“Come out, come out, wherever you are!”
Father Paladina knelt in his uncomfortable position beneath the staircase, eyes closed and struggling to control his breathing. Each gasp sounded like the cracking of a tree branch, and he couldn’t fight down an occasional sob of terror. His heart beat in his ears, and his veins seemed about to burst open.
“I can smell you, Priest. I know you didn’t go far. Where are you?”
The voice came from upstairs in the local priest’s office. Niccolo couldn’t remember a time in his life when he had been so on edge and afraid. It felt like a sickness in his stomach, as all of his muscles tensed simultaneously. It made his body shake, and he worried that he might throw up at any moment.
“We both know how this will end. If you come out now, I’ll do it quick. If you make me come and find you, though …”
Niccolo struggled to control his breathing as hot tears ran down his cheeks. He reached into his front-right pocket for the single item he kept there. His rosary, which he held between his fingers and pressed against his lips, praying as hard as he could for the strength to deal with whatever was happening to him.
Not to overcome it, though. Part of him—if he were honest, a large part—knew he was about to die, and the only thing he prayed for was the strength to die well.
After all, right now, not only his life hung in the balance: so did his everlasting soul.
“This basement has no exits. I know this Church. This is my church. Not yours,” the man—if still a man—said from just upstairs. “I never thought I would actually get to kill a priest here. This is delightful!”
What is he waiting for? Niccolo wondered, in fear. Tim Spencer—or whatever controlled him—seemed to enjoy taking his time. Every muscle in Niccolo’s body ached, and he had to fight to keep from sobbing. Why is he doing this? Why is he waiting up there?
It felt like he’d hidden under the stairs forever, but it had probably lasted for less than a minute.
“We’re having fun, aren’t we, Priest?” Tim asked.
Niccolo couldn’t contain a shudder, and the movement caused his shoulder to bump against one of the boxes behind him. The noise it made wasn’t that loud, but to Niccolo, it rumbled like an explosion in the stillness of the basement.
If his pursuer heard, though, he didn’t let on. Tim hummed to himself as he took his first step down the stairs. It creaked heavily underfoot, and Father Paladina winced when dust fell on his head.
Another step; the sound of the boot on the stairs seemed like a nail in the priest’s coffin. Tim kept on coming, humming a tuneless tone, until the father could see boots in front of his face.
“Priest? You know I’ll find you. You can’t hide from me.”
Niccolo’s whole body trembled, and the man had called it true. His hiding place seemed weak and pathetic now. As soon as Tim reached the bottom of the staircase, he would spy Niccolo. He had backed himself into a corner and had nowhere to go.
He shouldn’t have stayed here at Saint Joseph’s Cathedral alone. Should have gone with Father Reynolds to his home; splitting up had turned into a terrible idea, one that might well cost him his life.
Father Reynold’s life, too, Niccolo realized. Jackson had gone home, but no doubt, whoever had sent this creature after Niccolo had gone after him as well. Father Paladina hadn’t warned his friend of the danger. He regretted that, now. Jackson had no way of defending himself and knew nothing of the danger. Niccolo had led him like a lamb to the slaughter.
Tim Spencer reached the bottom step, and Niccolo could see his back through the gap in the risers. He had nowhere to run and no possible way to get out of this. It was over. He was about to die.
He should at least face his death head on.
As a servant of God.
Easier said than done, however. His body struggled against him. The priest forced his wobbly legs to move and rose from his crouched position, stepping out from beneath the stairs to confront his pursuer. Tim heard him and turned.
“Well, then. There you are.” The man grinned and bared his teeth. He looked more feral than anything. “Well done, Priest. Found a little courage after all. Are you ready to meet your maker?”
Father Paladina opened his mouth to speak, to pray, but no sounds would come. His voice had abandoned him, and the words he’d studied and practiced for years caught in his throat.
