“You know what you have to do,” said the distant voice on the other end of the phone.
Sheriff Jessup nodded. Moonlight glinted off the cars parked in front of the small church: the Alsops’ rusted Jeep, Bear McKnight’s new pickup truck, Reverend Curtis’s Cadillac that had been a bequest from Elena Partridge when she passed. All of them were here.
HE was here.
Jessup was a powerful man. Six foot three, weighing close to 300 pounds, he was more muscle than fat. The teenagers and wise asses in town gave him a wide berth. His handcuffs usually stayed on his belt. One grip of his iron fingers on your collar and you knew you were up against a force of nature.
The occasional fool who tried to outrun the sheriff found out the high school football player who could sprint with the best of the track team, hadn’t lost much speed with age.
Jessup walked up the stone steps to the church and entered the doorway. Adam Alsop turned in the pew where he was sitting next to his wife and watched Jessup bolt the door shut with confusion.
“Carson?” asked Adam, calling the sheriff by his first name.
Natalie Alsop, her grey hair pulled back in a bun, with the same tired eyes as everyone else, froze when she saw the ferocity of the sheriff’s expression.
Reverend Curtis and Bear McKnight were huddled at the lectern turning through pages of the church’s oversized bible.
“Christ,” replied McKnight as he saw the sheriff.
Jessup first walked towards the Alsops. Adam was paralyzed with panic as the sheriff clenched his neck, thick fingers stabbing into his throat. His wife tried pulling at Jessup’s thickly corded arm, but was backhanded so hard her head cracked against the wooden pew, knocking her out cold.
McKnight, ran towards Jessup to intervene. His heavy footsteps were the only other sound in the hall besides the gurgling noise Adam Alsop’s mouth made as he tried to breathe.
Reverend Curtis hurried to the back of the church, towards the fire exit he’d reluctantly installed after the fire marshall demanded they put one in. His frantic hands pulled at the cross bar. The door wouldn’t open. Something was blocking it from the outside.
Curtis turned back as Sheriff Jessup grabbed McKnight by the arms and bit into his shoulder, tearing away a mouthful of flesh. Even more shocking than the savage act, was the cold dispassionate look in the sheriff’s eyes. It was the lifeless stare of a great white shark on the hunt. A predator that didn’t see another life, only something to be killed.
McKnight screamed and dropped, falling next to the Alsops’ body. He tried to cover the wound with his hand. The blood kept pumping relentlessly through his fingers until the cold tingling sensation of consciousness fading overcame him.
Jessup kicked him aside and strode down the aisle dividing the pews. His boots left prints in the growing puddle of blood. Shreds of McKnight’s shoulder muscles and skin still hung from his mouth, his face misted in arterial spray.
“Carson…Carson,” pled the reverend. “I can help you. I can help you rid yourself of this…this thing.” He fell onto his knees, hands grasped over his head in prayer.
Sheriff Jessup looked down. “Rid me of the thing? Rid me?” His vacant expression broke for a moment. He grabbed the reverend by the back of his jacket and pulled him to his feet. “I am the cleansing fire! I’m am the one ridding you of the evil!” Spittle flew like a sputtering tea kettle on the verge of exploding.
Reverend Curtis futilely kicked and punched. In an act of desperation he clawed at the large man’s cheek. But the deep gouges didn’t even faze Carson Jessup.
Jessup punched back, breaking the smaller man’s nose. He pounded again and again until the entire bridge collapsed, sharp fragments of bone embedded into his raw fist like pieces of coral.
The reverend fell to the ground in a bloody heap. The whistling sound of the man’s his breath faded through what was left of his nose.
Sheriff Jessup pulled the phone from his pocket. “It’s done.”
The phone had been dead for days, yet the Sheriff heard a voice tell him, “Good, my son.”
Jessup closed his eyes and waited for the fire to cleanse away the wickedness and evil.
On his knees, he folded his hands in prayer and thanked the guiding archangel for showing him a clear path. He thanked the lord for the strength to do thy bidding. He thanked god for bringing this long nightmare to an end.
When the explosion ripped through the church, a sleep-deprived grad student at the Seismology Lab at University of West Virginia jerked upright in his chair, spilling his coffee as his computer sounded an alarm. His first reaction to the sudden spike was a plane crash or a meteor hit the ground.
The residents of rural Hawkton ran outside to see the source of the explosion and were horrified to see the huge ball of flame rise from the direction of the old church, a bright orange plume against a plum colored evening sky. Some felt it was an end to the darkness that had enveloped the town. Others suspected that the darkness had only just begun.
A continent away, Father Carmichael sat lost in thought as he studied a 19th Century letter from a Calvary Officer serving in Napoleon’s North African campaign. The officer had detailed an inscription thought to have been archaic Hebrew. The location of the inscription, Carmichael deduced, was lost, very likely under a parking lot or apartment building. He turned the page the paper disturbed the stale air of his basement reading room and he noticed the smell of cigarette smoke.
