Courting Demons - Leon Baar - ebook

Courting Demons ebook

Leon Baar

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It’s a hot summer in the city, and we meet an unusual pair in the employ of the Catholic Church. Thomas is an atheist graduate of the seminary and he knows Scripture and faith better than many priests. Maria, one of the first consecrated women, is an exorcist. Together they form a highly effective team that tracks demons and drives them out of the possessed.

Their latest case – a father fighting for his daughter's health – stands out from the beginning. With every new discovery, mysteries multiply, and the trail leads through the dark corners of faith and the human soul. Thomas and Maria will not only have to face a powerful opponent, but also confront their own weaknesses. Will disputing with demons full of erudition and manipulation dispel Thomas's doubts? How about temptation lurking elsewhere?

Leon Baar invites the reader to reflect deeply on the role of faith in human life. Intertwining brilliant dialogue, sharp humour and rapid plot twists and turns, the book is engrossing from the first pages and holds the reader in suspense until the very end.

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Leon Baar

Courting Demons

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2019 by Leon Baar

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or used in any manner without written permission of the copyright owner except for the use of quotations in a book review. For more information, address: [email protected]

First hardcover polish edition X, 2018, Poland

Translation from Polish by Robin Gill Translation and editing team managed by Agata Rybacka Graphic design by Katarzyna Jędruszczak and Piotr Wyskok

ISBN 978-83-949857-6-9

TO WOMEN.THOSE LIVING,THOSE WHO LIVEDAND THOSE WHOSE LIVES WERE TAKEN

PrologueThree years earlier

The knee hit the priest straight in the belly. He bent over double and slid to the floor.

“Serves you right,” screeched the teenager, who was tied to the bed. Below his dishevelled fringe his eyes were blazing.

“Bite the earth, god-botherer! And you, thump him!” he egged on the assailant, a slim forty-year-old in black. “For everything he’s done to me!”

The aggressor approached the priest, bent over in the corner, with a hesitant step.

“Christian... Friend... My friend...,” the priest fell silent when another kick forced the air out of his lungs. “I forgive you...,” he added in whisper after a moment. “They’ll take you to hell.”

“Ha, ha, ha! Who are you saying this to?” The boy strained his voice. “It’s you they’ll take there!”

The next kick to hit the prone priest was surprisingly precise and strong. This time the shoe struck the head, just behind the ear. God’s grace deprived the priest of consciousness.

“And why did you do it? What for?” The boy was now howling more than shouting, clearly excited by the dance of rage and resignation taking place in front of him. “And you, finish him! Finish him off!”

The attacker kicked the unconscious body time and again, hitting the temples and neck. Clearly sated and sweaty, he turned towards the bed.

“Thank you,” croaked the boy, raising his hands as much as the bindings allowed. “Please.... You don’t even know how much....”

He didn’t get to finish. The man, his hand trembling, grabbed a crucifix standing nearby and hit him right in the middle of his forehead. The edge of the brass base pierced the skull. The boy’s eyes glazed over in amazement. The blood released from under the skin flowed from the base of his nose, passed by his eye and trickled towards his parted lips.

The man looked for a moment at the boy’s tongue stiffening between his teeth, and then he raised the crucifix again. On its felt backing he could see traces of blood and bone fragments. The fingers let go of the handle, and the cross slipped onto the bed, creating a sickening red blotch on the bedding.

The executioner was gasping for breath.

He collapsed onto a chair standing next to him.

Suddenly, the door slammed open. The woman standing on the threshold covered her mouth with her hands, and then threw herself onto the bed.

“Son.... My son.... Johnny...,” she bawled, touching her son’s face. “Jesus, Mary.... Father Gregory!” she noticed the priest’s body rhythmically hitting the floor with his heels. “Do something!” she screamed in the direction of the cowering man.

He slowly raised his hands. He looked at them as if they were alien. Both were trembling.

“Lord, why hast thou forsaken me,” he muttered to himself. “Lord, why hast thou forsaken me!”

He repeated this over and over and over again until his eyes lighted on a screwdriver lying on the floor.

Chapter 1

The train juddered on the tracks, and Thomas’s pencil inertly dragged across the sheet of paper. And again. The notepad page looked like a scribbled medical journal. It was a shame that he had to return the book he was taking the notes from. Otherwise, he could simply have marked the extracts useful for his work and be done with it. He raised his head and beads of sweat dripped from his chin. Bloody trains. And the heat.

“The Greeks and Romans...,” he read the sentence that he’d started, but in the muggy air of the compartment he couldn’t for the life of him recall what he’d considered so special that it was worth making a note of. All his thoughts fled in the search for oxygen. He had a big elephant in his head, which sat its ass on his frontal lobes and – Thomas would’ve bet on it – let out a big fart. He put down his pencil.

“Are you writing something?” asked a small voice.

An hour ago they had entered his compartment. A woman and her brilliant, as he could hear, child. The great goddess of gluttony, who every now and then placed more and more victuals on the small table, and the demigod of chaos who was being offered them. With the remnants of reason the youngster refused, which the mother acknowledged with a nod and immediately put the food in her own mouth. She was sitting rearward-facing. Thomas was afraid that at some point when the mother was opening her fleshy lips, the momentum of the train itself would make the contents of her stomach, stuffed up to the windpipe, land on his trousers.

The view was unpleasant, as was the smell. She was past the age when a living organism could easily carry such a mass. Sitting itself was evidently difficult for her. Thomas imagined her heart thumping between the buttery mounds of fat. If aliens were to come to Earth, it would be difficult to convince them that everyone in the compartment belonged to the same species.

The child, whose trajectory the mother incompetently tried to control, was currently climbing up the luggage racks.

“You comin’ down, or what?” she asked with her mouth full. The boy paid no attention to her. His shorts slid off his rounded belt, revealing pink bum cleavage.