“What? Cat got your tongue?” The man stepped closer to him and continued to grin that insane grin. “Let me get you started: Our Father, who art in heaven …”
“Vile abomination, you don’t belong here,” Niccolo muttered. “By the power of Christ, I compel you.” He held up his rosary, hand still shaking. “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, I order you to leave this place.”
The man stopped moving forward, his grin fading. “You think that will work? You, of all people, think that a prayer could compel me to just drop everything and leave?”
Father Paladina grew emboldened, feeling momentary strength while the words poured out of him. The demon was lying, and the words did have some impact. They gave Niccolo courage and knowledge that, despite everything, he did not stand alone. It had an effect, the power, the prayers, and his faith. They held the man at bay.
Maybe he could get out of his alive. If his faith held up.
“You do not belong here, creature. Return from whence you came. Through the power of Christ, I demand that you leave this holy place.”
A long moment passed, the only sound Niccolo and the man’s breathing. The priest held his rosary forth, hand unwavering and back tall. They stared at each other, locked in place, as the seconds ticked by.
“Silly priest,” the man said, finally, his grin returning. “Don’t you know you have no power here?”
The man reached up and grabbed the rosary in Father Paladina’s hand. A sizzling sound filled the basement, as though flesh burned, and the priest could feel the metal heating in his hand.
Niccolo watched in horror when Tim stepped closer to him, pressing the cross against his forehead. The metal burned Tim’s skin where it touched, and he burst into a wild and maniacal laugh.
Father Paladina released his grip on the rosary and jerked back in disgust. The man let it fall to the floor, a sizzling chunk of metal, and there it lay.
“How does it feel?” The man took another step closer to Father Paladina. Still grinning that sick and toothy grin. “How does it feel to know you are truly alone?”
He reached forward, grabbing the priest around the throat, and squeezing. His grip felt like iron, crushing down on Niccolo’s windpipe.
“How does it feel to know that God has abandoned you?”
Two Days Earlier
Father Niccolo Paladina stepped off a bus and into the chilly Everett air in the middle of the small city. Though early in the afternoon, with the heavy cloud cover it proved difficult to determine an exact time of day. To ward off a sudden burst of cold air that washed over him, he clutched his coat tight to his chest and felt his teeth chattering. He’d grown used to winter weather and unfavorable climes but certainly not a fan of them.
He picked up his suitcase and watched as the Greyhound shuttle pulled away from the curb, leaving him on the street alone. Then he felt thankful he hadn’t packed a lot of luggage for this foray because it looked as though it would rain soon, and he didn’t want to spend a lot of energy lugging too much around the city with him.
With any luck, he wouldn’t have to stay here in the state of Washington for too long before making the trip back to his home in Italy. He hadn’t been in favor of making this trip at all, but when orders were orders, and when his superior gave him a directive, he didn’t dare refuse.
This made for only his second time coming to the States at all, and he wasn’t much of a fan. From his education and studies, the priest knew that the States spread out across vast geographical zones and climates, but so far, he had visited Maine and Washington, and even though both looked beautiful and pristine in their own ways, he doubted he would willingly make a return trip. Maine felt too cold, and Washington had quickly turned out too wet.
With a sigh, he began his trek down the road in the direction he hoped led to his hotel. The bus stop stood only half a mile from the place, but he hadn’t brought a map with him and didn’t feel exactly sure where to go. It was dark and dreary and the streets poorly lit, a fact which further frustrated him.
Niccolo had gotten sent here on behalf of the Vatican to meet with the local priest about Church business, and not the kind of business they wanted locals to know about, which meant it stayed only between himself and the priest, Father Jackson Reynolds.
Reynolds, a young man, had charge of a new parish—‘new’ to Niccolo meant anything built within the last hundred years—and had impressed a number of higher-ups during his education and training in Rome. Jackson went to the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and had excelled.
