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Sons of darkness, p.5

Sons of Darkness, page 5

 part  #1 of  Night Vigil Series


Sons of Darkness

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  “Well, we’ll never be obsolete,” Travis observed. “There’s so much need, and nowhere near the resources to do what needs to be done.”

  “You’re doing all that you can, and that makes a difference,” Ryan replied. “Not to mention your extracurricular activities.”

  Travis rolled his eyes. “Yeah, good thing I don’t need much sleep. How about you? Small town life looks like it agrees with you.”

  He and Ryan were a decade apart in age, with Travis in his early thirties. But where fighting monsters and unloading truckloads of donations kept Travis toned and fit, Ryan’s routine of liturgies and committee meetings meant he’d gone a bit pudgy. His thinning hair and wire-rimmed glasses made him look comfortingly avuncular, but Travis knew that behind Ryan’s mild veneer lay a sharp mind and a keen sense of humor.

  “It’s what I signed up for,” Ryan replied. “As parishes go, it’s as drama-free as you’re ever going to get. No one’s trying to stir up trouble, at least, not usually. This is a small town with an aging population. People just want to collect their pensions, play some bingo, watch a little football, and go about their business.”

  “Sounds like a nice gig,” Travis replied.

  “I imagine it seems boring to you.”

  Travis let out a long breath. “That depends on your definition of excitement. We help people fight their metaphorical demons all day long, and then after dark, I go after the real ones. Excitement is overrated.”

  They ate in silence for several minutes. “Has your Night Vigil had any news about what’s going on out here?” Ryan asked after they had both done justice to their food, and helped themselves to seconds. He got up to clear their plates.

  “I was just thinking that I need to see who’s this far east,” Travis replied, leaning back and enjoying a full stomach. “Most of what I’ve heard has all been about people going missing from truck stops on I-80. It feels hinky, like there’s more to it than just human evil.”

  Ryan cut them both generous slices of pie, then returned with the pot of coffee and two mugs. “I’ve learned not to underestimate what people can do. Sometimes, I doubt we actually need the Devil, since people come up with horrors on their own.”

  “Don’t let the folks in Rome hear you,” Travis joked.

  “Speaking of which,” Ryan replied, “I gather that your…friends…there haven’t persuaded you to pick up where you left off.”

  Travis sipped his coffee, suddenly wishing it had a slug of whiskey in it. “No,” he answered with a bitter edge to his voice that he knew Ryan would understand. “They keep trying. I keep saying no. Officially, they can’t force me, but we all know that some arms of the Church follow the rules more closely than others.”

  Ryan was one of the only people aside from Jon and Matthew, and Father Pavel, Travis’s confessor, who knew about his past with the Sinistram. Like many secret organizations, the group considered itself above both secular and Church law and employed tactics that officials disavowed in the light of day.

  “Good for you,” Ryan said, making short work of the pie. “Keep saying no.”

  Travis grimaced. “Easy for you to say. If I disappear someday, send someone to the catacombs to find me.” He stared at the pie crumbs on his plate. “So tell me about what you’ve got going on here.”

  Ryan poured himself another cup of coffee. “Honestly, I debated whether to serve you dinner before or after we go visit Mrs. Laszlo,” he replied. “Either way, it’s bound to spoil your appetite.”

  “That bad?”

  Ryan nodded. “I’ve dealt with a lot of pretty awful situations, Travis. I don’t recall if I told you, but I spent a couple of years as an Army chaplain in Afghanistan, went on aid missions to Haiti and Puerto Rico after the hurricanes…I thought I’d seen everything grief could do to people. But this…” He shook his head.

  “Since you called me, you must think there’s more to what’s happening that normal mourning.”

  “Come on. I’ll show you. It’s not really something I can explain.” He handed Travis a bottle of anti-nausea pills. “Better take a few, just in case.” Then he shared a small jar of menthol rub. “Put a little in each nostril. It’s a trick I learned from a cop. Helps with the smell.”

  They walked outside the rectory, and Ryan sniggered when he saw Travis’s Crown Vic. “I hope you got a good deal on that gunboat.”

  “It’s a police interceptor model that didn’t get neutered for civilian use. Bigger engine, higher speed. And room for more than one body in the trunk.”

  Ryan nodded. “All good points. I stand corrected.”

