Mag?” he called out. “Where are you, Mag?” There was not even an echo. His calls were met with only silence from the cavernous house.
He was still dressed in his clothes but someone had removed his shoes. He searched all around until he found them at the foot of the bed, positioned end-to-end at the heels like Charlie Chaplin’s, like somebody’s idea of a joke. “So you think I walk like a duck, is that it?” Mike said to the moonlight. “Do you think I’m funny? Do I amuse you, like a clown?” Trying to do the lines from that movie he and Mag had watched over and over. “Mag?” he yelled again, louder this time, but there was no response.
He pulled his shoes on, seated cross-legged on the edge of the bed. The shoes were still wet from the walk through the tall rain-drenched weeds. “She’s exploring the house,” Mike said to himself. “That’s all it is. She has to be here somewhere.” He stood at the side of the bed and thought about the ghosts of slaves. Were they vengeful ghosts? Or had he dreamed the whole hellish experience in his drug-altered state, dreamed of Rowena and Mórríghan and the silent zombies that had held him down?
He massaged one wrist. His ankles and wrists were chafed and sore. Was that a dream as well? “Mag?” he hollered. “Answer me, Mag. This isn’t funny.” Only stillness.
“Mag, if you don’t say something or show yourself right this minute, I’m leaving. I mean it, Mag. This thing has gone far enough. Nobody’s laughing.” But this time Mike thought he heard what might have been a hint of far-off laughter somewhere in the house. The sound was indistinct; it could as well have been the chittering of raccoons outdoors or the predawn koi-lee whistle from a covey of quail.
The laughter rang out again, louder this time, as though reading his thoughts and mocking him. “Is that you, Mag?” he said to the house, his voice suddenly unsteady with dread. “I swear I’m getting the hell out of here in about three minutes. I’m serious, Mag.” The laughter seemed to echo throughout the house. It was definitely feminine and mirthless and it went on and on. “Cut it out, Mag!” Mike screamed, his voice breaking like an adolescent’s. “You know how I hate being scared, so quit it.”
Mike took one furtive step into the dark hallway and peered to his left. The grandfather clock stood like a sentry in the place where he and Mag had first found it, before he had thrown it down the flight of stairs. Dumbfounded, he moved closer.
There was no damage at all to the clock. It had somehow been lifted up from the steep staircase and completely restored to its pristine condition, as though time had run backwards. The wolf’s head seemed to leer at him.
Someone tapped him on the left shoulder. He spun around, but no one was there. Terrified, he turned and bolted for the stairs. He made it down the flying staircase until the soles of his shoes slipped on the lowest step. He fell sprawling backwards, inches from the top step of the winding staircase that led to the main floor of the house. Unseen hands—powerful hands, and many of them—pressed against his shoulders, trying to roll him over, thrusting him closer and closer to the edge. Mike gripped the finished hardwood floor with his palms and dragged his wet heels against it but his hands skidded across the smooth floor until they burned. His heels were too slippery to achieve any traction. The power of those ghostly hands proved impossible to resist. Mike felt himself plunge headfirst over the top step and down. He flopped and somersaulted downward like a movie stuntman, his body finally coming to rest at the apex of the winding staircase’s curve. He looked up to behold Mórríghan standing over him.
“Leaving so soon?” she asked in a baleful, otherworldly voice.
“You! What have you done with Mag?”
“Mag is with us. Would you care to join her?”
“What have you done with her?” Mike repeated.
“Done with her, you ask? Why, nothing at all. You see, it was she who welcomed me in. Just as you have done. We are all members of one another now.”
“Oh yeah? What’s to stop me from walking right out that door?”
“You shant go far. You see, this manse holds your destiny in its grasp. Yours and Mag’s as well.”
He drew himself to his feet. Nothing felt broken. Turning his back on Mórríghan he hobbled the rest of the way down the stairs, gripping and leaning against the banister for support like a man three times his age. But when he was three paces from the front door Mórríghan appeared in front of him, blocking his way.
“How far do you suppose you shall wander without us?”
“I and the other spirits of this house and grounds. You are in us and we in you, all of us implicated with one another, a monstrous unholy thing conjoined in spirit. You were born to this end, Michael. You cannot leave. I’ll not have you leave.”
“Is this where I say, ‘frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn?’”
Mórríghan seemed about to speak, but before she could there was an infernal yowling like a cat being tortured within the walls of the house. Mórríghan’s eyes widened at the sound. Her visage became hazy and ill-defined, as seen through thick smoke. The poor feline creature yowled again, a frightening scream of agony nearly human in its range. At the final howl of the unfortunate beast Mórríghan completely vanished. Mike’s way was clear to escape the house. But could he ever flee the evil it enclosed?
After calling out to Mag one final time Mike threw open the heavy door and ran from the house. Outside, the moon glowed bright and silver, lighting his way. He crossed the clearing and made for the tall stand of weeds beyond. The stalks, still heavy with dew and rain, clung to him, ripping his clothing. The bull thistle that had yielded so easily when he and Mag were approaching the mansion now pricked and raked at his arms, legs, neck and face, threatened his eyes, snagged his skin like fishhooks and drew large drops of blood. The spines were everywhere, the tall plants literally covered with them.
Mike walked until he could go no further. He hid his face in his bleeding arms and stood in the midst of the briar patch of thistle, shaking. The plants closed in around him from every side, even the direction from where he had come, as though they meant to smother him and drain out the last drops of his blood with their thorny yellow spines. Had he gotten turned around? Which direction should he go? Each way he twisted, bull thistle plants seemed to go on and on for eternity.
Mike craned his neck upward, toward the full moon that painted the bull thistle patch in an unearthly pale light, a light that swathed the heads and bodies of the thistle plants in quicksilver. Could a man tell directions or find his way using the moon for a compass? Or was the moon’s only goal to make men lose their way? Mike didn’t know the answer. There were only two things he was sure of tonight: Mórríghan waited on one side of the briars and Grammaw on the other. Or maybe they were the same person, playing with him like Jeb had said, the way a cat plays with a mouse trapped between its paws.
To keep from screaming he thought of movies. Movies he and Mag had enjoyed, critiqued, watched over and over again. The Halperin brothers, back in the thirties. Vincent and… what was the other one’s name? Edward, that was it. Victor and Edward Halperin. One produced, one directed, like the Coen brothers only scary. White Zombie, the Halperin brothers’ masterwork, starring Bela Lugosi as the zombie master lurking in the tropical gloom, lit by eye lights, arching one eyebrow and fixing his next victim in a mad and murderous snakelike stare. What was the art direction style called? Not art deco. Art deco was The Black Cat with Karloff and Lugosi. Pre-code, that one too, with Satan worship and intimations of torture and perversion that were extreme for the time. No, it was German something. Dreyer had used it, and Son of Frankenstein. German impressionism? German expressionism? What was the distinction, or was there any? Compare and contrast. Discuss. Mike wasn’t sure. Think, think, think, keep your mind busied out here in the middle of nowhere, anything but get slashed to shreds by this encircling forest of knives. Beyond those knives lay only fear.
And then the howling began once more, that dreadful baying, desolate as a lost soul in Hell. He was no longer alone; someone or something was moving toward him. Trails, a dozen or more of them, traced their way through the thistle patch, moving closer and closer toward him. He could see the heads of the bull thistle bending over with the approaching trails, making obeisance to Mike’s unseen pursuers. Spiked stalks on either side of him bent apart as though thrust aside by unseen hands. Zombie hands of slaves long dead. Those same rough hands clenched the meat of his upper arms with a prodigious strength, seizing him like a captive child being led out of danger, dragging him along with irresistible force away from the mill house and toward the far edge of the briar patch. The hands gripping his arms gave a final thrust and Mike stumbled free. The howling stopped, abruptly as a strangling.
He stood on the grassy lane that led away from the mansion, the same way he had come with Mag that night. Looking around warily, he began a fast walk down that lane toward the river. Three steps later he broke into a run; his run became a dash; then, as his fear caught in his throat and his quickened pulse pounded in his ears, a run for his life. Something still pursued him, something unspeakably evil. He passed the old schoolhouse, now completely dark and looking even more ramshackle and ruined than when they had left it mere hours before.
The rain began again, a pouring rain mixed with moonlight, a sudden predawn cloudburst. Mike bolted for the shelter of Jeb’s truck parked by the schoolhouse. He yanked open the door; the door hinge creaked and groaned, metal on metal, from disuse and neglect. He ducked inside and sat hunched over the enormous steering wheel, panting and gasping. No one within the schoolhouse could have heard him open and close the door; the racket of the rain against the tin roof was loud enough to wake the dead. He pictured Jeb, Dorcas and their afflicted children laid out inside like corpses, all sleeping the sleep of the grave. Mike laughed at the thought, a punch drunk laugh borne out of exhaustion, the crazy laugh of a man used up by terror.
There is a certain smell about a truck after it has sat undriven for a long time and has weathered season after untended season, a smell of closed-up rooms and stale musty air, a junkyard stink of sun-cracked Bakelite, dead exhaust and a heater core gone bad. Jeb’s truck smelled like it had not been driven in decades.
Jeb had left the key in the ignition and his cell phone on the seat. “Thanks for the loan of your heap, Jeb old boy,” Mike said to himself, “although where you’ve gone, son, you won’t be needing it any more. Like the Cat Lickers say, requiescat in pacem. Bon voyage and move toward the light, good buddy.” He glanced at the dashboard. At the gaping hole that used to hold a cigarette lighter. Mag had been right about that. Mag had been right all along.
Mag. Mike suddenly felt less than a man. He had fled out of sheer terror, not staying behind to rescue her or even search the mansion for her, this woman who had taken him in like a stray dog, had fed, clothed and supported him for months while he’d done nothing but hang around her apartment and watch cable television. He was no longer a man, if indeed he’d ever been one. No one calling himself a man would leave a woman lost in that awful place, much less a woman he had once impetuously professed to love.
For a fleeting moment he considered going back for her. But what could he hope to achieve, pitted against the sinister power that lurked within the haunted mill house? For the first time in his life Mike had come face-to-face with true evil and what had been his response? He had run away. All his talk of deliverance ministry and exorcism had been cynical posturing and bravado. He knew he was no match for whatever was in that house.
“Face it,” he told himself, “there’s nothing I could have done. There’s nothing anybody could have done. The only smart thing to do now is take off. If that means I’ll be running all my life, so be it.” Mike reached for the ignition but before he could turn the key Jeb’s cell phone buzzed once and lit with an eerie green glow. Mike grabbed it and flipped it open. There was a new text message from a blocked number. He pressed OK to receive the text. It said: “Leaving so soon?”
Mike dropped the cell phone, groped for the key and turned. He heard a rapid series of clicks from under the hood and then silence. He tried again. One dull click. The battery was as dead as Jeb and his whole family, dead as the O’Brien clan. Dead as his hope of escape.
Thick clouds hid the moon. Mike had no watch. He thought it must be near dawn. Remembering the cell phone he checked the time. Six-sixteen AM. Dawn would not come for another hour.
Outside it was blackest night. The predawn storm’s full fury began to erupt, raging against the coming of the light. Lightning crackled close by, striking a dead tree near the schoolhouse not ten feet away from the truck. Timed with an explosive clap of thunder, sparks and a hot puff of white smoke and steam erupted from the crooked angle of a huge overhanging limb where the lightning struck. The severed limb dropped like an immense arm wrenched from its socket. Its splintered thick end smashed down on the bed of the old truck, which bucked and heaved as though it might flip end-over-end, tossed Mike around in the cab and slammed his face against the crest of the steering wheel. Something like bright red worms squirmed behind his left eyelid. His nose was blocked and throbbing. He tasted a coppery tang of blood on his tongue.
Mike stared at the damage to himself in the dirty, streaked rear view mirror. He looked like the loser in a bar fight, his left eye already swollen and red, his nose off-center and twice its normal breadth, blood trickling from one corner of his mouth. After a few moments the worms subsided and his sight cleared in his left eye. He would have a hell of a shiner but at least he wasn’t half-blind. The nose concerned him more. When he ever so gently touched bridge of it he felt a lightning shock of pain. What did they call that punch-in-the-nose injury? A deviated septum, that was it. Made you sound funny when you talked. How would he explain his face to the minister and the church elders in Phisterville? That is, if he could find some way to escape this Godforsaken homestead and make his way to Phisterville at all.
The truck could not be moved now, battery or no battery. The bed was crushed and crumpled by the massive tree limb. He would wait out the storm here in the shelter of the cab and think about what to do. In the cab he would be safe. The moisture of his breath fogged the inside of the windshield. A spider rappelled its way down. Brown recluse? Black widow? “What am I, an entomologist?” Mike wondered aloud to no one. He sat listening to his own breath and his own heartbeat, waiting for the storm to break.
A sudden drop in pressure inside the cab made his ears pop. Condensed droplets ran down the inside of the windshield, spelling out in gothic script the words Leaving So Soon? He smeared the words away with the heel of his hand.
It wasn’t like she hadn’t asked for it, Mag. Like a giddy Halloweener she’d practically dragged him into the mill house knowing it was haunted, and after they’d both been warned of the danger that lurked within, warned from out of the mouths of the wary dead themselves.
Still and all, he’d left her there. He would either have to go back and save her, or live the rest of his life a coward. Mike knew he was a coward, had always known it in fact. He’d shown his true colors that final afternoon at the storefront church when, faced with a financial crisis, he’d made up his mind to clean out the bank accounts and abscond with all the money in the church fund. It was as though his sins had pursued him here, that the hand of God had withdrawn its protection and left him in this forsaken place to be sifted like wheat by demons.
And yet, Mag had had a way of bringing out the best in him, of giving him hope that he might start again, rebuild his shattered life while at the same time denying and hiding the bitter shame of his past. But now Mag was gone forever unless he returned tonight to set her free from the spell of the haunted mansion.
The rain let up as unexpectedly as it had begun. Mike reached deep down within himself and resolved that within the next few minutes he would get out of the truck, walk back up the lane, go back inside the mill house and find Mag. As soon as he had made that decision he became aware that he was not alone in the cab. There was an eerily familiar presence close beside him, sitting silently in the passenger seat, a presence that cast no reflection in the rear view. He glanced aside, then jerked his head to his right and stared with disbelief.
Mórríghan, patiently waiting for him to notice her, idly reading his thoughts while she waited. “Shall I tell you a secret, Pastor Mike?”
“Shall I then? Would you care to know the secret of possession? How we spirits are able to enter in and remain? I should think a fine deliverance minister and exorcist such as yourself would long to have that secret revealed to him.”
The eastern sky was beginning to brighten. Soon it would be daylight. Mike wondered what would happen to Mórríghan once dawn had broken. As soon as the thought entered his mind she said, “I vanish with the night humours, only to reappear in the first shade of dusk. Time’s a’wasting, Pastor Mike. Come closer, if you’d ken the secret, and I’ll whisper it in your ear.”
“First release Mag. Give her back to me.”
“Ah, I fear your lady friend’s not part of our bargain. You see, she prefers to hang about where she is, and we mustn’t disrupt anyone’s free will. I am a great respecter of free will, Pastor Mike. Indeed, it’s mankind’s free will that grants me my power.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Then come back home with me, Pastor Mike, of your own free will and see for yourself.”
Mike considered going back with her. Mag was there, after all. Even if what Mórríghan said about her was true, he still might be able to convince Mag to leave with him. Mike considered himself a very persuasive guy, especially with the ladies.
“Do you know, Pastor Mike, that very many lovely damsels call Phisterville home? Full-breasted damsels with passion in the blood. Many of them have never known a man, let alone a man like you, possessed with the power of deliverance.”
Unbidden sense impressions and forbidden pictures flashed in Mike’s mind, of fresh-faced church daughters with perfect teeth, bare creamy shoulders and long lustrous hair, their unwary ripening charms coaxed out of their Sunday best by the visiting deliverance minister, of furtive couplings, musky lubricity and stolen ecstasies that went on and on. He told himself that Mag could wait; Mag was where she wanted to be. It was Phisterville that could not wait. In Phisterville he was needed.
“Tell me the secret,” he said. “I have to know.”
Mike leaned close to Mórríghan, who cupped her hand and whispered one word in Mike’s ear. She drew away and smiled at him, an enigmatic smile. Then she pointed an index finger at the dash. Her nails were those of a witch, blood-red and honed sharper than a dagger’s tip. The heavy truck engine turned over and rumbled to life. The tree limb rolled away, freeing the bed. Mike turned to Mórríghan with astonishment just in time to see her vanish from his sight with the first ray of dawn.
Invocation. It was that one word Mórríghan had whispered, the single word Mike carried with him as the speeding pickup hurtled down the bank and plunged into the Little Hoot Owl River—actually more of a swollen creek when seen by daylight. The smooth rocks at the bottom made the truck lurch and pitch, but also provided the traction needed to ford the stream. The roiling black water rose halfway to the windows. The engine sputtered but refused to stall. Mike floored the accelerator in second gear. The big truck roared its way up the opposite bank and, with a final sickening jolt, onto the lane that led to the highway.
“Ichabod Crane, that’s me,” Mike gloated aloud. “She can’t follow me. Demons can’t cross moving water. I’m free.” He turned right at the highway and headed for Phisterville, stopping only briefly at the scene of the collision to recover the luggage. Mag’s car was still there, sprawled midway across the ditch at a crazy angle, front end smashed against the trunk of an old oak tree. No county authorities had bothered with it. For all Mike knew there might have been no traffic along this road since the accident. The mud was so bad he did not risk scaling the slick opposite wall of the ditch to lock the car or even look inside. There was no need; the car wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. There was no risk of vandalism. His one suitcase was in the trunk and they were expecting him in Phisterville.
The trunk lock was buried under the muddy wall of the ditch but with a little digging by hand Mike managed to get it clear and open the lid. Climbing out of the ditch with the heavy suitcase Mike lost first one shoe, then the other in the soft, smelly muck. He had to plunge his hands wrist-deep in mud to recover them. The physical punishment he had endured escaping the briar patch, the injuries to his face from the falling tree limb striking the truck and now the mud clinging to his shoes like manure must make him look like a bum, Mike feared, and yet he was positively giddy at having eluded the ghosts and demons behind him. “I am a goddamn deliverance minister,” he shouted to the morning sky.
With a newfound strength and determination he threw the suitcase into the pickup bed, climbed aboard, ran a chain through the handle and secured the chain to a cleat. Then, feeling the clammy mud squeezing through his socks and between his toes, he stripped off the socks, stuffed them inside his mud-caked shoes, jumped into the cab and drove barefoot, maintaining the speed limit toward Phisterville.
A mile outside of town Mike came upon a modern gas station/convenience store. He unchained his suitcase and carried it inside. Mórríghan had been right about one thing, at least: judging from the young woman behind the counter, the damsels of Phisterville were comely indeed. She had big wide eyes and pouting lips like Ann Sheridan. Her trim figure belied an ample bosom under her crisp white blouse and blue smock. Her name tag said Rheenie.
Mike prepaid ten dollars for gas and asked her, “Mind if I use your rest room to wash up and change clothes?”
“You done tracked in near a truckload a mud already. You gonna take your muddy foot tracks along with you when you leave?”
“Sorry. Give me a turn at the mop and bucket if you like.”
She eyed Mike hesitantly and said with a shy smile, “Just try not to make too bad a mess a things back there, okay, Mister? ‘Cause you’re lookin’ at the one has to clean this place after.” The voice was Ann Sheridan too, all sultriness and smoke. A young Ann Sheridan like in Red Blood of Courage before the dialogue coaches made her lose her flat western accent.
“You’ll never know I was in there, I promise.”
Taking her time looking Mike up and down she said, “We don’t get that many men in here totin’ their filthy footware in their hands. I oughtn’t to serve you. See that sign?”
She pointed to a placard below the counter that said, No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service. “It ain’t none a my business but it looks to me like you was in one a them tough man contests and got the shit beat outta ya. That or mud wrestlin’ in a hog waller maybe.”
“Either one, I suppose.”
“In this business you grow kind of a sixth sense about people.”
“In my business too… Rheenie. You don’t mind me calling you Rheenie, do you?”
“That’s my name. Well, actually my name’s Irene, but I hate it.”
“Rheenie it is, then,” Mike said, adding, “Rheenie is a beautiful name. It suits you. A lovely name for a lovely young woman.”
That got her blushing. Rheenie lowered her head. Mike thought he saw her nostrils flare for the briefest instant, eyelids flutter. Mike silently complimented himself. He still had it, that gift for charming the women. She looked up and asked, “Just what is your business, Mister?”
There it was: opportunity. “Folks call me a deliverance minister. Ever hear of it?”
“Deliverance minister? As a matter of fact there’s one a them there deliverance ministers fixin’ to be guest pastor at our church tonight right here in Phisterville. You wouldn’t happen to be him, now would you?”
“The very same, Rheenie. Folks call me Pastor Mike. I’d shake hands with you but I’m afraid you’d pull back a muddy palm.”
“I’m a farm girl born and raised, Pastor Mike. Mud and me’re on a right familiar basis.” She reached out and confidently shook his hand. Her skin was cool to the touch, handshake surprisingly firm.
“So will we be seeing you at tonight’s church service, Rheenie?”
“Is that what you call it?”
“I call it a deliverance service, that’s a fact.”
Eyeing him levelly she replied, “Wouldn’t miss it for the world, Pastor Mike. Not much else left to do here in Phisterville other than go to church, ‘specially since the church fathers pestered the sheriff until he went and shut down both the dirty video rental and the pool hall.”
“Church will do you more good than watching dirty videos or playing pool.”
“If you say so.” She sounded glum, uncertain. “Say, you think I need me some a that there deliverance? That just maybe there’s one or two a them evil spirits a’lurkin’ inside me, makin’ me do shit?”
“Only one way to find out.”
“Come to church tonight and you’ll see.”
“There’s nothing else to compare it to, Rheenie. Casting out Old Scratch is way more exciting than scratching on the eight ball.”
“Can you spot any of ‘em sneaky devils peekin’ out at you? Here, come closer and look into my eyes.” She batted her eyelashes at him like the Oomph Girl reincarnated. Mike edged nearer. He wanted to, he really did. And he sensed that Rheenie did, too. Her eyes were unguarded, filled with excitement and desire for him. But just as he drew within kissing range of her he remembered Mag.
“Later. At church tonight. First I’d love to strip off these filthy clothes and wash away all this mud.”
He thought he could feel the disappointed release of her breath against his cheek as she said, “Be my guest, Pastor Mike. Little boys’ room’s right back yonder.”
He rinsed first his socks, then his shoes under the sink faucet, drying them with the hand blower. He stripped down to his Brazilian-cut undergear Mag had bought him as a joke for his birthday. Slacks, shirt and t-shirt were bloody and ruined from the briar patch. He threw the whole works into the waste can. Using a wad of paper towels for a washcloth he gingerly patted and sponged the blood from his face, neck, arms, chest and legs. Fortunately none of the cuts were deep. All had clotted and dried. He set the drain plug, filled the basin with hot water and washed his face with hand soap from the dispenser, liberally sudsing it everywhere, even his eyelids. His eyes still closed, he heard the rest room door swing open behind him and heard Rheenie say, “You been back here a spell. Thought you might be needing a little help.”
Nonplussed, Mike nevertheless recovered his composure well enough to say, “I’m the kind of guy who never turns it down.”
He heard her walk slowly and casually across the men’s room tile floor until she stood directly behind him, snuggled against his back and explored his abs with busy fingertips. He sensed her hot breath between his shoulder blades about where you’d bury a knife.
“Them underbritches’re kinda attention-grabbing. Not quite what you’d pitcher on a preacher man.”
“Thanks. My, er, wife picks them out for me.”
“That tight pouch in the front. What does your, er, wife call that?”
“An enhancement bag.”
“The name fits, though I got you figgered for the kind of a man that don’t need no particular enhancement down there.” Reaching under his arms she cupped her palms against his bare chest and playfully shimmied against his back, saying, “Bet you’d like to do this to me. Told you I had a sixth sense. I may be young and hangin’ around this hick town my whole life but I know what men like.”
“What about your other customers, Rheenie?”
“What about ‘em?”
“What if somebody were to walk in and catch us?”
“Business is always slow this time a day. That’s why I went ahead and locked the doors and hung out the closed sign. Won’t nobody bother us back here.”
Mike eagerly plunged his hands into the water in the sink and rinsed his face and eyes. He blinked the water away and stared into the mirror.
No one stood behind him. He was alone in the room. No, he could feel Rheenie’s hands still grasping his pectorals and massaging away. He could look down and see those hands, too—witch’s hands with nails that came to sharp points like bloody daggers.
He twisted around in her arms until he was face-to-face with her, she still hanging onto him, laughing at him now. Her smile was awful in its focused malignity.
“You can’t—you can’t cross moving water. Jeb said.”
“Don’t believe everything you read in books, Michael,” Mórríghan said, draping her arms across Mike’s shoulders. Rheenie’s Annie Oakley accent was gone, replaced by Mórríghan’s eerie Irish lilt. “That was poor Jeb’s mistake. And a fatal mistake it was, to be sure.”
I’m stronger than she is, Mike told himself. Stronger in spirit.
“Enhancement bag,” she mused, her hands wandering downward, still watching his eyes. “In my day we called it a codpiece.” Stealthily, slowly as a growing vine she insinuated her fingers inside the bag where their moving conniving presence bestowed a mercurial enticement. Mike sighed but did not pull away.
“X marks the spot,” she whispered. “I’ve the very fix of your undoing cradled in me hand like a helpless bird.”
“You’re sure of yourself, aren’t you?”
“Cock sure, Pastor Mike. Cock sure. Shall I tell you something of me and my kind? Are you athirst for knowledge of the occult world?”
“Tell me,” Mike answered in a taut voice.
“Very well, then, perhaps I shall. Though we freely pass to and fro over moving water, shall I tell you the one barrier we cannot pass? Would you care to know the one rampart that is forbidden to us without invitation?” She peered into his eyes as she squeezed him down there. “Ah, there’s the very thing, rising up to meet me.” Suddenly Mike felt dizzy, helpless. He tried to struggle against the intense provocation but it was no use.
“Not moving water but another liquid: moving blood. Human blood when it’s quick and hot. Pulsating, bounding human blood that sings to us from inside the veins. Blood that tantalizes the spirit as it courses through your youthful flesh, standing up to offer its own rude greeting, as you see.”
“And Mag?” Had he truly spoken her name?
“What of her? Shall I be Mag for you? In truth I’ve been so lonely, Pastor Mike, so dreadfully lonely without a man like you inside of me.” Mórríghan transformed herself before his eyes, becoming shorter in stature and more voluptuous, facial features moving to a stately minuet, realigning themselves into what was undeniably Mag’s face. Mag in somber attire.
“Grave raiments,” Mag who was not Mag said. “Shall I take them off for you? Would you prefer me undraped, Pastor Mike?”
Mike knew it was wrong. Still, some temptations are irresistible, he told himself. Those Bible verses about how God never allows us to be tempted beyond our endurance weren’t really literally true. They couldn’t possibly be true. Not now, not here. His body was aflame with passion. Mag, or a clever counterfeit—a diabolical counterfeit—stood before him stark naked and inviting.
“Invocation, Pastor Mike. Invocation,” she said in Mag’s voice and reached for him again, steering his course as though by a rudder.
An insistent knocking on the men’s room door. “Are you okay in there, Mister? You sick or something?” Rheenie called out.
Nothing had changed. Mike looked around until he had assured himself that this time he was all alone. He was dressed in a clean shirt and tie and wearing his dark suit pants. He said to himself, those funny tomatoes and turnips sure pack a hell of a flashback.
He still felt the same, though. That was good. He had escaped the demon. Or maybe there had never been any demon in the first place. Maybe the whole thing had been nothing more than a drug-stoked hallucination, what the hippies used to call a bad trip. He strode to the door barefoot and opened it.
Rheenie—the real Rheenie—stood just outside the door, a concerned expression clouding her face. “I was getting ready to call nine one one on you, Mister. What’d you do, fall in?”
“No, nothing like that. It turned out to be a bigger job than I’d bargained for getting myself cleaned up and presentable for church was all.” Mike decided to take his time looking Rheenie over. He let a lazy smirk play over his lips, checking her out through eyes heavy-lidded with lust, not caring whether she noticed or not. Willing her to notice.
Rheenie shifted her weight from one foot to the other. “Why are you looking at me like that for?” she said with a nervous laugh.
“Woman is the most beautiful creature God ever made,” he said with a lazy smile. “Did I happen to mention I appreciate beauty?”
“But you told me you’re a minister.”
“I’m still a man, Rheenie. Now and then I like to hang loose and admire Our Lord’s handiwork.”
Rheenie snorted. “Long’s you’re hangin’ loose.”
“Figure of speech,” he said, gazing into her eyes as though to telegraph his intent.
“The customer is always right. Admire away, then.” She looked down at her hands.
“Mind walking down that aisle for me?”
“What?” She let go an incredulous laugh.
“Just walk away from me down that aisle twenty paces or so, then turn and walk back towards me.”
“You want me to walk for you.” It was a statement.
“Yeah. You know, like a model would, down a runway.”
“I’m a country gal, Mister, and I don’t walk like no model you ever seen, more like I’m stepping through the back pasture dodging the cow pies.”
“Call me Pastor Mike, Rheenie.”
“Yeah, Pastor Mike. I remember.” But she walked for him, taking her time as he watched, accentuating each step with a lazy exaggerated swing of her hips. Nice.
On the way back she winked and waved at him. Crossing her steps so that her thighs rubbed together for an added enticement. She was three paces away when the electronic bing bong sounded for the front door and a grinning man walked in.
“I thought you said you’d locked up,” Mike said.
“Locked up? Are you crazy Mis—Pastor Mike? Not during business hours.”
“Hey, what’s it take to get a little service around here?” the man said in what was clearly meant to be a joshing tone. His grin spread even wider.
“Well, ain’t this a coincidence!” Rheenie exclaimed. “Reverend Garrett! Here he is, Pastor Mike, just the gentleman you were comin’ to see! Reverend Garrett, this here is Pastor Mike!”
Reverend Garrett’s grin seemed to fade inversely with the broadening of Mike’s own. Mike confidently approached Reverend Garrett and extended his hand. Reverend Garrett’s grip was a soft slab of warm meat.
“Well, Hallelujah, Brother!” Reverend Garrett bellowed. “We’d just about given you up for lost, Pastor Mike, me and the Missus. How are you, friend?” His expression did not fit the hearty greeting. Mistrust was buried beneath his weak professional smile, for no reason at all that Mike was able to discern. Mistrust and something like fear.