Supposedly, he’d made a brilliant student with a bright future ahead of him, but he had committed a critical mistake in the last few weeks. An error that had brought Niccolo here to this god-forsaken town when he could have been eating in a street market near his home: Jackson had gone over the local Bishop’s head and contacted the Vatican to request help. Such a mistake should cost the priest his position and livelihood, considering the transgressions committed.
At least, that made for Niccolo’s opinion on the matter; not that anyone asked for his opinion.
To go over the Bishop’s head exhibited unacceptable behavior, much less requesting an exorcist get sent to the town. The requesting of an exorcist, or even an evaluation like this, meant a big deal: an order of events existed for situations like this, and a chain of command through which communications went. And attempting to bypass links in that chain eroded the fabric on which the Church’s trust had formed, and the fact that Jackson’s insolence had ended up rewarded by Niccolo getting sent to talk to him irked Paladina quite a bit.
Not enough to transgress on his own, however. Niccolo intended to investigate the situation that had brought him here to the best of his abilities, of course, but he also intended to straighten the priest out about how situations like this should work. By all accounts, Bishop Glasser was a reasonable man overseeing a few Parishes in the area, and if he didn’t believe that the situation warranted Vatican attention, then it probably didn’t.
Which meant Niccolo doubted he would find anything untoward within Father Reynold’s claims about demonic possession.
The worst part? When he reported such news back to the Vatican, they would, no doubt, give the young priest a slap on the wrists and forget the transgression had ever occurred. In many similar cases, such a wayward priest would get significantly more than a slap on the wrist, but his powerful friends merely wanted him to get chastised for his mistake rather than dealt with harshly.
It bothered Niccolo but, to be honest, it remained none of his concern. The only reason it bothered him right now was that he felt exhausted, hungry, and cranky. Small droplets of rain pattered against his skin, and it concerned him that his jacket would get soaked before he made it to the hotel. Half a mile hadn’t seemed so far to walk, but just now, he wished he’d simply paid for a cab. The only thing he cared about at this moment was checking into his room, finding food, and warming up for the evening.
He stopped walking and stepped under an awning when the rain came down in earnest, certain he had made a wrong turn at some point. Niccolo had glanced at his map on the bus, but he wouldn’t consider himself familiar with the city by any means. Fairly sprawling, many of the streets looked alike. He set down his luggage and dug the map out of his pocket.
The wind whipped by every few seconds, flushing his long strands of black hair into his face and obscuring his vision. A frown creased his features as he brushed away his tangled mane. The cold rain ran down the back of his coat, wetting his skin. He had an umbrella packed in his bags, but the thought of digging it free didn’t appeal much to him.
Focused on the map, he traced his finger across the streets and realized his mistake. He had turned too soon and gone a few blocks off-course. The good news was that he now stood only a short distance from his hotel and just needed to backtrack a little.
Carefully, he folded the map and slipped it back in his pocket before walking once more. He nodded politely at a passerby, who happened to be out, but the man refused even to spare a glance his way. He stared at the ground with a blank expression on his face, hurrying and leaning against the wind. This man, like Niccolo, just wanted to get out of the rain.
A few minutes later, he arrived at his hotel. A two-story brick building with faded red paint and a tired looking welcome sign out front. It looked old and worn and not at all aesthetically pleasing. He despised the exterior but found himself warming up to the place when he stepped inside the antechamber. It felt toasty and comfortable and appeared quite clean. For a moment, he stood just basking in the warm air, letting the water drip off him.
A red-haired woman sat on a stool behind the check-in counter with a magazine open in front of her. She stood when he approached, folding her hands in front of her on the counter, and smiled at him. She had long hair and dimples and looked just over five-feet tall.
“Yes? May I help you?”
“I have a reservation,” he said, setting his bag on the carpet and pulling out his wallet. He removed his ID.
“Last name, Paladina. First name, Niccolo.”
She looked at the book in front of her. “I don’t have any reservations under that name. Are you sure you have the right place?”
He bit back his annoyance, reminding himself that he just felt tired and hungry. “Father Jackson Reynolds prepared the reservation, so it might be under his name.”