  They drove Ryan’s small SUV, and Travis took in Cooper City. The town looked like most of the other central Pennsylvania communities Travis had seen, and much like those on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. Most of the houses dated from World War II or before, and while adequately maintained, showed wear and age. Few cars were new, fewer still were foreign or luxury models. Dollar stores and thrift shops outnumbered other merchants, although Travis had passed a Walmart on the way into town. He’d be willing to bet deaths outnumbered births, and that the average age was over fifty.

  Decades ago, Cooper City and its neighbors relied on mines, timber, and small, local manufacturing jobs. When those dried up or shipped offshore, nothing took their place. Young people moved; old people stayed. The town’s slow death was etched in its cracked sidewalks and potholed roads, in the shabby cars parked at the diner and in the peeling paint of its post office.

  “This is the place.” The trip had taken less than ten minutes. Ryan parked at the curb in front of a modest two-story frame house that had probably been built to welcome the troops home from Germany. The paint had grown chalky, and the picket fence was missing a few slats.

  “No one’s mowed for a while,” Travis observed, taking in the overgrown yard.

  “Mr. Laszlo has been indisposed,” Ryan replied. “Let’s pay a visit.”

  The smell hit Travis even before they rang the doorbell. Even on the porch, he caught the sickly sweet odor of advanced decomposition, despite the menthol and eucalyptus gel. “Jesus,” Travis muttered as much a prayer as an oath.

  A thin, hunched woman opened the door. Mrs. Laszlo looked to be in her late eighties, thin enough to blow away in a stiff wind. Her gray hair framed her face in a curly perm that went out of style in the Carter administration. Travis noticed that her housedress and sweater looked clean, although the smell that assaulted them from behind her would certainly permeate everything she wore, no matter how freshly laundered.

  “We just were in the neighborhood and thought we would pay a visit,” Father Ryan said. Travis recognized the tone as his “conciliatory pastor” voice, used for coaxing good behavior from contrary parishioners. “I brought you cookies,” he added, producing a bag he must have had stashed in the SUV.

  “Why isn’t that sweet of you!” Mrs. Laszlo said. “Please come in. I’ve just gotten Henry settled after dinner. He goes to sleep so early these days,” she added.

  They followed the woman through a tidy front hallway. If Travis had been expecting the clutter and piled junk of a hoarder, he would have been proven wrong. The house reminded him of his grandmother’s, a neat, working-class haven filled with slipcovered chairs, dated draperies, and neatly hung decorative china plates on the walls.

  Except for the corpse in the recliner.

  Henry Laszlo’s skin showed mottling where the blood had settled. He’d moved from pallid to greenish as rot set in, and his bloated belly strained at the tie of his bathrobe and elastic waistband of his pajama pants. His eyes were closed—a small mercy—but his mouth gaped open. Flies swarmed around the body, buzzing loudly enough to be noticeable even from a distance.

  On a TV tray next to the recliner, sat an untouched plate of food. “Henry’s appetite hasn’t been so good lately,” Mrs. Laszlo fussed.

  Travis had to swallow, hard, not to puke. His eyes watered from the stench. He noticed that Mrs. Laszlo seemed inured to it.<
br />
  “Have you noticed anything different with Henry lately?” Father Ryan asked.

  Mrs. Laszlo sighed. “He doesn’t get around so good anymore, with that bad knee of his,” she tutted.

  While Ryan kept Mrs. Laszlo talking, Travis closed his eyes and grounded himself, then opened his gift and called to Henry’s ghost. Travis had felt off-kilter ever since he’d been within fifty miles of Cooper City, an odd, jangly feeling that made his leg jiggle and his fingers drum, the sense that something wasn’t right. Even without fully reaching out to his mediumship, he had felt a primal discomfort as they entered the Laszlo home. Now, just feet from a rotting corpse, his intuition was screaming for him to run.

  Instead, Travis rooted his power and said a prayer of protection. The horrors of what he saw at the Sinistram might have left his faith in tatters, but he still took solace from the familiar words, and they proved valuable as he envisioned wrapping himself in a shield of white light against the horrors that sometimes prowled on the other side of the Veil.

