July 15th, 2017
They had worked well into the day digging graves and were just now finishing. A woman and her child stopped, further from them on a brick road, to look at the pile of ever growing dirt and the two men whose rolled sleeves showed their sweaty skin. One Hispanic, the other Asian. Her eyes narrowed. She had always considered herself one to not assume but this was too wrong; the grave, the Priest who stood from above and the two men who dug with ferocity. The Priest turned and looked at the pair. He was sweating though he did not work, nervous though he was innocent.
“Hello ma’am, just an inspection.” The Priest said.
“What’s there to inspect about a corpse?” She asked.
“You’d be surprised.” The loud clank of shovel hitting wood alarmed the woman, who put her hand over the child’s face. Within moments the coffin shot up by Dion who leveled it by one side of the pit. The woman gasped and ran, shaking her head as the child looked back with a dumb, toothless smile.
“It’s pretty light.” Dion said.
“There’s no corpse in there, you know that, right?” Apollo opened it. Dion put his hand over his eyes out of reaction. There was a tumble, a rattling, then a box rolled out. A simple red box with no particular flourishings. It looked cheap like someone had taken four rotten planks and glued them together. Apollo picked it up. Dion leapt up, grabbed the edge of the pit and lifted himself. Apollo walked up the slanted coffin, box in hand. The Priest looked at them.
“And the hole?” He asked.
“That’s not part of the job description.” Apollo said. He shook the box and put his ear to it. It sounded heavy, it felt dense, unevenly weighted.
They headed inside the church, the Priest taking the lead with wide strides. He closed the doors, scratched the floor with a chair and sat promptly behind a desk in his office. To his right was the basket of money. A sort of comfort item. He snatched the box from Apollo and set it in front of him, he was tapping, feeling for the hollow spots.
“You don’t get this yet. Not before you’re informed.” The Priest started. Dion straightened out and put his hands on his knees. It was a tight grip that got worse as they sank deeper into the conversation with the buzzwords of inspiration; job, duty, honor.
Apollo slacked in his seat.
“You’re here by my demand-”
“Gerosa Branch, Alpha Omicron Phi. Reporting, sir.” Dion blurted. He had a wide smile that made Apollo reel. Apollo shook his head. He looked to the side where he tried counting the tiles on the floor.
“Thank you, Dion.” The Priest said. “As I was saying, I wouldn’t have called you if I didn’t need you but things, well, they’re bad. Unpredictably bad, is the best way I can put it.”
“What’s wrong?” Dion leaned in. “How can we help?”
“I’m afraid this city has become compromised by what I suspect are devil worshipers. Or some kind of demonic entity, I don’t know. You can see it though, you can see it in the way the city conducts itself. You can see it in the state of the police and in the state of the press.”
“And in the state of the nation. Yes, what’s special about corruption? Ever take that skeptic eye at Congress? Might give you a heart attack, old man.” Apollo said.
“What’s special? What’s special is how hard the police have been going at removing evidence. What’s special is the corpses they’ve hidden from the people, a people growing more annoyed by the second.” The Priest said. “I mean, Jesus Christ. It’s an obstruction of justice by the very entities that are supposed safeguard justice.
“Don’t use the Lord’s name in vain.” Dion interrupted.
“Yes, of course.” The Priest slicked his hair back, he faced down at the table. “They’ve been getting rid of the bodies of recent murders by any means necessary. Forcing the families to shush too. Under the threat of violence, I assume.”
“Do you have any evidence to back that up?” Apollo said.
“No. I only came to this revelation after the fact. Had a fellow by the name of Geoffrey.” The Priest said. “A great listener, a great regular. Or at least he was because one day he just didn’t show up. And let me tell you, he wasn’t the type to forget worship or Jesus. That was enough to rile me so one day, I gave his wife a call, got suspicious and-”
“I don’t care about that.” Apollo said. “I mean to say, evidence for the occult. What makes you claim that?”
“You’re not very good at conversation. You know that? You ought to have more compassion.”
“Compassion doesn’t save you from dying.” Apollo searched inside his pocket for a cigarette.
“It saves you from yourself is what it does.”
“I’m glad you still have that preacher spirit in your.” Apollo sucked in the smoke and puffed out, the smog hit the two on the face. “But if you can’t prove to me that we’re in the presence of the occult, then I can’t help you. We’ve got limits on our jurisdiction, you know.”
“Apollo.” Dion hissed. He frowned.
“I can’t just run around playing superhero. I’m here for a job, like the tax man, like the exterminator. Just running an errand.”
“Fine. I’ll tell you about the murders in particular then.” The Priest looked around. He was dwindling his thumbs. “It’s hard for me to remember them, something as obscene as that should be forgotten. I say that the devil was involved because I can’t imagine this to be anything else but a kind of Hell. This…situation.”
“The victims, many of them, were found in pieces. Cut up, spread across different graves. Bundles of small arms. Worst of all, they were dried out, sucked out. Bled, like pigs. The assumption was that this was the work of a murderer, at least, everyone thought. But the killings were – are – too random. Ex-convicts, homeless, prostitutes, college kids. There is no pattern.”