She scanned again, taking an inordinate amount of time to look over two pages of names, and then nodded. “Yes. I have a room under Father Reynolds. Looks like it is reserved for three days with a note that it might need longer. Is it just you tonight?”
“Yes,” he said. Three days would give more than enough time to handle his business, he hoped. In fact, he hoped to get done in a day.
The woman turned around and pulled a key from a wall of hooks. She handed it to him.
“You’ll find your room on the second floor. Two-oh-nine. Do you need any help getting your luggage up the stairs? We don’t have an elevator, unfortunately.”
“Not unfortunate,” he said, accepting the offered keys. “Quite fortunate, actually.”
She tilted her head to the side, confused. “Sorry, what?”
Niccolo doubted she’d ever heard anyone show happiness at the idea of a hotel not having an elevator, but in his estimation, the idea of putting something so wasteful in a two-story building seemed a travesty. Something had gotten lost with the new age of innovation.
He clarified, “I have no issue with your hotel’s lack of modern privileges.”
“Ah. We sort of have a reputation in the area for being old-fashioned, and it’s not usually considered a good thing. Would you like help moving your bags up to your room?”
“No,” he said. “I have just the one bag. Thank you, though.”
“Would it be too much trouble to ask that you set an alarm for me?”
“Of course not. What time in the morning would you like for me to set it?”
“This evening, actually. I’ve had quite a long flight and would like to take a nap, but I have a scheduled engagement I would rather not miss. Would seven-thirty be acceptable?”
“Of course,” she said. “I’ll set it in the system, and you will receive a call.”
She hesitated. “Yes.”
“Would it be possible if a human calls me instead? I’d rather get woken by a person than a machine. I, myself, am considered rather old fashioned as well.”
She pursed her lips, visibly annoyed and trying in vain to hide it. “No trouble at all. It will be after my shift ends, but I’ll leave a note to have Donald call you.”
“Thank you. I’m sorry to be such a bother.”
She smiled her most pleasant customer service smile, one which Niccolo could tell easily wasn’t genuine. “No trouble. Will there be anything else?”
“I don’t believe so.”
“Very well, Mr. Reynolds. Please, enjoy your stay.”
He thought to correct her that Father Reynolds was the man who’d made the booking, and that he was Father Paladina, but then elected not to. He was a precise man, but rarely petty.
Niccolo carried his suitcase up the stairs and down the hall to his room. The décor of the hallway appeared plain with a maroon color palette on the walls and carpeting that simultaneously attention grabbed and disgusted. The lights glowed soft and dim and very yellow.
His room seemed better, but not by much. The walls still sported an off-shade of red, and the carpet layered too thick, but at least it looked less ostentatious. On a cursory inspection, the bed appeared lumpy, and he found mildew in the bathroom. His only consolation came from the fact that he wouldn’t stay here for long.
He set his luggage on an armchair by the window, checked the thermostat to make sure it was set appropriately, and then turned his attention to the bed. It looked old and worn out, and he couldn’t help but imagine the thousands of previous guests who might have slept here. He wouldn’t dare to sleep underneath the sheets, but perhaps on top of the blanket would prove acceptable.
Niccolo took off his shoes but left the rest of his clothes on before lying on top of the comforter. The bed felt softer than he would have liked, but in his present state of exhausted jet-lag, he didn’t much care.
Paladina closed his eyes and laid his head back on the pillow. Rather quickly, he fell asleep.
A ringing sound from the bedside table next to him awoke Niccolo sometime later. The hotel room had grown considerably darker than when he’d first laid down, and it took him a few moments to gather his bearings.
Outside, rain pattered against the window, coming down in thick sheets and blanketing him in a constant lull of sound. He rubbed his face, pushing himself into a seated position, and then he rolled his body toward the sound.