  Travis stifled a gasp as his inner sight flared. He saw Henry’s spirit, but the ghost was covered with a quivering mass of what looked like black maggots that burrowed into the spirit’s form and wriggled beneath its “skin.” Thousands of the black worms bedeviled the revenant, and Henry’s panicked gaze sought Travis with a silent plea for help.

  The awful image made Travis recoil, but it did not break his connection to the Other Side. He felt the gaze of dozens of spirits, a cloud of witnesses, just at the edge of his perception. The emotions he picked up from the ghosts was a tangle of suspicion, terror, judgment, and guilt, so tangible that it made his stomach twist and his throat tighten. Before the specters could come closer, Travis strengthened his psychic shields, unwilling to be overwhelmed before he even had the chance to find out what tormented the dead and caused their unquiet rest.

  He forced his attention back to Henry and knew what had to be done. With effort, Travis roused himself from his trance. Father Ryan was still chatting with Mrs. Laszlo as if sitting in a living room with a corpse was the most normal thing in the world.

  Travis feigned a cough. “Can I trouble you, please, for a glass of water?” he asked Mrs. Laszlo, in a raspy voice.

  “Oh, my dear! Certainly. I’ll be right back, and I’ll bring one for Father, too,” Mrs. Laszlo said, bustling off toward the kitchen.

  Ryan wasn’t fooled for an instant. “What?”

  “Not sure, but I think it’s some kind of low-level demonic infestation. He’s going to need an exorcism and Last Rites.”

  “I’m not cleared to do exorcism,” Ryan replied.

  “No, but I am.” Travis gave a bitter smile. “And while I gave up the collar, the Sinistram says ‘once a priest, always a priest,’ so I consider it a loophole.”

  Ryan returned a conspiratorial grin. “You dissemble like a Jesuit.”

  “I learned from the best.”

  They heard Mrs. Laszlo shuffling back from the kitchen. “What’s the next move?” Ryan asked.

  “Restrain her,” Travis replied. “Keep her from breaking my concentration, but stay close, and pray like your soul depends on it. It might. I don’t think the things that are eating Henry Laszlo are going to give up easily.”

  Mrs. Laszlo came into the living room with a glass in each hand, trembling enough that the water sloshed and nearly overflowed. “Here you go,” she said, setting them down on the coffee table.

  “I was wondering, do you have a cat?” Father Ryan asked.

  Mrs. Laszlo gave him a puzzled look. “A cat? Dear me, no. Why?”

  “I thought I heard something coming from the closet,” Ryan replied. “And I didn’t want the poor thing to be locked inside.”

  Mrs. Laszlo frowned. “The closet? I can’t imagine. Let me look.” She headed for the coat closet, and Ryan followed her. The door opened, revealing a shallow cubby with a few winter coats and boots. “I don’t see anything—”

  “Sorry,” Father Ryan murmured, giving her a nudge and closing the door, then leaning against it with his full weight. “Travis, go!” he cried, then began to chant the Hail Mary, resolutely ignoring Mrs. Laszlo pounding on the other side of the door.

  Travis had already grounded himself, expecting Ryan to act. He rose and turned toward Henry’s putrefying corpse, and experienced a kind of double vision, his inner and outer sight overlying one another so that he could clearly make out the writhing demonic maggots superimposed over the dead man’s body.

  “Exorcizamos te, omnis immundus spiritus …” Travis began, gathering both his authority as a medium and the spiritual power of the ancient litany. He might no longer have faith in the Church and its leaders, or in the doctrines he had been taught, but he clung to a ragged certitude that Light conquered Darkness, and it was that belief that empowered him to face the spiritual forces of evil.

  “Omnis Satanicas potestas …” Travis continued. “Omnis incursio infernalis adversarii …”

  Henry’s body began to quiver, and Travis’s double vision snapped into a single, unified view. Curls of black smoke, like hellish grubs, burrowed into the dead flesh, undulated beneath the skin, and massed in the chest and belly in numbers large enough to look as if the corpse breathed.

  Father Ryan continued his prayers, and Travis hoped that his friend could make up for in faith what he lacked. The hell-maggots weren’t the worst demonic threat Travis had faced, but the staggering number of entities required his full concentration.

  They call us Legion, for we are many…

  The idea of Henry’s physical body becoming worm food didn’t bother Travis; such was the way of all flesh. But the hell-maggots ate at his soul, feeding off its energy and the core essence of the dead man, and that was intolerable.