“The Greeks and Romans...,” Thomas was leaning over his sheet of paper again. He could still survive the last few minutes of the journey. “The Greeks...”. They said that a man’s body is more perfect because its average temperature is slightly higher. Maybe that was why he suffered from the heat so badly? “The Romans...”. They said that if you want to investigate a confusing case, you have to find the woman in it and understand her role. And again, it was the truth. Thomas discreetly raised his eyes. At the very end of the feast, the goddess wheeled out the big guns against the walls of his self-control. Two boiled eggs and goat’s cheese. The cannon fired: the stink reached his nostrils. A month of rest, after which he was returning to work, pissed off in a second.

“The Greeks and Romans...,” the sentence in his head died as it was born. Shit – he thought, feeling the vice of rage squeezing his head harder and harder. And that was a very bad sign.

Find the woman? Which one in this case? Maybe his mother? She’d died seven months ago. Here, the Romans were right. For him, she’d been both a lighthouse and a port.

During her funeral, he’d decided not to say goodbye to her. After all, he would always be able to talk to her – he was working on a place for her in his own head. On an enclave where his mother would never grow old and from whence she would never leave. But time had shown that more bad than good had happened this way. She stopped being herself. Only recently had he realised that this had somehow knocked away the support she had given while she was fully independent and imperfect. Living, and not animated. He deceived himself that he would talk to her, and instead he only kept asking himself questions, which, like a ventriloquist, he answered with the mouth of the dummy animated by his own imagination.

He holed up in his work, but was wrong in thinking that poring over books, working with the Church, and tracking down the demon-possessed would help him forget that the fragile castle of his peace and quiet stood on a regularly flooded shore. Perhaps looking for signs of possession and provoking unclean souls was too difficult for someone who was trying to crawl out of the swamp by pulling his own hair.

But then, to the delight of the Romans, another woman appeared. Maria. The exorcist. One of the first in the whole Church. As if especially prepared for him by fate. Thomas’s subconsciousness stuck to her, as if to an air bubble discovered by accident under water. Together they were to form a team. A team, although – as the parish priest put it – “God forbid, a couple!”. It was an elegant formulation.

Again, he could devote himself to work, but now, for a change, he found balance within it. At first, he supported himself with the priest’s energy, her charisma and self-confidence. Along the way, he did what was required of him: he read books, memorised, searched for the possessed and trembled with excitement at the thought of the next day, when he would do something together with Maria again. Anything.

He had never done so well before.

Or maybe he’d just become better at lying to himself? “You didn’t deserve it all”, “You’re cheating yourself again”, said a voice heard only by him. At first, he strained to hear whether it wasn’t his jealous mother who spoke. But no. It was a completely alien tone, which he didn’t recognise, certainly not his own. Then another one joined it. Finally, there were evenings when a whole choir of voices emerged in his head in unison with a song reminding that nothing can last forever and the day of payment was inevitably approaching. Probably a higher sum than expected. He got scared, realising that every minute of orderly life increased his debt. Just like when you flip a coin time after time and it always lands on tails. You know it’s probable, but you feel in your bones that somewhere beneath the surface of reality a counterbalance is rising and the universe is finally going to fight for it. You realise that there is no reason to believe that there is anything like a counterbalance to random events in the universe, and that every tails increases the chance of a heads, but you also just can’t cope with the irrationally growing tension.

So Thomas kept himself busy; he didn’t go back home, he maundered around the city until late to collapse on his bed, utterly exhausted. Several times he slept in the park, at the railway station, or in completely random places. And still the foul voices were getting better at searching out the moments when he was trying to rest – and then they attacked.

Fear grew in him slowly and finally bloomed with panic, flowering and overpowering every thought. One day he woke up on a bus stop bench with the thought that if something simply happened to Maria, it would all be over. And that he could be a discreet catalyst for such an event. Then, for the first time, anger grew in him because of the dawning comprehension that constant escape was driving him into madness.

The symptoms were becoming clearer and clearer. The inner beast held sway to such an extent that sometimes it tore itself off the leash. Three times, Thomas had brought himself to such a state that he had struck the demon-possessed. Once, even a child. He was ashamed. And this shame drowned out the fury for long weeks, finally giving way to the field of depression, and then, through a narrow gap of hopelessness, the beast easily squeezed itself back. Rested and ready to fight. He raised his hand again, this time at a woman, shouting the words from the Book of Exodus: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”. At that moment he’d been sure he was in the right, but his principals had considered his act to be far beyond the rules. He was lucky that neither the victims nor their families complained to the police. After some time, he decided that maybe they should have. The priest was of a similar opinion. They would probably throw him out instead of treating him with kid gloves and giving him another chance, but he was apparently difficult to replace.

Thomas looked at his right hand – old, wrinkled, with uneven fingers, overgrown with dark hair, although he himself was a pale blond with an intimidating face under rather unkempt, thinning hair. The nails on this hand were slightly ridged, which could indicate a liver disorder. But Thomas had a healthy liver. This was evidenced by the other, left, hand. His own. Thirty-five years old, with the long slender fingers of a violinist, and with even nails. Handsome. Bland. His strange, right old hand was the reason for his occupation. And it was that hand which provided him with work for life, whether his employers liked it or not. It was too valuable. His meticulousness, knowledge and memory could be exchanged, but not the hand, not at all.

That’s why they didn’t throw him out, but after one of his offences they sent him “to rest”. He complied. He read, took notes, slept, ate. He read again. His almost photographic memory was stuffed up to the rim. Descriptions of rituals, signs of visitation and forgotten knowledge about ways of selling out to the devil made his mind reel.

He lost focus. He was supposed to rest, but again he only distracted his attention. There was no internal transformation. He simply replenished his strength and the beast in him also regenerated.