It came from the room’s telephone, which meant it was probably his wake-up call. He could hardly believe it had reached that time already, considering it felt like he’d only laid down minutes ago. He fumbled for it, missing the handle a few times in the darkness, before finally knocking it loose and onto the table. Then he picked up the handle, groggy, and held it to his ear.
“Uh … Mr. Paladina?”
“Father Paladina,” he replied before he could stop himself.
“I was … uh … supposed to call you?”
“Was that a question?” He rubbed his face again.
“I had a note on my desk.” The young man on the other end of the line sounded like a teenager. “It said to call you and wake you at this time. And, uh … well, wake up, I guess?”
“And I have,” Niccolo said. “Thank you.”
Then he dropped the phone back onto the stand and collapsed back onto the bed. If anything, he felt worse from his short nap and wanted nothing more than to roll over and fall back into the comfort of sleep. The rain sounded gentle and relaxing, and the warmth of his lumpy bed seemed rather pleasant just now.
However, he had an engagement with Bishop Leopold Glasser that he couldn’t afford to miss. Niccolo had called the Bishop prior to his flight to Everett, hoping to get his take on the situation at hand and to explain his purpose for coming here. It would be improper to work behind the Bishop’s back, even if it were his duty on behalf of the Vatican, and he owed him at least the courtesy of explaining the situation in person.
Bishop Glasser had insisted they meet at his house, though Niccolo had remained unwilling to divulge the nature of his visit over the phone. He wouldn’t speak of something so important over such a long distance, especially when he couldn’t smooth things over in person. Paladina had no doubt that his business here would infuriate the Bishop and undermine his authority; exactly what Niccolo didn’t want to do.
Niccolo had, graciously, accepted the Bishop’s invitation to visit his home. So, he couldn’t let himself fall back into blissful sleep on his lumpy bed and would need to get moving so that he wouldn’t arrive late.
With a heavy sigh, the priest forced his legs over the side of the bed and stood, stretching out his tired body. He stumbled to the restroom, flicking on the light switch as he went, and splashed cold water onto his face. It helped a little, and he took a moment to study his reflection in the mirror. Tired bags hung under his eyes, and his hair looked wild and tangled, but otherwise, he looked acceptable.
Niccolo liked to think himself a handsome man, in his early thirties and dignified with a long face and striking black eyes. He kept his mustache trimmed and thin, wore his hair long, and spent a lot of time and effort maintaining his cultivated appearance, and knew he suffered from a modest amount of vanity, but it translated into confidence.
He enjoyed standing out in a crowd.
Finished using the facilities, he turned off the light and headed out into the main room to gather his shoes and dig his umbrella out of the luggage. He had, of course, packed one for this sojourn, much the same as if he had been heading to England or somewhere else where it often rained, and he would have felt surprised if he hadn’t found occasion to use it on this trip. The priest hadn’t dreamed he would need it earlier, though, and didn’t intend to get caught off-guard a second time.
A few minutes later, he found himself back out in the rain in front of the hotel. A car sat waiting next to the curb for him, a black limousine, and the driver stood next to the passenger door with his arms folded. He wore a poncho, but he looked soaked nevertheless. No doubt he had stood waiting there for some time for Niccolo to show.
The man had the practiced and blank expression of someone long used to serving important men without letting his emotions through. He didn’t speak, but instead, opened the door and allowed Father Paladina to slide into the backseat.
A moment later, they wove their way through the city of Everett, Washington, and beyond, heading for the private residence of Bishop Leopold Glasser. The Bishop lived a few miles outside the city, and by all accounts, he had an impressive home.
The trip to Leopold Glasser’s countryside estate took longer than Niccolo expected. The Bishop lived far outside the city in a thickly wooded area. Trees surrounded them in all directions and flanked the roadway like a tunnel. The estate backed up against a Federal park that extended for dozens of miles.
Father Paladina felt certain the drive would have looked beautiful in the day with the sun out to light their way, but traveling through the forest at night turned out quite eerie and made him uncomfortable. The trees seemed to close in around them, tall and spindly without their leaves.