“There’s always a pattern, the lack of a clear one only serves to empower the idea that we’re in the presence of a crafty killer. Or a group of murderers.” Apollo said.
“My assumption is, with the markings on the bodies. With the way they’ve been killed, I believe this to be the work of a cult.” The Priest said. “They police call it mass homicide but I call it ritual. The way they’re killed, like offerings almost. It seems to be getting worse too, the police found a body out in the woods, burned within a ring of salt. A deer head was sewn onto the body, the body itself seemed branded, tattooed with a strange design.”
“A sigil.” Dion said.
“Let’s not assume monoliths.” Apollo broke his stiffness. “I’ve dealt with people like this but they were just that, people. No demons, no anything. Just people. Misguided, dumb, people”
“Well, that’s why you’re here right? To find out what they are. What they’re doing, for whom. I hope you can, at least.” The Priest put both hands on the table. He seemed ready to pray and the desperation in his quivering eyes worried them both. “It’s getting worse. It feels like I can’t even breathe the air without tasting copper in my mouth. You need to help and do so with extreme prejudice. I don’t think there’s any saving this lot.”
The tension in the air felt like lead in their lungs.
“That’s very spiteful for a Priest.” Apollo said.
“There are limits to anyone’s patience. Besides, I’m Catholic, not Buddhist. Our people have waged wars for smaller things.”
Apollo scoffed. Dion looked down.
They heard a snap. The box opened and in it, a contract. There were two suit jackets out for them, a pair of gloves, and two long threads of what seemed like yarn. Apollo began to strip.
“Why do we need to change?” Dion said.
“They don’t teach you s*** at the academy, do they?” Apollo pointed to one of the jackets. “Consider this a loan. They’re letting your borrow your gear and they expect it back. Don’t lose your s*** or they’ll take your head.”
“I can’t keep my own weapons?” Dion asked.
“No. It’s a tight leash, ain’t it?” Apollo put on the blazer, he fitted his gloves and looked at the runes stitched inside of his jacket.
“Why do you get gloves?” He said.
“Because I asked nicely.” Apollo said. Dion narrowed his eyes and tugged on the Priests arm.
“Hey, can you send in a request-” The Priest jerked back. He slid back a few inches, the chair made a screech.
“Don’t touch me.” He said. His eyes were still and wide and staring into Dion, the wrinkles on the old father seemed more pronounced in his anger. His neck was red, glowing almost.
“I’m thankful for you both. But that’s it, just thankful. For I know what kind of unholy, unconsented marriage has transpired to create you two, that marriage between man and devil.” His dagger eyes stabbed at them. “You carry the mark of the beast in you. I know that. So don’t play friends with me, just do your job. This is a professional relationship.” Dion leaned back. His eyes looked pouty, his lips shook a bit.
And Apollo chuckled, he clasped his hands and put his fingers cross-hatched.
“Yeah. We’re frightening monsters. So keep away and try not to get bit.” Apollo said. He seemed experienced in weathering the storm of insults, you could see from his straight face, his mocking face. For his whole life perhaps had been one insult after another. That was something Dion could admire.
“The further you are from me, the better. I don’t like it when old men stand in the way of my job.” Apollo stood up. The chair jumped away. The Priest sat still in the back, tensed on his shoulders. But Apollo was not concerned with him, rather the two pieces of woven string in front of them. He grabbed them without caution, uncaring to the startled mess of the Priest. He held them in his hands and ignored The Priests glare. Dion made quick, shifty glances. He was nervous, still shaking.
“Helen used to make these.” He said. “I met her before she passed away. Now her son handles the family business.”
“R-right.” Dion looked away from the Priest. “Threads of life.”
He wrapped it around his arm.
“Keep it hidden, let it touch your skin. When heretical arcana is close, they burn, when it’s even closer, they glow.”
“Are they supposed to be warm?” Dion asked.
“Of course, they’re picking up on our trail after all. They’ll calibrate with time.” Apollo said. Dion couldn’t stop scratching his arm and each time he looked at The Priest he scratched even harder. They all felt on edge, one group to another, man to Vicar.
“That’s all we need from you. I’ll keep in touch if I have to.” Apollo knocked on the table. The Priest studied him with narrowed eyes. He left him a smile before he went to the door.
“And only if I have to.” Apollo left.
Dion wasn’t as easy. Discomfort was festering in his brain. It made his thoughts cloudy and fumbled his mouth with a jumbled mess of a goodbye, he did not know whether to thank or to apologize or to bad mouth. All those feelings, all tugging at different ends of his heart. He walked out before it became too uncomfortable and the door closed quietly. The Priest looked at the hall, then to the basket of money. He shook it, it felt lighter.
Both Vicars were out. Dion huffed, he didn’t realize how little he had breathed inside that heavy room until he was out. The nuns that passed stared at him, some of them smiled, some scrunched their faces in disgust. Dion was sweating again.
“Is it supposed to be this hot?” Dion asked.
“I don’t know. My neck, my face. My arm.”
“Your arm?” Apollo asked.