“Well, I, uh, that is, we had us a little fender bender a ways back. Got stranded and had to rely on the hospitality of some of the local folk. They put us up for the night, even offered me the use of their vehicle.”
“Well now, that was right nice of those folks. Parishioners of ours, were they?”
“No, I don’t think so. They seemed to be believers but not the churchgoing type, if you catch my meaning.”
“Oh, no, not backsliders. No, these struck me as simple country folk who never got around to throwing in with any particular denomination but who have the Word of the Lord written on their hearts.”
Reverend Garrett nodded thoughtfully. “I know most of the folks living along his here stretch of road. Lived here alla my life. You recollect their names, Pastor Mike?”
“Well, there was Jeb and Dorcas and four younguns and a grandma.”
“You happen to catch their surname?”
“Bagby,” Mike said. “It was Bagby.”
Reverend Garrett’s expression darkened. He shook his head and said, “They ain’t been no Bagby’s livin’ around these here parts for nigh onto a hundred years, a hundred fifty years, mebbe. You sure about that name, Pastor Mike?”
“That’s the name they gave me. Course, they coulda been wanting to remain anonymous. Not letting their right hand know what their left hand was doing.”
“Seems like a powerful strange way to go about it. Whereabouts did you say they lived?”
“Well, see, that’s the weirdest part. Mag and I had passed a lane without even seeing it, just before the accident, and—”
“And how is Mag?” Reverend Garrett interrupted to ask.
“Mag?” Rheenie asked. “Who’s Mag?”
“Ah, she was feeling poorly after the accident. The Bagbys put her up.”
“The Bagbys. Right. You were getting around to telling me where they lived, these Bagbys of yours.”
“Oh, yeah. Well, you head down this lane that’s all overgrown with vegetation so that you can barely see your way clear to drive, and then you travel across this rickety old covered bridge. At least, you used to. The storm took it out last night, tore the whole thing clean off its moorings and sent it on down the Little Hoot Owl River.”
Reverend Garrett’s features galvanized with alarm. “Did you say the Little Hoot Owl River?”
“Why, you’re talking about the old O’Brien place!”
“The O’Brien place!” Rheenie gasped. “Pastor Mike, you never once let on you’d been out messing at the old O’Brien place!”
“Messing? Nobody was messing. Some good Samaritans took us in after our car wrecked, fed us a good hot supper and gave us a comfortable place to stay, was all. No need to get all riled up over it that I can see.”
“That’s because you don’t know the history of the place,” Reverend Garrett said. “Rheenie, your Maw got the library open at this hour?”
“Well, here’s twenty prepay on pump two. Pastor Mike, can I offer you a ride into town after I gas up? We’ll pay us a little visit to the town library. It ain’t much to look at compared to what you’re most likely used to, but they’s a storehouse of local history kept there. Whatchever you’re after, Rheenie’s Maw can most generally lead you right to it.” “Thanks. I’d appreciate it. Let me grab my suitcase.”
“Might want to grab you some socks and shoes while you’re at it. Appearance counts, even in the Lord’s work.”
The library was one of those Carnegie buildings from the early years of the twentieth century, a Classic Revival structure of brick and stone with hipped roof and copper-domed cupola. Four fluted Ionic columns towered over the head of the steep limestone staircase like a catafalque party of sentries guarding the heavy oak double doors of the main entrance.
Trying to match Reverend Garrett’s deliberate military stride up the stone staircase, Mike was winded by the time he reached the top. The morning light reflected off the leaded glass of the paired doors.
It was cool inside with the faintest smell of must. A woman in modest attire, a woman who might have named a baby daughter Irene a quarter century ago, was seated behind the librarian’s desk facing the front entrance. Her hair was done up in tight honey curls. Her brow seemed perpetually knit in an expression of consternation, even when she smiled, which she began doing as soon as she saw them come in. Her nose was long and aquiline. Her breasts were generous in size; Mike couldn’t help noticing as she stood for a greeting.
“Shelley, how are you this fine day?”
“Paul, what a nice surprise! How is Doris?”
“Never better. Shelley, I’d like you to meet Pastor Mike, a young deliverance minister we’re fortunate enough to have guest pastoring at our church this evening. Pastor Mike, Michelle Lundy, our town librarian and current leader of the ladies’ Bible study.”
“Pleased to meet you, Pastor Mike,” she said, offering Mike a demure handshake, “everyone calls me Shelley.”
“Pleasure, Shelley. I’ve already had the privilege of meeting your daughter, Rheenie. At the store.”
“I see.” Her expression was instantly wary.
“Shelley, I wonder if you can help us out here.”
“Will if I can, Paul.”
“Pastor Mike and I are interested in a little piece of local history. What can you show us having to do with the old O’Brien place or the Bagby clan?”
It was hard to tell in the subdued light of the foyer, but Mike thought he sensed Shelley’s face go pale, her neck tense at the words O’Brien and Bagby.
“Oh, my! Dredging up old family tragedies today, are we?”
“I’m afraid so. Pastor Mike here has expressed a particular interest in the history of our local area families.”
“Well, there are certainly more inspiring and enlightening family stories to draw encouragement from than those two you’ve mentioned I must say. Oh, well, come with me.”
Shelley led them down a dark corridor between two tall stacks of books and into a low-ceilinged room. The clack of the light switch reverberated within the cramped space. Shelley put on the pair of half-lens glasses she kept suspended by a cord around her neck, selected a huge tome from a bookshelf and opened it in front of them on a library table, gingerly turning the yellowed pages until she had found the reference she sought.
“Here it is,” she said in a hushed tone. “You can read all about it. But please be very careful with the pages. Don’t touch them if you can help it. They’re very frail.”
Mike entertained a fleeting thought of returning here soon, only without Reverend Garrett. He would ask to see this collection again, be led down to this same room again by Shelley, the two of them alone and free from prying eyes. Except that this time, after she had once again found the selection for him, he would astonish her upturned face with a lewd and passionate kiss, his hands rising to cup and caress her breasts. Rather than resisting, she would meet his passion with abandon, unleashing her own long-suppressed forbidden desire. He would grind his pelvis into hers—
“Pastor Mike!” Reverend Garrett’s exclamation startled Mike out of his lecherous reverie. “Lookie here.”
“What have you found?”
“In this here old newspaper article there’s a drawing of the O’Brien Shot Works. Says it was built in 1848 in St. Louis. See that thing there looks like a big ole brick smokestack? That’s what they call a shot tower. Made the O’Briens one of the richest families in Missouri back before the Civil War, that and the steamboat trade. ‘Course during the Civil War, the market for lead shot and cannonballs went sky high. Rumor was, O’Briens sold to both sides.”
“Shipped the lead on their own steamboats,” Shelley added, “north to the Union and south to the Confederacy. Folks around these parts know all the stories. You see, Pastor Mike, back in the eighteen forties when the O’Brien family immigrated to the United States, it didn’t take all that much money to buy a steamboat. The enterprise required relatively little in the way of startup capital. The typical steamboat of the day would have been owned by one or two men, say, and of course the use of the river was free for the taking.”
“Where did owners get the money to invest in the first place?”
“Men made killings overnight in those days. It was the Wild West, Pastor Mike, a hotbed of unbridled capitalism. A prospector might make a lucky mining strike, for instance. Lead mines abounded in this area, and all the way up the Mississippi to Galena, Illinois and beyond. And of course, there were the riverboat gamblers.”
“You mean like in the movies?”
Shelley pursed her lips and said, “The story handed down is that old Seamus O’Brien, the patriarch of the O’Brien clan, if you will, made a killing of a rather too literal nature.”
“What do you mean, Shelley?” Mike asked.
“Shall I relate this sordid tale once more, Paul? I don’t want to be guilty of the sin of gossip.”
“Gossip grown cold becomes history,” Reverend Garrett said.
“Shall we sit down, then?” Shelley said, beckoning Mike to a chair. When they were seated, she began: “Seamus O’Brien, his wife Keesey and their seven children left Ireland soon after the onset of the potato famine, the “Great Hunger,” as it was called. Nothing was known about them except that they appeared one day near St. Louis. Contemporary eyewitnesses remarked that none of the O’Briens had the look of the refugee about them. On the contrary, each of them appeared well-dressed and well-fed.”
“How is that possible? I mean, they fled the potato famine. They could hardly have been wealthy. The voyage to America itself was enough to finish off many Irish immigrants back then. Or so I’m told,” Mike added, remembering the stories of the coffin ships, stories he’d heard from Jeb, sitting by the wood-burning stove. With Mag at his side.
“Let me continue. I’m getting to that. Not long after the O’Briens appeared, eerie tales began to be told about them. Those tales were retold over and over, perhaps embellished in the telling and retelling, perhaps not. One thing was sure: the O’Briens prospered, and mightily so. As tall tales will, the tales became more and more incredible, and yet more widely credited, with each retelling and each new wildly booming O’Brien enterprise, until folks began to believe that the O’Briens owed their uncanny financial success to supernatural means.”
“A familiar spirit. A demon with the power of enchantment. A fiend capable of charming the winning poker hand for Seamus O’Brien every time. A fallen angel, one of the ‘powers of the air,’ the ‘elemental spirits of the universe,’ as the scriptures refer to such beings, who whispered in Seamus’s ear, telling him the cards others were holding, the cards about to be played.”
Mike froze. Shelley’s words suddenly filled him with fear. He flashed back to that night at the riverboat casino blackjack table, gambling with the money he had stolen from his fledgling church, how impossible it had seemed for him to lose, how something or someone revealed to him the next card, and the next. If only he had kept listening and paying attention, if only he hadn’t gotten cocky and taken that first drink, he might be sitting there still, winning every hand. But was that voice in his ear, the voice no one else at the casino that night had seemed to hear, the voice he had always assumed to be God’s? Stand up now, depart from this place. I have work for you to do. Had it been a devil instead? And had it been that devil’s plan to bring him here all along?
“There’s more to the story,” Shelley said, her voice lowered and tense with intrigue. “Old Seamus, it was said, made a pact with a demon that made him rich beyond reason. But that inconceivable wealth did not come without cost. And a high cost it was indeed.”
“What was the cost?” Mike asked, although he’d already been told the answer back there in the mill house by the familiar spirit herself.
“Late one night when Old Seamus sat warming himself by the hearth, drinking his whiskey and muttering to himself, the demon appeared before him and made her demand. And the thing she demanded was the life of his daughter.”
“How horrible,” Mike said, but inside he felt like laughing, giddy as though he were listening to a ghost story told around the campfire.
“The gossips whispered that Old Seamus had been having his way with his eldest daughter, Rowena since her early childhood. Her death would have assured him that his filthy secret would die with her.”
“How did he kill her?”
“Poison, it’s said. And one of the cruelest. A slow poison, one that measure by measure brought about a living death, robbing Rowena of her beauty before it took her life. To this day no one is sure exactly how he administered it to her, but week after week and month after month Rowena, a young woman once locally renowned for her beauty, saw that celebrated beauty slip away. Her hair fell out, then most of her teeth. Her fair complexion took on a ghastly curdled appearance. One moonless night some of the braver or more foolhardy of the town boys dared each other to pay a visit to Rowena at the old mill house. As they stood outside catcalling her name and laughing among themselves, she appeared at her barred window. You know the one, near the top of the south tower?”
“I think so. That would be where Mag—my wife? That would be where Mag and I spent the night, that master bedroom.”
“That was no master bedroom; it was Rowena’s room. The room where Rowena died. Do you realize that you and your poor wife spent the night in the true haunted heart of the mill house mansion?”
Tell the bitch you’re not afraid of spooks, a voice spoke inside Mike—an androgynous voice like an excited shiver that began from just under his heart.
“I’m not afraid of any spooks. I’m a deliverance minister. Spooks are afraid of me,” Mike said. “So finish your story about the town boys and Rowena. It was just starting to get juicy.”
“Well, the locals still tell how those poor frightened boys all took off running like the devil was after them once they caught a glimpse of Rowena standing at her window. Once they made it back to town they told anyone and everyone who would listen just what they’d seen.”
Shelley’s teeth shone in the dim light, her mouth a rictus of dread, her eyes wide with fear. “They swore she looked like a living corpse.”
“You sure know how to tell a scary story, Shelley, I’ll give you that. You really seem to get into it,” Mike said.
“I’d be interested to hear your take on that story, Pastor Mike,” Reverend Garrett said, “in view of your extraordinary spiritual gifts of discernment and deliverance.” They both stared at him and waited.
They were testing him, Mike knew. Trying to trip him up, get him to reveal himself as a fraud. Arrogant fools, and what was more, they had been lovers, betraying their spouses with each other. Scenes flashed before his eyes. The two of them playing games, flirtatious banter at first, then came flirtatious touching, seemingly inadvertent in the beginning but then playful, with fingertips burning hotter than a match against bare skin, tiptoeing nearer and nearer to the edge, wanting it to happen. Then, one Saturday afternoon, daring it to happen, willing it to happen, and Reverend Garrett’s thing going in and out of her almost before either of them even knew it, right there in the church office. The crippling guilt after, the moralizing, fooling themselves and each other with solemn pledges that it would never, never, ever happen again, ever. And more guilt and more pledges when it did. All Mike had to do was say it aloud, that stupid name he always called her when he was mounting her from behind. Saying the name would be all it took to accuse them of it. Hearing that name spoken aloud, invoked here in the quiet of the library like a demonic incantation, would make them self-condemn. Then they would be his to use as he wished, both of them.
In a calm, even voice, enunciating deliberately, Mike said, “Sugar tits,” staring directly at Reverend Garrett when he said it. He glanced over at Shelley, whose face instantly betrayed a stricken expression.
“Wh-what did you say?” Shelley stammered in a library whisper.
“You heard me, Shelley. Or would you prefer Mrs. Karl Bertram Lundy? Doubtful, right? You haven’t preferred being Mrs. Karl Bertram Lundy for a long, long time now.”
Shelley clamped her lips together and closed her eyes. Her tightly-clasped freckled hands made it look as though she were praying, but Mike knew she wasn’t. He smiled. “You want the story to come out, don’t you, Shelley?” he accused her softly. “You’ve always wanted the entire sordid tale to come out one day, so that you and Reverend Garrett would have no choice other than to leave town in disgrace. You thought that once the truth of your adultery with the church minister was exposed, you’d finally have him all to yourself, right where you wanted him, that at last the two of you would be free to run away to another town, marry each other and live happily ever after. Maybe even start a new church together. That’s been your fantasy all along, hasn’t it?” Staring wistfully at Reverend Garrett, Shelley nodded, her eyes reddened and wet with tears.
Reverend Garrett sat impassive and ruddy faced. The almost imperceptible lowering of his head told Mike that he had defeated him, had achieved dominance over his rival. His mind’s eye entertained a fleeting daydream of a threesome. But something told him to cool them out first.
“What you said a moment ago was absolutely correct, Reverend Garrett. I do have two spiritual gifts: discernment and deliverance. God speaks to me. How He does it is kind of hard to describe, but God reveals things to me. As a matter of fact, He’s revealing some things to me about the two of you right now.”
Mike had their rapt attention. Looking past the deterioration of middle age and the dissipation of adultery long concealed, they looked like two little kids caught playing a kissing game in a corner.
“First let me say to you both that God forgives you,” Mike began. The flood of relief rushing through each of them was almost palpable. “God wants you to know that He loves you and that He doesn’t want your hearts to be pierced with any more pangs than you’ve already inflicted on yourselves and each other.”
Shelley wept openly. Reverend Garrett managing to mouth the words, “Thank you.”
Mike laughed to himself at how easy people always made it for a guy like him to speak for God. All you really had to do was sound sincere, step up to the pulpit and tell them whatever it was they wanted to hear. And Mike invariably seemed to know what it was people wanted to hear. That was his true gift.
“What’s more,” Mike said, “God wants you to know that He created sex for man’s delight. And woman’s, too, Shelley, so don’t you feel left out.” Shelley let go of a tiny relieved laugh through her tears. “Don’t you see,” Mike went on, “if God created sex for man and woman’s delight, it’s almost like blasphemy against God to call one of His most beautiful creations a sin.”
Shelley was smiling now with profound release, showing him sloppy gratitude. Her face was a mess, black mascara running through the tributaries of tiny wrinkles around her rheumy eyes and down her cheeks like rivulets in a sand dune. Mike fantasized what it would be like to backhand her right now, to savor the dumbfounded hurt it would leave on her face. Maybe later.
For his part Reverend Garrett sat there blubbering like a clown. He was a clown, a buffoon in big floppy shoes and red putty nose, a bigger fool than any circus clown for inviting a man like Mike into the heart of his church congregation. He didn’t deserve the church he had, this Reverend Paul Garrett, didn’t deserve his church any more than the charlatans on Christian television deserved theirs. Mike, on the other hand, knew his own gifts and what they were worth to him. One day he fully intended to head up the biggest money church on the air, with his own TV network and his own private jet.
“So God wants me to tell you it’s all right, what you’re doing with each other,” Mike said, holding eye contact with Shelley. “He says He wants you to stop feeling guilty. He’s telling me to tell you that guilt is a useless emotion. God says that He forgives you, Shelley, and you, Reverend Paul, the same way he forgave David and Bathsheba. Remember, David’s sin with Bathsheba was not so much that they made love, but that David took it a giant step further and saw to it that Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah the Hittite, was stationed on the front line of battle so that it was likely he would be killed, which he was. God even went ahead and forgave David the sin of murder.” The words and Biblical references came easily to Mike.
“And God tells me He wants you both to remember that He is a good God and that He always makes good things happen for the people He loves. He even brings good things out of bad. Remember that David and Bathsheba married and had a son? Does either of you happen to recall that son’s name?”
“Solomon,” Shelley said confidently.
“You’re exactly right, Shelley. You do know your Bible. That son was Solomon. So you see, God is telling you that sex in itself is never bad, as long as you don’t get carried away and commit murder or something. God says it’s perfectly okay for the two of you to go on doing what you’re doing, giving pleasure to each other, as long as nobody gets hurt, provided you truly love one another—you do, don’t you?” Both of them nodded eagerly. “God is reminding me that Christ gave us a new commandment. Remember what that new commandment was, Reverend Paul?”
“That we love one another?”
“That’s exactly right. Go on up to the head of the class, Reverend Paul. God is telling me right now that as long as you and Shelley truly love one another, being careful to keep your relationship a secret from your spouses so nobody gets hurt, well, then, don’t you see? You’re fulfilling His new commandment and there’s no sin at all in what you’re doing. And God says to ask you this, too, Reverend Paul: do you remember what the angel told Peter when that big ol’ tablecloth came floating down from the sky all spread with celestial goodies but Peter turned up his nose and wouldn’t eat any of it because of the Old Testament dietary laws?”
“‘What God has made clean you must not call unclean.’”
“That’s exactly right, Reverend Paul. Boy, I’ll tell ya, we got us some real Bible scholars this morning.” Mike saw his flattered smile at the compliment. “And by the same token, God is telling me that because He is a good God, He created sex between a man and a woman to be something beautiful and clean. Therefore we must not call it unclean. Understand?”
But to Mike’s annoyance Reverend Garrett seemed troubled. “The thing is, Pastor Mike, I’m not altogether sure our church’s doctrine totally conforms with what you’re trying to—”
“Let me ask you one question Reverend Paul,” Mike interrupted. “And it’s a very simple question. Which are you gonna believe? The voice of God Himself, or the doctrines of men?”
“I do believe you have an anointing on you, Pastor Mike,” Shelley enthused. “I truly believe you have an anointing.”
“Lordy halleluiah,” Pastor Mike said.
On the way to the church, the three of them in the car, Reverend Garrett still needed convincing. “How do you square what you said back there with the Ten Commandments, Pastor Mike? Specifically the seventh commandment, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’?”
Mike was stumped for a moment. Then the voice from under his heart shivered him a prompt: Remind this asshole: Abraham had a bastard by a slave woman and his wife put him up to it.
“Let me ask you a question, Reverend Garrett: was Abraham blessed by God or wasn’t he?”
“Well, of course he was. God told Abraham He would make him the father of many nations. Abraham believed, and his faith was reckoned to him as righteousness.”
“Amen,” Shelley chimed in.
“Right. Good answer. I can’t tell you what a pleasure it is for me to discuss these important issues with folks who study their Bibles. You might be surprised how many good, church-goin’ folk are Bible-ignorant these days.” Both of them nodded. “But besides that, remember when Abraham and his wife Sarai could not conceive, Sarai convinces Abraham to go in to her slave girl Hagar so that Abraham could have him an heir? And how Abraham went ahead and obliged her? That had to be what you and I would call the sin of adultery, right? And God didn’t hold that against Abraham, did he?”
“Well,” Reverend Garrett hesitated, “after all, Pastor Mike, that thing with Abraham and Hagar? That took place long before the Ten Commandments were ever given to mankind.”
“That’s true, Reverend Garrett—”
“Call me Paul, Pastor Mike.”
“Remember, Paul, in the Book of Acts, what the Jerusalem Council decided? That there were only three things the Gentiles had to keep from doing in order to be Christian: don’t worship idols, don’t eat blood and don’t patronize temple prostitutes?”
“That’s an awfully narrow interpretation—”
“Nothing mentioned about any seventh commandment, was there? And all three of us clearly qualify as Gentiles, don’t we, Paul? No Jews riding in this car.”
“He does have a point, Paul,” Shelley said from the back seat.
“I don’t know about you, Paul, but I for one haven’t worshipped idols, eaten blood or patronized a temple prostitute anytime lately, and I sure don’t intend to in the foreseeable future.”
“Nope,” Reverend Garrett said. “Me neither, I guess.” He had pulled up outside the church.
“Sometimes we as Christians make it a lot harder on ourselves than we have to,” Mike said.
Reverend Garrett leaped out of the car with a surprising agility, trotted around the vehicle like a teenager and opened the door for Shelley. He bent slightly at the waist and reached out to take her hand as she stepped out. She gave a quick primp to her hair before extending a limp wrist to accept his extended hand, then alighted from the back seat like a new bride from a limousine, the two of them gazing into each other’s eyes, lovers sharing a secret that was a secret no longer.
Mike turned away to give them a sense of privacy. With the detachment of a seasoned real estate appraiser he studied the church building. It was a rust-brick gothic revival edifice. There was a three-story side steeple with open half-arches. A weathered cornerstone said 1899. A dash after that date and a space for chiseling in the year of death would have made sense, for surely the church was dying. Mike complimented himself that he had a practiced eye for these things. The brick face probably hadn’t been tuckpointed since the Harding administration. All visible mortar had long since eroded. Even some of the bricks had fallen away, like backsliding parishioners. What exterior woodwork was in evidence on the arched door lintels and in the frames of the stained-glass windows was ruined by dry rot and neglect. The very skeleton of the church was probably alive with termites gnawing away like a cancer. This church needed money in the worst way. Although Reverend Garrett had never mentioned money up to this point, money clearly had to be on his mind. Hence the warm invitation to the out-of-town deliverance minister. Mike figured he probably wanted to split the take.
“So, have you and the missus made it out to Johnson’s Shut-Ins, Pastor Mike?” Reverend Garret asked. “By the way, when will we be meeting your lovely wife Mag?”
“She’s down with one of her migraines I’m afraid.” They both made sad faces. “The accident, you know. I had to leave her back… where we stayed the night until she feels better.”
“I’d be blessed to perform a laying on of hands if she’d allow me,” Reverend Garrett offered.
I’ll bet you would, you horny old lech, the voice said from under Mike’s heart.
“Plenty leisure time activities for folks to do here in Reynolds County, once she gets to feeling better,” Reverend Garrett said. “Quartz-hunting, for instance. There’s some beautiful rose quartz hereabouts for them that takes the trouble to find it. Are you rock hounds?”
No, but you’re a cock hound, said the voice. Mike tried to suppress a smirk. He looked up at the square brick steeple. There was a dark-haired woman standing in the bell tower. No, she was climbing; climbing a steep ladder, barefoot and in her nightclothes, with a length of thick rope in her hand. She draped the rope over a timber brace high above them while Mike watched. She took her time stringing and securing the rope. When it was tightly tied she lifted up the other end, which was fashioned into a hangman’s noose. Staring dispassionately into Mike’s eyes she draped the noose around her neck. She tightened it as though she were adjusting the collar of her long white nightgown.
And then she jumped. Mike shouted, “Rowena!” Her neck cracked at a crazy angle; Mike heard it snap, moments after the rope jerked taut. But all he could see was her face, eyes wide open, mouth contorted into what he at first mistook for a death grimace but then recognized as a lewd smile. She lapped her tongue at him and vanished.
“You feelin’ all right, Pastor Mike?” Reverend Garrett asked. “I didn’t know better I coulda sworn you hollered out the name ‘Rowena’ just now.”
“I, uh, must have said arena. You see, Paul, from time to time I get caught up in the spirit and blurt things out, kind of like speaking in tongues.” Mike shrugged with what he hoped would look like humility. “I have no control over it.”
“But why would you say arena?” Shelley asked.
“Shelley, as I stood here facing this beautiful church building, the spirit aroused in me an utterance of things unseen. When you look at this church, you see before you a lovely house of worship, a familiar, welcoming place, am I right?”
“Yes, Pastor Mike. I’ve been attending services here all my life, even before we broke with the Presbyterians under Paul’s leadership and went non-denominational.”
“Would you like to know what I see before me, Shelley, Paul? Shall I tell you what the spirit has revealed to me in the supernatural realm?”
“Why, yes,” Shelley said, looking uncertainly at Paul. “Please do.”
Mike raised his voice to an oratorical level of passion. He gestured grandly toward the church. “I see an arena. Satan’s arena. The Evil One is seated on his proud throne like an emperor, surrounded by his legions of wicked demons, ready to turn thumbs down on persecuted Christians. Many of your flock have already become possessed. Others are under attack. We don’t have a minute to lose, Paul; not a single minute. Time is the enemy. Time is Satan’s friend.”
“What can we do? Help us,” Shelley wailed. This was going to be too easy.
“What time have you scheduled the deliverance service, Paul?”
“Eight o’clock tonight.”
“Time’s flying. Let’s go inside.”
Mike entered the cool silence of the church lugging his suitcase like a Bible salesman. Opening it on a back pew and thrusting aside his neatly-folded supply of underwear, Mike congratulated himself on the slick presentation of Duel with the Devil, the book he had authored and self-published. The pictures on the laminated covers with their lurid portrayals of Boschesque demons feeding on the flesh of humans were suitably garish for even the most hard-core horror comics fan. Mike had photoshopped the images back in Mag’s apartment, adding a few macabre touches of his own. The written accounts spotlighted Mike’s (imaginary) successes battling the forces of darkness and wresting demons’ human prey from the very maw of Hell.
There were eighty copies total, the most Mike could cram into the suitcase and still leave any room for his clothes. More copies could be ordered. Mike carried a full supply of order forms so nobody would go away disappointed. The books weighed down the suitcase by over sixty pounds. They cost three bucks apiece to print. There was no list price other than whatever Mike thought the traffic would bear. Having Googled the stats before leaving, Mike knew the average gross annual income of a family of four living in Phisterville was twenty-one thousand dollars and change. Twelve bucks a copy should be about right. Twelve for the twelve apostles. Seven hundred twenty dollars pure profit if he sold out, and more for the orders he would take and never fill.
“Do you have a table and some folding chairs we could set up here in the lobby?” Mike asked. “Right by where the people will be filing in?”
“I suppose you and me could rustle up a table and some chairs from the basement if there’s a need,” Paul said.
“There is. Lead the way.”
Paul helped Mike carry a banquet table up the basement stairs and place it prominently at the right of the entrance to the sanctuary. They returned to the basement and carried up three folding chairs. Mike wanted to be seated at the table flanked by Paul and Shelley, two local church leaders, an ideal setup for overcoming sales resistance, particularly among the elderly and the poor. Mike was beginning to feel like a famous author at a bookseller’s convention.
Paul flipped through the pages of one of the books. He began to read more carefully, his brow knit with concern. Now and then he hissed air through his nostrils.
“I want you two seated one on either side of me,” Mike said as he arranged the chairs. “I want us three to watch over the congregation at their coming in and at their going out, as the Good Book says.”
Shelley laughed at Mike’s play on words, a takeoff on Psalms 121:8, but Paul didn’t. Looking up from his reading, instead he looked pitifully at Mike, like a ram about to be slaughtered. No, more like a man who foolishly believed he could read Mike’s thoughts with focused eye contact merely by fixing him with a severe expression.
Mike sat down in the center chair. “One at my left and one at my right, like the two thieves,” he joked. Shelley laughed again, louder this time.
“Shelley, would you be so kind as to leave Pastor Mike and me alone for a few minutes, Dear?”
“Of course, Paul. Whatever you say.” Shelley disappeared into the sanctuary and the offices beyond.
Paul stood over Mike and rested his meaty hand on one of the stacks of books for sale as though he were about to take an oath. “Pastor Mike, these books of yours,” he began.
Here it comes: the pitch. Mike figured for openers he’d offer the preacher ten cents on the dollar, net, and maybe go as high as a third if he had to. Hell, personal injury lawyers advertising on TV didn’t make any more than that. Better than a kick in the ass.
“It’s kind of hard for me to ask you this,” Paul hesitated.
Spit it out, asshole, the voice said.
“But, well, is everything you say in them literally true? What I mean is, did it all really happen, just the way you say it did?”
Watch out for this guy, he’s on to us, the voice warned Mike.
“Paul, I’m not going to lie to you, because if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s this: nothing’s worth lying over. Honesty is the best policy is my motto. And yes, every single thing written down in that book you were reading just now? All of it really happened, my friend. To me.” Mike gave him a beatific smile like a TV preacher asking for money.
Paul looked at Mike for a long time without saying another word. Finally Mike said, “Paul, buddy, are you okay? You’re turnin’ kinda quiet on me all of a sudden. For a preacher, that’s a downright remarkable occurrence.”
“I want you to know, Pastor Mike, that these parishioners you’ll be meeting tonight? Fact is they’re more than parishioners. To put it plainly, they’re all like family to me. I wouldn’t want anyone causing even one of these little ones to stumble. Do we understand each other, Pard?”
“Understand each other? Paul, I want you to know that I’m here for one purpose and one purpose only: to drive out the devil and his demons from those poor unfortunate souls among your flock who have become possessed. And you can rest easy; I’m just the man who can do it.”
“The right man for the job, eh? Sure you’re not gonna be casting out demons by the prince of demons, like the Pharisees said to Jesus?”