Bishop Leopold Glasser’s estate outside of Everett appeared ostentatious and expensive; two floors and many thousands of square feet. The sight of it made him cautious about the Bishop. Niccolo disliked such wasteful spending, yet many clergy leadership participated in the activity. Such men spent more effort propping up their station and creating an image than they did on solving problems in their communities.
They did, however, work as servants of their communities. The more distance they put between themselves and the people they served, the more difficult it became to understand what such people needed.
An unfortunate, yet forgivable, offense.
The rain stopped at some point during the drive; something of a relief. The air had a pleasant and earthy taste to it when he stepped out of the town car and onto the gravel driveway. He breathed deeply, enjoying the scents of nature, before heading up the steps toward the front entrance.
The door opened as he approached, and a butler met him. A tall and well-dressed man with hard eyes and an emotionless demeanor. Wordlessly, he led Niccolo through the foyer of the home and upstairs. Leopold met him in an office on the second floor, but the first thing that greeted Niccolo was the smell of cigarette smoke pouring from the room.
The chamber appeared rich in its decor with soft cream-colored walls and gray carpeting. A fireplace spilled heat into the room, and an overhead fan sucked up a cloud of smoke as it wafted lazily across the ceiling.
Rich and ornate tapestries decorated one wall. They depicted historical events throughout the past millennia that had importance for the Church, including the Last Supper and a rather immodest representation of Joan of Arc that Niccolo disregarded immediately as tasteless.
Finally, Niccolo turned his attention to the Bishop. Leopold Glasser seemed a short man with a trimmed black beard, and he had a bald spot at the top of his head. He held a cigarette between stained fingers, and a crumpled pack rested on the desk beside him. In his late forties, he’d started to turn gray, but not in a dignified way. Time had not been kind to him.
Father Niccolo had heard a lot about Washington’s Bishop, and very little of it flattering. Much of it, he assumed, came down to pure gossip—a favorite pastime at the Vatican.
In practice, Niccolo disregarded such rumors. He didn’t like to cast judgment upon people he’d never met and preferred forming opinions of his own about people; however, he also acknowledged that rumors and prejudice, on occasion, held nuggets of truth. After surveying Leopold for only a few seconds, his first impression indicated that he wouldn’t much like the man. He seriously doubted that the Bishop could do much to change his opinion.
“Welcome,” Leopold said when Niccolo walked into the room. He leaned heavily against his expensive wooden desk with a small smile on his face. “It is a pleasure to meet you in person finally, Father Paladina.”
“Likewise,” Niccolo said, striding over and shaking the smaller man’s hand.
“I trust you had a pleasant journey?”
“Not exactly pleasant, but acceptable.”
“I must confess, your presence here intrigues me more than a bit. On the phone, you told me little about why you planned to make this trip. It seems a long way to come just to have dinner at home; so, might I ask why you came all this way?”
Niccolo couldn’t suppress his frown at the man’s demeanor. Leopold got right to the point and in a mildly aggressive way, which gave another strike against him. Civility and pleasant conversation provided an important cornerstone of modern civilization. He would have greatly preferred discussing issues like this with a full stomach.
“The silence about the issue was intentional,” Niccolo replied. “This is a rather delicate matter that should get attended to in person. Not over the phone.”
“Oh? I trust it isn’t anything too serious?”
“It pertains to one of the priests whose Parish you oversee. Father Jackson Reynolds.”
A look of something—dislike, maybe—flashed across the Bishop’s face when Niccolo spoke the young priest’s name. It disappeared almost as soon as it had shown, however, and the man’s small and demeaning smile returned.
The bishop shifted to the side, dropped the butt of his cigarette into an ashtray on his desk, and then drew another one out of the pack with his teeth. He lit it, took a deep draw, and then finally turned his attention back to Father Paladina. He lowered himself into a seat across from Niccolo and pursed his lips.
“Ah, Father Reynolds. He is a dear friend.”