The heat of the last few days had become an additional torment for the body, and the stench of the goat’s cheese and eggs pulled out by the woman were the last nail in the coffin. If he ever went on vacation again, maybe he would spend it differently instead of deepening his knowledge. Sleeping more? Meditating? Maybe he would go to a psychiatrist to get medication? It’s possible to meditate for twenty years, with doubtful results. Psychotropic drugs would always help. And in a few minutes. Unfortunately. Now he was coming back and it was too late to correct the mistake. He needed a sober mind. This was his life. There had never been a right time. Always either five to twelve or five past. His thoughts went round and round as if in a washing machine. There was no way to focus.

He raised his head and frowned, looking at the woman in the compartment.

“Will you eat, Jeremy?” she asked her son, who made a protracted sound like a dying sheep. The kid was temporarily lying under the passenger’s seat, sneakily looking at Thomas’s hand. He saw the old fingers with matchhead-like nails. A familiar anger in his head stretched out its limbs and shook its mane. “No,” he said to himself, and kept his hands relaxed.

The woman leaned over the peeled eggs. She looked like a nightmarish parody of Saint Lucia, who vowed chastity until death, and then gouged out her eyes to disfigure herself so she would not be sent to a brothel. Apparently, the cart that was supposed to take her from her house could not be moved. Her eyes later regrew, hence she is depicted looking at a tray where her own eyeballs lay.

The boy’s mother, closing her eyelids, first put one egg into her mouth, then the other, after which she opened her eyes wide. It looked as if the white balls she’d swallowed had returned to their place.

The cheese she didn’t touch, meaning she didn’t eat the goat produce, which a few hundred years ago would have been enough for her to have been seen as a witch and burnt at the stake. She may have counted on the small mercy of being killed first, provided that she gave away her fellow guilty women from the area. “For everything that people did in those days to people out of envy and greed, and in the name of the law and faith, the Church should apologise at every Mass,” thought Thomas.

His memory, bursting with excerpts from books, prompted whole pages and passages as though in a frenzy. Unmarried women, living reclusive lives among herbs and animals, treating the needy, were sent to the fire first. It was as if being alone and happy was forbidden. Nothing heated his rage as effectively as the beastliness towards those who had the audacity to live differently.

The gossip of an envious neighbour was enough for “an alderman with a mayor in the market square to burn the witch having lit the blessed candle.” Hot water, vinegar, pouring boiling oil into her throat, smearing with burning tar, placing a burning metal sheet against her sides and starved rodents to her breasts, trapping biting bugs on her belly under a cupping glass, burning her genitals with a red hot iron even before the trial, so that the devil had no access to them and so they could not cast curses on the jury... Even the acquitted had no return to normal life as women, wives or mothers. The community treated the cripples and their whole families as lepers. Thomas tried to pull himself together, but he couldn’t stop the horrible flood, and images kept coming in waves.

In any case, in the witchcraft trials no one defended the accused, who, strangely enough, were almost always the poorest women. When in 1673 the rich wife of Adalbert Frederick, a wealthy citizen of Kobylin, was accused of witchcraft, the burgher Bijak declared that, having previously served as mayor, he had conducted many witchcraft trials, but had not heard of Ursula Frederick ever being accused of witchcraft. This was enough to set her free. The poor were almost never released.

Hundreds, thousands of civic documents studied in search of techniques, signs, traces or forgotten methods of tracking the interference of evil forces in our world, willingly or not resulted in increasing contempt in Thomas’s head towards people as a senseless multitude, and disgust with the dark ages. And accusations?

The miller John Johnson testified that he “saw the accused when she was collecting and picking some herbs near her cottage. I know no more, only that they said to her that she must know things.” The sentence? “She was playing with spells, which she took through herbs... then she is to be burned alive at the stake for this sin.” Another one was convicted because her husband was found in the basement of a burgher. How did he get there himself? According to his testimony, he returned home, where he found his wife smeared with a strange ointment and escaping through the chimney. And he tried to pull her back. He also flew up the chimney and suddenly found himself in that cellar, where his wife was already enjoying wine. He jumped to her, but she crossed herself and again flew away in the form of a cloud of dust, this time home. The husband also crossed himself, but in his case, surprisingly, it didn’t work. He was found blind drunk the following morning. He told the whole story. His wife was buried up to her neck, and her protruding head was burnt and crushed with a boulder. What the dogs later picked out from under the stone was theirs.

Another page in front of the eyes of his imagination. Sometimes he had the impression that he had no control over it at all. As if something suggested the thoughts to him. Thomas did not have to read all this, but his innate curiosity pushed him further than others in his profession.

The woman sitting in the compartment would have no chance. She was literally a reservoir of signs and would not even have to undress before the court. First of all, discoloured fingers, probably from cigarettes, but who would care? The finger coloured blue, yellow or red was a sign of the devil – everybody knew that. Similarly with the three freckles at the corners of an imaginary triangle, appearing in the middle of her face. They were found on the back, under the armpits, on the inner thighs, between the buttocks – which the accused could not check for herself, of course. This was enough to send her to the stake.

Thomas looked at her jewellery. The pièce de résistance was a necklace with three cheaply shiny letter “A”s. What could the letters mean? Only three hundred years ago they would have been “known”: Argiel, Atriel, Apatat. A spell to bind the devil after being summoned so as not to hurt the summoner.

Rubbish.

Even demons cannot be bound, let alone devils.

Jeremy got out from under the seat, no longer hiding his interest in Thomas’s mismatched hands. He had inherited his crooked nose, asymmetrical lips and drooping left eyelid from his mother. Another nail in the coffin, also for the child. The inheritance of the mother’s worst traits was an inevitable sign of being possessed by a succubus.

Thomas closed the book with the gesture of a satisfied inquisitor and got up exactly when the train jerked and started to brake. At the last moment he caught the luggage rack. Behind him, an intergenerational hell broke out. Apparently Jeremy had decided to let himself be carried away by inertia, which this time resulted in a loss of his physical integrity. Thomas did not even look. Humanity interested him more on a general level. Individual persons – not at all. He left the compartment without saying goodbye and moved towards the carriage door. They were approaching the station.