“And look what happened to them. Relax, Paul. Your congregation will be in capable hands tonight.”
“What did you really see up there in the steeple before we came in?”
“See in the steeple? I already told you, and Shelley too.”
Paul’s eyes narrowed. His voice quavered with anger as he demanded, “You answer me one question man to man, Pastor Mike or whoever you really are: just what in the pluperfect hell is it you’re trying to hide?”
Mike stood, his face inches away from Paul’s. “Man to man, let’s you and me get one thing straight: I know exactly what you’re trying to hide, Reverend Garrett. I know what you and Mrs. Karl Bertram Lundy are trying to hide and how long you’ve been hiding it from those parishioners you call your family. And you and Shelley both know that I know it. I know it, I’m free to tell it, and I will tell it if you force my hand.”
Paul glowered, red-faced, but made no reply.
“What about Mr. Karl Bertram Lundy? Have you considered him part of your church family all the time you’ve been secretly diddling his wife? And your own lovely wife Doris: do you include her in your one big happy clappy rompy stompy church family?” Mike flashed him a demonic grin. “No, Reverend Garrett, you’re the one with something to hide, not me. I can ruin both you and Shelley starting with one well-timed pet name. Do you want to hear it? You’ve heard it once before from me today, back there in the library. The pet name is Sugar—”
“I won’t let you lead my church astray!”
“Won’t you? You already have by inviting me here. Now it’s too late. There’s nothing you can do to stop me.”
The first parishioners began arriving at the church around seven-fifteen. Many of them had walked from home, Phisterville being a small town. Mike greeted each of them as warmly as old friends, often before Paul and Shelley could make the introductions. Paul seemed a bit distracted. Mike was affable without being unctuous, and particularly solicitous of the women both young and old, especially the young ones. He sold twenty-six books for cash before the show had even started.
As Mike had hoped, a great deal of curiosity had built up around his anticipated arrival. The parishioners all seemed to be giving him Phisterville’s version of the star treatment. Not only that, but many parents had dragged along their troubled or behaviorally disturbed children, judging from the plenitude of goth teens, punk haircuts and piercings in the gathering crowd. Perfect. Nothing like a live, in-your-face freak show to spike the donations.
A sullen young man in cutoff jean shorts that sagged low enough to feature flower-pattered boxers, wearing a purple tank top and a black floppy hillbilly hat sauntered in, hanging back from a matronly woman who could have been his mother.
“Watch this,” Mike said to Shelley under his breath. He approached the young man, who was standing at the doorway, barely inside the church. “Goin’ swimming?” he asked the boy.
“No, I ain’t goin’ swimmin’.”
“Try it this way: ‘No, sir, Pastor Mike, I am not going swimming, sir!’”
The boy stared at the floor and scuffed his feet, saying nothing.
Work your magic, maestro, the voice said.
The mother had come over. “Mind you don’t sass the visiting pastor, Jaydon. You answer him proper now.”
“No I ain’t goin’ swimmin,’” Jaydon muttered.
“Goin’ to church, then?” Mike asked. Jaydon nodded insolently. His mother cuffed him on the shoulder, a handkerchief clutched in her fist.
“Answer the man out loud, Jaydon.”
“Yeah, I’m goin’ to church. Duh.” Jaydon craned his neck and looked out the door, obviously uncomfortable at being singled out.
Mike leaned in close and said in a stage whisper, “Next time dress like it.”
You’re losing them. Work your magic, it’s show time, the voice said.
Mike raised his arms above his head, tilted his face toward the ceiling and closed his eyes. In a loud voice he prayed, “O Lord, take pity upon this poor creature whom the devil has chosen to torment lo these many months. Liberate this callow youth in Thy holy Name. Deliver him from the clutches of the Evil One.”
The parishioners in the narthex of the church began to form a rough half-circle around Mike and Jaydon. Mike said, “I’ll need two strong male volunteers to assist me in this deliverance, powerful men who can seize this lad and hold him fast. He will fight like a tiger, or rather like a lion. Remember First Peter, verse eight, where Peter tells us that our adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, prowls about, seeking whom he may devour.”
Somebody gave him an amen. This deliverance thing was going to be a day at the beach. The voice told him, go easy on this one. He’s a friend of ours.
Two men, farmers probably, or construction workers, stepped forward. Mike told them each to grab one of Jaydon’s arms. After they had done so, Mike took down a mid-sized plain wooden cross from the wall of the narthex and, right arm extended, held it directly in Jaydon’s face, an inch from his forehead. When Mike spoke, his voice was startlingly loud and commanding.
“I adjure you by all that is holy, tell me your name!”
Jaydon only smirked and winked at Mike.
“Foul demon from the nether reaches of Hell, I adjure you! I, a servant of the Most High God, order you by His authority, tell me your name!”
Jaydon broke free of the two men, sprang upon Mike without warning and knocked him backwards onto the floor, pounding his hard fists into Mike’s face. Grasping Mike’s head in hands powerful as steel clamps, Jaydon hammered it over and over against the tile floor. He pressed and twisted his thumbs into Mike’s eyes, trying with all his might to gouge his eyeballs out of their sockets. Men and women were screaming and hollering out of control. Mike saw an explosion of electric colors that intensified with every thrust. He choked on the coppery taste of the postnasal blood that was filling his sinuses and coursing down his throat.
Jaydon drew close—Mike felt his hot breath—close enough to bite Mike’s ear off. Instead Jaydon whispered into his ear with a reedy genderless tone like that of a gruff voice trying to speak in a mocking falsetto: “Say Uncle.”
Mike struggled as Jaydon’s thumbs bore down relentlessly on his eyes. “What?” he whispered, struggling to cough away the blood.
“Say Uncle,” the voice repeated. “Make it look good. Send me into his Ma. Or else.”
“Or else what?”
“Or else you’ll be in the market for a seeing eye dog. That’s what.”
A sharp shooting pain erupted behind both of Mike’s eyes. The voice under his heart said, Do what this one tells you. You’re no match for him.
Mike gasped and choked for breath. Jaydon’s mother stood by aghast. “Do something!” she whimpered. “Save my boy, Pastor! I’ll do anything!”
Tell her to believe in you. Ask her to surrender her will to you. Now!
“Do you believe I can do this?” Mike asked the woman, the blood burning in his throat, eyes throbbing like a toothache.
“Yes! Yes, of course I believe!” the woman said.
“Will you surrender your will to me?”
“Yes! Yes! I surrender!”
“Empty your mind and submit to my will,” Mike gasped, still pinned by her maniac son.
Silence from the woman and the crowd around them.
Quick, before you’re blinded for life, the voice urged.
“Now, asshole!” Jaydon rasped.
“Have it your way,” Mike said under his breath so that only Jaydon could hear. “Go into her if that’s the way you want it. Go now!”
Instantly Jaydon released the pressure on Mike’s eyeballs. Mike felt Jaydon’s body sag and then collapse on top of him, like a scarecrow cut loose from a pole.
“Pastor Mike!” Reverend Garrett was shouting. “Are you all right?”
Mike shook himself and gingerly rubbed his eyes, not opening them at first for fear that he was indeed blind.
“Everything happened so fast,” Shelley said. “It was just exactly like you said, Pastor Mike. Why, that boy fought like a raging lion.” When Mike opened his eyes it was Shelley’s face he saw peering into his. Or rather, the blurry outline of Shelley’s face.
Tell them you see men but they’re like trees walking, the voice in his chest said.
Mike looked around him. What the voice had said was true. The parishioners crowded around him were no more than dark silhouettes set against the fading light of evening, an arboretum of souls rooted to the places where they stood. The outlines of some of the treelike caricatures were angled and twisted while others appeared to have two heads. Dark hooded figures ranged among them like demonic gardeners, whispering in the ear of one, touching another with unseemly intimacy, picking fruit from yet a third, helping themselves. Some of the tree shapes resisted the whispers and the touching, while others seemed to encourage and welcome these attentions.
One of the hooded ones turned and looked directly at Mike. She lowered her hood and smiled. It was Rowena, or more precisely, a macabre grotesque of the way she must have appeared in life. Her hair was sparse, as though thinned by poison or disease, exposing a death’s head expanse of scalp. Her lips were dry, split and gray as river clay. Her facial complexion was the pallor of living death, its smoothness gone leprous white, curdled into a horrible parody of what once had been her beauty. When she smiled, her teeth were blackened with decay and mold, displaying their naked and twisted roots like those of dead trees exposed to view by a newly-cut gravebank.
As Mike stared, the demonic figures faded from view and the human beings in the narthex gradually came into clear focus again. One figure stood close by, standing over Mike and the unconscious Jaydon, who began to stir and moan softly. Mike recognized that figure as Jaydon’s mother, but she had deeply changed. Her church matron’s attitude was gone, replaced by a profound yet subtle transformation expressed in her facial expression, something indefinably malicious and cold—something conspiratorial.
“Get up, Jaydon,” she hissed, “you’re embarrassing me.”
You’ve got them right where you want them, the voice told Mike. They’ll buy anything you’re selling!
Mike rose first, mustering all his strength to appear vigorous. The crowd broke into spontaneous applause and cheers. A dazed Jaydon struggled to his feet and stood in a slumping posture, dusting himself off.
“Let me ask you a couple of questions, son,” Mike began. “A while back, you and some of your friends were hanging out and somehow or other you all got to playing around with a little doohickey known as a Ouija board, didn’t you? You all were kinda bored and thought it would be harmless fun, am I right?”
Jaydon nodded, eyes downcast.
“And you, and maybe a little gal you had your eye on, commenced to messing with some of that New Age stuff the kids are getting into these days? Wiccan magic, love potions and all that nonsense?”
“A little bit, yeah.”
“Let me tell you something, Jaydon, and I want you to remember this, son; a little bit’s all it takes. Satan doesn’t need an engraved invitation. A nod of the head or a wink of the eye’s more’n enough and, quick as that, he’s inside of you. And once he’s inside, he just grows and grows in there like a big ole tapeworm. Before you know it he’s runnin’ the show. You learned your lesson now, son?”
“No more Ouija boards or love potion number nines for you, am I right?”
“No sir, Pastor Mike.”
“Good boy. See you in Sunday school.” Mike gave Jaydon a clumsy hug and a quick pat on the back before releasing him into the welcoming, cheering crowd.
Jaydon’s mother took Mike’s arm. “Ellen,” she said. Together they walked into the sanctuary and down the center aisle. “I take it you don’t have kids yourself, Pastor Mike?” she asked with an easy familiarity.
“I haven’t been blessed in that particular manner, but there’s time. The Good Lord in his infinite—”
“They’re a pain in the ass.” Ellen steered Pastor Mike further down the aisle and turned him to the left. “I’m the church organist,” she explained as she seated herself on the organ bench. “Usually I play it as is, straight from the hymnal, but now and then if I like a man I know how to slip a little whorehouse honky tonk into the mix, if you know what I mean.” She glanced behind her to see whether anyone else was within hearing distance and then shot Mike a bawdy wink. “All you do is throw a switch, pull out a few drawbars like so, and it’s magic time.” As if to demonstrate, she began a revival-meeting rendition of Bringing in the Sheaves, but before she had played eight bars she started dropping in some funky blues riffs and improvised jazz fill.
“You’re good,” Mike said.
“Bet your ass I’m good. But I have some awesome furniture in front of me. The Hammond B-3. The gold standard. Nothing else like it. Pigpen, Gregg Allman, Santana, all the great ones swore by the B-3.” Ellen launched into a wailing gospel style before switching to surfer rock. She pulled out more stops and began Toccata and Fugue with unerring mathematical precision. Her fingers like parts of an industrial machine grew indistinct as their velocity accelerated. The organ took on the tone of a synthesizer, the pace of the music hellishly nonhuman.
“Where did you study music?” Mike asked.
“Never had a lesson,” Ellen said casually.
“You obviously love your Bach.”
“When it’s Bock season I do. Otherwise I’ll drink any kind of brew that’s offered. You want, try me after church.” She winked again, never missing a note. In fact she seemed to be adding her own flourishes and grace notes to the original composition, improving it in Mike’s estimation. It was as though she were channeling the soul of old Johann Sebastian himself to rewrite the music.
“You know this piece?” Ellen asked.
“I’m no music scholar, but they played this for the intro to a late night horror flick I always used to watch on Saturdays when I was a kid.”
“It’s Creature Feature material all right. Watch and listen. You’ll be amazed.” Ellen’s playing seemed to undergo an impromptu Doppler effect, dropping from a minor key to something indefinably below minor, subterranean, the strains of music like an infernal chorus of lost souls. Her hands and fingers darted like foreboding shadows above the keys. And then as Mike watched her play, Ellen’s tilted back and her mouth opened as though to yawn. Her lips stretched wider and wider, her jaws gaped to the breaking point. An otherworldly likeness first crowned, then slithered out of her mouth, something alien and eternally hostile to mankind, a reptilian being yet with a sentient face, the visage of an unholy hybrid linking human and snake, fallen angel and anaconda. Listless and sluggish after having gorged on its victim, it now emerged from its prey’s half-eaten husk as if to warm itself in the sunshine. The thing craned its serpentine neck toward Mike and smiled menacingly, regarding him with unblinking eyes the color of jade.
“Hello, Pastor Mike,” the Being said without moving its lips, its words resonating from below Mike’s heart in a cultured British public school accent, its voice neither male nor female. “We’re delighted to meet you face to face at long last.”
“Why, Pastor Mike, I’m surprised at you. Direct conversation with one of us without hiding behind an intermediary? Singularly incautious technique for a deliverance minister. You are the brave one, aren’t you? Brave and intrepid indeed, moreso than we had dared hope. Our Master has chosen wisely.”
“Come now, Pastor Mike. Don’t be coy. After all, we are hardly strangers. It was you who furnished us with our current accommodations, for which we are truly grateful.”
“Meus Matris. The dam. The female which gives birth to offspring, or in this one’s particular case, a host to a spiritual lodger.”
“Possession, you mean.”
“Fascinating subject, possession. A parasitic relationship between flesh and spirit, except that in the case of spiritual possession the parasite is ever so much more highly advanced than the host. In our case, the spiritual cadger not only kills but damns the host as well. Wouldn’t you agree, Pastor Mike?”
“I wouldn’t know.”
The Being appeared to grimace at Mike’s words. Mike asked it, “What’s the matter?”
“False modesty is never becoming, especially in one as justifiably proud of one’s accomplishments as you yourself, Pastor Mike. You are a rare treasure indeed, a deliverance minister gone over to our Master’s side, a Judas goat willing to deceive and lead an entire congregation to perdition quite as easily as one might stampede a herd of swine over a precipice with a mere well-chosen word.”
Ellen continued to play, oblivious of the foul Being that overstretched and contorted her mouth with its serpent’s body.
“Her playing has remarkably improved,” the Being remarked. “It is as though she were enchanted.”
“That’s beautiful,” a woman’s voice said from Mike’s left. In that same instant, the Being darted back into Ellen’s mouth like a snake startled from its lethargy. Already stunned by the awful spectre he had witnessed, Mike glanced to his left and beheld Mag.
She was the sure antidote to everything evil. Mag, looking more lovely than ever, her long dark hair styled exactly as in the photo of Mabel Normand that he especially liked, the one where she is holding a small round mirror that reflects her deep-set eyes—eyes that inspired the title to Oh, Those Eyes, an early short that featured her—those eyes so playful and inviting, and that coquettish expression, her teeth only slightly buck, pleasingly so. Scandal and untimely death had trailed in her wake, had stalked her until her face bore the tracks and traces of dissipation. At last it had claimed her still in her thirties. Tuberculosis had ravaged—
“Aren’t you even going to bother to say hello to me?” Mag said, her hostile tone unmistakable. Ellen instantly stopped playing; the last mournful echoes fled away like cave bats at daybreak. She tucked her hands under her armpits as though to warm them, turned toward Mag and Mike and eagerly listened as they began to argue.
“Mag, what happened? I looked all over for you.”
“Lucky for me I have a thumb and a sturdy pair of shoes or I’d still be stranded there, no thanks to my loving, er, husband.”
“I’m serious, Mag. I looked everywhere.”
“You couldn’t have searched for me that hard. There were only the two of us in that spooky old mansion.”
“But how did you make it across the—”
“Whatever gave you the idea to simply take off in the dead of night, leaving me all alone in a haunted house out in the middle of nowhere?”
“You were the one who insisted on staying, as I recall.”
“And you were the one who disappeared. You might at least have told me you were going, warned me before sneaking away like a thief in the night.”
“Mind a suggestion?” Ellen said, head cocked. “Whyn’t the two of ya’s just kiss and make up?”
“And who might you be, lady?” Mag demanded.
Mike made the introductions. “Mag, Ellen. Ellen, Mag.”
“Go on, Pastor Mike; give this little ol’ gal of yours a sexy hug. I know we’re in church but I’ll never tell.”
Taking Ellen’s advice, Mike made one conciliatory step forward, caught Mag up in his arms and tenderly embraced her. Kissing her was like kissing Mabel Normand, an Old Hollywood pre-Code kiss. He took his time exploring the keen smooth edge of her front teeth before capturing her flitting tongue with his.
“Don’t ever do that again,” Mag sighed.
“What? Kiss you in church?”
“You know what I mean. Don’t ever leave me behind.”
“It’ll never happen again. I promise.”
“Cross your heart and hope to die?”
“Something like that.” Mike released Mag from his embrace. She smiled at him, that shy, incongruous smile, her sad, weepy angel’s eyes not matching the awkward tilted curve of her mouth, all her feigned city-girl toughness melting away.
“Hey,” he said, “I’d better introduce you to Reverend Garrett. He’s been asking about you.”
“Already met him. And Shelley, too.”
“Oh, yeah? What’d you think of them?”
“I don’t know. Open, loving. At first I thought they were married. To each other, I mean.”
“Remind me to tell you about that later.”
Ellen made an ironic face and wagged her finger at Mike. “No gossiping in church, Pastor Mike.”
Mag looked from one to the other, searching their faces. “You mean—?”
“Call it women’s intuition, Hon,” Ellen said, lowering her voice to a confidential level. “Your suspicions are right on target with those two.”
“You can’t be serious!” Mag said.
“ Can’t say as I blame Paul all that much, seein’s how his poor sick wife Doris has been homebound these past, what’s it been, going on a year now?”
“What’s wrong with Doris?” Mag asked.
Ellen paused. “Ask your husband here,” she said. “I’m no expert but it seems to me Doris Garrett just might be in the market for a deliverance herself. Some say it’s a curse put on her; I say all it is is her having a hard time going through the change. But preacher or not, Paul’s a man, after all. People can deny it all they want to, but a man has certain needs. And Shelley Lundy never made any secret of the plain fact that she had eyes for him, married or not, and was hankering to get him into bed. And them selfsame folks that say Doris Garrett is under a curse?”
“They say Shelley’s the one put the curse on her.”
Ellen turned again to the keyboard and began playing the opening strains of Let the Lower Lights be Burning. “Only you never heard that from me,” she added. She began to sing along at the refrain in a strong contralto voice: “Let the lower lights be burning, Send a beam across the wave, Some poor fainting, struggling semen,”—here she winked once again at Mike—“You may rescue, you may sa-ave.” Her singing voice had a mocking swagger to it, as though she were having her own private joke on everyone now filing into the church sanctuary.
Seeing everyone’s eyes on him and Mag, Mike joined in Ellen’s singing. Following his cue, Mag soon did the same, her church soprano voice harmonizing with Ellen’s, and Mike singing bass. At times Mike could have sworn he heard a fourth voice from somewhere, coming in with the descant, like an echo:
“Dark the night of sin has settled,
Loud the angry billows roar;
Eager eyes are watching, longing,
For the lights along the shore.
Let the lower lights be burning,
Send a gleam across the wave;
Some poor fainting, struggling se-men,
You may rescue, you may sa-ave.”
Watching the eager faces of the congregation, Mike couldn’t believe his luck. His mind raced through Biblical example after example: the paralytic “borne of four” who broke a hole in the ceiling and lowered their spaz friend into the house like Frankenstein’s monster where Christ was working the crowd. Mike figured all five of them for shills who’d been cut in on the deal. And who could have asked for more classic staging? It was pure James Whale from start to finish.
And the demoniac, Gadarene or Gerasene, take your pick, the looney tunes running around naked in the cemetery cutting himself, the one who had “plucked asunder” his chains and broken his fetters in pieces? Here was a guy made to order for an itinerant exorcist on the make, a deliverance minister trying to chisel out a name for Himself. Mike had studied the gospels over and over and still marveled at how deftly Christ had played into the wacko’s madness and made it work for His own purposes. That was part of His genius, His flair for showmanship that Mike admired and sought to emulate. But once Christ had manipulated the demoniac’s mental illness and calmed him down by agreeing with him and validating his auditory hallucinations, and the demoniac wanted to tag along after Him and His disciples? Christ refused. After all, He was no fool; He knew the man’s psychosis was bound to erupt once more, and wanted to be long gone by the time it did.
And that “raising the dead” crap? In an age before medical examiners, before anybody knew the first thing about catatonia, deep coma, sleep paralysis? Back in Bible times, who was to say whether a person was really dead or not? As recently as the nineteenth century in this country people were scared to death, so to speak, of being buried alive, it was that common.
Nowadays people were scared to death about a lot of things. And tonight Mike figured to play Rumpelstiltskin and spin that fear into cold, hard cash.
On the ride from the church Mag was quiet, sitting behind Mike in the back seat of Reverend Garrett’s car. Reverend Garrett had insisted on offering the parsonage for guest accommodations. No decent motels for miles around, he said.
The parsonage turned out to be a run-down two-story frame house on the main drag near the outskirts of town, gray with white-framed windows and a sagging front porch. No need to mow the yard: the grass in front appeared to have died as though from some creeping incurable disease. Everything about the house said as-is. Neglect was apparent everywhere, from the chipped and peeling paint on the porch pillars to the curled and cracked shingles on the roof.
The house had a sickroom smell that hit Mike in the face as soon as he set down his suitcase in the front room. And there was something else, an indefinable yet malevolent presence that pervaded the house, as though lying in wait, with all the time in the world to work its evil. And yet Mike felt no antipathy to that presence. In fact, in some strange way it seemed to be welcoming him in.
“What a beautiful entry staircase!” Mag enthused.
“Yes, that’s quite a staircase, Paul,” Mike agreed.
Paul turned to them and nodded sadly. “Your room is up those stairs and to the left,” he said.
“And that fireplace!” Mag went on. “Antique beveled mirror over the mantel, inlaid ceramic tiles, and all that carving. Why, it must be over a hundred years old if it’s a day, Mike.”
“Carry your suitcase upstairs for you, Pastor Mike?” Reverend Garrett said. “You must be right tired, what with all the …deliverances you performed tonight.”
“I’ll tell you what, Paul,” Mike said, “it never makes me tired to be doing the Master’s work. Quite the opposite: it invigorates me. Nothing like casting out demons to get the old adrenaline pumping, I always say.”
“The Master? You mean our Lord.”
“Whatever you say, Paul. Whatever you say.”
“You sure cast out a whole slew of demons tonight,” Mag said. “What was it, fifteen or so?”
“Sixteen,” Mike said. “Don’t forget Jaydon.”
“That was before I got there, but I heard about it from Paul and Shelley.”
At the mention of the name Shelley, Paul seemed to flinch. “You most likely want to go on up and get settled in,” he said.
“Thank you, Paul, but first, if you don’t mind, I’d like to meet Doris.”
“Doris?” Paul said warily. “She’s probably sound asleep by now.”
“Would you check for me, Paul? I don’t want to disturb her, but I consider it part of my Christian duty to visit the sick.”
“Suit yourself,” Paul said. He trudged up the stairs ahead of Mike, who was carrying his own suitcase. Mag followed along behind, running her palms along the banisters and marveling at the woodwork.
Paul hesitated at the head of the stairs. “Wait here,” he said. “I’ll see whether she’s awake. We don’t see all that many guests since Doris got sick.” He moved silently as a shadow down the hall to the right until he stood outside a bedroom door and tapped on it lightly. A barely audible voice from inside moaned. Reverend Garrett slipped in without turning on any light, closing the door after him.
“You think it’s a good idea for us to go barging in on her like this?” Mag whispered. “She sounds really sick.”
“He’d expect it of us as a visiting minister and his wife. Besides, they think she may be possessed. That makes me the man of the hour.”
“Shhh. Here he comes.”
“Doris will see you now,” Paul said, adding under his breath as Mike passed, “just don’t be long. She tires easily and it’s already past her bedtime.”
Mike winked and displayed the thumbs-up sign. He and Mag entered the master bedroom.
A wasted woman lay in the double bed, her body withered to little more than a skeleton under the bedclothes. All of her hair had fallen out. Her haggard face was a naked human skull sculpted in paraffin. Her dry lips curled away from her teeth in a sardonic rictus. Most of her nose seemed to have been eaten away by disease, which was probably a blessing: the nursing home smell of incontinence and disinfectant was much stronger here, almost overpowering, although Mike discovered that it didn’t particularly bother him. He heard Mag choke and gag from it, then catch herself before she could vomit. A twenty-watt bulb in a bedside lamp provided the only illumination, dimmer than a candlelit wake.
Because her eyes remained closed, Mike was startled when he heard the woman speak. “Why are you here?” she demanded through clenched teeth, enunciating clearly enough to be understood.
“Doris, this here’s Pastor Mike—”
“I know who you are! You’re from the devil!” Her lips quivered, barely managing to articulate the words.
“Now, Doris, remember your manners, dear. This man is a pastor and he’s our guest.”
“You’re a fool, Paul Garrett, and you’ve brought the devil home with you! You’re a fool and you can’t wait for me to die! Well, you’re going to have to wait a long, long time!” Turning again to Mike she screamed, “You’ve ruined my body but you can’t have my life! And you’ll never snatch my soul away, damn you to hell!”
“Mike, let’s go,” Mag urged.
“Get out of my house, you bastard!” Doris shrieked, thrashing about in the bed with startling force. “Go back to whatever hell you came from!”
Back in the hallway Paul closed the bedroom door as Doris continued shouting imprecations. Paul stood in a slumping posture, seeming resigned to and accepting of the abuse. “Maybe it’s best I drive you to a motel for the night, Pastor Mike. Doris simply hasn’t been herself since the illness. It takes over her mind at times, and I’m afraid this is one of those times.”
Paul drove them the forty-five miles to the nearest motel. During the entire drive no one spoke. He parked in the motel courtyard and shut off the engine. Mag went on ahead into the office to check in. As they stood in the parking lot Paul grabbed Mike by the shoulder before he could follow her, spun him around and said, “You and me got us a bone to pick, mister, now that Doris has had herself a good look at you, and we both know you for who, or what, you really are.”
“Sick as she is, my Doris has the gift of discernment. She knew you for the devil soon’s she set eyes on you, and she’s never been wrong yet. Now you either check in here at this fleabag or go on down the road for all I care, but mister, you make damn sure you leave Phisterville behind. Somehow with the Lord’s help and by His grace we’ll find a way to undo the damage you’ve done us tonight, but I never want to see you anywhere’s near my church again, you hear me?”
Mike wrested his shoulder from Paul’s grip, took a half-step back, drew himself up and said, “Your church?”
“You heard me.”
“There’s just one problem with that, Paul: I like it here. And it just so happens I like working with demons, maybe even better than you like all those nasty things you do with Shelley every time you get her behind closed doors. Yeah, Paul, I really liked what I did tonight in your church, liked it so much I’m gonna keep right on doing it whether you like it or not. I’m going to keep on doing to your church what you’ve been doing to Shelley. Because you know what else? Your parishioners liked it. They found it even more entertaining than a tractor pull at the county fair. Matter of fact, I’ve got a sneaking suspicion they might start liking me even more than they like you. So back off!”
Too late, Mike saw the motel lights flash like reflected fire in Paul’s eyes as Paul drew back his fist. He ducked the full force of Paul’s punch, caught his balance and landed one of his own in Paul’s soft gut below the beltline. Paul doubled over and fell forward onto the parking lot, gasping in pain. When Paul tried to raise himself up on all fours, Mike kicked him in the open mouth. The kick made a hollow sound and dislodged a partial plate that fell to the pavement in a puddle of drool mixed with blood. Paul went down again; this time Mike kicked him in the balls.
Mag was running toward them hollering, “Quit it! Quit it!”
“He started it!”
“What the hell’s the matter with you, Mike, have you gone crazy?”
Paul began to raise himself up, thought better of it and lay back down.
“You had enough, you sonofabitch?” Mike yelled. “No, you ain’t had enough.” He stood over Paul and began kicking him in the head and stomping on his neck as hard as he could. He hadn’t fought that mean or that dirty since he was a kid in school.
“Stop it, Mike! You’re killing him!” Mag screamed.
A motel clerk standing behind the screen door of the office yelled, “What the hell’s going on out there?”
Paul managed to raise one unsteady hand, point at Mike and mumble, “This man is from the devil,” before collapsing into a heap.
“Well, you all better knock it off or I’m calling the sheriff.”
“We’re paying guests here,” Mike said.
“The hell you say. I ain’t runnin’ no fist-fightin’ motel, Bub. Now you all get the hell on out of here, else I got me a shotgun that’ll do my talkin’ for me.”
Paul scrabbled around on the concrete until he found his dentures. He struggled to his feet, his face swollen and filled with bloody welts. “Let ‘em stay,” he said, tongue thick. “All my fault. Not his. I forgive.” He began moving toward his car.
“You think you oughta be drivin’, mister, in you condition?” the motel clerk asked.
“Not drunk. Do’n worry ‘bout me.” Paul started the car and dropped it into reverse. In a few moments he was gone.
Mag turned to the motel clerk and asked in her best plaintive voice, “Can we stay, sir? Please? I promise we’ll be good.” She gave the clerk a shy smile. Mike thought he saw her batting her eyes.
Mike joined in, asking, “Mind if we stay? There won’t be any trouble.”
The clerk scratched his head and hesitated. “Y’all don’t have no luggage.”
“Shit! It’s in Paul’s car,” Mike said.
“I have everything we need right here in my purse. We just need a place to spend the night, sir. By morning we’ll be gone. I swear.”
“One night is all,” Mike added.
“You got a major credit card and that?”
“Got three of ‘em. Take your pick.”
“You might just as well come on in and register, then. As luck would have it, they’s a vacancy in the honeymoon suite. Got ya an honest to Pete king-sized waterbed. Heater’s busted but most folks don’t mind.”
“We’ll make our own heat,” Mag said.