“I was told he came to you a few weeks ago about a member of his congregation. An elderly woman who was behaving erratically and he believed she needed help.”
The Bishop frowned and waved his hand in dismissal. “He spoke of this in our last meeting. He believed the woman was experiencing a possession and wanted me to request an exorcist from the Vatican to help her.”
“Yet, you did not send his request along?”
“I went through my due diligence and looked into the matter personally. I gave his request all of the attention it deserved and met with the woman personally.”
“Was Jackson with you?”
“No, I went on my own. I wanted to meet with Ms. Rose Gallagher myself without any preconceived notions or biases. After meeting with her, I did not agree with his conjecture.”
“You did not believe she was possessed?”
“Rose lives by herself and is suffering from loneliness. She rarely sees her family, and I admit she seemed quite troubled when I met with her. Troubled, but not possessed. I denied Jackson’s request to pass the information to the Vatican and asked him to speak no further of the issue.”
Niccolo nodded, pursing his lips. “The issue did not end there.”
“I can see that.”
“I am here to present a full report on the situation and determine if Jackson’s concerns should be looked into further.”
“You are an exorcist?”
Niccolo squirmed a little bit in his chair. “I am. But, should I determine that the Church will get involved in this situation, someone else will be sent to handle the actual exorcism itself.”
“I see. I feared something like this might happen,” Bishop Glasser said. “Jackson is a rather…persistent young man.”
Niccolo could tell that the word ‘persistent’ wasn’t the first one that came to the Bishop’s mind. He also couldn’t fault the man for his edge of anger: he would have been furious, too, if one of the priests under his charge went over his head and attempted to supersede him on so important an issue.
“My duty is to search for evidence and report back without biased input from either of you,” Niccolo explained. “However, I thought it only dutiful to notify you that I will be speaking with Father Reynolds in the morning about these matters on behalf of the Church.”
“It is a waste of time.”
“Of that, I have no doubt. Nevertheless, I must oblige the young priest and investigate this issue. I intend to report everything I find to the Vatican as accurately as possible. As I am sure you can imagine, this puts me in a rather tricky position.”
“One I don’t envy,” the Bishop agreed, “Naturally Jackson will ask you to speak with the old woman, and you will come to the same conclusion I did. She is a lonely woman who needs help, but not the kind of help that the Church can offer.”
“That is what my superiors believe as well.”
Bishop Glasser stood up from his desk and walked over to a counter. It had various decanters on it filled with amber and brown liquid.
“Would you like a drink?”
“No thank you,” Niccolo replied, standing up as well. “I don’t partake.”
The Bishop poured himself a glass and took a long sip before turning back to face Niccolo. The expression on his face was one of poorly disguised frustration, tinged with something darker. He held up the glass to the light, swirling the liquid.
“So, the Church sends an exorcist to dismiss the rumors of a wayward priest?”
“I am not here as an exorcist.”
“Come now. Your reputation precedes you, Father Paladina. I know those whom you serve.”
“I have been trained, but I have not sat in upon a true exorcism.”
“Never called upon to serve God in that capacity?”
Niccolo frowned. “No.”
“And why do you think that is?”
A moment passed in silence. Niccolo struggled to ascertain whether the Bishop was insulting him or not. He hoped that the Bishop was simply speaking out of ignorance. “An occasion has never arisen in which the Church has asked me…”
He trailed off when he saw a mocking smile spread on the Bishop’s face.
“No. It has nothing to do with occasion or circumstance. It is because demons are not real,” the Bishop said. "A fact which every priest worth his salt knows but none are willing to admit. You know it. I know it. The Church knows it. Demons are an invention to scare lay people into giving larger donations to their parish.”
Niccolo didn’t immediately respond, but he felt his blood seething at the words. The Bishop might be correct in his beliefs—Niccolo tended to be personally torn on the issue—but it wasn’t Bishop Glasser’s place to speak openly about something like this. Certainly not to a practicing exorcist.