He had completed five years of preparation for the profession in four semesters. His father always told him that “a normal pace is for chimpanzees”. When he finished his law degree before the accident, he also made it before the deadline. The education system based on the rule “No child left behind” was adjusted to intellectual dawdlers. When, after the accident, he was approached about cooperating with the Church, he did not yet know how much there was to learn, but he decided to repeat the deed. Just to get back to his old path as soon as possible. And soothe his conscience, somehow.

Compared to routine seminary activities, he was spared lessons in voice, confession and spiritual direction. However, he had much more to do with the history of the Church, the theory and practice of exorcism, and finally psychology, which he sincerely hated.

Classes daily from morning to evening, homework at night. Along the way additional tasks that filled him with the greatest disgust. In the first semester he was to get to know a stranger and gain their trust so they agreed to give him their photo ID. Then return and report. The temptation to cheat was born. It was possible to do so. But if you were under observation, things could become seriously complicated. Thomas failed honestly. He only passed the confidence test in the third semester. He paid a man for dinner. Paying was permitted. During your studies, money could be spent at will. Your own money. As long as it sufficed. Life at the expense of the Church began only after the final exams, with acceptance for the position.

Then there were tasks number two, three and so on. At the same time normal classes: Latin and Italian, possession and haunting, rituals, superstition culture. Students had two years to complete the last practical task. Plenty? Considering the amount of work with normal classes – very little. You had to find and expose the unclean spirit in a demon-possessed person, gain their trust by introducing yourself as a non-believer, and, finally, report it to your mentor. Thomas had six months to do it. Again he failed. The possessed was detected in less than a week, but he did not gain her trust. On the contrary – he scared the victim so much that a few weeks later she died of exhaustion in a hospital abroad. Nobody could help her, the doctors did not know the source of the illness. It was a secular hospital – no priest.

However, since Thomas had finished his classes quickly, the time needed to complete the course was extended. Again, he had no problem finding an unclean soul. This time a woman helped him. Coincidence? Maybe.

The most important test which he was to pass was hidden from him until the end. During his studies and interactions with the faithful, the possessed, working for the Church, he had not only to declare his lack of faith, but also to remain an unbeliever. This was required by his function during exorcism. This was a rarity among students. Thomas was exceptional in this respect. He said that the virus of faith had given him a wide berth. His employers were very happy, although the metaphor did not make them smile.

The inconvenience was that the training had to take place in secret. Once, also on the move, he listened on the train to the lies of a young man who was bullshitting a girl that he was an exorcist; that there were secret courses where he was trained in martial arts, and even in the use of weapons. Like James Bonds. All lies. No martial arts or weapons will help you when the devil thinks it’s worth doing you harm. In the face of possession, you have only your head and what’s in it. Thomas seemed to know everything, but he couldn’t keep his hands to himself.

As soon as the carriage stopped, he stepped out onto the platform with deliberation. Maria was standing nearby. Light hair, so straight it looked like it’d been drawn on, lightening in the summer and timidly turning a reddish hue in autumn. Slightly shorter than him. And almost one third younger. In the air shimmering from the heat, she appeared like a mirage, and the tip of her head reflected the sharp light of the setting sun with a halo. Slim and smiling, but not carefree. Proud, but not inaccessible. In her black cassock she must have been melting from the heat, but her face and posture revealed nothing. He inhaled the station air, trying to catch her delicate fragrance. The anger dissolved without a trace.

Thomas recognised the difference between a girl and a woman. The first has curiosity in her eyes, she is brave, a bit naive, greedy for emotions, ready to dive without looking at whether there is enough air to swim out. This is what men are attracted to. One glance and you can see that in a few years’ time this shine will have paled. The eyes will become prudent – they have seen things, and the ears have heard things. So many reasons for crying that they won’t be taken in by a throwaway “everything will be alright”. Responsibility, bookkeeping of the costs of errors – all this can be seen in the eyes of a woman. A woman looks at you with no curiosity, and when she falls in love and moves into your apartment, she always has one bag packed, just in case. No longer flirtatiously, but sincerely, she starts to be ashamed of her body. She no longer believes that anyone can love her completely. And rightly so. Every gesture, every man’s sentence in the first millisecond is received with a grimace saying “yeah, right”, after a while turning into regret – “how did I react to this when I was younger?” And then there is only a theatrical mask of surprise, happiness, sometimes even tears. Everything somewhat forced, with her hand on the handle, always ready to cut off whenever the situation doesn’t meet expectations. What about spontaneity? Sometimes, after a drink or two... Besides that, they are only spontaneous towards their own children. Maybe that’s why he missed his mother.

And Maria? Maria was on the threshold. She still had a lot of youthful hunger for madness; at other times, as if for a test, she switched on her femininity, wisdom, prudence, stiffness. She played with it for a while and then put it away again. Thomas had once decided that he would like to witness how, to the horror of other women, the priest would carry this girlhood through the threshold of maturity, without any harm. The harpies will probably throw themselves at her to scratch out her eyes, but even if that happens, she will be living proof that it’s possible. In the old days, she would have inevitably been accused of witchcraft.

Thomas had believed for a long time that he also had similar traits, but since he met Maria, he had had to come to terms with their deficiency. It was enough for him that they were clothed by her body, somewhere next to him. He just had to be careful not to frighten them or, worse still, not to corrupt them.

“How was your journey?” She asked. Because what else was she supposed to ask about?

“Great,” he lied.

She stretched out her hand. He squeezed it. It was cool.

“I bet,” she gazed at the mother scrambling from the carriage and shouting loudly for Jeremy. “You look like a hundred misfortunes.”

He also looked around. Behind the obese woman there were two Muslim women in burqas.

“Religion enslaved those women with clothes,” he commented.

“Would you also say that priests are enslaved with their clothes by our religion?”

“On form, as usual,” he smiled lightly.

“It’s great that you, too, as usual...,” she didn’t finish. “Do you want to change? Freshen up?”