Mike and Mag awoke the next morning to a light persistent tapping at the motel room door. “Sounds like Paul’s knock,” Mike said, rubbing his still-sore jaw. “Maybe the silly bastard wants to kiss and make up.”
“Whatever you do, don’t start anything with him,” Mag said, her voice still sinusy and heavy with sleep.
“It wasn’t me who started it last night,” Mike said. “I finished it, though, didn’t I?”
“Ooh, big man. I hope you haven’t screwed up a good thing for us.” She rolled out of the waterbed and shuffled off toward the bathroom.
Mike pulled his pants on, slid the chain free, opened the door a crack and peered out into the blinding sunshine. Shelley waved nervously and said, “Pastor Mike, good morning! They told me I’d find you in this room.” Taking in his bare chest she added, “Hope I didn’t wake you.”
“What time is it?”
“Half past ten.”
“Holy man! It’s time to be getting up anyway, Shelley. Guess I forgot to leave a wake-up call.”
“Oh, this motel doesn’t provide wake-up service,” Shelley blurted, then blushed and stammered, “Th-that’s what the man at the desk explained to me. This morning, wh-when I asked him about… inquired about whether you’d left a wake-up call. Not wanting to disturb you. I mean, I was curious so I asked. How else would I know, you know?”
“If you have a question, just ask, I always say.”
Shelley shrugged with embarrassment.
In a low voice Mike said, “Remember what I told you and Paul, Shelley. No need to feel guilty about anything, as long as you keep it discreet. Come on in.”
“Oh, I don’t know as I should. I mean, the very idea: being in a motel room with a married man like yourself, especially when he’s only half dressed.”
“Don’t be silly; Mag won’t mind.”
Mag removed the toothbrush from her mouth long enough to call out from the bathroom, “Shelley, come on in, for heaven’s sake. Take a load off.”
Shelley looked left toward the office, then right, toward the highway. “No, I really had better not. Church people do gossip so; isn’t that right, Pastor Mike?”
“I suppose they do. Maybe they’re just jealous, ever think of that?”
Her taut, nervous laugh made Mike jump. The voice below Mike’s heart said, She can be had, and played him a mental video of Shelley and Paul writhing around on the king size waterbed. The video looped over and over in Mike’s head. You won’t be the first Bible-thumper she’s humped right here in this room, the voice went on. Now’s your chance. Mag’s game. She won’t say no to a threesome. At this very moment Mag’s thinking the same thing you are. Go for it.
“Come on in out of the sun, Shelley,” Mike said. “I just got up and the bright light hurts my eyes.”
“Oh, I’m sorry Pastor Mike. I had no idea.” Shelley looked furtively around the parking lot. “Well, maybe just for a minute.” She ducked into the room and pressed the door shut behind her, still facing Mike, sheepish at first. Then she lowered her eyes, crossed her arms over her breasts and glanced away, but after giving the room the once over she again met Mike’s eyes, this time with an easy confidence.
“What brings you to our lonely outpost this fine morning, Shelley?” he asked.
“I’m here in Paul’s place. Pastor Mike, I know Paul real well. Paul feels just awful about what happened last night.”
“Mike feels awful about it too, Shelley,” Mag shouted out before Mike could answer.
“You see Pastor Mike, Doris hasn’t been herself for a long, long time, and, well, Paul has a tendency to let his emotions get the better of him, especially where Doris is concerned.” Shelley shook her head rapidly. “Am I making any sense here or just prattling on?”
“No, I understand perfectly. Tell you what: let Paul know that I would be willing to forget the whole thing if he’ll do the same. Matter of fact, tell him I’d love nothing more than to conduct another deliverance service any time he wants. Pick any evening this week and let me know. I’ll be sure to stick around town and wait for your call. How’s that?”
Shelley practically genuflected. “Oh, that would be wonderful, Pastor Mike. You are such an understanding, forgiving man. I’m touched by your grace and your anointing.”
“That’s very kind of you to say, Shelley.”
“I—I hope you were comfortable last night.”
“Slept like Adam having a rib removed.”
Mag poked her head out and said, “You snored all night.”
Shelley laughed. She touched her hair and asked, “How’re the beds here?”
“Like sleeping on the ocean. See for yourself.”
“Oh, I—” Mike watched in the wall mirror as Shelley self-consciously sat down on the edge of the waterbed, testing its resilience with her hands behind her back. Her position accentuated the size and contour of her breasts.
Ask her about Doris, the voice prompted. Tell her you think Doris looks cursed.
“We stopped by to pay Doris Garrett a call last night,” Mike began, watching Shelley in the mirror for any reaction.
“That is one sick, sick woman,” Mag said.
Shelley suddenly looked ten years older. Her stricken expression and bloodless face made her a portrait of guilt.
“Oh, you did?”
“Can’t they do anything for her?” Mag asked, finally emerging from the bathroom wearing a midnight blue satin robe loosely tied with a sash. Compliments of the bridal suite, Mike figured.
“She looks like she ought to be in a hospital,” Mike added.
“Or a mortuary.” Shelley’s icy tone was unmistakable.
Ask her how she got that way.
“How did she get that way?” Mike asked.
Shelley paused. Looked at her hands. “May I tell you something in strictest confidence, Pastor Mike?”
Approaching her and taking her hand in his, Mike said, “Of course, Shelley. We’re the only ones here.”
“I guess I need to confess to somebody, Pastor Mike. Confession is good for the soul, they say. But what I’m about to tell you must never leave this room.”
Mike had never seen it fail, the way people talked in soap opera clichés whenever they wanted to unload their sins on a clergyman. Maybe that’s how they saw their own lives, as soap operas in progress. Always the melodrama. The blissful release after. Then more melodrama.
It’s time to make your move, the voice told him, now that her guard’s down.
“Let me handle this,” Mike said to the voice.
“Oh, I want you to handle it, Pastor Mike. I can’t entrust this secret with anyone but you.”
Mag crossed the carpet and sat down in the chair facing the bed. “Feet on the floor at all times, you two,” she joked, trying to break the tension. She rummaged in her purse, coming up with ruby toenail polish and some cotton balls. “Anybody mind if I paint my tootsies while I listen?” she asked them.
“Go ahead,” Mike said. He stroked Shelley’s hand gently, trying to relax her.
“Would it be wrong of me to ask you to sit down here beside me, Pastor Mike? I—I feel so awkward with you standing over me like that.”
Mike glanced over at Mag, who shrugged her assent as she tucked cotton balls between her toes. He lowered himself over the waterbed frame and lay back on the mattress beside Shelley. He reached to touch her shoulder. She was tense.
“It’s all right, Shelley. Lie here beside me and tell me what’s bothering you. After all, we have a witness between us.”
“Don’t mind me, guys. I’ll just sit back and watch the action,” Mag said cheerily. “Pretend I’m not here.”
Told you Mag was down for it, the voice said.
“I can’t believe I’m doing this, but… oh, well.” Shelley lay back on the bed beside Mike. When he rolled over on his side to face her she cautioned, “Please don’t look at me when we’re lying here like this. I can’t bear to tell you what I need to tell you while you’re looking at me.”
“Suit yourself.” Mike lay on his back and stared at the ceiling. The scent of nail polish remover was overpowering. “Now why don’t you unburden yourself to me? You’ll find I have a sympathetic, listening ear.”
Shelley’s voice became distant, otherworldly, as though she were in a trance. “Remember what you said to Jaydon at church last night? About how if you give the Devil an inch he’ll take a mile?”
“Something like that. Things with Jaydon got pretty intense last night.”
“Yes, well. Things between Paul and me got pretty intense last year, only Doris was always around. Always snooping, always had to be accounted for. At first we’d meet in the library until Doris started getting suspicious. Paul had never been much of a bookworm before. That got to be the number-one problem: how to keep things from Doris, how to come up with the right excuse or the right story that Doris might buy, to get away from Doris even for a measly couple of hours or so. Pardon my language, but the woman was constantly up Paul’s ass, if you know what I mean.”
“I understand. You didn’t want to hurt anybody.”
“Exactly. It got so bad to where Paul and I were actually talking about just walking away from each other, you know? Walking away from our love, our dreams together, the whole beautiful relationship we’d nurtured for so long.”
“But you couldn’t bring yourself to do that.”
“No, neither one of us could. And so…” Shelley’s breathing became stressed. Mike heard a choking sound and realized that she was crying.
“And so I did something. To help things along.”
“What was it you did, Shelley?”
“Oh, Pastor Mike! It’s so hard to come out and actually say it! I’ve held it inside for nearly a year now!” The waterbed made gentle waves in rhythm to Shelley’s sobs. Mike reached for her and stroked the inner surface of her elbow with his fingertips. She shivered at his touch.
“Let it out, Shelley. Let it out and stop torturing yourself.”
“It’s just so not like me,” Shelley wailed.
“You’ve come this far; the rest is easy. Tell me.”
“I guess part of me told the other part of me it wouldn’t actually work,” she said. “What happened was, when the church ladies went on a trip to St. Louis for the Women’s Evangelical Conference this past spring I went along. After all, I am their group leader. During some free time we thought we’d do a little shopping. Somehow I managed to slip away from the group and wound up at an out-of-the-way boutique bookstore called Subterranean Books. Do you know it?”
“I think I may have heard of it. It’s in the Central West End, right?”
“I don’t know St. Louis. I’m a country girl. Anyway, I came across this one particular paperback book. And I went ahead and bought it.”
“So you bought a book, Shelley,” Mag said without looking up from her task. “Big deal.”
“There’s nothing wrong in that, Shelley. People buy books all the time.”
“Not like this one they don’t.”
“What do you mean?”
Her voice was a hoarse whisper. “Don’t ask me how I wound up there. I couldn’t even tell you myself, but somehow I happened on it in the occult section of the bookstore. My eyes were drawn to it like magic.”
“So it was an occult book?”
“It—it was a book of curses.”
“Pastor Mike, I took that book home and I read it over and over again, day and night until I’d memorized practically every word. It was like I couldn’t put it down. I even brought it with me to the library and studied it when things weren’t busy. Nobody knew about that book, not my husband, not even Paul. And there was this one curse in particular. A curse you could put on your rival to get her out of the picture so you could have your lover all to yourself. Do you know the kind of curse I’m talking about, Pastor Mike?”
“I think so.”
“It only works if you use a lock of her hair and a drop of her blood. The hair was easy. I visited her when Paul was away and when she went to use the little girls’ room I sneaked into her bedroom and stole some from her brush. She never suspected a thing. The blood was harder.”
“How did you manage that?”
“Do I have to tell you?”
“Not unless you want to.”
“Then I won’t.”
“The point is, you truly believe you placed a curse on Doris Garrett?”
“You’ve seen her. What do you think?”
“She sure looked cursed to me,” Mag said, shaking her head.
“She appeared to be quite ill,” Mike acknowledged. “When I first set eyes on her I thought she’d been poisoned.”
“I swear, Pastor Mike, no one was more horribly surprised than I was when the curse really worked. It was a wasting curse. Her hair fell out, her eyes fell in—”
“The worms played pinochle on her chin,” Mag sang. “Remember that one from when we were kids?”
“Please,” Mike said, giving Mag a stern admonitory look.
“I’ve prayed for forgiveness, on my knees, both alone and with Paul at my side, but nothing works. I love Paul but I don’t want him this way. Not by cursing and killing Doris.”
“This curse—is it intended to kill its victim?”
“Oh, yes! The book says the cursed person is forced to smile even as she watches her body wasting away until at last she ‘wears the everlasting smile of the grave.’ Can you break the curse, Pastor Mike? A deliverance minister such as yourself must know the secret to removing curses, even one as bad as this one.”
Mike glanced at Mag, who waggled her toes at him and said, “Don’t look at me, Rev. This is your party.”
“There are things that can be done of course,” Mike began. “And there are things that can be undone.” He turned again to face Shelley. Her breasts lolled to either side, her face sagged. “Frankly, I’m more concerned with what you might have done to yourself.”
“Those who consort with the dark side to gain some advantage over another person almost invariably find themselves cursed or possessed in the process.”
“Omigod! Then it’s true!”
“What’s true, Shelley?” Mag asked.
“Oh, it’s so embarrassing.”
“Ever since the curse began to work, I have been possessed, Pastor Mike. From the very moment I called down that curse on Doris I’ve noticed uncontrollable urges in myself. Sinful, shameful urges, almost like voices calling out to me, impelling me to do the most awful, degrading things.”
She leaned close to Mike’s ear and murmured, “Like right now, for example, now that I’ve confessed everything to you?”
“I feel as though I’ve shared every deep, dark secret with you, that in some mysterious way we’re part of one another. And I’m feeling what I can only describe as an overwhelming passion to do something more with you.”
Here it comes, the voice said. Oh, Baby!
“What’s that, dear?”
Shelley nuzzled his ear lobe and sighed, “You know, what men and women do in bed.”
“Ah ah ah,” Mag cautioned, shaking a reproving finger. “No fair whispering.”
“I’m terrible, aren’t I?” Shelley said.
“Remember what I told you and Paul, Shelley. As long as no one gets hurt.”
“Are—are you sure your wife won’t mind?”
“If you can get us back into that church, Shelley, I don’t care what you do,” Mag said angrily. She stood up and went back into the bathroom, walking on her heels so as not to smear the toenail polish. Incredulous, Mike stared after her, even after she had closed and locked the bathroom door.
“Oh I am awful,” Shelley said. She sat up and began undoing the buttons on her high-necked blouse.
“Drive carefully, now. I’ll wait to hear from you.”
Mike’s broad smile vanished as soon as he had closed the door. “Crazy bitch,” he muttered.
“I heard that.” Mag emerged from the rest room with a shrewd look on her face. “You’re damn lucky I’m so broadminded, Sport.”
“Hey, we all have to sacrifice if we’re gonna make this thing work. I hope you don’t think I ever intended to go through with it.”
“I turned her down, Babe.”
“This work for both of us, this open marriage thing? Open pretend marriage, I should have said.”
“Oh, come on, Mag. Shelley? Yuck!”
“Didn’t seem to bother you much from what I heard through the door.”
“That’s because you’ve got a dirty mind. You’re looking at a world-class con man, Babe. I know how to let ‘em down easy. It’s called ‘cooling the mark out.’ Remember what I always say: seedtime and harvest. You should pay closer attention to me, Mag: you might learn something.”
“Yeah, well. Just don’t forget you owe me,” she said, eyes narrowed. “You owe me big time, and one of these days I’m gonna collect.”
“Seedtime and harvest.” Mike smiled at himself in the mirror.
“You are so full of shit,” Mag said.
“The checks for the book sales and the offerings.”
“Yeah? What about them?”
“I hope you kept them in a safe place.”
“Got ‘em right there in my purse. Why?”
“Why? I never meant to sleep this late, that’s why. We’ll have to find a local bank and open an account right away. I’ll endorse the checks but we’ll have to open the account in your name because back home they’re probably still looking for me. I hope you have three forms of ID.”
“Your mind wasn’t on banking a minute ago. What makes you think of that first thing out of bed?”
“Because I don’t want the yokels stopping payment on any of these checks until after it’s too late, when the checks’ve been deposited in my bank and cleared by the originating bank. This looks to me like a one-bank town.”
“So chances are my bank and the suckers’ bank are one and the same.”
“Always thinking, aren’t you?”
“Don’t forget to pay Reverend Garrett his cut of the action.” Mag stopped short. “His cut of the money, I should have said.”
“You want to hear something funny? He doesn’t want any.”
“Hunh,” Mag grunted disgustedly. “If he only knew.”
“Mag, nothing happened.” After an uncomfortable silence from Mag he asked, “The sign out front said free cable. Do you suppose they have Christian television in the rooms?”
“Oh, shit! Not first thing in the morning!”
“It’s nearly noon, Rip van Murphy.”
“I am so hungry. Let’s go out and look for someplace to eat.”
“In case you’ve forgotten, our ride took off on us last night.”
“Shit, that’s right. Thanks to you, asshole.”
“He’ll be back. Remember what Shelley said.”
“How could I ever forget?”
Mike opened the drapes six inches and peered out. “Hey, I remember this place,” he said. “I know where we are now.”
“Ass end of nowhere?”
“Close. We’re right by that little convenience store out of town. The one I used to wash up and change before I ran into Paul. They have food there, sort of.”
“What do you mean sort of?”
“You know, convenience store hot dogs turning on rollers like the damned being roasted in hell? Bag snacks, cappuccino spewed by machine into a paper cup, stale candy.”
“Yum. My mouth’s watering already.”
“Throw something on. We’ll walk over. I can see it from here.”
Rheenie was working alone when they walked in around noon. Mike greeted her with a cheery, “Missed you at church last night.” Mag snorted and wandered off down the snack aisle.
“I was home playin’ with my Ouija board,” Rheenie said.
“Is that what they’re calling it now?”
“Help you find something?” Rheenie offered, glancing in Mag’s direction.
“What do you have that’s good to eat?” Mike asked.
“Not a goddamn thing, you want the truth.”
“Don’t you know you make Jesus cry with remarks like that, Rheenie? At the last judgment we will render account for every careless word we’ve uttered.”
“Kinda comforting, knowing that somebody up there’s actually keeping track.”
“How much you get for those hot dogs?”
“Minimum wage. Don’t eat them things, Pastor Mike. They’re just for show, and the show’s over. I’ll make you some fresh if you like.”
“Well thank you, Rheenie. That’s right kind of you.”
Mag returned with an eclectic armload: Mexican cheese spread, bags of pork rinds, Smarteez and buffalo pistachios. She dumped the entire noxious array on the checkout counter. “Take a three-party check?” she asked Rheenie.
“Yeah, what about a third-party check, Rheenie?”
“Sign says no.”
“I never believed in signs,” Mike said. “What do you say? You’d really be helping us out. It’s drawn on a local bank.”
“I don’t know,” Rheenie hesitated. “If it bounces, it’s my ass.”
“That’s the very first thing I noticed about you, Rheenie,” Mike said.
“You got any Vienna hot dogs?” Mag asked. “Can you tell I’m missing Chicago?”
“Let me see those checks from last night,” Mike said. Flipping through the wad of checks he found the one he was looking for. “Here’s one you can’t very well refuse. It’s signed by your own mother.”
Rheenie snorted. “So?”
“So if you can’t trust your own mother—”
“Thought I saw her car parked over by the motel this morning. She was there a long time.”
“You sure? What would your mother be doing parked at the motel?”
Rheenie snorted. “She’s killing my dad, you know.”
“What do you mean?”
“My dad’s not very strong,” Rheenie said. “He’s had, like, three heart attacks in less than a year. We’re always running him to the hospital. This last time he almost died.”
“How is that your mother’s fault?”
“My dad was the picture of health until she started getting hot pants. Guess you could blame it on the change of life, but her throwing herself at Reverend Garrett was what brought on the heart attacks, you ask me. That and her trip to St. Louis. That story of hers about a field trip with the church ladies auxiliary didn’t fool anybody. I don’t know what happened in St. Louis but after that trip my mom turned totally weird.”
“Got a pen?” Mike endorsed Shelley’s twenty-dollar contribution check and handed it to Rheenie, who sighed and began ringing up the purchases.
“And you want to hear the weirdest thing? She hardly ever visited my dad in the hospital, even when he was in intensive care, but there was this one time, at night just before they announced the end of visiting hours, when I found her sitting at his bedside. You’ll never guess what I caught her doing.”
“Don’t keep me in suspense, Rheenie.”
“She tried to cover it up but I could see she’d pulled out his IV needle and was collecting drops of his blood into this vial thing she must have brought with her. When I asked her what the hell she thought she was doing taking Daddy’s blood she hid the vial in her dress, looked me straight in the face and called me a liar. I buzzed for the night nurse but by that time she was hightailing it out of there. How’s that for weird?”
“People have been known to do strange things when a loved one is ill.”
“‘Loved one’? That’s a hoot. She couldn’t give a shit whether Daddy lived or died. Matter of fact, you was to ask me, she’d rather he was dead. Then she’d be free to chase after every swingin’ dick in town. I’ll see to them hot dogs now. Two apiece do you?”
“I reckon so.”
After Rheenie had gone in back to get hot dogs from the cooler Mag sneered, “I reckon so? You been watching reruns of Little House on the Prairie?”
“I’m beginning to like it here, Mag. I’m absorbing the local color and customs, right down to their quaint backwoods lingo. I think maybe you and I have found a home.”
“Just see that you don’t get too interested in Shelley Lundy while you’re so busy absorbing local culture. She sounds like one dangerous home-wrecker.”
Mike carried the steaming hot dogs in a cardboard tray back to the motel. Mag lugged the snacks in a grocery bag. They lay down on the waterbed to eat. “Did you know this is how they ate two thousand years ago?” he asked.
“On waterbeds? Dream on.”
“People in Judea ate their meals in a reclining position. Picture the Last Supper with the Lord and His disciples all lushed out on couches in the Upper Room.”
“Yeah, whatever. Where’s the remote?”
“It’s bolted to the overnight table on your side of the bed. Try to find us a TV preacher asking for money. I need a good laugh. Helps my food digest.”
“Call this food?” Mag asked with her mouth full. She flipped on the TV and channel-surfed until she landed on TLN: The Lord’s Network. “Isn’t that title the tiniest bit presumptuous?” she wondered aloud.
“I guarantee you a slew of Christian TV weasels sat around a conference table somewhere and brainstormed for inspiration until they came up with that title. Kind of rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it? The Lord’s Network.”
“Think that’ll be us someday, Mike?”
“Have faith. Anything is possible. Hey, turn it up. Now count to thirty.”
“I’m serious. Start counting out loud. Before you hit thirty he’ll ask for money.”
“Count. There’s something mystical about the number thirty. Thirty pieces of silver or whatever.”
“One, two, three…” Mag began.
“And so I’m asking you folks out there to make a pledge right now. A hundred dollar pledge to activate and stimulate the divine principal, to make that principal start paying you interest and dividends beyond your wildest hopes and dreams…”
“See what I mean? You didn’t even get to four,” Mike laughed. “Greedy bastard. Ever wonder how much it costs to put one of these shows on the air? Try ten grand a pop.”
“Way more than we have.”
“Yeah, but that’s gonna change, and fast. You watch and see. By tonight we’ll have Reverend Paul Garrett himself bowing and scraping, literally scratching at our door and begging me to do another deliverance service.”
You’ll have a ride, too, the voice rasped. Mike was so startled he nearly choked on a bite of hot dog, but he acknowledged, “We’ll have us a ride, too, O ye of little faith.”
“Sometimes a little’s better than nothing.”
They lay there watching Christian TV all afternoon and into the evening, gorging on junk food and heckling and howling like demons at the cheap carny pitches of the preachers, the preposterous claims of raising the dead, of gouged-out eyeballs spontaneously regrown in the heads of mutilated believers, of steel plates magically transformed into healthy skull bones, of cures for cancer, cures for Alzheimer’s, cures for diabetes, of seventy and eighty-pound weight loss in the twinkling of an eye.
“Maybe they took a great big shit,” Mike said, sending Mag into paroxysms of laughter so that she nearly choked on a pork rind.
There was a knock at the door. Mike answered. It was Ellen, the church organist, clad in tight jeans and an off-the-shoulder flirty top. “Thought you might be needing a ride somewhere,” she said.
“You’re a lifesaver, Ellen.”
“Sweet with a tight little hole in the middle, that’s me.” She stepped in and, hands on hips, stood close beside a shirtless Mike and watched the TV where an oily-haired rosy-faced evangelist was peddling miracle prayer cloths. “I heard tell he’s queer,” she said.
“Can you drive us into town, Ellen?” Mag asked. “I’ve been watching this shit so long I’m actually starting to believe it.”
“That’s why I’m here. I got word you might be needing a ride.”
“Give me a sec to get dressed,” Mag said. She jumped off the bed and hurried into the bathroom, closing and locking the door after her.
“I thought she’d never leave,” Ellen sighed. She leaned into Mike and gently pushed her breasts against his chest. Listening for the bathroom door, Mike embraced and kissed her, closing his eyes.
Ellen proved to be a world-class kisser. She tasted of wild cherry. Her hair was scented with the delicate fragrance of lilacs. Mike’s breaths grew rapid, his kisses more insistent as his manhood quickened and pressed urgently against Ellen’s thigh. He opened his eyes.
Ellen’s face was tilted backward at a crazy angle, her mouth cocked open like a Pez dispenser. Mike’s kissing partner was not Ellen but the Thing that lived within her. Mike recoiled in horror. The Thing smiled at him in triumph at having deceived him. Its forked tongue flicked out over dry reptilian lips. It winked one human eye at him. The flavor of wild cherry in Mike’s mouth turned to something base, an aftertaste the consistency of—
“Semen?” the Thing suggested.
Mike gagged. His guts heaved. He threw up everything into a plastic wastebasket beside the desk. Unaffected by the spectacle, the Thing asked, “Care to take a ride with us, Pastor Mike? Just you and me? We’ll leave Mag here to fend for herself. There’s someone who’s been dying to meet you.”
“Really? Suppose I don’t feel like meeting any new people just now?”
“I’m not talking about a person, Pastor Mike. Not in the sense you intend, at any rate.”
“The Master. The Beautiful One,” the Thing replied with a fearful reverence.
Mike threw on a shirt and stepped outside with Ellen. It was already twilight, but unseasonably warm for November. Mike asked, “Where’s your car?”
“Who said anything about a car?”
“You said we’d take a ride—”
Ellen touched Mike’s inner thigh. The sky exploded into brilliant shooting stars. Mike had a sensation like diving off the high board only upward, defying gravity. “Pretty cool, huh?” Ellen asked him. “I love these take-offs. Sure beats walking on water, doesn’t it, Pastor Mike? You don’t need faith to make it work, and there’s nobody to dunk you in the lake the second you have the slightest doubt. Faith is the most overrated commodity in the universe. Doubt is a good thing. An alert, questioning mind is the sum goal of a good liberal arts education, am I right?”
“Who are you?” Mike demanded weakly. It was all he could manage to say, looking down at the retreating grid of Phisterville MO pulling away from him, zooming out like Google Earth.
“Who am I? Good question, Pastor Mike. You do have an inquiring mind. And you’re asking a reasonable question. I think you have a right to know. After all, it was you who made it possible for me to introduce myself into this two-titted sow’s body.”
“So tell me your name.”
“All right. Here’s your answer: I’m not a bad guy at all. Matter of fact, I’m the scapegoat in all this, as—as El can tell you herself. You know what a scapegoat is, don’t you, Pastor Mike? You know your Book of Numbers, don’t you?”
The Missouri landscape dropped away until Mike thought he could begin to see the curvature of the earth, the entire North American continent, its familiar topography bending in contour beneath their weightless bodies. He could make out the Mississippi River, the Great Lakes, and the Rocky Mountains as he looked to the west.
Suddenly a piercing beam of purest white light shot forth across the bow of the horizon and caught them in its sweep like a searchlight from a faraway sentry tower.
“Whoops, too far,” Ellen said. “I do tend to get carried away sometimes. Bombs away!” She assumed a high diver’s position, bent forward and aimed her praying hands down toward what looked like Wyoming. “Next stop, Yellowstone caldera,” she yelled over the wind noise as they fell toward the Earth. “Things can get mighty hot down there.”
“You’ll kill us both!” Mike screamed.
“Look, Ma, no parachute!” Ellen laughed wildly, her hair whipping like a flag in a March wind. “Don’t worry, Pastor Mike: the Beautiful One will protect us. Just do what I do. You won’t even feel it when we hit the ground.”
“This isn’t happening!”
“What was that phrase you used in the car with Mag? ‘Going to and fro in the Earth and walking up and down in it?’ It’s one of the Beautiful One’s special talents. In a manner of speaking.”
“I’m scared.” Mike repeated it over and over.
“Of what? Scared you’re going to die? Wanna know a secret, Pastor Mike? There is no death. We go on, all of us, forever. It’s Einstein’s First Law of Thermodynamics: Energy can neither be created nor destroyed. That includes consciousness, both yours and mine.”
“Of being maimed, then. Of going through life paralyzed.”
Ellen reverted to a standing posture. She and Mike stopped falling and hung suspended in midair. “I’m glad you brought that up before meeting the Beautiful One. You see, the Beautiful One has, I wouldn’t exactly call it a disability—and you shouldn’t either. In fact, it’s probably better if you don’t mention it at all.”
“Paralysis. It’s kind of a dirty word down where we’re headed. You see, the thing is, aeons ago the Beautiful One offered himself up as a supreme sacrifice. He gave himself for you and me, as a propitiation for our shortcomings. He came to Earth to be with mankind and in the process he made what you might call, er, a hard landing. It changed him in certain ways. Subtracted certain abilities while at the same time adding others. Do you get what I’m telling you, Pastor Mike?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Let me put it another way: no matter how much he suffered for us, the Beautiful One is stronger than he ever was—more intelligent, more understanding and more powerful. He created himself, you know. Created himself out of nothing, before the Big Bang. And his mind, Pastor Mike!” Ellen marveled. “His mind is the most complex, most stunningly brilliant thing he ever created. His mind is a radiant, multifaceted jewel that shines like the Morning Star.”
“Then it’s his body that’s broken, isn’t it? You’re telling me your Beautiful One is unable to move. That he’s paralyzed from the fall.”
“The mind, Pastor Mike! The mind is everything! Physical movement, physical sensation—these are cheap carnival tricks by comparison, things we can easily derive from inhabiting the bodies of you human beings. Your bodies are no more than clothing to us.”
Mike remembered Christ’s rhetorical question to his disciples: “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”
Ellen stopped her ears and shuddered. “You’d better guard against idle thoughts like that where you’re going,” she warned. “You’re being granted an exceptional privilege here. Do you know how rare it is for a mere mortal to be granted an audience with the Beautiful One?”
“I never asked for it.”
“You’re an arrogant one, aren’t you?” Ellen regarded Mike with what seemed like a new respect. “He’ll like that about you. I know he will. Come on; let’s dive in before we have to start dodging space junk up here.”
“Not so fast. What did you mean just now when you said I’d have to guard against idle thoughts? Why should I?”
Ellen sighed with impatience. “See, the human brain is like a pinball machine made out of meat. In that fraction of a millisecond it takes for a thought to ping and pong its way through the muttony grey mush of your brain, we’ve already read it twice and parsed the grammar. So behave yourself as far as thinking words like ‘paralysis’ when we meet the Beautiful One. It’d be the same thing as saying ‘rope’ in the home of a hanged man.”