Carmichael looked up and saw a man perched in the corner watching him. Behind the orange glow of the cigarette was a tan face worn with wrinkles and intense, piercing eyes. Grey temples blended into blue-black hair. Dressed in a dark suit, suitable for a Brussels banker, he was clearly not a visiting priest. He had the presence of someone who cared little about smoke alarms or the effect the smoke had on old books.
How the man was able to find him down here in the labyrinth was a feat unto itself. Carmichael like the old reading room below the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale in Florence, Italy because it wasn’t on any map.
He felt himself a kindred spirit of the man who founded it some 300 years prior. Antonio Magliabechi lived and breathed words. He was reputed to have read every one of his 40,000 books and been able to recall them in great detail, yet he paid so little attention to worldly matters that his threadbare clothes would fall apart on his body.
It was through this lens of history that the French Lieutenant, Chambliss, was speaking to him, after a fact. Its surroundings gave Carmichael a different context to examine these letters. Touching them was like stepping into the past.
Like his hero, Carmichael could be entirely oblivious to the world beyond the page. He’d no idea when the man had entered the room, but he attributed his apparition to his mindlessness and not any stealthy intent on the man’s behalf.
“You’re the Mandean scholar,” the man stated in English.
Carmichael had written some papers on the language and belief system. While he didn’t consider himself an expert, he wasn’t going to argue with his strange visitor. “Yes. I guess.”
The man nodded. He reached his hand inside his jacket and pulled out an envelope and placed it on Carmichael’s table. A raised eyebrow indicated Carmichael should look inside.
Carmichael slid the photograph out of the envelope. His cheeks flushed. Bottle blond hair, mischievous smile; he recognized the girl immediately. She was a friend of his cousin. A girl he’d met a few months ago in Austria. Carmichael had been drinking heavily that day. The innocent flirtation had turned into something more…
Shame wracked his guilt-trained mind. He’d confessed a week later after much anguish. Not to his usual confessor, but to a priest in a small parish near San Marino. He didn’t fear divine wrath as much as the long ears of the Vatican.
“I…”, Carmichael began, not sure where the words would lead him.
The man in the corner raised a finger and wiped away the words with a gesture. His large hand reached out and landed on the photograph, concealing it from view as he slipped it back into his pocket and away from Carmichael’s conscience.
There was something symbolic about the gesture. Carmichael vaguely understood there was to be no more discussion on the matter of the girl. He waited.
“Discretion can be virtue,” the man said.
“You have mine and I would like yours.”
“Of course.” Carmichael’s knee began to shake under the table.
The man reached into his other jacket pocket and removed a portable cassette recorder. He set it on the table next to Carmichael’s pad of paper and pencil.
“I need the words,” said the man. “Just the words. After the words, you’re to forget about this. Understood?”
“Yes…” Carmichael said hesitantly.
The man’s stare lingered, turning Carmichael’s acquiescence into an verbal contract.
Carmichael pressed the play button and held the speaker to his ear. A voice seemed half asleep, or in a trance. His words at first sounded like Hebrew, but they weren’t. This language shared a common ancestor tongue but had diverged a thousand years before. The closest version still spoken would be Syriac. This was different. It was a version of Aramaic – the language of the Jews in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus.
Understanding spoken Aramaic is a challenge because there are no living native speakers. The closest approximation comes from analyzing Syriac, Hebrew dialects and a few other variations. There are maybe a hundred people in the world who can speak conversationally in Aramaic. While computer translation made it so anyone could read the words – comprehension was a different matter. Something told Carmichael that the man in his reading room preferred a more thoughtful transcription.
Carmichael’s nervous fingers fumbled with the machine as he replayed the tape to check his phonetic transcription. He had understood the words on the first pass, but wanted to be absolutely certain. He was also distracted by voice of the speaker.
The man took the sheet of paper from Carmichael, quietly read the translation, then pocketed it along with the cassette recorder. He straightened the crease on his slacks and stood. “This never happened,” he said flatly.
There was a something about the man that implied there would be no choice but to agree.
Carmichael waited for the man to leave. His footsteps to faded down the miles of bookshelves, then the young priest leaned back in his chair and stared at the ceiling and breathed for the first time in what felt like an eternity.
The Austrian girl, Anya, was the furthest thing from his thoughts. The words on the tape recorder echoed through his mind as clearly as they had when he first heard them.
I am the one who walks in darkness. I am the one who is fallen.
These were not the words of a disciple of god. These were declarations of evil. These were the speech of a demon in a religious text. This was the statement of Lucifer, or another fallen angel.
But by themselves, the words weren’t anything extraordinary. Not in this day and age. He’d recently watched his nephew Pietro play a video game with an antagonist who spoke in a demonic dialect. Carmichael only had to turn on the radio to hear a thousand sung phrases like that, or hear them uttered on television. This was different.
Context was everything.
The speaker on the tape had used an almost forgotten tongue and the was also someone Carmichael knew – a man that did not speak Aramaic, Syriac, or even Hebrew.
Anyone could have memorized the words. But they had no business coming out of the mouth of a man of the cloth.
Least of all, the mouth of the Vicar of Christ, the Bishop of Rome, His Holiness the Pope.