“Should I? Are you already dragging me somewhere?” For a moment he wondered if he was tired enough to go home. Surely he was not.

They walked towards the underground passage. There were jackdaws on the hot roof of the station. Their wings drooped and their beaks were ajar, as if they were screaming, and someone had turned off their sound. He realised that he was looking for animals everywhere. On sidewalks, balconies, in the grass. When he still socialised, he used to move away into a secluded corner under the pretext of playing with a cat or dog. He was pleased that this had not changed after the accident. At least one thing. Maybe he should get a dog again? He’d had one when he was small.

“This heat is murderous,” he noted when they entered the tunnel under the platforms. The nice chill titillated them.

“You don’t see God in it,” she answered.

“Whereas you see Him everywhere.”

“Yes, but seeing God is like seeing a picture too close. You see a piece, as if you know what’s in it, but you can’t comprehend the whole thing. Or as if you’d been in the museum for half a day, someone asks what you saw there, and you describe a huge white ball that you looked at for half an hour. Maybe you’d mention another couple of exhibits. Your description would in no way reflect everything you’d seen there, though, let alone the impression contact with real art made on you. Do you see?” She glanced at him.

“It’s all the same to me,” he didn’t have to hide his sincerity. “Haven’t you stopped being a religious cyborg yet?”

She threw an indifferent glance at him. Now he felt her fragrance more intensely. Violet? “Stigmata usually smell of violets,” his thoughts were escaping into associations again. The curse of a photographic memory. Everything was associated with something.

“I’m glad you came,” she smiled at last and jumped down the last two steps. “Although it’s a shame that you haven’t rested. I don’t know what they were hoping for. As if they didn’t know you, right?”

Why did she talk to him so much?

“Are you happy that you’re back at work?”

“In fact, I didn’t leave at all,” he said. She grew serious. He realised that she might have understood his words differently than he would have liked.

Chapter 2

And what if faith in Christ really is the greatest power in the world? The thought sneaked through Thomas’s head. He shook himself, not wanting to bite the hand that was feeding him.

The suburban house was small. He stood and looked at the closed door. He collected his thoughts and was about to knock vigorously when he felt Maria’s hand on his shoulder.

“Wait a moment.” She always felt his anxiety. “Calm down. This is no longer a holiday. We’re back at work.”

It was hot midsummer. Freshening up hadn’t helped much. A quarter of an hour after the shower he felt sticky again. The only thing was that now the sun had dipped below the horizon and was no longer burning everything to ashes.

He took a deep breath and looked around. The continuous stuffiness did not let him rest. Just like the question that was still pulsating in the back of his mind. Because, even though he rejected faith in the divinity of Christ, he didn’t want to lose the wisdom of religion. On the edge of consciousness, he captured the shadow of a belief that religions have too many useful, effective and wise elements to remain the property of believers only. So, was he starting to lean towards spirituality? Was it the beginning of the end of his service to the Church?

“Maybe this time, just for a change, we can act as we should?” said Maria in a whisper. “We’ve already received a warning. I beg you, let’s play by the rules, otherwise the parish priest will skin us alive. Do you promise not to start a brawl?”

Thomas did not even look at her. Slowly, he moved his fingers across the frame. He turned his hand to the light. Maria leaned towards him.

“Splinters...,” he said, looking at the slivers of wood under his skin without emotion. “The place is defending itself. It doesn’t want us to enter.”

“It’s not a 100% sign. After all, the trail doesn’t necessarily reveal itself,” she pulled on her clothes and corrected her hair, stiffening in front of the door. “Have you got déjà vu? Because I have.”

He shook his head. Déjà vu was one of the signs of crossing the boundary of a cursed area, a place where unclean forces were acting.

“We must be careful if we want to deceive the liar before he deceives us.”

She nodded her head. Thomas observed every inch of the wall around the entrance and then looked at the threshold. One leakage of presence did not really make any difference. It’s different if there are more of them. He kicked and lifted something from the ground, adjusting the bag hanging over his shoulder.

“A rosary,” he felt stressed. “It was probably hanging over the entrance.” He fiddled with it.

“It fell down? They have no respect for God here...”

“Who knows? Maybe they have? Probably they rehung it and it fell down again. They hung it and it fell.”

“Finally, objects started to fly around the house,” she continued the story.

“Yes, apports.” Thomas nodded. “First at night. You’re sleeping and suddenly you wake up and wait. At first you don’t understand what’s going on, but it quickly turns out that something is moving in the dark. There’s a scraping. It hits the floor. A plate? Did a mouse sneak in through an unclosed window? A draught? Then something falls again. On the first floor. And again. This time in the basement. Now you already know that this is no coincidence.”

Somewhere in the bushes a cat mewed like a child sobbing. Maria looked behind her uncertainly, and then at Thomas. She wiped her forehead with her sleeve.

“Wrong clothes for this weather.” He smiled at her for the first time since he’d arrived. Once in a while you can do so without risk.

“And what about the cross above the door? Why didn’t they straighten it up?”

“Why would you need a guard at the gate when the enemy is already inside?”

“This enemy doesn’t come in through the door,” she said and gently took the rosary out of Thomas’s hand. “And Christ’s place is not on earth.”

“The ambiguity of that phrase would allow me to polemicise... in other circumstances.” He dug out the splinters and looked around the garden. In the middle of the lawn there was an electric mower, still plugged into the wall socket. “Everyone enters through some door that can be defended. But there’s really something wrong with this one...”

“Need more time?”

His head was empty again. Everything escaped him. For a second, but still. What was happening to him?

“Wait,” he moaned. “Somehow I got lost,” he added after a moment, maybe too honestly.

“Stick to your role.” She didn’t believe him. Maybe that was for the best. “I am Christ’s instrument to flush the fox out of its den. You’re supposed to look to the fox like a chance to shelter again.”