She dove toward the earth again. Mike yelled after her, “What if I won’t go with you? What if I refuse?”
Ellen turned from her descent, tumbled in space and once more took a standing position, as though invisibly suspended there. “Suit yourself. But if I leave you alone up here you’ll lose the benefit of my protective powers,” she said. “Your lungs will feel like they’re on fire for lack of oxygen. If you don’t blow up from the zero pressure or freeze instantly in the cold vacuum of space, the gamma radiation will fry you like a hamster in a microwave. Gravity will eventually bring what’s left of you back down to earth—whatever doesn’t burn up on re-entry, that is. Your choice. Choose a blessing, choose a curse I always say.”
“That’s no choice at all!”
“There’s always a choice, Pastor Mike. There’s always a choice. Nobody said you’d necessarily like the alternatives. Coming?” Ellen pointed toward the earth and beckoned.
“I’ll think whatever thoughts I want, thank you.”
“That’s your choice, too. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. Geronimo!” Ellen dived and hurtled toward earth once more, drawing Mike along in her wake as if by magnetism. Mike saw the Great Salt Lake flit by like a flash in a rearview mirror as they traveled at impossible speed, northeast and down, down in free fall toward the unyielding Earth. As they drew closer Mike saw lakes, rivers and tributaries of postcard blue, deep green pine forests. Twisted volcanic rock formations scarred the landscape.
Ellen called out, “Almost there.” She took Mike’s arm in hers with startling strength and told him, “Hold on tight.” They circled a bedrock clearing surrounded by parking lots and park buildings.
“Looks familiar. What is it?” Mike asked.
“Old Faithful,” Ellen replied. “Kind of an ironic moniker for a Hell mouth.” With a sound like blowing out a candle the two of them were sucked through the neck of the geyser and down into total darkness.
“It’s like riding an express elevator, isn’t it?” Mike, giddy with fear, said into the black void. “The way your stomach feels on the way down.”
Out of the darkness he heard Ellen speaking like a tour guide. “Yellowstone Park is sitting directly on top of the Yellowstone caldera—the biggest supervolcano in the world. The Blackfoot Indians called it ‘the land of evil spirits’ and they were right. One of these days this baby’s gonna blow, and when it does, it’ll make Mount St. Helen’s look like a kid squeezing a blackhead. All those tourists you saw standing around, aiming their disposable cameras, waiting for the next eruption? Vaporized, baby. The entire United States buried in a ten-foot ash heap, followed by an ice age to end all ice ages.”
“When will all this happen?”
“Nobody knows the time of the end except the Beautiful One. And he ain’t tellin’.”
Mike and Ellen pitched downward into the void. As they descended, the inner walls of the geyser began to glow a deep ochre, like dying coals seen in darkness. Mike realized that the two of them were plunging through a widening volcanic cone. Tiers of rock traced a narrow spiral path along the walls of that cone. Dark beings in black hooded robes moved wearily along the walkway, all of them in stooped postures of abject despair. As Mike stared with disbelief and horror, one of them lost its footing and, uttering an unearthly scream, hurtled flailing and grasping into the black abyss that yawned beneath.
“Who are they?” Mike asked. “They look like zombies.”
“We call them the Workers,” Ellen replied. “I’m surprised you’d have to ask. They should look familiar to an experienced deliverance minister such as yourself.”
Mike found he could maneuver as he fell. Drawn by his own morbid curiosity, he drifted daringly close to the rocky path, so close that one of the Workers peered from behind her hood and hissed at him through a rictus of decay-shredded lips and blackened, rotting teeth.
He knew the face well. He had seen it many times before, on a movie screen in restored silent films. Easily recognizable, even though the face looking back at Mike now was alive with maggots.
“It’s her,” he marveled, “it’s really her.”
“Old Hollywood calls this place home. But if I were you I wouldn’t hit her up for an autograph. Now’s not the time to get star-struck, Pastor Mike. Save it for when you meet the Beautiful One.”
“But her face! Did you see her face?”
“Some mortals refuse to let go of the faces they wore in life. The choice is theirs, however unfortunate. Nothing lasts forever, Pastor Mike, not flesh, not beauty, and not youth. Nothing except the Beautiful One and the everlasting life he promises us. You’ll see.”
They fell for mile after mile, until the sensation of falling became a new equilibrium, an exhilarating weightlessness. The cone eventually widened into an immense dome of global dimension, its surface a hanging garden of colossal stalactite formations larger than any mountain, perhaps anchoring mountain ranges that lay above. Molten lava flowed around the bases of the jagged stalactites like great coursing rivers of blood. There seemed to be no compass directions, only an irresistible force that impelled Ellen and Mike ever closer to what must be the center of the vast inner space.
“I can’t believe it,” Mike said. “It really is hollow. The crackpots had the right idea all along.”
“The crackpots always have the right idea,” Ellen said. “You’re about to look upon strange and awesome wonders that will transform your entire philosophy, Pastor Mike. Your whole way of thinking is set to change.”
It began as a pinprick of light, then a floater in the orb of vision, a honey glow. “See what I mean? What a rush, huh?” Ellen whispered. “Do you hear that sound?”
Mike did hear it then, an oceanic roar of confusion, a measureless cacophony of human screams. There was the sound of an explosion, then unearthly quiet. The inner surface of the earth retreated until it assumed the dun color of a bloodshot eye.
“We just broke the sound barrier,” Ellen explained. “It won’t be long now.”
What appeared at first as a tiny golden prism became, as they drew nearer, an oblong crystalline box, a coffin enormous as an aircraft carrier, levitating in space. Inside the box lay a remarkable enigma of Ozymandian proportions, a horror beyond description and yet a Being of surpassingly serene beauty. The Being was motionless but for the cradle-like undulation of its coffin, and grey as granite. On the one hand it resembled the monster in the German expressionist silent classic The Golem, a giant fashioned of clay and animated by sorcery, with blocky Frankenstein feet, barrel chest and hair helmet. And yet, it was impossible to remove one’s eyes from the Being, so fascinating was He to behold. He was at once a blasphemous obscenity and a supreme work of art. Mike longed to see His face, even as he dreaded doing so. Fearing to speak, he tried communicating with Ellen telepathically.
“What’s He floating in?” Mike thought.
Honey, came Ellen’s response, or rather, the Thing within Ellen’s response. The food of the dead. The sweet taste of death makes one forget the bitterness of life. From time immemorial ancient peoples the world over used honey for embalming, in the belief that honey could not only preserve but also resurrect the dead. Alexander the Great was buried in a golden casket filled with honey. King Herod, after murdering his wife Marianne, kept her corpse in honey.
“Herod sounds like a sentimental old duffer.”
He died from what Josephus called ‘Herod’s Evil,’ described as ‘gangrene of his privy parts that produced worms.’
“Your Beautiful One looks as if He’s coated with something. What is it?”
Beeswax, the Thing replied. Enshrined in a patina of pure beeswax, the Beautiful One floats in a womb of honey, saving Himself for us all, a chrysalis waiting to be reborn in the fullness of His glory and in His own sweet time. Has man or angel ever beheld anything so wondrous?
Mike burned with longing to gaze upon the Beautiful One’s face. No, the urge was much more powerful, more visceral. He lusted to see the Beautiful One’s face. As though sensing his desire, drawn by that desire, the Beautiful One’s coffin slowly tilted and turned toward Mike, exposing the face. The face!
It was Mike’s own face the monster bore!
The Beautiful One’s eyelids opened. Only the eyes and lids moved, eyes blue as the sky, transfixing in their splendor. The eyes found Mike and focused upon him as though admiring a new prize.
“Well done, Azazel.” The voice seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. Even the voice was achingly beautiful, every word, every syllable like a song of angels. Mike hungered to hear it speak again.
“To be your slave is bliss, my Master.” Azazel shed Ellen’s now-lifeless body like the skin of a snake. Mike barely recognized the collapsed mask of her face distorted and stretched where the demon’s batwing met its shoulder. In watching Azazel emerge from the remnants of Ellen’s dead flesh, Mike found a greater thrill than that first time seeing a woman undress.
Perhaps an hour went by; Mike was oblivious to time. He would have waited a lifetime, waited forever, merely to bathe in the thrill of having the Beautiful One’s eyes upon him, of hearing the Beautiful One speak again. Somehow he knew that with the Beautiful One’s next utterance there would be a gift bestowed, a gift that would be all he ever wanted and more. At last the Beautiful One addressed him, in that place under his heart where spirits speak.
“You are a man of extraordinary talents.”
“Thank you…Sir. How shall I address you?”
“It is I who shall address you.”
“Only your name is regrettable. You bear the name of a barbarian, a bully and a slave. A creature who does not balk at mindlessly carrying out orders to indiscriminately kill and destroy. You know the thug to whom I refer.”
“I—I think so, yes.”
The Beautiful One’s eyes narrowed with hatred. “Michael. He’s made entirely of snow, did you know that? The Talmud is right. Frosty the Snowman, I call him. Despicable cretin, flexing his muscles, waving that sword around.”
“What name should I be given?”
“From this moment and forever after you shall be called Horael. The name means ‘god of the moment.’ Does it please you?”
“Very much so, Sir.”
“Call me Master, Horael.”
“The world is not worthy of you, Horael. You have been badly treated. Your heart’s desire is to have a church with a thriving ministry. You shall have one.”
“Thank you, Master.”
“Hold your tongue. There is more. Your heart’s desire is for the spirits of the air to be subject to you. They shall be. Your heart’s desire is for women to submit themselves to your uses. They shall submit. Your heart’s desire is to possess more than enough of everything the world has to offer. You shall possess it. Your heart’s desire is to know the secret thoughts of others. You shall know them. Now you may speak.”
“Well, I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but I think you should know there are people after me. See, I kind of borrowed over forty thousand dollars that didn’t exactly belong to me? In other words, I cleaned out the building fund when I took off from the last church I founded.”
“Thank you, Master. Only now, see, I can’t very well show my face in public that much or use my own name or social security number or else I’ll be arrested and thrown in jail.”
“You shall see your legal problems vanish before your very eyes before this night is over. Your enemies shall look for you and not see you. You shall be invisible to them if only you speak the name I have given you.”
“Thank you again. Sir. I—I don’t know quite what to say.”
“Say nothing. Only behold.”
In an instant Mike and Azazel vanished from the center of the earth and were caught up once again in the sky, floating high above the landscape. A shining city on a hill lit up the night like a radiant jewel. In the city’s center a modern cathedral larger than a football stadium, with brilliant lights, abundant parking and a towering crystal spire. Somehow Mike knew that it would be him taking the stage to ear-splitting applause and cheers, him ascending the pulpit and raising his arms like a politician elected by a landslide, him basking in the adulation of the horde of wealthy parishioners, their ears eager for a message of prosperity. He saw his false message going out on television, being spread via the Internet and media yet to be devised, all over the world. He saw himself casting out demons by the Prince of Demons, reading men’s minds while seducing their women, amassing millions in gold and securities in secret bank accounts the world over. Millions? Why not billions?
“I like the way your mind works, Horael,” Azazel said, interrupting Mike’s reverie.
“How else would my mind work, catching a sweet break like this?”
“Once in a lifetime, eh, Horael?”
“If you play your cards right, once is enough.”
“And you’re just the one to play those cards right, is that it?”
“You want to know something, Azazel old buddy? I feel like I’ve been preparing all my life just for this moment.”
“I believe you have. I believe you have at that.”
“So, like, what do I have to do to, you know, clinch the deal or whatever? Get down on my knees and worship the Beautiful One? Sacrifice a goat or something?”
Azazel seemed wary. “A goat?”
“Yeah, a goat. See, I remember what you said back there about me knowing the Book of Numbers. Only it’s Leviticus, isn’t it?”
“I knew the name Azazel rang a bell. You’re the spirit who possessed the scapegoat they led outside the camp and slaughtered for good luck or whatever, right?”
“Something like that.”
“Only the Israelites got carried away and started putting up altars and idols of you in the wilderness so they could sneak out there at night and worship you as a pagan goat-god. Kind of hedging their bets, so to speak.”
“Those were the days.”
“Yeah, I just bet they were. The Book of Enoch says you were the one who first taught men how to make weapons and women to use cosmetics.”
“‘The use of antimony and the beautifying of the eyelids; and all kinds of costly stones and all colouring tinctures. And there arose much godlessness, and they committed fornication, and they were led astray and became corrupt in all their ways.’ Yada yada yada, world without end, amen.”
“Murder and vanity, those are your two specialties.”
“You are an arrogant asshole, Horael. I have half a mind to cast you down to earth and break every bone in your body, just for fun.”
“You’ll do what your boss says. No more, no less. And one more thing: you were one of the Fallen Ones who lusted after women and fornicated with them so that they gave birth to the giants in the earth Genesis talks about.”
“Half in earnest and half in jest, still as a maid I enjoyed the lady, to paraphrase Blake. He happens to be one of Tartarus’ favorite poets, by the way.”
“I just need you to know who you’re dealing with here. I’ve studied these things. I’m not Bible-ignorant like most of the people you run into.”
“You might be surprised at some of the people I ‘run into,’ as you phrase it. Ironic that you’d mention my little flings. My ‘connections’ with mortal women.”
“Because it involves the secret of what you’ve been dealing with. The ‘Banshee’ that crazy dead hillbilly Jeb Bagby was raving to you about. The spirit who’s been dogging your every move since the night you ran Mag’s car into that ditch out in Butthole, Missouri.”
“What about the Banshee?”
“Since you’ve made such a thorough study of these things and are so puffed up with knowledge, I’m surprised you don’t know what happened to the women who consorted with my kind back in the day.”
“So tell me.”
“Your true higher education is about to commence, dear boy. Lesson one: the spirit you refer to as a Banshee is actually something much, much worse: a Siren.”
“A Siren? You mean like in Ulysses? We’re getting into Greek mythology now?”
“No myths. If you’d studied your Book of Enoch carefully you’d remember what happened to the women we enjoyed—as punishment they were transformed into Sirens. Hey, but you know what? It was worth it.”
“Siren, Banshee. Aren’t we splitting hairs here a little bit, Azazel?”
“Not at all. The distinction is critical for your survival, Horael. You see, the Banshee is a merely a harbinger of death about to occur. The Siren, on the other hand, is considerably nastier, and more dangerous. The Siren lures mortals to their deaths and reaps their souls. I should think you might find that particular piece of information invaluable.”
“So how do I defend myself against a Siren?”
“Ah, that’s where I come in. As the Beautiful One’s emissary I have the power to protect you from the Siren’s charms.”
“Charms? Curious use of the term there.”
“Fear and desire are first cousins, Horael. They evoke virtually identical physiological responses in the human body. First comes the fear, then the desire. Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t the Siren present herself to you as Mórríghan on occasion?”
“I guess I’m all confused.”
“That is one of her greatest talents, to confuse men’s minds. You see, the Siren’s call summons not only the flesh, but also the spirit.”
“So I’ve got you to keep me safe. Good to know. Now tell me a secret.”
“You heard what the Beautiful One said: tell me a secret. I’m supposed to find out the secret thoughts of others.”
Azazel pondered for a moment. “Shelley Lundy wants to bed you.”
“Too obvious. I’m talking about a real secret. Something the person hiding it would never, ever tell me on their own.”
“Care to explore your brand-new cathedral first, Horael?”
“Sure. But I still want to hear a few secrets.”
They descended silently, floating to a landing on the peak of the spire, balancing upon the narrow hips at either side of the needle-like point that jutted skyward like a defiant finger.
“If you feel like throwing yourself down I’m here to catch you,” Azazel said.
“Very funny. No, I’d rather hear a secret, like I said. And make it a juicy one.”
“All right. You asked for it. Paul Garrett is poisoning his wife.”
Astonished, Mike stared at Azazel, who returned a smug expression. “Paul’s poisoning Doris? How?”
“Through the use of one of my own personal favorites: lead. He buys a chemical called lead acetate online through the church so nobody can trace it to his home computer. Lead acetate used to be called ‘sugar of lead’ because it tastes sweet. It’s a slow but deadly poison. Good old Reverend Paul has been sweetening Doris’s Lipton tea with ample doses of sugar of lead ever since he and Shelley started getting it on. And believe me, he’s not above using it on Shelley if she ever gets out of line. Sweets to the sweet, I always say.”
“I have to stop him!”
“Stop him? Do you realize who you’re dealing with here? Your job is to facilitate Paul’s and Doris’s destruction, ruining as many other souls as possible in the process. Meanwhile, you are to continue your own peculiar brand of reverse exorcisms on a regular basis in Paul’s church until further notice. These are the Beautiful One’s orders, and they must be carried out; that is, if you intend to avail yourself of the considerable benefits of our association. Is that understood, Horael?
“But what if—”
“I wonder whether we may have misjudged you, Horael. Your level of dedication to the Beautiful One, I mean.”
“No. Wait. I’m dedicated. Jeez, can’t a guy even ask a question?”
Azazel visibly winced at the word Jeez. “Ask away, Horael. Only remember: the Beautiful One accepts no lukewarm servitude. Your devotion to Him must be absolute.”
“Very well. Now, your question?”
“So I’m supposed to stand idly by while Paul murders Doris, knowing all the time what he’s up to?”
“Not stand by, Horael. Encourage him. Cite him some facile Bible verses that comfort him in their ambiguity, that make him feel like he’s doing the right thing. Remind him how You Know Who—” Azazel lowered his voice as he said, “quote unquote God always takes care of His favorites, of how conveniently He overlooked Moses killing the Egyptian, of how He gave David a free pass for boning a married woman and then killing her husband to get him out of the way, of how love conquers all, that sort of thing. You’re good at it.”
Mike thought for a moment. “And then there are the signs that shall accompany those who believe. According to the Gospel of Mark, the true believers are supposed to be able to handle venomous snakes and drink deadly poison. Maybe Paul was just testing Doris to make sure she believed.”
“See? Now you’re thinking.”
Mike sighed. “What say you get us down from here?” he said. “I’ve had enough flying for one night.”
“Care to pay a call on Reverend Garrett?”
“I hate to disturb him so late. Besides, Mag is probably worried sick about me by now.”
“Ah, yes,” Azazel said. “Mag.”
There were several more cars parked in the lot outside the motel. Some bore Illinois license plates. Tourists, probably tourists who had gotten themselves lost for them to wind up here in this godforsaken place, Mike figured. At first he scarcely paid attention to the late-model Crown Vic parked in the shadows, with steel wheels, chrome center hubcaps and an extra antenna on the trunk lid. As he approached, he noticed two men sitting in the front seat. One of them turned to look at him.
A familiar vehicle was parked one slot down from the door to his and Mag’s room. A 2010 loaded Caddy with a silver plastic fish emblem spelling out JESUS and a WWJD sticker on the rear bumper. Mike made a habit of noticing license plates. He knew this one all too well.
Old man and old lady Ridderbjelke. Their tithes represented fully half of the forty grand Mike had stolen, and now here they were, more than four hours from home, stalking him outside his motel room at night. It had to be way past their bedtime.
Men got out of the unmarked Crown Vic and deliberately approached Mike. Others, former parishioners, also parked nearby, began angrily exiting their cars and converging on him. The Caddy’s driver side door flapped open and old man Ridderbjelke’s feet hit the gravel. Seventy-six years old if he was a day and he was running full-out after Mike. Mike’s instinct was to take off for the safety of the darkness. Before he had gone three steps one of the plainclothes cops bellowed, “Michael Doogan?”
Mike turned around to face him and said, “That’s not my name.” At that moment old man Ridderbjelke grabbed Mike by the arm and yelled, “This is him all right! Arrest him, officer!”
A man’s voice from behind Mike said, “I’ll vouch for that.”
The motel room door swung open. Mag screamed, “Jesus, Mike!”
The two cops were on him now. One of them said, “If your name’s not Michael Doogan, what is it?”
Old lady Ridderbjelke had exited the Caddy and was trudging indignantly in Mike’s direction. He felt the one cop pinning his arms behind his back. He said, “Horael.”
At first the screams confused him. All of them clutched their hands to their eyes, shrieking in agony, doubled over or whipping their heads, grinding their fists into their eye sockets to stanch the bleeding and crush the pain. The blood spurted forth from their eyeballs like juice from crushed cherries. Every one of Mike’s accusers, even the cops, staggered around the parking lot moaning like blinded zombies.
Old man Ridderbjelke had left his keys in the ignition. Beckoning to Mag, Mike leaped into the driver’s seat and started the engine. Mag, still in her robe, ran back into the room just long enough to scoop up her street clothes, shoes and purse before jumping into the passenger seat and shouting, “Hit it!”
Mike spun gravel and tore out of the parking lot, nearly clipping two sightless members of his former flock as they lurched and reeled around in his path, their eyes gushing blood.
Mag yelled, “What the hell was that?”
“Babe, you wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
“Let’s just say I’ve been given a big career boost and let it go at that.”
Mike made it back to the edge of town and parked three blocks from the parsonage. Mag had shed the robe and dressed in her one outfit during the drive. “I’ll do the talking,” Mike told her as they stood on the porch and knocked.
Three minutes went by before Paul, in a sleeveless t-shirt and twill pants with no belt, answered the door. His mouth dropped open when he saw the two of them standing there. He was not wearing his dentures, his lips were red and puffy and he had a mouse under his left eye. “Hi, Paul,” Mike said. “Aren’t you going to invite us in?”
Paul opened the screen door and stepped aside. Mag slipped in first, then Mike. The foyer was dark and smelled of ginger. “You oughta have that eye looked at by a doctor, good buddy,” Mike said as he passed. “Assuming they have doctors around these parts. People doctors, I mean.”
“Hello Mike,” Shelley’s voice, soft as a deadly kiss, greeted him from out of the darkness.
“Shelley!” Mike’s tone was bright and expansive. “What brings you here so late at night?”
Shelley, wearing a floor-length ivory chiffon peignoir with nothing underneath, stepped forward into the faint light from the porch lamp and explained, “Doris has taken a turn for the worse, I’m afraid. I’m here to comfort Paul in his time of need and to do whatever I can for her.”
“Do whatever you can for her? You mean like slipping a little extra poison into Doris’s tea?”
“Mike!” Mag gasped. “What on earth are you talking about?”
“Tell, me, Shelley, does Doris take hers with one or two teaspoons of sugar of lead these days?”
“Omigod!” Paul wailed. “He knows!”
“Don’t worry, Paul; your secret is safe. We’re all going to let bygones be bygones, remember?”
“Mike, what’s going on?” Mag demanded.
“A conspiracy, that’s what. A silent partnership where everybody gets what they want. Isn’t that right, Reverend Paul? Shelley?”
“That’s about the size of it,” Shelley replied, all pretense gone. “So now what? You going to call the cops on us, is that it?”
“Shelley, I’m surprised you think so little of me. Why, I wouldn’t dream of violating something as sacrosanct as the confidentiality and trust that penitents such as you and Paul here repose in me, a man of the cloth. I believe the law refers to it as clergy privilege.”
“Uh-huh.” Shelley crossed her arms over her chest and glared uncertainly at Mike.
“But what’s especially interesting is that we have a three-way privilege going here, don’t we? I mean, Paul and I are both ministers who share you as a parishioner, Shelley.”
“Don’t mind me, I just came in to get warm,” Mag sneered.
“All right, make that a four-way privilege,” Mike said. “I stand corrected.”
Paul and Shelley stared at him with bewildered expressions. Mike said, “Why are you both gawking at me like that?”
Paul asked, “Why a four-way?”
“Because of Mag. We can’t leave Mag out. You heard her.”
“Heard her?” Shelley asked. “What the devil are you talking about, Mike?”
“I’m talking about the lovely Magdalene Murphy, of course, my helpmate and ever-patient bride-to-be who appears before you in all her ripened loveliness.”
Pau and Shelley continued to stare.
“She’s standing right here,” Mike added.
“Mike,” Shelley said gently, “There’s Paul, and you, and me. That’s all. Hon, there’s nobody else here other than poor Doris upstairs.” She reached out her hand to touch him but Mike shrank away.
“I think Paul’s been slipping you a few hits of that sugar of lead on the side, Shelley. What do you, have brain damage? Mag’s been standing right beside me since we got here.”
“Don’t listen to her, Mike,” Mag warned. “It’s some kind of a trick.”
“You came here alone, Mike,” Paul said. “You’ve always been alone, ever since the day I met you.”
“You both met Mag at the church the night of the first deliverance, while I was busy talking with Ellen, the organist.” Paul and Shelley shook their heads.
“But—but you have our luggage. Hers and mine. Hers is monogrammed—MM. You took off with it locked in the trunk of your car before we checked into the motel.”
“You checked into the motel alone, Mike. There was no one with you. I would have noticed.”
“You must have brain damage too, Paul, from that fight. Let’s go out to your car, the four of us, and I’ll show you Mag’s monogrammed luggage.”
“Her luggage may be there but don’t you see?” Shelley urged. “That doesn’t prove anything.”
“It’s a trick, Mike. Don’t believe a word they’re saying,” Mag pleaded.
“You’re right, Mag,” Mike agreed. “No way I’m falling for this lame community theater shit.” To the others he said, “You two knock it off! Don’t you know you can’t hustle a hustler?”
“Wait a minute,” Mag said. “I think I know what they’re doing, Mike. Don’t you see? They’re trying to convince you how easy it would be to kill me. They’re getting ready to make me disappear and want to talk you into going along with it. That way there’d be a three-way instead of a four-way split of the take. I can’t get over how they’re so arrogant they’re doing it right in front of me.”
“You heard Mag,” Mike said. “You two might as well forget about whatever it is you’re planning because we’re onto you. Mag and I work as a team and we mean to stay that way.”
“You were alone in that motel room, Mike,” Shelley said. “Do you think I would have been nearly so… open if there had been another woman there?”
“You were alone with him in his motel room? When? And what do you mean, ‘open?’” Paul said.
“Nothing happened, Paul!” Shelley protested.
But Paul wasn’t listening. “You were with this guy alone in his motel room? I want to know about this!” he demanded angrily. “I was willing to do away with my wife for you and I damn near succeeded!”
“Nothing happened, Paul!” Shelley repeated.
“I need to know where I stand with you and I need to know right now!” Paul shouted.
“Shhh. Doris will hear,” Shelley whispered.
“I don’t give a good goddamn if Doris hears!”
Without warning an unearthly howl came from upstairs, a deadly baying that rose to a wailing sound to chill the bone. Mike had heard that shrieking call before, a soulless scream fit for summoning the unshriven dead. Hearing it again filled him with unspeakable horror.
Shelley screamed and ran to Paul. “What in the hell is that?” Paul gasped in terror.
Tell him, the voice under Mike’s heart commanded.
“Banshee, Siren—call it what you will,” Mike explained calmly, belying his fright, “it happens around dead things. Doris is dead. The Thing you’re hearing has come to call for Doris’s soul and carry it to Hell.”
“No no no no no,” Shelley spluttered, her voice a rising crescendo of alarm. “This is not what I wanted! Paul, do something! This was never what I wanted!”
“It’s too late now, Shelley,” Mike gloated. “You and Paul made it happen and now it’s too late. Doris will be in Hell forever and soon you two will join her.”
The howl began once more, closer now and more shrill. A strange glowing vinegarish light suddenly appeared at the top of the stairs, silhouetting a gaunt figure standing there in bedclothes. Shelley uttered a gut-wrenching scream.
The figure loosed such a howl the glass rattled in the window frames and plates shivered on the dishrails. Paul hurried to a light switch below the stairs, nearly stumbling as he ran, and flipped on the chandelier fixture above the second-floor landing. Doris—or her withered corpse—stood above them in the dim light, her mouth open in the rictus of a dying scream. The howling came from within her, and it went on and on.
“It’s her!” Shelley whimpered. “It’s her! But it can’t be!”
“Why, Shelley?” Mike said. “Because Doris is dead already? You and Paul left her up there to die tonight, didn’t you? That was your plan, wasn’t it? That’s why you’re here with him at night, both of you dressed for bed.”
“It’s not true!” Shelley sobbed. “I never wished for this!”
Paul fell to his knees where he stood, lowered his head and began to pray. Mike said, “Might as well give it up, Paul. It’s too late for prayers.” Paul persisted, murmuring a desperate petition. And eventually, as he prayed, the howling began to fade, then finally ceased altogether.
The form of Doris took one step before collapsing at the head of the stairs. Paul bounded up the staircase and knelt at her side. A moment later he called out, “There’s a pulse! Thank Jesus, there’s still a pulse! Her poor heart’s beating! It’s weak but it’s still beating!”
“I’ll call 911,” Shelley yelled.
“No!” Mike said. “Think for a minute: if you call 911 they’ll take her to a hospital where blood tests will pick up the lead poisoning.”
Shelley closed her eyes and whispered, “Thank you, Jesus,” over and over, clasping and wringing her hands.
“Listen to me, both of you,” Mike pleaded. “Have you gone crazy? Do you want to spend the rest of your lives in prison for attempted murder?”
“Shelley,” Paul said, “you’d better make that call now.”
Mike ran ahead of Shelley and tried to block her from using the phone. “Listen to me, Shelley,” he said, “and think about what I’m saying. Use your head instead of your heart for once. If you call the authorities, they’re bound to find out about the sugar of lead in Doris’s system. And as soon as the law starts nosing around, Paul will side with his wife. Hell, look at him; he already has.” They both looked up at Paul cradling Doris’s withered body in his arms, stroking her hands as though to chafe and warm them. “Once the local cops go to work on him do you think he’ll even hesitate to pin the poisoning on you? He’ll tell them it was all your idea, Shelley.”
“Paul wouldn’t do that to me,” Shelley said uncertainly.
“Let me ask you a question then: whose fingerprints are on that container of lead acetate? And on the spoon? Yours or Paul’s? Yours, right? Paul made sure of that tonight.”
Shelley’s body sagged, telling Mike he was right. In a low voice she said, “It was the very first time I ever did it. The first and only time.”
“Then think about it—are you sure you want to make that call? Is that being fair to yourself, Shelley?” Mike asked her softly. “Paul used you; don’t you get it?”
“I—I’m so confused. I don’t know what to do!” Shelley stammered under her breath.
“Then let me do your thinking for you,” Mike whispered.
“Shelley, I need you to make that call now! We’re losing her!” Paul yelled from above them.
“Let’s you and me go in the kitchen for a sec, okay, Shelley?” Mike suggested quietly. “Mag, stay here and help Paul.” Mag nodded and headed for the stairs.
Shelley called out to Paul, “There’s no dial tone! I’m going out in the kitchen to use my cell phone.”
“Whatever you do, hurry! She’s barely breathing!”
