|This is a continuation of an ongoing story started years ago. To see the previous chapter and links to all the other chapters, click here.
The stained glass windows have shattered and great balls of flame pour out of the empty sockets. The fire is spreading fast, crawling it's way up the walls and licking at the roof.
Nothing burns like a church. Dried out books and dried out pews and the dried out sins of all the dried out widows who keep the place in business. All the firehoses in the city aren't going to save this one.
A praying man would fall on his knees and ask for a miracle.
I shift into 2rd and hit the gas.
“Saint, what are you doing?”
A fat beat cop with a sandwich is spilling lettuce all over 38th street as he waves us back. I give him a nod and slam it in to 3rd.
“Lizzie, flip us.”
A couple of fireman drop their hose and leap out the way. We're close enough now that I can hear the roar of the flames over the roar of the engine. The needle is bobbing at 70. I hammer it into fourth gear. Now we're really going.
“Jesus! Saint, you're gonna kill us!”
We jump the curb and ram through the 150 year old cast iron fence surrounding the church. Metal grinding metal. The radiator blows a jet of steam in to the air.
“Aim for the door!”
I jerk the wheel and close my eyes and the world turns inside out.
We pass through the burning doors of the chuch like a ghost.
The fire burns around us, pale blue and silent. Cool as the underside of your pillow.
The church itself is flickering like a poorly tuned in station on your antenna tv.
“Where are we going, Saint?”
The car is rocketing through the sanctuary still blowing steam. I take a quick look in Lizzie's direction. She looks scared.
I look away. “I've gotta find a friend.”
It's been awhile, but I remember Father Timothy's office is on the second floor.
I give the car a quick 'heal and toe', downshifting to second.
Still not slow enough and the back wall is getting awful close.
I yank the emergency brake and pull the wheel, sliding the car to a stop by the flame wrapped pulpit only a couple of steps from a stairway going up.
I don't ask Lizzie to follow me when I jump out. Somehow I know she will anyway.
The cold, silent flames reach out in tendrils from the walls and wrap themselves around us making it hard to see. I brush them away like cobwebs and take the steps two at a time up to Father Timothy's office.
Lizzie and I pass through his burning door like smoke and stop in our tracks on the other side.
The small office is still mostly intact, the flames just now creeping under the door and pulling at the edges of the cheap Montgomery Ward oriental rug on the floor.
The ghostly figure of Father Timothy is curled in a twitching ball on the floor, and even from the underworld I can see a monumental beating has hammered his nose flat and knocked the side of his head out of joint.
Hovering over his body is a ball of pulsating blackness. The thing seems to be sucking the light out of the room, leaving it noticable darker at it's edges. There is an impression of crawling serpentine things clawing at it's surface, but it's darkness is so complete, that my eyes refuse to focus. Tendrils like running tar have oozed out of it and are dragging themselves across Father Tim's body.
Lizzie grabs my arm and starts trying to pull me back through the door. “Oh shit,” she says, “we need to get out of here.”
I shake off her hand and stand my ground. “What the fuck is that thing and what's it doing to Tim?”
“That's the aura of a demon projected here from reality, but this is hallowed ground and the whole place is on fire. I've never seen a demon tough enough to survive something like this. We need to get as far away from it as possible.”
Little Lizzie has latched on to my arm again, tugging on it for all she's worth, but I'm not moving. “Lizzie, flip us.”
“No way. I don't want to burn to death and I sure as hell don't want to tangle with that thing.”
I grab the hand Little Lizzie's using to pull on my coat, twist it behind her back and pull her close. “Lizzie, this isn't a debate. My friend is being tortured by a demon. You're going to flip us.” I twist her arm enough to make her gasp and tear up a little. “I don't have time to argue, so don't make me hurt you permenant like.”
“Asshole,” she says. She spits in my face and we flip.
For once, being laid low coming out of the underworld is a good thing.
My eyes and lungs burn in the thick smoke, but at least I'm already on the ground where there's still some thin air left to breath. I hear Lizzie coughing beside me.
I'm coughing as well, but my gun is already in my hand, and without looking I send a couple of slugs towards the place where the darkness was.