“To be able to manipulate Scripture efficiently, at the same time to look lost, while remaining an unbeliever,” he quoted the formula from the textbook with sarcasm. Memory returned. “What’s difficult about it?”

“Right!” she muttered.

“So what’s the problem?”

“What you’re doing now. You’re not to deceive me, but the unclean soul during exorcism. I won’t be taken in,” she straightened her hair.

“That would be inadvisable,” he raised his finger.

“Very.”

“Very,” he confirmed.

“Are you going to knock at last?” She turned to face him and nodded at the door, which opened at that moment. A musty smell and a slight coolness burst from inside.

There was not much more light behind the threshold than outside. There stood a small man, thin as a scarecrow, wearing big glasses. He looked at Thomas, then at Maria, then at her collar, and again at him.

“A woman priest?!” He was surprised.

Maria straightened her cassock. Thomas sucked air into his lungs. “Here we go again,” he thought.

“Mary Magdalene was the first to witness the miracle of the Resurrection,” she answered with a completely ungirlish voice. “I don’t need any more reasons to be a priest. And you, son?... God bless.”

“Aha...,” the man visibly shrank. Thomas liked to observe these reactions. Maria stood like a statue.

“I’m Peter Steele,” the host introduced himself and withdrew deep into the house. Thomas wanted to follow him, but the priest grabbed him by the sleeve.

“I beg you, carefully,” she whispered through her tight lips. “We don’t even know if it’s him. Don’t prejudice yourself.”

“I was born prejudiced,” said Thomas, and followed Steele.

They sat down in the kitchen, which was exceptionally spacious, occupying almost a third of the floor. The table was elegant, but the whole room, although furnished in a modern and expensive way, smelled of a rather clumsy copy of Scandinavian severity. On the countertop, apart from a pile of mugs, there was a chopping board, a jar of pickles, and pâté. In a sea of crumbs, next to a box of sanitary towels, there was the end crust of a loaf of wholemeal bread. The whole thing gave the impression of a rich house abandoned by the maid some time ago, and their lordships were horrified to realise that tidiness did not want to take an example from the mess and disappear of its own accord.

“Pardon me...,” the man stammered, grabbed the box with the towels and hid it in a drawer. He wanted to do it discreetly, but the drawer got stuck and he wrestled for a while with the mechanism until he finally managed to close it. “Mother, forgive the mess. My wife and I have no energy to clean. None for anything, to tell the truth. Did I say hello? I’m sorry,” the man sighed. “I asked for a confession for Julia, but the first priest... Mark? He said to go to the doctor first, because without the doctor’s opinion, the last rites are not allowed... After all, she has leukaemia... I have all the documentation... Is this really necessary?”

“Really,” Thomas answered quickly.

He was aware that it hadn’t come out very well. His face was still uncertain. His gaze wandered around the furniture, walls and ceiling. The room was swimming lightly in front of his eyes, which was probably a symptom of his body’s struggle with the full-on heat. Maria looked at him and squinted. Thomas turned to the window.

“And there was a doctor, right?” She cut through the silence.

“There was. Doctor... I’ve forgotten the surname. He examined her. He ordered us to call Father Mark. The priest came once, then he couldn’t, he suggested someone else. And here you are... That’s the story.”

Thomas approached the kitchen threshold and observed it carefully. Out of the corner of his eye he saw that Maria was impatient with his direct behaviour.

“Thomas?” she looked at him threateningly. He raised his shoulders, pretending to be surprised by the priest’s reaction.

“And what’s your life like here, Mr. Steele? Is it peaceful?” He asked, still scanning the surroundings.

The host leaned his head as if he wanted to make sure he had heard everything correctly. Thomas saw his reflection in the kitchen window and did not even turn around. He knew that this one sentence, uttered at that moment, had encapsulated his poor communication skills.

“What do you mean ‘peaceful’?” he scowled, looking at Thomas’s back and then at Maria.

Suddenly he shivered and started crying. He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. Maria moved a chair closer and put her hand on his shoulder.

“I will go and prepare everything.” Thomas picked up his bag. “Which way?”

“Opposite,” Steele indicated the direction with wet fingers. Then he took out a small handkerchief and mopped his whole face, moist from tears and sweat.

“Is she baptised?” Thomas asked on the way out. “Long ago?”

“I thought when she was big, she would choose for herself.”

Maria made a face, as if she had stepped on a pin, at which the host first rolled his eyes, and then added, “Father Mark said the same: ‘You didn’t want to give your child all the best? You gave her a name. You said you were her father. You didn’t wait until she grew up to choose her parents. If you are convinced that faith is the best thing you can give, do it. The Lord will give her His gifts anyway, but He will never impose anything, and your daughter will be able to reject faith as many times as she wants.’ It didn’t convince me. I don’t give a crap for such talk. Leukaemia convinced me. Go now. Do what you have to. I beg you.”

“Be careful,” said Maria as Thomas was leaving. He sensed something more than just courtesy in her voice. It seemed she also felt that something was seriously wrong.

Chapter 3

Thomas entered the room at the other end of the corridor.

“Three times I stumbled over the threshold,” he said, closing the door. “Almost impossible, right? What a klutz.”

It was a large child’s room, permeated with the unbridled lack of moderation of loving parents. In the twilight, shelves groaned under the weight of dozens of toys. Teddy bears, dolls, board games, books. A hammock was hanging in one of the corners, with a tent, a TV set and a game console underneath. Thomas winced in disapproval. The opposite corner was occupied by a large bed. In the ocean of bedclothes something small was lurking under the duvet. Thomas took a tablet off the bed and put it on a table. He picked up his bag and removed a crucifix, two candles and a stole, which he hung on a small hanger next to the door.

“Everything is ready,” he said.

There was silence in the room.

“Hello?” he called in a sing-song voice.

Nothing changed. He gently nudged the duvet, but the contents were definitely too light. He sat down on a chair and tried to turn on the tablet. The device was password protected.

“What’s your PIN? What are you playing?” he asked.