Shelley walked ahead of Mike. The fluorescent bulbs flooded the kitchen in a cold blue light. She began, “I hated to lie to Paul like that—”
Mike grabbed Shelley by the shoulders, spun her around and drew her close enough to kiss her. “Now listen,” he said, “minutes count. I’m trying to keep you out of this because there’s something you need to know. Back at the motel when you and I were together in my room? I sensed an overpowering attraction between you and me. If Mag hadn’t been there I don’t know if I could have resisted making love to you, Shelley, right there and then. You want to know the truth? I still feel exactly the same way.”
Shelley cuddled in Mike’s arms and sighed, “I feel it too, Mike. But Mag wasn’t—”
“Forget about Mag. I’m trying to tell you the way I feel down deep inside, and I have to do it in as few words as possible because otherwise you may be facing an attempted murder charge, maybe even first degree murder if Doris dies. They still have the death penalty in Missouri?”
“I think so. Yes, I’m sure they do. Oh Mike!”
“Do you want to die for love of the wrong man? A man who’s just now proven he’s still in love with his wife? A married man, a philandering hypocrite who’s already shown you he won’t balk at killing, who’ll jump at any chance to save himself and get his girlfriend out of the way permanently, even if it means setting her up to stand trial for capital murder?”
“Do you love me, Mike? I think you do, but I need to hear it from you.”
Instead of answering, Mike kissed her with as much passion as he could fake, pressing and busying his tongue against hers, writhing with his hips, grasping and kneading the broad cheeks of her ass. The unbelted peignoir fell open. Shelley did nothing to pull it closed.
All Mike could think about was Shelley having done the same things with Paul mere minutes before. He thought he could detect the faint zinc taste of Paul’s Polident on her lips and tongue. Shelley was panting in his face. Looking over her shoulder Mike could tell the kitchen was probably forty years out of date. It needed new appliances, new counters, maybe a butcher block in a central island. And those cabinets! Once Paul and Shelley were out of the way, he and Mag could start here. It would be a first step, a home of their own. Once he’d done his work and the entire congregation had become possessed, he’d move on, shed this parsonage and take on another. And another.
Shelley was getting hot; Mike could tell she wanted it. He prayed silently to the Beautiful One that Mag would not interrupt them until he had done what he had to do. Something inside told him: only a few minutes more and Doris would be dead.
Shelley ripped herself away from Mike’s embrace and breathlessly insisted, “No!”
“No? What do you mean, no? I thought you wanted me, the same way I want you, Shelley!”
Shelley bolted away from Mike, seized the kitchen wall phone and punched in three numbers. Mike leaped at the telephone and ripped out the cord. “I won’t let you do it, Shelley!”
Backing away toward the door she said, “I love you and want you, Mike, but I must heed the warning. I’m sorry but I have no other choice.”
“Warning? What warning?”
“Jeb Bagby warned me about you, Mike.”
“Jeb?” Mike said, astonished. “How can you possibly know Jeb?”
“The library. Where else? He told me you would come into my life. He foretold everything about you, things no one could possibly have known. Unless—”
“What kinds of things?”
“Horrible things.” Shelley shuddered. “And beautiful things, too. Jeb is my friend. He comes to me. In the library when I’m all alone.”
“What lies has Jeb been telling you, Shelley?”
“They’re not lies. Not lies at all. Jeb told me that I should be extremely watchful around you. That one day you would place Paul and me in mortal danger.”
“He said you would appear as an angel of light but be a devil down deep inside. He told me you would try and make yourself seem like my savior but wind up being seven times worse for me than Paul ever was. I’m beginning to realize Jeb was right all along.”
“Jeb’s dead, Shelley. You must know that from your research. He’s been dead for over a century, he and his whole family.”
“Then he came back from the dead to warn me of the danger. Stay away from me, Mike! I mean it! I’m calling 911 and there’s nothing you can do about it!” She turned and began to walk away.
“Oh, no?” Mike seized Shelley’s throat and squeezed. She fought him like a harpy, fought for her life, choking and gagging, her arms flailing at him behind her, legs weakening and collapsing, her face red as one of Jeb’s wild Devil’s apples. Azazel’s voice from under his heart urged FINISH HER! FINISH HER!
Mag burst in the door. “What in the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“What’s it look like?”
Mag ran to his side and screamed, “It looks like you’re trying to kill her! Stop it!”
“Walk away from this, Mag. Shelley has to die tonight. Otherwise she’ll ruin everything.”
“Ruin everything? Have you gone crazy, Mike?”
Mike squeezed harder. It was easy once he put his mind to it. Shelley’s body began to sag; he could feel the weight of it.
Mag began yanking on Mike’s elbow and digging away at his fingers clenched around Shelley’s neck. “Let go of her, Mike! Let go of her!” Mike reluctantly loosened his grip on Shelley’s throat. She made a single ragged whooping sound, fell to the floor and lay there motionless.
Mike looked at Mag and shrugged. Mag drew back her arm and backhanded him across the mouth. “Look at yourself,” she screamed, red-faced. “I leave you alone for a minute and you’re busy strangling this poor woman whose worst crime the way I see it was inviting us back to her church!”
“I’m doing it for us!” Mike said.
“You’re scaring me, Mike. I’m beginning to think there is no us.” Mag kneeled over Shelley’s crumpled form. “Shelley? Are you all right, Shelley?” Turning to Mike, Mag said with alarm, “Omigod! She’s not breathing!”
In the distance Mike heard the howl of an approaching siren. “We’d better get the hell out of here,” he said.
“You mean just leave her here on the floor like this?”
“There’s nothing more we can do, is there?”
Mag stared at him in silent outrage. “No,” she said at last, “I guess you’ve already done enough.”
Shelley moaned softly. She tried to speak but nothing came out other than a muffled groan, a frustrated child’s vain attempts to form words.
“C’mon, Mag. You can see she’s still alive. Let the authorities handle it. We have to get out of here. I’m a wanted man driving a stolen car and there’s a dead woman upstairs, dead by poison. You feel like hanging around while they sort that out, be my guest.”
Shelley can’t talk, Azazel’s voice told Mike. She’ll never tell. Forget about her. She’s as good as dead. Better run for it while you still can. I’ll protect you, Horael.
Four blocks from the parsonage they passed the fire department ambulance speeding in the opposite direction, its lights flashing and siren blaring. “Paul must have called them,” Mike said. “It was a dumb thing to do. Now it’s his ass, not mine.”
“Do you think they’ll make it in time to save Doris?” Mag’s voice was oddly flat and unemotional, like someone in shock. “And revive Shelley?”
“Beats me. We’ll have to ditch this Cad. It’s hot.”
“Too bad,” Mag said. “It has a nice smooth ride.”
“It handles good, too.”
“Listen to us, Mike, acting so cold-blooded after what you tried to do back there.” Mag turned to Mike with an accusing expression as the words spilled out of her. “What on earth were you thinking? What did Shelley say or do to throw you into such a fit of rage?”
Mike said nothing so she persisted, “It was a fit of rage, right?”
“You could say that.”
“Well, why, then?”
“Don’t you see?” he said. “I couldn’t give her time to repent. If Paul hadn’t called 911, Doris dies and so does Shelley. Both of them go straight to Hell. Paul gets convicted and executed for Doris’s murder by poison. He joins them there. It’s perfect! A trifecta!”
“And what about you, Mike?”
“What about me?”
“Were you planning on joining them there, too? You’re acting like you’re the one possessed!”
“Interesting word, possessed.”
They drove in silence for twenty minutes. Then Mag asked, “What was that funny name you called yourself back at the motel, Mike? Right before all hell broke loose?”
“I’d rather not repeat it if you don’t mind,” Mike said. “Like you say, all hell tends to break loose whenever I do.”
The church building was completely dark when Mike and Mag pulled up in the Cad. Standing on the sidewalk Mike said, “Little help?” Azazel instantly appeared.
‘How may I assist you, Horael?” he asked.
“Do I get more than three wishes?”
“Who are you talking to, Mike?” Mag asked.
“Don’t worry, Horael; she cannot see or hear me unless you will it so.”
“I don’t will it so. Is there such a thing as a cloak of invisibility you can throw over this heap until we latch onto something better?”
“Consider it done.”
“And I take it the church kitchen is fully provisioned for our culinary needs?”
“It’s all been taken care of. A key as well.” Mike felt cool metal in his left palm, opened his hand and found a key to the church.
“Awesome,” he said. “Some threads would be nice, too.”
“I’ll have your luggage sent over at once. Paul is in no position to transfer it, given his current legal difficulties.”
“How is old Paul?”
“In police custody, babbling and weeping like a child.”
“I told you not to concern yourself about Shelley. She will never betray us.”
“Us? You mean—”
“She is ours.”
“But I thought—”
“She found herself instantaneously albeit temporarily deprived of the faculty of verbal communication. Possessed by a dumb spirit. Her resulting consternation quite amused the Beautiful One. Her punishment for merely flirting with the idea of transferring her allegiance to the imperial forces.”
“‘Imperial forces?’ You mean…”
“Yes. Quote unquote God,” Azazel said, eyes downcast, hand over mouth as though clearing his throat.
“For a minute there I thought you had a blue tooth stuck in your ear,” Mag remarked, “but now I see you’re having a one-sided chat with yourself out here in the dark. What gives?”
“They ever make you read The Devil and Daniel Webster when you were a kid in school?”
“Stephen St. Vincent Benét? Sure, I think so.”
“Stephen Vincent Benét. It was Edna St. Vincent Millay, no relation.”
“Mag’s kind of dense, isn’t she?” Azazel smirked. “You could do better, Horael. Much better.”
“I preferred the movie version, the one with Edward Arnold, where Walter Huston played the devil like he was some kind of leprechaun or something.”
“Sometimes,” Mike said, “I feel like I’m playing both parts, like I’m trying to be Edward Arnold the good guy and Walter Huston the bad guy, at the same time. Sooner or later, I’ll have to choose between one and the other.”
“We going in?” Mag asked. Mike shot Azazel a look that said Mag wasn’t as dumb as he thought.
Mike nearly stumbled over their luggage before finding the light switch. The church office was well-appointed and comfortable, with a couch that folded out into a double bed. “Convenient,” Mike remarked. “No wonder Shelley spent so much time here.”
“I’m starving,” Mag said. “What say we rustle up some sandwiches?”
They found fresh bread, sliced cheese and three kinds of lunch meat in the huge refrigerator of the church kitchen downstairs. Walking through the lobby back toward the office, eating their sandwiches, Mike said, “Hey, we oughta drop crumbs, you know, like Hansel and Gretel. Make a trail so we won’t get lost.”
“I thought you were the guy who didn’t want to be found.”
“I kind of like being found, as long as it’s by the right people. Do you suppose Paul got around to advertising our next fun-filled deliverance service?”
“Here’s your answer,” Mag said, pointing to a stack of Halloween-orange circulars prominently displayed in a rack by the front door. There was a photo of Mike taken from his book jacket, a dramatic pose of him in his best dark suit pointing like Moses toward the Promised Land. Above the photo the flyer said, DELIVERANCE SERVICE EVERY WEDNESDAY in 48-point bold type, giving the address of the church and a map to direct out-of-town guests. She grabbed a handful and threw them overhead. They fluttered to the floor like autumn leaves.
“Wonder who cleans this place?” Mike asked.
“One thing’s sure: it ain’t us.” Laughing as she ran ahead of him down the center aisle of the sanctuary, Mag crumbled a corner of bread in her hand and sprinkled it behind her.
Shelley was standing over the fold-out bed when they awoke late Wednesday morning. The whites of her eyes were completely bloodshot. There were rows of deep red bruises turning to violet roughly corresponding to Mike’s fingers on her neck. Mag scrambled for a robe, couldn’t find one and wrapped herself in the black silk topsheet, leaving Mike lying there naked. Talking seemed to require an extraordinary effort from Shelley. In a weak, hoarse voice she said, “I always seem to be getting you out of bed, Pastor Mike.
“Shelley, I—I don’t know what to say. I’m sorry.”
Shelley waved off his apology. “I told them Paul did this to me,” she rasped.
“Smart thinking. How are you doing?”
She shrugged. “It looks worse than it is. They rushed me to the hospital. My neck started to close up. They thought they might have to do a trach, but the swelling went down on its own.” Seemingly exhausted by the effort of that soliloquy, she coughed, a nearly soundless dry hacking.
“Can we get you anything, Shelley?” Mag asked her.
“The deliverance service,” Shelley said. “I can’t talk on the phone. Would you do the calling? I’ll provide the names and numbers.” Another coughing session, one that made her wince this time.
“We’d be happy to,” Mag said cheerily.
“Sure thing, Shelley,” Mike said, reclining on the bed, hands behind his head, legs spread, reveling in Shelley’s attention. “See anything you like?”
“That’s P. J. Soles’s line,” Mag said confidently, her back to the couch. “From Halloween.”
“Oh, Pastor Mike!” Shelley exclaimed, her reddened eyes not looking away.
Azazel’s voice from under Mike’s heart said, I told you she is ours.
“Are you into movies, Shelley?” Mike asked.
“For God’s sake, Mike, put something on,” Mag said disgustedly, having turned around at the mention of the word movies.
“The human body is a thing of beauty. It was meant to be admired and enjoyed,” Mike said, but he reached for his clothes and began getting dressed.
“Would you excuse Mike and me for a minute, Shelley, while we get decent, I mean?” Mag said in a distinctively icy tone. Shelley did not move from her position beside the bed but stood staring appreciatively at Mike’s seminude form.
“Maybe you’d better listen to Mag, Shelley,” Mike said.
“I’d rather take your advice, Pastor Mike,” Shelley replied. “You see, Mag’s dead.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I said, Mag’s dead. She died in that car crash on a county road just outside of town.”
“You’re talking crazy, Shelley. Mag’s right here with us. How can you say she’s dead?”
“It was Jeb who told me,” Shelley said. “He said you and your girlfriend were in a bad collision, that she was killed and that you tried to fool him into thinking you had resurrected her from the dead. He said he went along with it to humor you because he was afraid you were suffering from a head injury or that you were in denial.” Shelley choked and said, “I need some water. My throat’s killing me.” She left the office.
Mike stared at Mag, who grinned at him and said, “Paul must’ve screwed her brains loose.”
“Why is it nobody else sees you but me?” Mike demanded.
“Mike, c’mon, don’t make this into a remake of Topper. I’m right here, all too, too solid flesh and red hot blood. Remember last night?” She winked lasciviously and reached with proprietary mien for his privates.
“You know what I remember? I remember how you did exactly the same thing back there in the convenience store washroom, standing behind me at the sink. Only then you cast no reflection in the mirror… Mórríghan!”
“From Topper to Dracula without so much as a dissolve shot.” It was Mag’s voice but Mórríghan’s Irish lilt “What a segue! Too bad there are no mirrors here.”
“I don’t need a mirror to prove who you are, you damn harpy!” Mike lunged for her but she dissolved into a swarm of black gnats in front of his eyes before vanishing into thin air. All that remained was the tinkling, taunting peals of her derisive laughter coming at him from everywhere, from the very walls themselves.
Mórríghan! Mike felt weak. He lay down on the bed, stared at the ceiling and tried to think. What a fool he was, to have been so easily deceived. But if it had been Mórríghan masquerading as Mag all this time, where was the real Mag? Mike was enough of a deliverance minister to know that the demon is a liar whose only goal is to deceive and destroy. And yet, the demon possesses supernatural power that can be harnessed by a clever manipulator. Popular myths and familiar fairy tales contained that basic truth. If you know the demon’s name and speak it aloud, the demon can be controlled and dominated. What was Rumpelstiltskin other than an exorcism story? Aladdin and the genie? Leprechauns?
Shelley entered the room holding a half-filled glass in her hand. She took a drink. It helped smooth out her voice but when she spoke the words still came in a growl. Her whole manner seemed to have changed. She stood beside the bed, arms crossed, her weight balanced back on one heel, and took her time admiringly looking over his body. “I like a man who’s comfortable in his own skin. I find the entire experience of nudity delicious, don’t you?”
But Mike remembered Azazel’s words: She is ours.
“You lied to me, didn’t you, Shelley? Back there at the motel.”
“Why, Pastor Mike, I’ve never lied to you.” The fake coquettish teasing attitude. “Whatever do you mean?”
“I mean getting Doris out of the way. You were in on it from the start, weren’t you? There was no curse from a book. You wouldn’t need any book to put a curse on somebody. The whole poisoning thing was probably your idea.”
“I like the way your mind works, Pastor Mike. Especially the part about the motel. What say you and I finish what we started back there, now that it’s just the two of us? We’ll have plenty of time. The deliverance service doesn’t begin until eight.” She began to undress, turning her back to him.
“Sorry, Shelley. Not interested. Maybe some other—”
Shelley spun around, her face a mask of rage. She flung the contents of the glass into the air above the bed. As the shimmering droplets of water fell on Mike they pinned him to the bed like driven nails. His arms and legs were paralyzed. In a deep saturnine voice laced with menace she uttered these words: “No man refuses me! I who have seduced princes of angels and drawn them down to hell.” The redness in her eyes burned like wild flames.
Azazel appeared on the opposite side of Mike’s bed. “Better listen to her, old boy. Take it from me; our Mórríghan doesn’t like to be denied.”
“It’s high time you learned the rules, Horael, if you’re to be of any use to us. You see, as one of the Sirens, Mórríghan—as she insists we call her although she is known to us by another name—is free to inhabit the bodies of humans at her whim. Or, more precisely, to possess the bodies of those who are ours, as Shelley is. So feel free to enjoy the whore at your leisure.”
“And if I don’t? Enjoy her?”
“In that unfortunate event I’m afraid you would run a great risk of disappointing the Beautiful One. Not an auspicious career beginning for one—particularly one so young—being groomed for greatness. The Beautiful One views sexual continence as a rather personal insult, a spurning of his own extraordinary brand of hospitality, as it were.”
“That’s a risk I’m going to have to take,” Mike said. If she had the power to draw mighty angels down to hell, what chance did a mere mortal have against her? He feared it would mean certain death for him to be inside her. Or that something precious and irreplaceable would forever die within him if he gave in to her evil charms.
“Don’t be so quick to make up your mind. Try her, lad. Sample her considerable wares. I’m sure you’ll discover her to be a wily and inventive courtesan. As have others before you.” Azazel leaned close and whispered in Mike’s ear, “If you’ve the talent to arouse her. Have you?”
“We’ll never know.”
“As you wish.” In a fit of pique, Azazel snapped his fingers and vanished. And, Mike soon realized, so did his protection.
“I thought he’d never leave,” Shelley said in her own damaged voice. “Now it’s just you and me, Babe. Change your mind, I’ll let you up out of bed.”
“Tell me your name first.”
“Michelle Sue Lundy. Mrs.”
“I mean your real name.”
“Why, Mórríghan, of course. But you knew that already, Pastor Mike.”
“Tell me your name and maybe I’ll give you what you want.”
“What I want? I’ll take that as an insult. What I want!”
“Suit yourself. I’m not going anywhere.”
Shelley said with a lewd smile, “Then let’s see who can hold out the longest.” She began to dance for him, a profane dance that was ancient in the time of Jezebel. Mike struggled against the invisible shards of crystal that bound him to the bed, but it was no use. He was powerless to move. There was no choice other than to gaze upon Shelley’s demon dance. Closing his eyes served only to force upon him an even more lewd and tantalizing display fueled by the fantasies of his own mind.
Hours passed. Shelley danced on with abandon. Mike willed the crystal shards to melt away and release him but still they held him fast to the bed. Tiny bloodspots like the heads of rusted nails peppered his body, marking each entry wound. Shelley, now totally nude, whirled like a dervish, her body glistening with the dew of her exertions. Mike’s body ached for her, for the release she could so easily provide, but he stubbornly resisted.
Where was Mag, he asked himself. Still trapped in the mill house, imprisoned by evil forces there? And what of Shelley’s claim that Jeb had warned her? Warned her that Mike would be a deadly danger to her? The demon is a liar, he reminded himself yet again. But she mixes lies with the truth. What was it Jeb had said in the truck? Something about Satan’s helpers having gotten pretty good at dissembling?
Shelley hovered over him now, her arms raised and waving like two cobras about to strike, her face a mask of hellish ecstasy. Clamping his eyes shut, stiffening his body against the anticipation of her touch and yet desiring that touch of hers beyond reason, Mike willed the futile struggle to be over.
He awakened in the church basement fully clothed. Shelley was nowhere to be seen. It was dark down there except for the nursery at the far end of the building. He walked toward the warm inviting light that emanated from the windowed playroom. A boy no more than two was sitting Indian-style on the carpeted floor, a towheaded kid wearing Buster Browns and high-button shoes like you might see in an old tintype or a Jackie Coogan silent movie. The kind of costume that once had been worn by those now long dead.
The child was playing with something. Mike moved closer and saw that they were alphabet blocks. The child was trying to spell with the blocks. But what was it he was trying to spell? Mike leaned over the child’s shoulder and read these words: Gird up thy loins.
Mike jumped back aghast. It was what the voice had said to him that awful night in the casino before he had lost everything. Before he had met Mag. Gird up thy loins. It was the way angels talked in the Bible. And demons?
The child’s hair was all in tight curls. Mag had talked about the two of them having a kid like this one, someday. He looked exactly the way Mag had described him as she lay in bed, her and Mike’s fantasy child. He sure was cute sitting there playing, his back to Mike. Mike couldn’t help himself; he reached out and tousled the kid’s hair. The kid turned around then, not startled or curious. He smiled at Mike.
The kid had the most intense blue eyes Mike had ever seen, bluer than a clear day in May. “What brings you here?” Mike asked, in that way adults have of raising and softening their voices when talking to children. This kid only smiled, as though he had a secret he might be persuaded to share.
“Where’s your mommy and daddy?” Mike asked him. The kid pointed straight up in the air before returned his attention to his blocks.
“What’s your name, sonny?” Mike asked. The kid kept playing with the blocks, ignoring the question.
“Nobody wants to tell me their name,” Mike said.
Under his breath the kid murmured something that sounded like “Manuel.”
The kid sure didn’t look Mexican, but who knew these days? For the first time Mike noticed that the whole room smelled of incense. “Manuel? That’s a cool name. They call you Manny?”
The kid shrugged.
“You’re pretty little to know how to spell. Can you spell me something else with those blocks, Manny?”
The kid scratched his head and began selecting blocks. In no particular hurry but without faltering he spelled a single word: Repent.
Mike sat there in silence a long time. “You’re not really a kid, are you?” he asked, knowing the answer to his own question. “You’ve been watching me this whole time, haven’t you? Watching over me to see if I’d stumble, ready to catch me if I did. You’re Him, aren’t you?”
The kid said nothing, didn’t even look away from his blocks. “Jesus Christ,” Mike swore. The kid jumped up and hugged him.
Overcome with emotion, Mike began to sob. “It is You, isn’t it? You know how I knew it was You? The way You ignored me, like that time in the temple courts of Jerusalem when You stooped down and wrote in the dust.”
The kid prattled something unintelligible and made a playful sound with his lips like the purr of an outboard motor.
“It’s too late for me,” Mike wept. “I’ve blown it. Oh, Christ!”
The kid shook his head from side to side, deliberately the way little kids do, as though shaking one’s head is a new and unfamiliar experience.
“What can I do, Lord? How can I ever put things right after all the evil I’ve done? After making a pact with the devil and causing good Christians right here in this church to become possessed by demons? After ruining so many lives beyond redemption?” Mike closed his eyes, hung his head and wept openly, as though his heart would break.
When he came to himself and opened his eyes the child was gone. He glanced over at the toy blocks on the floor. They spelled out: Feed my lambs.
The night had grown cold and snow flurries were dancing in the dusk by the time the faithful began congregating in the church around seven that evening. Mike stood in the vestibule to greet them, smiling and embracing each new arrival. Attendance grew to nearly two hundred souls by eight PM. Crowd-counting posed no more a challenge for Mike than card-counting. Mingled with the faithful he recognized each of the sixteen he had caused to become possessed under the guise of exorcism. All were present, lurking in the throng like willing co-conspirators waiting to assist him in his work, to infest more worshippers.
He knew what had to be done. A little child had told him.
With dread Mike remembered the haughty words of Azazel: In that fraction of a millisecond it takes for a thought to ping and pong its way through the muttony grey mush of your brain, we’ve already read it twice and parsed the grammar. He struggled to control and suppress his thoughts by blanking them out from his mind. He visualized a meadow alive with pastel flowers under a candy-blue sky. White fuzzy bunnies cavorted in the soft Easter grass.
Suddenly, as though defying Mike’s intent, two of the cuddly bunnies from the reverie of his imagination began violently fornicating. The dominant one grew vampire fangs and tore out the other’s throat. Blood like ketchup spurted from the mortally wounded bunny’s neck and pulsed all over his soft white fur in a spreading sanguineous apron. The other bunny lapped at the blood with abandon, his tongue awash in gore.
“Azazel!” Mike shouted. A painted mural of a gentle Christ surrounded by lambs and children adorned the wall of the vestibule above the doors to the sanctuary. As Mike stared in horror, the images in the mural began to change as though by black magic. The mural became a three-dimensional diorama. Foreboding clouds darkened the scene. The face of Christ transformed and degenerated into something leering and depraved, the visage of a demon—Azazel himself—malevolently looking out upon a spectacle of unspeakable carnage and slaughter, the sweet lambs rent into butchered carcasses, the children’s bodies torn limb from limb and cut apart like abortion waste. Then the mutilated and dismembered bodies of the lambs and the children caught fire and burned with the fury of Hell, their blackened remains yielding up sooty plumes of smoke from the rendering of their tallow by the flames.
The eyes of the demon moved until they focused mercilessly on Mike. Only the eyes moved—the cold eyes of a predator, the personification of the only predator Mike had ever known. They were the eyes of the destroyer, the accuser of mankind, the malign intellect that had stalked Mike all of his life and haunted him still.
They were the borrowed eyes of the Beautiful One. Somehow He knew!
Azazel stepped down from the mural. Eight feet tall or more, he towered over Mike. He thrust an accusing index finger at Mike’s face and demanded, in a voice like the rumbling of thunder, “Cozener! Wouldst thou unclew the evil thee hath wrought?”
“No!” Mike cried out. “You’ve got me all wrong!”
Azazel glared at Mike. “T’would be thine own sure undoing, Horael, to cross us. Thou might as lief unknot the noose about thy neck and change it for a millstone.”
“I’m on your side,” Mike protested. But his own mind betrayed him, unveiling his true intent. As though silently summoned to do Azazel’s bidding, the sixteen ranged around Mike in a tightening circle, eyes half-lidded, wearing dull sadistic smiles on faces barren of any emotion other than unreasoning lust for blood.
Azazel intoned an imprecation: “Thou’rt cursed, Horael! Cursed and cast out! Be thou dispossess’d of my protection!” The sixteen rushed at Mike at these words, arms outstretched, fingers clawing at him, finding his face, attacking his eyes. Always the eyes.
A howling sounded in the distance. No, a siren, approaching fast. Two more sirens wailed close by, then cut to silence. Two squad cars, an unmarked cruiser, Missouri Highway Patrol and even Missouri Gaming Commission vehicles converged on the church. Armed officers burst from the cars and raced up the front steps like an invading army. Too late to seek sanctuary here.
The sixteen backed away from Mike, who now cowered on the floor of the vestibule. Leaping to his feet he pushed his way through the jostling crowd of worshippers and sprinted downstairs into the church basement. It was dark down there; no time to find the light switch. But where were the back stairs?
Someone yanked open a heavy steel door, illuminating the back staircase with light from the rear parking lot. Mike stopped in his tracks. More police? Did they already have the church surrounded?
A familiar voice from the top of the back stairs: “Y’all be needin’ a ride somewheres, Pastor Mike?” It had to be Jeb’s voice. That country twang was unmistakable. Mike bolted for the stairs. It was Jeb, all right, big dopey hillbilly hat and all. Old Betsy was idling behind him. “Hop in,” Jeb said. ‘We’ll head on home, you’n me. Dorcas’ll be holdin’ supper for us less’n I miss my guess.”
“Jeb! How did you know—?”
“Ain’t that what neighbors’re for, Pastor Mike? To help each other out n’at?”
As Mike climbed into Old Betsy he began to protest. “But how…”
Jeb’s amiable rube expression changed to earnestness. “Best not tarry here no longer,” he said softly. “You hafta free the slaves.”
The snow was coming down heavier. It had already begun to flock and whiten the grass and trees. Jeb started out in second gear, spun the tires on Old Betsy, fishtailed out of the rear parking lot and emerged from behind the church. He drove like a lost soul, narrowly missing one squad car and almost grazing another before turning onto the main street and racing away. Mike was amazed there was no reaction, let alone any pursuit, by the police.
“They cain’t none of ‘em see us,” Jeb explained as though having read Mike’s thoughts.
“Why not? The snow?”
But Jeb made no answer. He drove along the main route through Phisterville leading away from town. Fresh snow glittered on the surface of the streets and swirled in the streetlights. Some miles out of town Mike recognized a familiar stretch of roadway. Jeb slowed Old Betsy and pulled off onto the right-hand shoulder. The tire treads crushed snow and crunched gravel as he brought the truck to a stop.
Across the road was Mag’s car, still smashed against a tree trunk on the far side of the ditch. It had not been moved. “I thought you said you were going to tow the car with your tractor, Jeb. Why’s it still here?”
Jeb made no answer, only regarded Mike mournfully. After first adjusting his hat, he opened the driver’s side door of Old Betsy and stepped out into the gently falling snow. He crossed the blacktop now packed with a thick coating of new snow and walked slowly, regretfully, until he stood at the edge of the ditch. There he turned and silently beckoned to Mike. Mike stared at him standing there. Something was wrong, but what?
And then Mike realized: The pristine white that blanketed the roadway was undisturbed by footprints. Jeb had left no tracks in the snow!
“Free the slaves, Pastor Mike. But first, free yourself. Come and see.” Jeb took one unsteady step down the slope of the ditch, once again beckoning Mike to join him. Mike’s mind telegraphed him a question from the movie trivia game he and Mag used to play: what was it Maila Nurmi, the original Vampira, had written on that postcard she sent James Dean the day before he perished in a deadly car crash? The lurid picture postcard of Nurmi wearing her Vampira costume and makeup and standing beside an open grave? The postcard that came too late because Dean was already dead a day before it arrived?
Come join me.