I know I've done good when something grunts and thuds to the floor.
“ssssshhhhit. That smarts. S'that you Saint?”
I've spotted the outline of Father Timothy through the smoke and start belly crawling across the floor with my gun out front. “Who's asking?”
“And you even brought the bitch with you. I owe you a pie...”
There's a wet sounding chuckle from the far side of the room. I send another slug in it's general direction. Another grunt and the chuckling stops. My lucky day.
“Mortimer, you fuck. What have you done to Tim?”
Mortimer's voice comes out of the smoke. To my left this time. “I'm not feeling so well right now Saint.” I toss a bullet in the general direction.
I've made it to Father Tim, and it's worse than I thought. The left side of his face looks like somebody took a meat tenderizer to it. The eye socket is empty, and busted teeth are sticking through what's left of his cheek. I check for a pulse and try to pick out Mortimer in the smoke.
“Lizzie, you still with me? Get us out of here.”
The wet chuckling again. This time near the door behind me. “Sorry Saint. I know she was here, but she vanished.” Now he sounds almost sad, “she always vanishes.”
I toss another slug through the smoke at him.
“You missed that time.” I swear I hear him sigh. “I'm tired Saint. I knew you'd bring the girl here. I wish you'd gotten here sooner while I still felt more... myself.”
The wet chuckling again. “I know the Padre wishes you had.”
“Fuck you!” I empty what's left of my clip into the dark and slam another one home.
I've just jacked the slide forward when an enormous shape comes out of the smoke, grabs me by the lapels and lifts me off the ground like a doll.
What's left of Mortimer pulls me in real close to his bubbling and melting face. He looks even worse than Father Timothy. Everything is drooping. His jowels are resting on his shoulders and his scalp has come loose and sits crooked on his head like a bad toupee. A big black tooth tumbles out when he opens his mouth to speak. “Saint, I wish you'd stop shooting me.”
“Mortimor, your breath smells like shit.”
He backhands me hard enough that I see stars.
Sometimes, there's really nothing to say, so I headbutt what's left of his nose. It's like headbutting a wet paper bag. His face caves in and leaves a gooey slime across my forehead.
Mortimer says something like, “fush,” and backhands me again. Harder this time.
I shake my head to clear it.
Before he can backhand me again I jam my gun under his chin, pull the trigger, and blow his jaw off.
He knocks the wind out of me when he body slams me to the ground. I'm still sucking and gasping at the smokey air when he finds his jaw and smooshes it back to his face.
“tsh issh bvers”
“You mumble.” I shoot him a couple of times in the chest and he stumbles backward leaking goo out of the holes.
Now he looks mad. “ll ill oo ant.”
That one I understand.
He takes a step towards me and I shoot him twice more, knocking him back against the office door.
The goo oozing out of him is coming faster now and he's trying to plug some of the holes with his hands.
He looks up at me one more time. His jaw has come unhinged on one side and hangs loose. His tongue is half gone and hanging down to the collar of his shirt. I raise my gun to plant one more in his forehead and he spins and opens the door. His shadow is outlined by the fireball that busts into the room. He hobbles into the fire and is gone.
Smoke is pouring in now and there's no air left to breath. I drag myself back to Father Timothy and grab his hand.
He's not twitching anymore, and he doesn't grab back.
I'm coughing, but it's not doing any good.
Even though I'm about to die, mostly I just feel sad that my only friend is dead.
I unscrew the top of my flask and croak, “To Tim.”
I'm coughing too hard to get any whiskey down my throat and it spills across my chest. Should make me burn better, and then the lights go out.
Of course I don't die. I wouldn't be telling you this if I'd died.
When the lights come back on, I'm being dragged back down the steps of the church.
My head bounces off the first step and I groan.
When it bounces off the second stop, I try to yell 'stop', but only manage a faint painful cough.
When my head bounces off the third step I find the strength to claw at the banister and stop the punishment.
I feel my legs drop and Little Lizzie fills my vision.
“So you are alive,” she says.
I manage a moan in reply.
“You're an asshole.” She smiles an evil smile, leans back, and kicks me in the jaw with one of her big boots. The right one, I think.