It took a while before he heard a weak, girlish voice coming out from under the bed.

“Are you a doctor?”

“No.”

“One of dad’s friends?”

“Come out, we’ll talk about it.”

For a moment the silence fell again. Something rustled under the mattress and a light-haired mop of hair appeared briefly above the edge of the mattress.

“A priest?” asked the voice.

“No.” Thomas touched his neck with his hand, straightening the collar of his shirt. “An assistant to a priest.”

“Like Santa’s elf?”

“Don't you say ‘Saint Nicholas’? Santa was a saint, you know?”

Through the closed door, Maria’s voice reached him, explaining something to the host in the kitchen. Thomas couldn't distinguish the words, but he knew her patient, soothing tone.

“Are you a believer?”

“Faith is grace.” Thomas cleared his throat. He wanted to make his words sound as pleasant as possible. The child probably listened more to the emotions than to the content of the spoken words.

“How do you mean?”

“As I said. You don’t necessarily accede to grace. And you won't be able to do anything about it, Julia.”

Something moved under the bed again. Thomas folded his arms and waited. Apparently, the fugitive was starting to get bored. A moment more.

“Accede?”

“Accede. Like... to receive this grace,” he explained. He did not like these empty conversations. Of all his work, the most difficult thing was not what he was warned against, that is provocation, tracking and hacking, but the earlier stage: building a friendly relationship. He had always had trouble with it, and now, as if out of spite, it had turned out to be the foundation of his profession. He’d never get over it. It was one thing when he was supposed to talk about nonsense with adults, although even that wasn’t easy. Contact with children filled him with exceptional aversion.

“Did you accede to it?”

Damn...

“I help the priests,” he blurted out. “I know about grace”.

“Do you really think so?”

He didn’t think so at all.

“Really.”

“Can evil people go to heaven?”

“We don’t know,” he answered shortly. He’d got tangled up. He’d started badly. He would have liked to just go out and try again. With a longing eye, he looked at the tablet, which could always be rebooted. He could not reboot this conversation. Like many others in life.

To his surprise, a little head rose above the level of the duvet. She had the round face of a doll, a somewhat disproportionately large nose, and dark eyes. Thomas, masking his interest, looked at her pupils. Fortunately, they were clearly outlined. Her pale, narrow lips contrasted with the soft contours of the rest of her face.

“How do you mean?” Julia sniffed. Apart from the front, she had no adult teeth, and the milk teeth had already fallen out. Thomas thought that with such a bite she looked like a small horse, but he rebuked himself for it immediately. The late appearance of her teeth could have been a result of her weakened body and illness. Thomas avoided contact with children, but paradoxically their senseless suffering most effectively sealed in his heart every crack through which faith could enter his heart. How could they possibly be guilty of anything in front of God?

“God is supposedly not someone,” he gathered patience, “with whom you can negotiate or discuss, or set conditions. ‘I’ve been a good girl, let me in immediately!’ Is that how you imagine it?”

She shook her head vigorously. She probably hadn’t understood the question at all, but from the tone of his voice she got that it should be denied. Children were always doing that. She smiled and sniffed. She was clearly satisfied. Strands of her hair fell onto her face. She did not straighten them.

“Someone can only try. And pray for acceptance,” Thomas continued.

“So a good person need not go to heaven?” She’d understood after all.

“I’ll be honest with you,” he sighed. “I don't know. It is said to be according to God's plan.”

“That's bad,” she scratched her head and made an excessively disappointed face.

“Why?”

“Can I trust you?” she whispered mysteriously.

“And can I trust you?”

“I don't think so.”

“Why not?”

“I won't say it,” again she shook her head so hard it looked as though she might twist her neck.

“Is this some kind of game?”

“Unfortunately not.” Julia scrambled out onto the bed. She had a rolled up sleeve and a cannula, but Thomas couldn’t see a drip anywhere.

“It’s serious,” she lisped the word ‘serious’. Teeth help in diction, after all.

She wrinkled her small brow. She looked at most eight years old, short, skinny, with a large head, although according to Father Mark she was almost eleven. Even if the illness had changed her, the room was not a room for someone who would soon be a teenager. Maybe she had drawn the short straw when it came to parents. Hers were the kind who do not seem to notice the child growing up, keep buying cuddly toys, and then wonder why their daughter picks another teddy bear over a husband.

“How serious is it?” Thomas shook himself.

“I have the devil’s strength inside me and I will die. Will I definitely go to heaven? And will dad go there, too?” she said, in almost one breath.

Thomas wiped his mouth with his hand. He wanted to say something, but he hesitated.

“It’s not the devil,” he began with caution. “You have a serious illness. Leukaemia. Your own body...”

“No!” she interrupted him. “I mean, leukaemia, too. But I have the devil in me, too, so dad has to kill me. If so, will I definitely go to heaven? To mum? And will dad go there, too?” she repeated. “Because you said yes!”

Thomas decided there was nothing for it. She led the conversation in her own way. He had got no indication of unclean forces. So maybe her father after all?

Chapter 4

“Has your daughter been taking any psychotropic drugs?” Thomas asked, returning to the kitchen.

Steele was sitting at the table, and Maria was bustling, trying to brew tea and had already organised two cups, some Earl Grey, and water in the electric kettle. Steele gave Thomas an unconscious gaze like a doctor after 24 hours on call. He turned to Maria and gave her his cup.

“You won’t believe what I heard,” she said, waving a teaspoon like a trophy.

“And the same,” Thomas took a deep breath to cool down a little.

He knew these sparks in Maria’s eyes and didn’t like it when she was so excited. Early conclusions are always harmful. Maybe somewhere else quick decisions paid off, but definitely not in this profession. He also knew that he would not have a chance to get her interested in his findings until they’d dealt with the subject which she deemed the most important at the moment.

“OK, I’ll go later,” he gave way. “Who’s starting?”

“Should I start from the beginning?” Steele took the initiative.