Or was the whole story nothing more than an urban legend, some forgotten press agent’s waking nightmare peddled to the fifties fan mags for a nickel a word? No one had the power to predict death, any more than people could die and come back again. Not in this world they didn’t. Well, maybe one Person. And a handful of others at His hand, but that was a couple of thousand years ago.
“And a long ways away from Reynolds County, Missouri,” Mike murmured into the wind. Suddenly the night grew bitter cold. He hugged his arms against his body, stamped his feet and shivered. The winter wind howled in the trees like an approaching siren. No, a more frightening sound, a sound he had heard before and still struggled to deny, a sound close by, mournful and gorged with dread. It was a sound that would inexorably make itself known even were the hearer to stop his ears, the inescapable wail of Hell’s messenger come to carry away a lost soul.
It was the howl of the Banshee!
Jeb had to shout to make himself heard above it. “Hear her nigh on top of us? A’flappin’ her big ol’ midnight wings and cryin’ like a harpy eagle overhead, carryin’ on, tryin’ her worst to throw a scare into us? Don’t you pay her no never mind, Pastor Mike. Here’s where you gotta stay strong in the Lord.”
“I can’t,” Mike protested.
“Put on the breastplate of righteousness and the helmet of salvation and gird yourself with truth like the Good Book says. You done got the anointing on you, Pastor Mike. Don’t you know that by now?”
“I’m a fraud, Jeb! A cringing, sneaking fraud!” The wind swept hot tears from Mike’s eyes. The tears burned his cheeks. And, as suddenly as it had begun, the howling ceased.
“Dontcha think I figgered that out by now?” Jeb said. “Cross on over here, Pastor Mike. Now that you made up your mind to speak the truth at last, it’s high time you faced it yourself. Truth’s a funny thing; you cain’t never face the truth less’n you’re fixin’ to face the whole truth. Careful, it’s a mite slippery.”
Mike realized that Jeb was referring to the bank of the ditch. The truth itself was not slippery at all; it was Mike who had made it slippery, the truth. His lies had been the cause, lies quickly and easily swallowed by gullible parishioners so eager for a personal spiritual revelation that they had been willing to surrender control to a charlatan like himself, those trusting victims so caught up in the cheap drama of the deliverance services that they were now corrupted by the demons they themselves, under Mike’s influence, had welcomed in.
Mike made his way across the blacktop, walking gingerly over the slick surface in the bright moonlight. He looked to his right. Tiny footprints tagged along beside him, footprints of an invisible child.
When Mike reached Jeb’s side of the road Jeb said, “Here, you best hang onto me,” and offered Mike his hand. Steadied by Jeb’s powerful grip, Mike made his way down the roadward bank and up the other. “Now whenever you’ve a mind to, go on and clear the snow off from that there window,” Jeb said, so softly and gently that Mike wasn’t sure he heard him.
Using his forearm, Mike brushed away the snow from the passenger side window and peered in. “No!” he cried out into the night. “No! It can’t be!” He shrank away from what had looked back at him from inside the car, lost his balance on the slick frozen clay and slid headlong toward the bottom of the ditch, landing sprawled on his back atop a solid rivulet of ice. Jeb was standing above him, regarding him from the crest of the ditch.
“What have you people done to her?” Mike gasped in horror. “What have you done to her face?”
“We ain’t none of us touched her re-mains,” Jeb said quietly. “She’s right there, all quiet and peaceful-like, the selfsame way you left her.”
“That—that thing you showed me in the car! That’s not Mag!”
“No it ain’t. Mag’s passed on. To a point.”
Mike struggled to his feet. “What do you mean, ‘to a point?’”
“Mag’s soul is all tangled up in the mill house, Pastor Mike. She needs to move on, only she can’t. Ever since she died she’s been trapped here alongside me and Dorcas and the younguns and Grammaw. All of us bein’ held captive by the selfsame haint.”
“But I’ve seen Mag today! Talked to her, touched her! Hell, I’ve even made love to her! How can it be her body riding shotgun in that Bonneville?”
But Jeb only shook his head.
“Well, if it wasn’t Mag I’ve been seeing and touching and making love to since the car accident, who was it?” Mike demanded. He felt a tug at his coattail and looked down.
He saw no one there.
“Who do you think, Pastor Mike? Who is it wants to gull you? Or should I say What? You study on that now. What is it been wantin’ to gull you all the while it’s a’stickin’ right close to your throat?”
Fluffy snowflakes were already beginning to cover the car window, hiding the maggot trails, the dessicated lips drawn back, the death’s head sardonicus smile. “Are you saying it’s been the Banshee impersonating Mag all the time she’s been dead?” Mike asked.
“I done already tole ya all that’s allowed. The rest of it you’ll have to puzzle out for yourself,” Jeb replied.
“But I’ve never performed a real exorcism in my whole life,” Mike persisted. “How’m I going to deal with the Banshee that haunts the mill house? And what did you mean back there about freeing the slaves?” He shook his head, being careful not to look in the direction of the wrecked Bonneville. When he glanced upward once more to the place where Jeb had been standing, he saw only darkness and swirling snow.
Mike climbed into the driver’s seat of Old Betsy and turned the key. The big engine rumbled to life. Mike activated the left turn signal and glanced at the side mirror. There he met the baleful stare of Azazel. Mike blinked and rubbed his eyes. When he looked again in the side mirror he saw only the empty snow-packed roadway behind him.
Mike put Old Betsy in gear and headed down the blacktop in second gear, straining to see the entrance to the hidden lane through the blowing snowfall. Over a rise in the road he saw it: steam going up like white smoke from a sleeping volcano, up ahead to his left. He signaled and tried to turn left. The tires broke free, the huge pickup fishtailed before going into a spin, sliding toward the ditch. Mike turned into the skid but oversteered. The truck hit a concrete culvert at twenty miles per hour. The crumpled hood popped open. There was a rapid clanking noise and then a hissing sound. The engine stalled.
“Great,” Mike said under his breath. “Just great.” He hadn’t worn a coat. There were no blankets in the truck. He clambered out of the truck and onto the roadway. The wind cut through his light clothing and tore away at his face like claws. He ran up the road toward the lane that lay to his left. He knew where that lane led. He knew somehow that he would be expected.
Eighty rods in, winter’s harshness gave way to an unseemly and unnatural warmth. The lane turned steaming and verdant. Dense overgrown thistle blocked his way, reaching easily a foot higher than Mike’s head. He covered his face against the thorns and the saw-like narrow leaves with their serrated edges and made his way in. The plants whipped and tore away at his clothing and at his flesh but he refused to give up, pushing ahead relentlessly toward his goal.
By the time he reached the bank of the Little Hoot Owl rapids he was bloody and out of breath. The icy waters raged before him, blocking his path. Or did they? There were boulders here and there, too far apart to serve as stepping stones but which might help him find purchase if he dared to wade across. He searched the ground along the bank for stout fallen tree branches he might use as poles.
The water was near-freezing but the air was balmy as summer. Mike ranged up and down the river bank seeking what he needed in order to cross. A heavy mist rose from the river and enshrouded the land with gloom, transforming every trace of moonlight into an eerie emerald glow.
“Fairy wings,” Mike murmured, calling to mind the words Mag had spoken upon first setting eyes on the one-room schoolhouse. Or had it been Mag at all? Perhaps her ghost, trying to warn him of the hidden dangers that lay ahead.
It took Mike half an hour to find two relatively straight and serviceable branches to use as wading poles. He tried them out on the bank, hobbling along like a man on crutches until he thought he had the feel of them. Making his way down the muddy, rock-strewn bank he placed one foot into the stream.
The water was paralyzingly cold. Mike gathered his two wading poles and took one step, then another into the dark water. When he tried to probe the depths with a wading pole, he felt the pole shimmy and shake as though the turgid water itself was wrestling him for control. He shoved the pole down with all the force he could, leaning his weight on it with the pit of his chest. On his fifth attempt the tip buried itself into the bottom mud and held fast. He braced the other pole across his chest, trying to use it like a tightrope walker’s balancing pole. The powerful roiling waters struggled to tackle him and pull him down under the churning rapids.
It drained most of his strength to take two more steps across. By then he was hip-deep in the icy numbing waters. He was no more than a step away from a huge boulder. Another boulder lay six feet further than the first, both of them covered in black moss. Mike took one more step and, with the second pole, reached toward the nearer of the two boulders. The water slammed against his hips. He lurched and fell forward, losing his grip on the wading pole he had anchored in the mud. He threw the other pole like a javelin. It lodged between the two boulders. Mike dared to take another step across the rapids and grabbed onto the pole. The water there was chest-deep. By now the cold stabbed at his legs like knife blades. Either he could not reach the bottom or he had lost all sensation in his feet.
The waters raged and seethed against Mike’s body. He clung desperately to the pole braced between the boulders. His breaths grew shallow and quick. He wanted to scream but knew that no one would hear. The piercing cold numbed his hands and weakened his grip on the branch, the only thing holding him back from the force of the surging rapids.
All at once the ends of the pole slid over the slick moss of the boulders. Giving way to the irresistible current, the pole raced downstream, like a twig caught up in a torrent. Still clutching the pole with both hands, Mike held on as both he and the pole were swept away by the river. Trees, rocks, riverbank, all flashed by in a crazy blur. Mike’s teeth chattered like a gibbering skull’s from the cold. He was seized with spasmodic fits of shivering. The frigid waters punished his body, the intense pain driving away all fear. All he knew to do, his single focus, was to survive.
Jeb’s words forced themselves into Mike’s brain: The Little Hoot Owl rapids break free of the Black Fork River, run faster’n the devil all the way around the eastern boundary and feed over a steep waterfall right back into the Black Fork that marks the western side.
Waterfall!? He’d be maimed or killed if he went over a waterfall at this speed. But what else—what other threats— lay before him? Just up ahead, looming over the far bank, there it was: the mill house. The rapids seemed to smooth and spread as though charmed by the house’s evil spell. The course of the river elbowed around the mill house. Suddenly Mike heard, above the roar of the rapids, another sound: rhythmic slapping and pounding of water against—
The mill wheel! The waters narrowed once more, purposefully directed this time by the tapering cobblestone banks of a mill race. The current sharply accelerated, impelling Mike toward the top of the huge wheel that spun downstream ahead of him like a Ferris wheel gone out of control, a deadly juggernaut drawing him closer and closer, the massive blades of the mill wheel threatening to tear him limb from limb.
From some dim recess of his memory of watching Christian television Mike heard these words, spoken in the voice of a child of tender years—his own voice as a child:
Deliver me out of the mire, and let me not sink: let me be delivered from them that hate me, and out of the deep waters. Let not the waterflood overflow me, neither let the deep swallow me up, and let not the pit shut her mouth upon me.
Mike’s arms and legs were numb with cold as he uttered the psalm like a prayer. An overpowering urge to sleep, a heaviness in his body, lulled him with its Siren’s song. He had almost given in, ready to surrender to the nepenthe of water and ice, when he saw it: a narrow sluice gate at the very edge of the millrace.
A fish ladder! Mike forced his mind to work. Missouri had game fish, especially a hundred-fifty years ago. Game fish that might otherwise have been blocked from migrating by a mill race and a dam like the one that lay before him. Game fish that needed the escape of a fishway like the one that opened in front of him. Or was it only a hallucination?
Drawn downstream, struggling against the speeding current, Mike willed his near-dead arms and legs to move. His arms felt weak and spastic, his legs sluggish and heavy. He kicked his legs and flailed his arms like his first swimming lesson, striving to reach the mouth of the fish ladder and relative safety. The undertow seized his legs like a drag chain. His clothes and shoes, filled with icy water, added easily twenty pounds to his weight. He kicked off the shoes; the socks soon followed. Twisting in the freezing water he tried to remember the Australian crawl, the rhythmic breathing. His struggles only seemed to bear him further down toward the bottom and ever closer to the deadly motion of the mill wheel.
It took every last ounce of his cold-sapped strength to fight against the danger. Every stroke of his arms, every stiff kick of his legs, brought him perhaps six inches closer to the stone mouth of the fish ladder and the wall of the mill house. He gasped for breath; icy water filled his mouth and threatened to choke him, but still he swam, too exhausted to pray any more with his lips. Instead he prayed with his body, willing it to survive, against all odds to reach the fishway.
He missed it on his first try, his grip failing. The huge paddles of the mill wheel beckoned, drawing him toward them, punishing the waters like Hell’s own winepress bearing down. He beat and thrashed his near-useless arms, turning his body in a half-circle until he was headed feet-first down the mill race channel. He lay on his back, floating like a log on the surface of the water. He pointed his deadened feet toward the mouth of the fish ladder, stared at the dark sky and waited.
Something caught his ankles. He was wedged against something firm and unyielding. He bent his body and looked down at his legs. They were through the mouth of the fishway, up to his hips. He was sliding forward, impelled by a gentler current now, a safe current. He braced his arms against the sides of the mouth of the fishway and pulled himself downward hand-over-hand onto the first level of the fish ladder.
The high wall of the mill house was now so close Mike could touch it but he dared not. There was unspeakable evil in its very timbers. He lay on the flat stone platform at the entrance to the fish ladder and rested, breathing deeply and forcing his mind to think.
From his vantage point Mike could see that the fish ladder, no more than three feet wide, channeled the river water over a gently sloping incline of long stone stairsteps. Wedged between the mill wheel and the outer wall of the mill house, it would have functioned to allow game fish a ready means of escape from the ravages of the mill wheel. Listening to the shrill song of the fishway’s rushing waters, Mike saw something else through the thick fog and the spray from the mill wheel.
It was an opening in the mill house wall! A rough-cut door or window, midway down the course of the fish ladder and directly overlooking it. Ingenious! Old Man O’Brien must have had it constructed so that he or a servant could lean out with a net and catch game fish for supper. But who or what might lean out of that window as Mike passed by, to seize him in its evil grasp? Who or what lay waiting for him, biding its time, concealed within the gloom-filled rooms of the mill house?
Soaking wet and shivering in the fog and spray, Mike crab-walked half the length of the fish ladder. As he neared the rough opening in the mill house wall he could hear the groan and clatter from the turning of the shaft and the meshing of the wooden teeth. Only a couple more yards and he would be within reach of it. There it was! Mike grabbed onto the jagged sill and pulled himself up and through.
Inside all was pitch dark and sickly warm, the dead air nearly suffocating in its unnatural closeness. Directly overhead, the ancient mill machinery moaned and crepitated like the cogs of Hell. Clothes soaked, still shivering from the cold outside, Mike struggled to remember. Once before he had been in this shape, but when or where? Then he remembered: it had been that awful night at the casino when he had sought shelter in Mag’s car. Did Mag’s ghost inhabit the mill house? Did her soul lie in wait for him within these walls?
Barefoot, Mike disrobed and wrung out his clothes. Steam rose from the wooden floor planks where the water struck. When he dressed again he shuddered from the clamminess of his clothing, just as he had done that night in Mag’s car.
There was no light. Mike had to walk forward, gingerly, shuffling his feet on the worn and dusty planks, one baby step at a time, waving and grasping at the blackness in front of him like a blind man. One false step and he could drop through an open trap door concealed by darkness. If the deadfall did not kill him outright it would surely cripple him, leaving him maimed and helpless. In the abandoned mill house no one would hear his cries.
Mike inched forward, head lowered, hoping to keep away from the racket of the apparatus that seemed to be all around him, dreading the thought of unseen sprockets and teeth seizing and tearing at his groping fingers, of his arms caught up in leather belting without warning and unceremoniously wrenched from their sockets. It was as though he were trapped in a deadly funhouse filled with hidden knives and imminent ambush.
Suddenly Mike felt a strange sensation: strong invisible hands seized his wrists and gripped them like steel manacles. Other hands guided his shoulders, turning him slightly to the left and shoving him, propelling him ahead even as his wrists were being drawn forward in the same direction. It was as if they were leading him somewhere, there in the dark. Captive to these hands, Mike walked fearfully onward, stumbling once and having to catch himself. The hands steadied him. One patted him on the back as though for encouragement.
Somehow Mike knew: these were the hands of slaves long dead. O’Brien slaves, slaves who had toiled their lives away in the O’Brien lead mines, the O’Brien shot mills, the O’Brien foundries, and even here, deep within the entrails of the mill house. And here their trapped souls had languished, hostages to a sentient evil, a devilish shade that lived on in its malignancy, holding them and others prisoner. They were the slaves who must be freed!
As soon as that thought had entered Mike’s mind the hands began clapping him on the back and arms in silent affirmation. He knew then that he must exorcise the banshee—the wicked creature who held them all captive. He and he alone had been ordained for that one purpose, had been drawn here, impelled by forces greater than himself.
The disembodied hands chose that moment to let loose of Mike’s wrists and shoulders. At that very moment a door creaked open above him and a dim light shone down, disclosing a narrow wooden ladder attached to the wall with spike nails and leading straight upward to the door. Separating the bottom of the ladder from the edge of the plank floor was some kind of an open trench nearly four feet wide running the entire length of the stone foundation wall.
Somehow he had to reach that ladder, to climb it and enter that door and beyond. Mike found an antique wooden shovel, reached out and rested its rectangular blade on the lowest rung of the ladder, testing it. If it held, Mike planned to take a running start, leap the trench and land with both feet on that very rung. It seemed like a good idea. The rung seemed strong against the force of the shovel but when Mike pressed his full weight on it the rung gave way, breaking free and clattering down into the trench until with an echo it struck what sounded like a stone floor perhaps thirty feet below. Mike barely caught himself from tumbling after it. The ladder was no doubt shot through with termites or dry rot.
But there was something beside the ladder, something indistinct in the poor light. Mike looked closer. A rope! Thick deck-rigging rope knotted at intervals and suspended from somewhere far above. But how to reach it?
Mike took one step to his right, stood on the very edge of the plank floor, hooked the corner of the shovel blade behind the rope at shoulder level on the third try and drew it toward him. He caught the dusty rope and held on, throwing the shovel aside. The rope was so thick he could scarcely get his fingers around it, and heavy in his hands.
It looked to be a forty-foot climb to reach the door. Not daring to so much as glance down at the wide yawning trench below, Mike gripped the rope in both hands and swung forward, kicking with his feet until they found purchase on the wall beside the ladder. Thrusting upward with his legs he climbed the rope hand-over-hand, his chest and arm muscles straining with the unaccustomed effort. His feet slipped, making the rope swing wildly. He banged one shoulder against the stone wall and very nearly lost his grip entirely. The trench gaped below like a chasm.
Mike managed to twist the rope around his right calf and drape it over his right instep. With his left instep he clamped the rope in his bare feet. Loosening the clamp he bent both knees, let a length of rope slip between his feet and clamped them again, meanwhile climbing hand-over-hand upwards. Extending his legs he repeated the drill over and over until he was within a few feet of the door. His feet burned from the chafing of the sisal rope. He was gasping for breath from the effort. No, it was more than that: he was fearful of what he might find waiting for him just inside that door.
One more chest-straining arm-punishing exertion and Mike was even with the door. He clutched the rope in both blistered hands, released it with his legs and pushed off against the doorsill with his feet, swinging away on the rope, aiming his body toward the door opening for the rope’s pendulum swing back.
On his first try the rope caught against the doorframe and went no further, holding him directly above the trench, now easily forty feet below the point where he had started climbing. Mike was too terrified to let go of the rope and somersault into the room beyond the door. Pushing off with his feet he tried to swing backwards on the rope again. This time his feet slipped. The rope began spinning him around in a dizzying circle, as though trying to shrug him off into the black void of the pit below. Mike saw the open door spin past him again and again. Terrified, he shut his eyes, let go of the rope with his feet and stretched his legs out in front of him to slow the twisting rope’s spin. Instead, the rope spun faster and faster.
Mike fought to remember what trapeze artists did. He clamped the rope in his thighs and tried to compact his body, making it one with the rope. Gradually the nauseating spin slowed. Mike finally dared open his eyes in slits. He was facing the door opening, no more than two feet away. He could reach out with his feet and hook his heels over the sill. But when he tried, he inadvertently relaxed his hand grip; his burning palms slid down the rope by more than a yard before he could stop them and catch himself.
It felt as though the skin of his palms and the heels of both hands had been flayed away by the friction of the rope, but he knew he had to right himself once again. So hand-over-fist and wincing from the searing pain he ascended the rope again until his body was nearly upright. Then, closing his eyes and mouthing a silent prayer, Mike dived forward. He somersaulted over the threshold and into the room beyond.
When he recovered his equilibrium he found himself spreadeagled on a dirt floor. Beyond him stretched what appeared to be a long brick-walled shed or covered walkway extending thirty paces to the back door of the main house. Someone had hung a lit lantern on a peg by the door behind him. Mike rose to his feet, shook himself, and reached for the wire handle of the lantern. There was an unfamiliar smell. He sniffed the lantern chimney. Not kerosene or candle. Some kind of oil.
Whale oil! Melville had likened the smell of burning whale oil to “early grass butter in April” but to Mike it smelled more like bodies burning on a pyre.
“Or the arse tallow of witches ablaze at the stake,” Mórríghan’s bodiless voice suggested next to his left ear, her tone filled with mischief. Her mocking laugh echoed down the walkway as though leading him along on a tether.
Mike knew he had a rendezvous to keep with her. She was the one and only reason he had braved the danger in coming here. She was the unwelcome tenant he was charged with a solemn duty to evict. It was her uninvited habitation that had caused him to reach down inside himself and, summoning all of his courage, to journey once more to this accursed place.
“Fancy being burned alive,” the voice went on. “Rather like a foretaste of hellfire, I should imagine. The hellfire that you and your whore shall both soon inherit, now that your protection is gone, Horael. Personally I much prefer abiding here, among the living. And, quite often, within the living.”
Don’t join in a discussion with it, Mike told himself. That’s exactly what it wants you to do. Hadn’t he himself written that same cautionary advice in his self-published book? Clutching the lantern at his side he took one step toward the mill house. The glowing wick flickered, casting strange shadows on the brick walls and the low roof timbers of the passageway.
“Cat got your tongue, Pastor Mike?” Mike thought he heard the rustle of long skirts and stiffened petticoats moving invisibly a few paces ahead of him. What was it Jeb and the others had told him about cats? That evil spirits had a superstitious fear of cats?
Losing his concentration Mike muttered, “You like cats, do you? Maybe I’ll show you a cat or two, you like cats so much.”
Suddenly Mórríghan materialized facing him, close as a waltz partner in a dance of death, hovering a foot above the floor and swaying to music only she could hear. “Your milkmaid slattern is with us, Pastor Mike. And a wagtail cat she is indeed. Care to join her?” Her breath smelled of moist grave earth.
“Have your fun while you can, Mórríghan, you won’t be hanging around here much longer. When I get done with you, you’ll wish all I’d shown you were cats.”
“Ye’ve the talk of a bold bucklepper,” Mórríghan said, “but your quivering lip and wavering mind betray ye as a craven coward. It’s holiness ye lack. The dark side has withdrawn its protection, as you well ken, with no corresponding gift of holy discernment to arm ye against me.”
“Oh no? There’s going to be a major deliverance service here tonight, starring yours truly, and it’s due to kick off in about ten minutes. If you know what’s good for you, Mórríghan, you won’t stick around for the fireworks. As for me, I may not be perfect but I guess I’m every bit as holy as the next guy.”
“What of the many believers ye’ve swindled, Pastor Mike? And have ye forgotten those poor constables and wealthy parishioners ye struck stone blind in your adventures as ye made good your escape down the road? ‘Holy as the next guy’ are we? I think not. Every single act that brought ye here and kept ye here has been a selfish one. Why, ye’re no holier than I am, and a good deal less powerful in the bargain.”
“I have all the powers of Heaven behind me.”
Mórríghan winced. “Do ye indeed? Aren’t ye being a wee bit presumptuous in that regard? A mite cocksure? Ye who eagerly contributed to Shelley Lundy’s corruption, and long to contribute further still? Ye who stood by and did nothing while she and Reverend Garrett set about poisoning his wife, even encouraged them in their misdeeds? Ye who deluded simple churchmen into welcoming demons and having them slip inside their souls, trying the poor country fools on like outer garments? I can quite easily abide such holiness as yours, Pastor Mike.”
“Get out of my way!” Mike took another step ahead, swinging the lantern at Mórríghan, making sparks fly from the wick. His arm passed through her easily although she appeared material as himself. Mórríghan hovered motionless, facing him.
“Would ye pass through me as ye go, Pastor Mike? Do ye dare walk through me as one would a patch of fog or a cloud of mist? Or do ye fear some harm might come to ye in the passage? An unwanted guest, perhaps?”
“You have no power to possess me. I’d have to invite you in first.”
“As indeed ye have, back at the way station. Have ye forgotten?”
“That was under false pretenses. Anyway, I revoke the invitation.”
“Ye toy with forces about which ye know nothing.” Mórríghan tilted her head back until she was facing upward, her death-pale neck exposed. She gave forth a wail that began as a low murmur but grew louder and louder in its intensity until it became an ear-piercing cry that split through the heaviness of the dank air. The glass panes in the lantern shattered. Dropping it to the floor, Mike closed his eyes and clamped his fists against his ears to seal out the preternatural scream. When he opened his eyes it was Mag who stood before him.
“Mag!” Mike gasped, stunned.
“What kept you, Mike?” Mag said, the merest hint of a playful smile on her lips. “I’ve been waiting here for you all this time. You’ve kept me waiting so long.” She ran to Mike’s arms and held him close. The scent of her hair, the cool softness of her body, the savor of her kiss, everything was Mag as she had always been.
“I’m what, Mike?” That unforgettable Mabel Normand face gazing up into his.
“You—you’re dead,” Mike shouted, breaking free from her embrace.
Mag fixed him with an even stare. “You’re wrong, Mike. I’m alive! I’m right here in front of you and alive as I’ve ever been!”
“But I saw your… your body in the car. There couldn’t be any mistake! I saw you, there in that car, tonight! Jeb showed me!”
“Jeb? You’re going to believe anything Jeb shows you after what he did to you with those badass hallucinogenic herbs he made you eat? You probably suffered a flashback brought on by seeing Jeb again.”
“I’m right here, Mike. I’m standing right here, a foot away from you, not in any car. I’ve been waiting here in this house, waiting for you to rescue me.”
“But you said you loved this house. You said you never wanted to leave. Remember?”
“I was wrong, Mike. Now all I want is to leave here with you, for the two of us to leave this place forever and to be together just like we were before, to go on with all the plans we made and have the kind of life we always dreamed about. Isn’t that what you want too, Baby?”
“I don’t understand. How can we be together if—”
“Look,” Mag confided, “here’s the deal, okay? They told me they’re willing to let me leave, but only with you. If you take me away from here, right now, tonight, then they’ll let us both leave, like, NSA. Isn’t that awesome, Mike? We can leave here together. I mean, that’s what you want too, right?”
“What are you talking about, Darling?” Mag shot him an exasperated look.
“I’m asking, who’s this ‘they’? Who’s making the decision whether we can leave or stay?”
Mag sighed with impatience. “What the hell’s the difference, Mike? And anyway, you aren’t the one who’s been stuck in this house alone for what seems like forever! I am! So instead of standing here asking me all these questions, what say we shake our asses on outta here while we’ve still got the chance!”
“For one thing, I damn near killed myself crossing those rapids. I dodged a mill wheel, swung on a rope like Tarzan and almost broke my neck climbing in here. Getting out’s not going to be easy for either one of us.”
“Oh, but it will be, Mike! That’s the best part! See, all we have to do is snap our fingers and poof! Just like that we’re on the other side of the river heading down the lane. It will all be so simple. Basically all we have to do is want to.”
“All we have to do is want to, huh? And who or what’s been feeding you all this?”
Mag shrugged and looked away. “Okay, so maybe you have a point. Maybe the old place is haunted like Grammaw said, and maybe there’s some kind of a spirit energy or mysterious entity calling the shots, but who cares? Let’s cut our losses and haul ass outta here. Sometimes you gotta go with the flow, and in my humble opinion, this is definitely one of those times.”
“Sure, Mag,” Mike nodded. “Whatever.” As he picked up the broken lantern that was still burning, the chimney cracked but otherwise intact, he tried to block his mind with a mental exercise, by listing, in chronological order, the films Mabel Normand had made with Fatty Arbuckle. There was A Noise from the Deep. Was that the first? And then there was Passions, He Had Three, alternative title He Had Three. And after that came—
“What are you thinking about, Mike?”
“Huh? Oh, I’m just wondering what to do next, I guess. Kinda tired from all I’ve been through, you know?” He began walking down the corridor toward the mill house, carrying the broken lantern and refocusing his mind on the task at hand. After that came For the Love of Mabel, with Ford Sterling. Then was The Gypsy Queen. Those were the really early ones. Next came—
“Where the hell do you think you’re going, Baby?” Mag asked. “If we’re planning on taking off, now’s the time.”
“I have a little something to take care of— before we take off,” Mike murmured.
“Like what?” Mag followed Mike, two uneasy paces behind.
“Remember what Cagney said in The Public Enemy? ‘Nice day for a murder?’”
Next was In the Clutches of the Gang featuring the Keystone Kops. And Mike had been right: the being walking behind him was not Mag. She was a really good counterfeit. But not perfect. The real Mag would have known in an instant that the ‘nice day for a murder’ line came not from The Public Enemy but from a later Cagney picture, Angels with Dirty Faces.
How did she think he could be so stupid as to believe it was really Mag following him, that Mag had not died in the crash? Mike recognized in the clumsy impersonation a weakness: a certain style characteristic of the demon, a particularly clumsy, ham-handed approach borne out of pride, of contempt for him and for all human beings. It insulted his intelligence because, in its abject hatred of mankind, it could do nothing else.
But the masquerade proved one thing more. Despite her grandiose manifestations, the Banshee was truly afraid of him. That was why she had attempted to fool him with such an obvious charade: she was desperate to lure him away from the mill house. There could be only one reason why. She feared that his deliverance service might actually succeed. And, having allowed those thoughts to creep into the forefront of his consciousness, Mike became guilty of the same sin of pride and thereby revealed his own secret intent to the being who called herself Mórríghan. He heard stertorous breathing, a rhythmic death rattle stalking him two paces behind and gaining on him.
Mike spun around. Abandoning all pretense, Mórríghan loomed over him now, seven feet tall and more, her countenance terrifying in every aspect. When she opened her mouth and hissed, instead of teeth there were row upon row of fangs more saurian than human. She had been human once, Mike knew, and that was what made her even more horrible to behold, the admixture of fallen humanity and forsaken evil. Her complexion was the texture of the two years’ dead, mottled and livid. Her eyes were black pupils, ravening eyes blinking at him with cold-blooded intent. She spread her clawlike fingers and raised her arms as though to fall on him as prey but he darted away from her just as she lunged at him. He ran for the door to the mill house, Mórríghan in close pursuit.