The lights go out. Again.
This time when I wake up the my head is ringing like St. Patrick's Cathedral on Easter Day.
I start coughing.
The cough starts slow and spreads. A second or two later, it takes over my entire body.
I wonder if I'm going to die.
I finally hack up some clumps of black goo. I don't have time to wonder if they are imporant parts of my lungs because I starting puking up a thin black gruel of bile and soot.
Eventually, I catch my breath and take a look around.
I must not have been out for long because I'm still in the cathedral, or what's left of it. The cold blue flames are still dancing around the walls, but the flickering is slowing and the church is looking fainter than before.
I'm laying on the ground next to the car. Lizzie is in the driver seat, her head leaning over the stearing wheel.
“You came back...” I say.
“You're an asshole,” she says. She doesn't look at me.
I don't deny it. Instead, I try to clear my throat a bit. It feels like gargling razor blades. “Buy you a cup of coffee?”
Now she looks up. Her mascara is all runny, painting black rivers down her cheeks. She stares for a minute and actually manages a little laugh. “You know the bitch of it? The car won't start.”
“That's alright. Help me up, and we'll walk.”
She hesitates a moment. “Ok. We should go anyway. This whole place will probably collapse soon. Don't know what will happen then.”
“That's my girl. Help me up and let's get out of here...”
We're sitting in a booth at the Tick Tock Diner. I hate this place, but once you get on this side of town, there's nothing else open. Sure, the burger tastes like a shoe, but at least they'll bring you one at 4 am.
Little Lizzie has been playing the quiet game, and I've been rolling with it. Let her find the words she needs to get out.
Still coughing a bit, I pull a crumpled cigarette out of my crumpled pack, straighten it with my fingers and screw it between my peeling lips.
I'm patting my pockets looking for a light when she finally breaks the silence.
“You're incredible, you know?”
“Do tell? You got a match?”
“You almost died in the smoke and now you're smoking? Ridiculous.”
I find an old pack of matches in an inside pocket and light my smoke. A waiter eyeballs me and points to the 'no smoking' sign behind him. I flip him the bird, shake out my match, and toss it on the sticky floor. “Addiction's a bitch.”
“You could have died back there and you don't even care...”
I take a long drag of smoke, cough a bit, and give Lizzie a serious look.
“Kid, you're right. Thanks. I thought I was a goner, but you came back.”
She pokes around in her cheese fries a bit, thinking things over. She looks young. Real young. For just a moment I almost worry about her.
“How'd you know the fire wouldn't burn us?”
I take a drag and decide to tell the truth. “I didn't know it wouldn't.”
She thinks about this for a moment. “I didn't either. We could have died.”
“Did you see whatever demon was on the other side?”
“It was a side of beef who calls himself Mortimor. He was waiting there for us... for you.”
“Saint, we shouldn't have been there. I'm sorry about your friend, but you risked both our lives, and that's not the deal. I wasn't going to die with you, but once the darkness left, I wasn't going to let you burn to death either. Do you know what it means to have your soul consumed by a demon? Do you know what it means to die in the underworld?”
At this last part, she actually looks up at me. I can see the thought terrifies her.
I take another drag of my smoke and try to figure out how to explain. “Father Timothy... Tim... was a solid. He was a guy. He was a... a... friend. Maybe my only friend. I'd rather burn for 1000 years that know that I abandoned a solid.” A lump is growing in my throat. It'd been a long day. A hit from my flask and a drag of my smoke steadies things up. “Lizzie, you're alright and I like you, but a man doesn't leave his friends hanging.”
Little Lizzie Grouber thinks about this for a bit, swirling a fry around in some cheap diner ketchup. Finally she looks up, “Saint, I might be your friend. I don't know if you're mine.”
I stub out my smoke on the bottom of the table and consider this for a minute. “Lizzie, I just might be, but right now I've only got one thing on my mind. I want to find that fucking demon Mortimor and send him to whatever hell even demons fear.”
She looks at me hard and says, “and find my fiance.”
“Yeah, whatever,” I say, “here's the plan...”