“From the move,” she suggested and turned to the kitchen worktop, waiting impatiently for the host to talk.

“At the beginning it was normal,” Steele groaned and straightened up in his chair, preparing for a longer speech. “But last year, on the second of November, something started to happen. I remember the first days perfectly. First the phone rang. I answered. Silence. I hung up. A moment later it rang again, this time with a constant, drilling sound, as if it was broken. I answered. At the other end was something like an animal growling. I thought it was a joke. I hung up again. Then the neighbour’s dog went crazy. He was howling and barking as if he was in great pain. Then everything stopped for half a day. In the evening the neighbour came. His dog had died. He was speared by an aerial, which had broken and fallen from our roof. We liked that dog. Dinner passed in a gloomy atmosphere, and just after the meal it started again. This time knocking on the wall. At first I thought they were repairing something. Or that the neighbour was getting his revenge. I followed the sound. It turned out that it wasn’t coming from the wall or the floor. I’d barely approached when the sound changed its source. It came as if from the other side of the house. I thought that maybe it was the pipes or gas? I turned off the valve in the basement. Nothing. The knocking went on. It stopped after three in the morning. We woke up exhausted. The next day a specialist in furnaces came first, then a plumber. This second had thirty years of experience. Neither of them found anything. Just in case, the plumber screwed in a new valve, but as soon as he left the house, it simply burst. I called him. He came back. He screwed in a second one. The same. He didn’t have a third, so he screwed in the old one and suddenly it went quiet. He left. On the same day in the evening the pipes blew up and the whole cellar was flooded with hot water.”

Steele stopped because, ironically, the water in the kettle had started to boil. He waited a while for the noise to calm down. Maria brewed the tea.

“Oh, you have cake!” she pointed to a bundle on the windowsill. “Can we have some?”

The host waved his hand, so she cut it into even pieces. Two raisins fell to the floor. Thomas watched the scene with fascination, which surprised him a little. A woman priest in the kitchen cutting a cake and dropping raisins on the floor. He decided that if he had been Vermeer, he would have been ready to create a memorable masterpiece.

“The next night we heard the sound of ripped up planks. Julia had already noticed that all this came in triples. Three squeaks, three blows.”

“Triple, that is ridiculing the Trinity,” Maria was thinking aloud and looking around the ceiling, as if something was to manifest itself at any moment. The house, however, apparently had no intention of revealing its secrets in the presence of the priest.

Thomas suspected he knew what the story was all about, but decided to let the host talk. He confirmed the words of the priest with the blink of an eye. If he didn’t allow Steele to say everything, to tire him out, these extras would then cut into the course of the conversation. He wondered what he should think about all this, because he was considering not only what Steele was saying, but also the way in which he constructed his story.

“Then objects started disappearing. And they appeared somewhere else – on the stairs, in the bed. At first I thought it was Julia and her friends, but once I made a scene and she was crying so hard that I was ashamed. One day, in turn, the house was filled with bitter cold. I was cracking up. As you know, my daughter is ill, and I was afraid that this would make her even worse. There was no way we could move. We ended up going to shopping centres and the cinema, just to come home as late as possible. Julia was very weak anyway. And I was desperately worried. A man wants to create a house for his family all his life...,” Steele tried to drink the tea, but it was still too hot. He only touched the edge of the cup with his mouth and put it on the table. “With all my emotions, there were only more nerves. We bawled at each other. You know how... She was crying; I was crying. It all weighed on us so much that one day we started to threaten each other with death. I shouted that I would kill her. She that she would kill me. Then for the first time it became quiet for two days.”

Thomas turned his gaze away from Maria and looked at the man. Indeed, when a demon is haunting, it strives to divide the family, that is its main goal. It starts to attack those feelings and problems to which the inhabitants are most sensitive. As time goes by, when it becomes clearer where the family has a weak point, it begins to tear it apart. It puts its gnarly finger into the wound, and digs all the way to the bone. Everything accumulates and people become more and more exhausted.

Steele’s story showed that in their case the weakness was Julia’s peace and health. This had to end in catastrophe. Emotion is amplified so often and so strongly that in the end the helpless person turns it on themselves so that the stress does not digest them from the inside. Hence probably the initial concern and struggle for Julia’s health turned into a desire in a moment of anger to kill her. The same applies to chronic terminal illnesses. There comes a moment when the patient wants to die, and the family, although they won’t say it out loud, also want them to pass on. Suddenly everything fell together in Thomas’s mind. But Steele wasn’t finished yet.

“Two nights later it came back. First a bang. Julia ran to me with a scream. In the middle of her bedroom wall there was a half-metre hole. As if someone had punched the spot with a giant fist. From underneath the crushed plaster there was a sound of wet cardboard tearing. I reported everything to the police. They came, they took notes, and they went. I didn’t sleep a wink until the morning. The next night it started from scratch. Finally, we started to literally go crazy at every single thing. Once a crystal glass fell from the table and didn’t break – panic. Another time we could not boil water. A row. Later someone slashed a tyre on my car. Arguments with the neighbours. We were close to madness. Such small things, and they irritate like salt in a wound.”

Not an obvious comparison, thought Thomas.

“I used up all my sick days. They were going to lay me off from work, I was sleeping at my desk and they caught me a few times.”

“Losing control is the demon’s goal,” said Maria when the host stopped to drink his tea. As expected, being able to say everything was a visible relief to him. Thomas knew, however, that the most difficult thing was still ahead of them.

“Fine. Let’s go step by step,” he started his job, opening with the standard interview. “Has anyone in the neighbourhood or immediate family died recently?”

“No.”

“Is anyone being treated by a psychiatrist?”

Peter Steele shook his head and broke off a piece of cake. He took a bite, but he grimaced and laid the rest on the edge of the table. He drank some more tea.

“Have you bought any antiques, used furniture, at a garage sale, for example?”

“We haven’t got any money. Anyway, where are the antiques here?”