Mike knew instinctively that he had to lure her to the barred bedroom atop the south tower, to Rowena’s room, the evil heart of the mill house. Only there could he inflict a mortal blow against the Banshee. As he reached for the handle to throw open the back door he turned and glanced over his left shoulder.
Mórríghan was nowhere to be seen.
She had read his mind once again. And she was waiting for him, waiting in the south tower.
In Rowena’s room.
Engulfed within the dusty darkness of the mill house with only the broken lantern to find his way, Mike felt suddenly forlorn. His every step was dogged by crippling dread. Having already managed to convince himself of his own inadequacy to the task before him, a task for which he sensed himself totally overmatched, he was overwhelmed by the prospect of ever cleansing the house of its legacy of evil. After all, he had not prepared himself either by prayer or by fasting, two essential elements that preceded every successful deliverance. This according to his own self-published book on the subject. Far from abstaining from the things of the flesh, not twelve hours ago he had engaged in forbidden carnal relations with Shelley Lundy, then a married woman, right there in the church office. Or at least, he thought he had. It was difficult to remember. And how long had it been since he had prayed with any regularity or for any significant duration? Days? Weeks, perhaps? Who was he, so ill-prepared, to presume that he was in any shape to engage a powerful demon in a spiritual duel to the death? Who indeed?
Mike wandered around inside the mill house, passing a back stairway the maids must have once used, then through a nineteenth-century kitchen with no modern appliances whatsoever, only a huge black cook stove and an endless array of leaden pots suspended from hanging cast iron pot racks, unfinished butcher block counters and a plank floor. Past the kitchen and through a set of double doors was the long, mirrored dining room with its carved walnut panels and cherrywood crown molding, where O’Briens had met their deaths from lead poisoning, if Jeb’s stories could be trusted. And, after all he’d experienced since coming here, Mike believed every word.
There was a sound that echoed through the caverns of the house. Someone was knocking on the front doors, a persistent knocking. Mike hastened his steps, hurrying through the long hallway that led to the immense foyer. The Florentine marble columns that stood on either side of the doorway glistened and shimmered like pearls in the dim lantern light. Once again came the knocking, more rapid and firm this time. Mike opened the door to reveal a startled Shelley Lundy, clad in a broadbrimmed rain hat and trench coat, her hand still raised to the level of the brass door knocker.
“Pastor Mike, I’m so glad to have found you at last!”
“Shelley. How did you know I’d be here, of all places?”
“Jeb told me where to find you. Oh, Pastor Mike!”
“I’m kind of busy right now, Shelley. Is something wrong?”
“May I come in? If only for a moment. I know how hectic a minister’s life must be, but…”
“You might as well. Here, let me take your things. You must be soaking wet standing out there in this thick fog.” Shelley leaned into Mike as he removed her coat. Underneath she wore a white lace low-cut dress suitable for a woman half her age. He felt the weight of her soft shoulder against his chest, sensed the warm dampness of her hair close to his face. “Now tell me what’s happened. It must be something very important to have brought you all the way out here in this kind of night.”
“Horrible news, Pastor Mike! Tragic!” Shelley covered her face and broke down in sobs. “Karl… Karl’s dead!” She peeked through her fingers at Mike and asked, “You remember my husband Karl?”
Her husband newly dead, why had Shelley come to him dressed like a bride on her wedding night? For that matter, why had she come to him at all?
“We never met but I heard his name before. From Paul, I think.”
Shelley seemed to flinch at the mention of Paul’s name. Her face puckered in anguish. Crying openly, she said, “We were childhood sweethearts, Karl and me. Karl was my first love; one might say my only love. And now he’s gone.”
Mike noticed something else about her. It was a shameful thing to observe. He wished it weren’t so, but for all her piteous weeping, Shelley’s cheeks remained dry.
“How did it happen?” Mike asked her in as soft a voice as he could muster.
“Heart attack. Tragic, as I say, although certainly not entirely unexpected.”
“You know? But how—”
“Your daughter Rheenie told me. At the store.” He debated whether to go on. Curiosity won out over discretion and he added, “She said she saw something interesting one night at the hospital.”
“Really?” Shelley sniffled. “What was that?”
“She wasn’t sure why, but she saw you pull out the IV and take a sample of Karl’s blood. I found it a strange but memorable observation on her part.”
“Rheenie and I don’t exactly see eye to eye, particularly where her father is—was concerned. I’m not surprised she might try to slander me any way she could.”
“So why were you so interested in Karl’s blood, Shelley? Did you want a souvenir? Something to remember him by?”
“Don’t be insulting.”
“Why, then? Could it be something you’d read about in that occult book you brought back from St. Louis? The one that taught you those evil spells? Spells that could rid you of someone standing in the way of what you thought you wanted? With old Karl out of the way, the coast would be clear for you and Paul. Was that it?”
“I don’t know what you mean.” Shelley’s hands were trembling when she used them to cover her face once more.
“Doris wasn’t the only one you and Paul tried to get rid of, was she, Shelley? The two of you planned to eliminate both your spouses. Paul used poison. You used black magic. Your scheme worked. His didn’t, but not for lack of trying.”
“Oh, Mike! Mike! What you must think of me! I’m a truly sinful, awful woman! I know that now!” Shelley threw herself into Mike’s arms, heedless of the lantern he held. He reached and placed it on a lamp stand by the door and then, despite his better judgment, returned Shelley’s tender embrace. His fingers leisurely stroked her back, exploring and playing over the tantalizing expanse of soft, bare skin. He never wanted their embrace to end, but at length it did.
“What you must think of me,” Shelley repeated, head tilted, examining Mike’s face for any trace of emotion. Apparently unable to decipher his expression, she went on. “I’m a wretchedly sinful woman. There’s no doubt about that, I assure you. I know I’m an adulteress, both in my heart and in my flesh as well, a woman totally incapable of reining in my sexual passions.” She took Mike’s hands in hers. “But is it my fault that certain men find me desirable? Am I beyond redemption, Pastor Mike? Is it too late for me to repent and turn away from my sins, once and for all? Can a woman like me ever hope to find forgiveness?” Shelley gazed into Mike’s eyes. Hers were clear and searching.
Mike sighed and scratched his head. One thought nagged away at him: Azazel’s calm assertion that “she is ours.” And where was Azazel? Now that Mike’s protection had been withdrawn, what was there to prevent Azazel and his demon hordes from tearing Mike’s body asunder and hauling his soul away to hell? And what of The Beautiful One? What of Satan himself, lying paralyzed in his immense crystal coffin floating in midair, his spiritual body embalmed in honey like Alexander the Great but his evil mind still active? The Banshee might be afraid of Mike’s powers but these others assuredly were not.
Or were they? If Shelley were truly theirs, her opportune appearance at this precise time and on this very night could not be mere coincidence. Could it be another attempt to lure him away from the mill house?
As though reading his thoughts Shelley mused, “Jeb says that sin is a paralysis of the soul. I confess I came here believing you might be the one to free my soul tonight, Pastor Mike. Then we both could be free, you and I.” She added breathlessly, “Does that thought appeal to you, Mike darling? You don’t mind my calling you darling, do you? I’m feeling so terribly vulnerable right now.”
Something stirred within Mike when Shelley called him “darling,” but his only response was to ask, “Did Jeb happen to explain why I’m here?”
“He didn’t go into detail, no. I assumed it was none of my business—a deliverance, perhaps?”
“A deliverance. That’s right. Maybe the biggest deliverance I’ve ever attempted in my entire career.”
“Sounds exciting. May I be of any assistance?”
Mike didn’t trust her. “I don’t know. Maybe. Have you ever attended a full-out deliverance before?”
“Not really. I did witness the one you performed at the church that night. The one with Jaydon.”
“That was a fake, Shelley.” Mike saw her eyes widen in shock at his admission. “Not a fake exactly. What you saw was me being beaten by the forces of darkness, me giving in to a demon stronger than I was. His name is—”
From the head of the stairs came the sound of an explosion louder than a gunshot. Mike and Shelley both jumped. Shelley whimpered in terror as Azazel himself, robed in glowing crimson, stepped from a nasty cloud of sulfurous smoke and glared at the two of them with arrogant mien. When he spoke, it was in Ellen’s voice. “Look at the two of you: a coward and a whore. You don’t know which to do first, do you? Whether to jump into bed together or whether to climb the stairs and try your pitiable mumbo jumbo out on spirits who’ve ruled the earth since the dawn of time. You two might be good for a quick laugh—that is, if you weren’t so damn pathetic.” Azazel began descending the staircase, floating above the steps like a phantom, moving closer and closer. Shelley screamed and buried her face in Mike’s arms. Suddenly, with a stricken expression, Azazel vanished.
Mike nearly missed seeing the tiny figure kneeling in the shadows at the foot of the stairs. He grabbed the lantern and held it up to see. It was the tow-headed child from the church nursery, doodling intently in the dust that coated the lowest step.
“What happened?” Shelley whispered, having finally dared to look around. “Where did that horrible apparition go? Was it you who summoned him, Mike? And was it you who sent him away? I’m so frightened, Mike! Hold me!”
“Don’t you see that kid? There, at the bottom of the staircase.”
“There’s no one there, Mike. Please stop trying to scare me like this. I hate having anyone frighten me.”
But the child was there, still doodling in the dust with his right index finger. He looked up at Mike, smiled and gave him a baby wave. Then he vanished. Yet somehow Mike still sensed his presence near at hand.
Mike slipped from Shelley’s tight embrace and ran to the foot of the stairs to see what the child might have written. There it was, in neat calligraphy: My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.
“‘For my power is made perfect in weakness,’” Mike read aloud. “Don’t you get it, Shelley? That’s the answer!”
“I don’t understand any of this, Mike. I want to get out of here, right now, tonight! Take me away from here, Darling! Look at me; I’m so terrified I’m shaking!”
“You said you wanted to help me, remember?”
“Then I need to help you first. I have to perform a deliverance on you, Shelley.”
“You told me you’re a sinful woman, right? That means I need to pray for you and cast out any demons that may be hiding inside you. Otherwise you’ll be no good to me against the powers of darkness we have to confront tonight. We’d only be using one demon to cast out another. Are you willing? Do you trust me to do this?”
Shelley nodded fearfully. She took Mike’s hand, kneeling at his feet while he bowed his head and prayed for her. Despite his exorbitant pretenses, he knew no prayers of exorcism other than the Eastern Orthodox prayer against vaskania, the evil eye, so he used that one: “O Lord, our God, King of the ages, Who holds all creation and is all powerful, Who made all things and wrought all things by a single command; Who changed the seven-fold furnace and flame in Babylon into a cool dew and Who protected the three holy children unharmed; the Physician and Healer of our souls—”
An infernal chorus of demonic voices in every register assailed him all the while with their crude suggestions, overlapping each other in their urgency, trying to break his concentration: “Want to cut yourself a piece of that, Stud? Bet she’s hot in bed. You know she wants it. How will it feel, being inside her? Riding her like the whore she is? And what about sampling her oral skills? She’s got a mouth on her.”
Mike knew the attacks would begin with temptation to the lowest and most vulgar sins of the flesh—lust, in his case—but would inevitably go on to subtler appeals, to sins of the spirit like pride, envy, anger and greed. He continued with the prayer: “… the security of those who hope in Thee; we pray Thee and beseech Thee: Remove, drive away and banish every diabolical activity, every satanic attack and every plot, evil curiosity and injury, and the evil eye of mischievous and wicked men from Thy servant Michelle; and whether it was brought about by beauty, or bravery, or happiness, or jealousy and envy, or evil eye, do Thou Thyself, O Lord who loves mankind… ”
“What a prodigious memory! Why, every word is absolutely perfect! Your talents are wasted on this unworthy woman! Why not organize a new church with yourself as its head? With your commanding voice, your youth and your good looks you belong on television. Why you could easily become the next—”
“Stretch out Thy mighty hand and Thy powerful and lofty arm, look down on this Thy creature and watch over her, and send her an angel of peace, a mighty guardian of soul and body, who will rebuke and banish from her every wicked intention, every spell and evil eye of destructive and envious men; so that, guarded by Thy might, Thy supplicant may sing to Thee with thanksgiving: The Lord is my helper, and I shall not be afraid; what can man do to me? And again: I shall fear no evil because Thou art with me.”
The voice that came from Shelley was guttural, masculine and laced with hatred. “And who’s going to exorcise you, you thieving, lying philanderer?”
And still Mike prayed: “For Thou art God my strength, the powerful ruler, the Prince of Peace, the Father of the age to come. Yes, Lord, our God, spare Thy creature and save Thy servant Michelle from every injury brought about by the evil eye—”
The Being that inhabited Shelley wagged her head at him while it taunted Mike with mocking sounds. “Wocka wocka wocka, eener eener eener—”
“… and keep her safe above every ill. For Thou art our King and all things are possible to Thee, O Lord. Therefore, we ascribe glory to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.”
There was a pause, then: “Didn’t work. Sorry. Back to the old drawing board, eh, Padre? Maybe you should try shaving your eyebrows,” the voice growled. Undeterred, Mike immediately began repeating the prayer from the beginning. The voice moaned as though tormented with boredom, but Mike thought he could sense an indefinable weakening in his demonic opponent.
When he had finished the second recitation of the prayer against the evil eye, as loud as he could Mike shouted, “In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God, Whom every tongue shall confess and before Whom every knee shall bow, I command you, foul demon: Tell me your name!” Mike’s voice echoed throughout the mill house.
“You’re so butch, Mikey!” the voice jeered. “I’m truly impressed. But does Shelley know about how scrawny you were in high school? How long it took for your pubes to grow in? How when they lined up teams in gym class you were always the last one picked in every sport? Even volleyball? And does she know how often you played with yourself while you ogled the brassiere ads in the Sears and Roebuck catalog? And does she know about that other nasty habit of yours, how you used to peek in windows?”
“In the name of Jesus Christ, be silent!” Mike had seen that last trick work in the movies. He had less success with it, however. The Being that lurked inside Shelley now made her stand and face him with a defiant expression on her face.
“Isn’t she kind of old for you, Sport? Even for a guy who might have had a thing for his mother. Not that there’s anything wrong in that. It was good enough for old Nero.”
Shelley seemed to be struggling to speak, as though something had gotten stuck in her throat and was choking her. Red-faced, she waved her arms at him and gasped something that sounded like “Ninety…first,” before collapsing in paroxysms of racked coughing.
Mike knelt and brought his face close to hers. “Ninety-first? Is that what you’re trying to say, Shelley? Resist the demon inside of you and tell me, my—my darling!” Only when he uttered the endearment did Mike realize to his astonishment that he actually loved this woman. He knew now that he had loved her since the first moment the two of them had met in the library. He had never before been able to admit to himself his true feelings for Shelley. He had denied and repressed those powerful feelings because, believing Mag to be alive, his love for her had not allowed for any other. But now that Mag was gone forever…
Despite all her faults and all her failings, he truly loved Shelley and was in love with her. He had to rescue her from the demon that had led her into sin, the demon that had her in its thrall, the demon that had driven her to commit all the horrible deeds she had confessed to him.
“Psalm!” Shelley blurted, her body crumpled there on the floor.
“Psalm ninety-one,” Mike murmured to himself. To Shelley he repeated excitedly, “Psalm ninety-one! That’s it, isn’t it?” Of course! The Ninety-First Psalm. The funeral psalm; could it be the magic bullet needed to defeat these powerful demons? Immediately Mike leaped to his feet and began praying it over her. He knew it from memory, remembered it letter-perfect from all those Red Bull-fueled marathon sessions studying Christian television.
He was midway through the psalm, incanting these words: “Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day; Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday…,” when the demon convulsed Shelley. She rolled over on her back, arms flapping spastically, hands bent inward like flippers. Her mouth hung open, her tongue quivered, her eyelids fluttered as her eyes rolled upwards until only the whites were showing.
Abject fear assaulted Mike, fear such as he had never known before, crippling terror that threatened to take him over. And yet somehow Mike knew the battle was nearly over. Facing his fears for Shelley, he kept on praying the psalm without interruption. “A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee. Only with thine eyes shalt thou behold and see the reward of the wicked.”
At the word “wicked” there was a rumbling throughout the mill house. From the direction of the south tower a woman screamed. Shelley moaned once, stiffened and lay still, eyes open wide and unseeing.
Mike understood then that she had died, that the exorcism had been too much for her poor body to bear. His eyes filled with burning tears at the bitterness of the thought. He turned away in hopelessness, all his efforts wasted, his deepest fears come to pass. He was filled with agony, and with something like rage, only more intense: an overpowering feeling no words could express. The demon would pay for this! Somehow he would make the demon pay!
As Mike plotted his revenge, a soft hand found his clenched fist and caressed it, urging it open. Velvety fingertips tenderly played across his palm. He turned. Shelley smiled up at him, her face flushed, hair disheveled. The joy of beholding her alive was like waking up in bed beside her.
“Shelley! You’re alive!”
“Of course I’m alive, Darling,” she sighed. “Thanks to you, I’ve never felt more alive. He’s gone! He’s really, truly gone at last! I feel so free!”
It had been much simpler and quicker than Mike had feared; he wasn’t worn out or even tired. Christ’s power made perfect in Mike’s weakness had driven out the demon, as easy as that. He hadn’t even had to force it to give up its name.
“Are you sure you’re all right?” Mike asked. “Oh, my love, I thought I’d lost you.”
He stared at Shelley for a count of five, then plunged forward and kissed her passionately, both of them writhing on the floor. He pinned her wrists with his hands and outstretched arms and kissed her with abandon, exploring her bare neck and shoulders with eager lips. Shelley offered no resistance. Rather, she met his every advance with welcoming fervor.
“Take me, darling,” Shelley moaned. “Take me now. I want you inside me.”
A sudden knocking, jarring and close by, made Mike flinch. This time it came not from the front door, but rather from the top of the stairs. Mike warily twisted his neck around and peered into the darkness to find the source of that knocking, filled with dread at the thought of what appalling sight his straining eyes might behold. Would it be Rowena, a hideous spectre draped in a grave-stained winding sheet? Or the Banshee herself, set to swoop and pounce?
A single beam of clear moonlight disclosed the source of the knocking. It was the same little kid, a sober expression filling his cherub face. He shook his head and wagged a reproving index finger at the two of them entwined on the floor. Then, his stare fixing Mike with its childlike intensity, with the same finger he beckoned upward, beyond the second story landing and toward the south tower.
“Are you sure you’re up to this, Shelley? We have a job to finish upstairs.”
“I’ve never been more ready in my life, Mike. Lead the way.”
Mike grabbed the lantern and, taking Shelley’s hand in his, ascended the stairs to the second floor landing and on to the top floor. Together they walked down the hallway, past the grandfather clock that ticked sonorously, and hesitated there. In a soft voice Mike told Shelley, “The room we’ll be cleansing is at the end of this hallway—the haunted bedroom in the south tower. It once belonged to Rowena O’Brien. You know the story of the O’Brien family. In fact, you were the first one who told it to me.”
“The first one?” Shelley matched Mike’s stage-whisper, although no one else was there other than the two of them. “Who else told you that story, Mike?”
“Rowena herself, right here in this very house. Or rather, someone who chose to reveal herself to me as Rowena.”
“Oh, Mike, you’re scaring me again! Let’s get out of here before it’s too late, Darling!”
“Don’t you want me to tell you who that someone was, or is?”
In a barely audible, quavery voice Shelley asked, “Who was that someone?”
“She goes by many names: Mórríghan, Rowena, even Morgan le Fay, but I figure they’re all really one and the same. She can appear old or young, a beautiful woman or a raddled old harridan as the mood suits her.”
“How do you know all this, Mike?”
“I’ve been dealing with her ever since I got here, maybe even before. She’s been playing me for a sucker, drawing me here. Before I ever heard of Reynolds County she sought me out. She must have sensed somehow that I was searching for spiritual meaning beyond myself, that I had a yearning to draw closer to God. I guess that made me a tasty plum she couldn’t resist. And she worked on me until I was spiritually bankrupt. She’ll keep on working, too, until she’s damned me to hell if I let her have her way.”
“And that demon you saw on the stairs? The one who scared you half out of your wits?”
“More than half! He was horrible!”
“Yeah, well, his name is Azazel, if you’re interested. They work together, him and Mórríghan or whatever you choose to call her. They’re a team. They’ve been bound together for evil since before the Book of Genesis.”
“How do you mean?”
“Have you ever read in Genesis where the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were fair? How these ‘sons of God’—angels, really—‘came in unto the daughters of men,’ as the Good Book tactfully puts it, and children were born of those unions? Hybrid children, half man, half angel. ‘The mighty men of old,’ like Goliath, over nine feet tall with six toes on each foot and six fingers on each hand. Monsters, in other words. Something God never intended.”
“Giants in the earth,” Shelley said.
“Precisely. The Bible has many names for them: the Anakim, the Emim, but they all had a common heritage: all of them sprang from fornication between fallen angels and human women. Joshua wiped most of them out when he conquered Canaan, but not all of them; some descendants of the Anakim still walk the earth. And so do the damned spirits of the women who spawned them by whoring with demons. Mórríghan was once one of those women.”
“You mean she’s still alive after so many thousands of years? How is that possible?
“You can read all about it in the Book of Enoch—it’s not part of the Bible but it’s mentioned and quoted in the Bible a number of times—you’ll see that these angels who sired children with humans became fallen angels. Demons. And even after they had fallen, these angels kept the same ranks they’d held in Heaven. Azazel was one of the cherubim, a powerful caste of Heavenly beings who stood in the presence of God. As a demon, his power is undiminished. Only his loyalty has changed. He has transferred his allegiance to Satan.”
“I hope you realize you’re making me shudder.”
“I just want you to know what we’ll be dealing with in there. And one more thing.”
“Mórríghan? She’s been right here with us all this time, invisible, listening to every word we’ve said.”
Shelley swallowed and blinked. “Are you sure?”
“I have a pretty good idea. Have you noticed something while we’ve been talking? Something weird?”
“That grandfather clock behind you? It’s running backwards.”
A preternatural howl, mournful yet eerily triumphant, echoed from within the grandfather clock and out through the wolf’s head, reverberating throughout the mill house. Terrified, Shelley leaped into Mike’s arms and cowered there, shaking with fear.
“You hear that? She’s calling us out, challenging us to a spiritual duel to the death.” Mike leered with anticipation. “Are you ready, Shelley?”
Shelley shrank away and cried, “Oh, Mike, let’s leave this place and never come back!”
“Don’t give up on me now, Shelley! Not when we’re so close to victory!”
“Victory?” Shelley demanded. “Remember what we started and never finished downstairs when we were wrapped in each others’ arms? That’s all the victory I want from you, Darling. That’s all I want, not some sick medieval ritual that may wind up destroying us both before we’ve even had a chance to see how good we can be together. Don’t you see? There’s an evil presence in this house and it’s stronger than we are! Let it have the house and whatever else it wants, Mike! Don’t be a damned fool! Let’s just get the hell out of here! Maybe if we run we can still save ourselves!”
“And abandon my calling? Compromise with evil? Is that what you’re asking me to do, Shelley? To give in to the powers of darkness?”
Shelley stared incredulously at Mike, as though she thought he had lost his mind. “Hell yes that’s what I’m asking you to do, Mike. Let’s run away while there’s still time.” Seeing that her words seemed to be having no impact, she went on, “Think of all the good you can do now that you’ve found your spiritual strength, Mike. Think of all the deliverances you can perform once we’re safely away from here, the churches you can establish, the living, breathing people you can save. Help the living, Mike. Even Jesus said to let the dead bury their dead. Take His advice and let’s get out of here, now. Let the dead bury their dead, Darling. Jeb, Mag and all the others are dead and gone.”
“Dead, maybe,” Mike said, “but not gone.” Mike moved toward the south tower bedroom. He now knew what had to be done. There was a second presence within Shelley. An unsuspected twin in the womb of her soul. An evil presence, worse than the one he had so recently cast out. And this one had to be exorcised as well, before he could ever hope to banish Mórríghan and Azazel from this place.
“I want you to kneel down again, Shelley,” he began.
“Because your deliverance isn’t finished. There’s another demon hiding inside of you.”
“Now you’re just being silly, trying to scare me again. Aren’t you?”
Shelley sighed with frustration. “Anything you think you can do for me in this spooky old house you can do much better in the comfort of a nice motel room, Mike. If we leave right now we can be in Phisterville in less than half an hour.”
“All we have to do is snap our fingers and poof, right?”
“Something like that.”
“Tiggy told me.”
“Tiggy? Who in the hell is Tiggy?”
Shelley reverted to a little girl’s voice. “Tiggy is my special friend,” she said. “Tiggy tells me things.”
“What kinds of things?”
“How long has Tiggy been inside of you, Shelley?”
“For a long, long, long time—forever, almost.”
“Wouldn’t you like to have Tiggy come out of you and leave you alone?”
“No,” Shelley said, jutting out her lower lip in a pout. “Tiggy would be lonesome without me. Tiggy might cry.”
“Tiggy will manage. Want to say a prayer with me?”
“Tiggy says no. He says you’re a mean man and you want to hurt Tiggy. He says you’ll make him cry.”
“Tell Tiggy I’m not a mean man at all, Shelley. Tell Tiggy it’s time for him to go home now.”
“Tiggy says he’s already home.”
From inside the south tower bedroom came a tinkling laugh, mocking and mirthless. No time for prayer and fasting. It was time for Tiggy to go home. Mike pressed down on Shelley’s shoulders, guiding her into a kneeling position, and knelt facing her. Once again he began praying the Ninety-First Psalm aloud.
“Tiggy says he’s already heard that one, Pastor Mike,” Shelley said in her normal voice. “He says he’s tired of it.”
“He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the LORD, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust.”
The cavernous house seemed to swallow up Mike’s words as he prayed. The Psalm finished, Mike shouted, “Wicked demon, I command you to come out of her!”
Shelley screamed. Something seemed to rise up from within her, a hideous yet familiar presence that had been there all along. “We meet again, Horael,” Azazel said as he tore Shelley’s face and body apart, shedding and stepping out of her tattered remains.
“No!” Mike gasped. “No, this can’t be happening. I was so close to victory! So close!”
“What is it the yokels say in Phisterville?” Azazel gloated. “‘Close only counts in horseshoes.’ Look behind you, Horael; there’s someone who’s been dying to be formally introduced.” Mike struggled to his feet and spun around.
Mag/Rowena/Mórríghan beckoned to him from the south tower bedroom. “Come join me, Mike. I’ve been waiting for you. I’ve waited so very, very long.” The voice was calm and deadly.
Mike screamed in terror, a sustained scream ripped from the place below his heart. There was another scream, blending with Mike’s, one that seemed to come from nowhere, from beyond time and space, a hopeless and abandoned howl of damned souls cast into outer darkness, a wailing never-ending chorus of the lost.
The stories are still handed down around these parts, the story of the O’Brien clan, of the Bagbys, and the latest one about the middle-aged lady librarian who disappeared the very night her husband died and was never seen or heard from again. Folks tell of the young deliverance minister and his bride who lost their lives on their way to the Phisterville nondenominational church—the one where that awful Reverend Garrett, the one who butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth, went and tried to do away with his wife by poison and got sent away to prison. Reynolds County folk don’t run across all that many strangers, and so the stories—well, they do go on.
The locals tend to avoid the old Bagby place—what was once the O’Brien spread. Their eyes always seem to shy away when they drive past the overgrown lane off the county blacktop, paying no mind to the strange sight of vegetation growing green all year ‘round just like it was summer when everywhere else there’s snow on the ground. They pay no never mind to the great clouds of fog that rise up over the Bagby place in winter, and nobody with any sense ever ventures even so far as the old tumbledown schoolhouse across the rickety old covered bridge that spans the Little Hoot Owl Rapids. The schoolhouse’s not much more than a shack these days; the roof lets in the rain and the daylight, and some say strange shapes can be seen through the broken windows on nights when the moon is full.
And nobody, nobody at all ever dares go near the old mill house for very long. Once is enough, even for young men doing more than a little drinking, there being not much else for the young men to do to pass the time around Phisterville at night. They know, the local folks, that all of them are there out at the mill house: the O’Briens, their servants and slaves; the Bagbys—Jeb, Dorcas, their young ones, even Grammaw, all of them whose bodies lie buried out back of the school house in that little overgrown country graveyard, lying side by side with the O’Briens, their former masters, all the old differences having fallen away at last like the dried flesh from their moldering bones.
They’re all there still, up at the mill house. Even the new ones, that nice young preacher—what was his name? Oh, yes: Pastor Mike, folks took to calling him. Pastor Mike, he’s there, along with his young bride who died beside him in that awful wreck. Mag was her name. And, some say, so’s Shelley Lundy; she’s that librarian, the one who disappeared one dark night and was never heard from again. They say she’s up there with the rest of them, all together up at the mill house, and when the bravest of the young Turks from town get all liquored up of an evening and commence to daring each other to head on out to the Bagby place and give the old mill house a try, they always take off running soon’s they see that face in the window and hear that godawful howl.
a novel by Malachi Stone
Malachi Stone is a practicing attorney. He is the author of eleven novels and RUDE SCRAWLS, a book of short stories. All are available online.
DEAD MAN’S ACT
GREEDY AS THE GRAVE
SHARP FORCE TRAUMA
ST. AGNES’ EVE
WICKED KING DICK
[+ Malachi Stone+]
Be sure and listen to the FREE MP3 version of the first ten chapters of HEARTBALM performed by the author. Start here:
OZARK BANSHEE is the story of "Pastor Mike," a phony would-be exorcist who plans to make a killing from those he disdains as ignorant rubes in rural Missouri. Traveling with his girlfriend he soon encounters Jeb and his family, latter-day pioneers who live off the land. Or are they ghosts from a bygone era? In any event, there's a "haint" on Jeb's old homestead, a familiar spirit or demon known as a banshee who holds the family in thrall. Jeb says he's counting on Pastor Mike to free him and his brood from the banshee's spell, but Mike seems more interested in selling out to the powers of darkness. A dramatic series of terrifying events convinces Mike to repent of his evil intentions and sinful deeds and to rescue Jeb and the others. But is Mike's redemption complete enough and sincere enough to protect him during the final exorcism? Or will the forces of evil destroy him and those he loves before he can cast out the demon?