  Mrs. Laszlo pounded on the closet door. “Let me out!”

  Father Ryan leaned against it with his full weight, and chanted louder, offering Last Rites. Travis continued with the exorcism and hoped like fuck no one heard the old lady shouting and called the cops.

  Travis’s magic anchored Henry’s spirit, as the sacred words exhorted the demonic parasites to depart and return to the Pit from whence they came. The dead man’s body became a battleground, a war between eternal energies. But as demons went, the hell-maggots didn’t have the juice that powered their more dangerous brethren.

  Travis found that visualization helped to focus and amplify the currents that he channeled when he worked the sacred magic. Now he imagined himself surrounded by a field of glowing light, a sanctified bug zapper of sorts. As the litany pried the maggots loose, he saw the black smoke creatures vanish in glowing flares, first one at a time, and then handfuls of writhing curls. The flashes temporarily blinded him, turning his vision red with the afterimages.

  A dark power fought him, pulling against the light that flowed through Travis, but gradually the resistance waned, and then stopped altogether. The abrupt end left him off balance as if his opponent had dropped the other end of the rope in a tug of war. Henry’s ravaged soul glowed faintly, free of encumbrances, then faded out, moving on.

  Travis finished the exorcism as Father Ryan completed the Last Rites, and Travis joined his friend in the familiar and comforting words of the benediction.

  Henry’s body was now a shriveled husk, a mummy in a stained bathrobe. The smell of sulfur and ash replaced the stench of decay. Travis nodded, and Father Ryan stepped away from the closet door. It swung open, and Mrs. Laszlo tumbled out, hair askew and eyes wild.

  “Are you all right?” Father Ryan asked, managing to sound surprised and distressed.

  “What happened?” She sounded genuinely confused, and Travis wondered if the hell-maggots created some kind of distortion that affected her mind.

  “You went to get something from the closet, and the door slammed shut,” Ryan replied. That wasn’t exactly a lie. “It took a bit before I could get you out.” Again, technically true.

  “Oh my, what is that smell?” Mrs. Laszlo said, nose wrink
ling. “And what’s in Henry’s chair? Oh dear god—” Her knees buckled and Father Ryan caught her before she fell. Travis hurried over to help, and with one man on each side, they half-carried the distraught woman to the kitchen.

  “Henry’s dead,” Father Ryan said as gently as he could. “I think that you’ve been so overwhelmed with grief, it didn’t really sink in until just now.”

  Sadness and horror warred in Mrs. Lazaro’s expression. “He hadn’t been well for a long time,” she said, so quietly they could barely hear the words. “Felt like he was slipping away a bit more each day. I knew I was losing him. I just hope that he didn’t suffer.”

  Travis looked away, remembering the parasites that ravaged the dead man’s soul, unwilling to provide false comfort since he felt certain Henry’s passing had been anything but easy.

  “I’m sure he’s at peace now,” Father Ryan assured her. He frowned. “I’m sorry to ask this, but since I didn’t have the opportunity to hear Henry’s confession before he passed on…do you know if there were any sins that weighed heavy on his mind? Old failings, bad habits, those kinds of thing? I will ask for absolution on his behalf when I pray for his soul.”

  Travis knew that Ryan’s promise was sincere—he would certainly remember both Mrs. Laszlo and Henry in his prayers—but he also was fishing for some clue as to why the infernal parasites had attached themselves to the failing spirit of an old man.

  “Henry wasn’t perfect, but he was a good man,” Mrs. Laszlo said, wiping her eyes with a tissue she produced from the pocket of her housedress. “Never cheated on me or raised a hand in anger to the children or me. Paid every cent he owed in taxes. Didn’t drink to excess. Gave to the church,” she added. “He might have sneaked a smoke now and again, if he thought I wasn’t looking, and taken the Lord’s name in vain when he hit his thumb with a hammer, but if there wasn’t anything worse than that, Father, I never saw it in sixty-five years of marriage.”

  Travis and Ryan stayed with Mrs. Laszlo until the mortician came to take the body, and a cop showed up to take their statements. The look the men exchanged with Ryan told Travis that it was not the first odd circumstances he had encountered. When the white van left with the corpse, Mrs. Laszlo laid a hand on Father Ryan’s arm.

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