Salvation Inc

Father Eduardo Arroyo rose slowly and unsteadily to his feet. The short half hour of kneeling in prayerful adoration before his God severely stiffened the joints of the fifty-seven-year-old cleric. The priest winced at the pains which lanced through his thin legs. Father Arroyo resisted the temptation to lament over how much soft tissue, ligaments and tendons, he had lost to the plague eating away at him from the inside. Instead, the priest recalled Saint Paul’s words to the Colossians and made them his own as he took three faltering steps on numbed feet towards the Eucharist centered in the golden, sunburst-shaped monstrance. “I rejoice in my suffering for your sake, and in my flesh I fill up what is lacking in your afflictions, O Christ.”

With his hands placed on the chapel altar, Father Arroyo genuflected carefully. A fiery stab of pain shot through the bending knee.

“For you, my Lord,” the priest prayed, silently offering up his pains, joining them to the tortures suffered by his loving God.

A minute later, when the pangs subsided, Arroyo pulled the lunette out of the back of the monstrance. The small, silver, crescent held the Blessed Host firmly in a groove carved into its concave edge. The priest transferred it to the tabernacle and closed its’ doors. Arroyo then bowed, pushed the horn-rimmed glasses back up the aquiline nose which dominated his broad face and finally limped of the chapel.

The smell of roasting garlic greeted Arroyo in the hall. A heavier scent, oily and meaty, wafted through the air beneath it. His taste buds stirred to life as he made his way slowly down the long hall. With every step down the long corridor the sharp pains receded to a dull throbbing.

All three members of the parish staff were gathered in the kitchen. Johnny Chang, the priest’s deacon was sitting straight and upright at a round table centered in the room. The tall and lean-limbed young man was slicing up a small loaf of bread. Chang was the native New Yorker of the staff, baptized in the very Chinatown church where they all now served. Behind him were two nuns. Sister Josephina was a middle-aged Haitian, her dark and plump features were wrapped in the white habit of the Dominican Order. She was bent over the stove, fluffing up a pot of rice. To her left, Sister Angelica, a milk-pale and freckled young Iowan, habited in Benedictine black, was cutting up a head of lettuce on a counter beneath a bank of cupboards.

“Smells great in here,” Father Arroyo announced as he entered the kitchen.

“That would be the garlic-roasted pigeons, father,” Sister Josephina said as she slipped oven mitts over her hands. “They should be ready.”

“Good, because I’m famished enough to eat a whole flock of pigeons, sister.”

“That would be a kit of pigeons, father, not a flock of pigeons,” Sister Angelica corrected him.

“Are you certain, sister?”

“Fairly so, father.”

The priest shot his deacon a questioning look.

Johnny Chang shook his close-cropped head. “I wouldn’t challenge Our Lady of Trivial Pursuit if I were you, father. That’s never ended well for any of us.”

“No, it hasn’t,” Father Arroyo said, turning back to Sister Angelica. The Benedictine nun was grinning impishly as she divided the shredded romaine into four glass bowls. “Fine, I’m hungry enough to eat a whole kit of pigeons.”

“And I could eat the whole caboodle,” Sister Josephina added as she pulled the sizzling iron pan out of the oven. “But there were only four birds in this squadron. We’ll have to settle for one a piece, I’m afraid.”

“Bless you Sister Josephina,” Arroyo said. “You have saved me yet again from falling into the sin of gluttony.”

“Remember that next time you’re prescribing penance, father,” Sister Josephina said, placing the pan across two of the oven’s burners.

“It’s a deal, sister. Henceforth I shall insist self-flagellation be administered by nothing harsher than a wet noodle.”

“You’re too kind father.”

“Vocational hazard, my child,” Father Arroyo said taking a seat at the table. “So Johnny, how did your shift go?”

“It was quiet, father,” Johnny said, cutting the last slice. “Mr. Simmons and Mr. Highet have started coughing up blood, however. You might want to pay them a visit later tonight.”

Arroyo nodded somberly. “I’ll see them after dinner.”

The plague that was killing them and everyone on Manhattan was popularly referred to as the Mold because of the fibrous lesions it left in the wake of its passage through the body. The Mold spores initially nested themselves in the lungs before spreading throughout its host. While the steady erosion of tendons and ligaments was a constant and painful drain on the quality of life for the infected, it was the loss of the lungs that usually killed them off.

“And Mrs. Greeley, father,” Sister Angelica said while quartering a pair of tomatoes. “You should add her to tomorrow’s morning visits. That poor woman is suffering terribly. But oh my, she is so brave about it. I don’t think she has but a few days left in her.”

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The Last Hexereiter

The man in brown rode into the tiny village to the sound of cheers. But there was no one in sight. Where did the voices come from? And why weren’t the villagers tending their farms and livestock?

He found the answers in the middle of the settlement. A crowd of men, women and children in rough clothing filled the village square. He estimated maybe sixty souls in all. It seemed like everyone had taken the day off from their never-ending labors. Something in front of them had captured their attention; but for a few curious children and a couple of youths his approach had gone largely unnoticed. The rider craned his head, seeing a thicket of wooden staves raised before the people,

Not staves. Muskets.

A voice, clear and ringing, cut through the air.

“This I promise you: today the Haferdämonen meet their end!”

Wild applause and full-throated yells filled the world. Slowly, stiffly, the rider dismounted his chestnut mare. There was a time he could do that without his muscles threatening to lock up. Those days had gone with the last shades of black in his short gray hair. Standing on the animal’s left, he gently led it through the crowd, keeping his rifle and his messer far away from the horse’s questing muzzle.

“And who is this?”

The peasants turned to look at him. At his weathered buff coat made of the hides of monsters, the pair of huge pistols swinging from the horse’s saddle, the second pair of pistols peeking above his boot-tops, the rough sword and the time-worn rifle, and, as he drew closer, the amulet he wore around his neck.

“A Hexereiter!” a man whispered.

“It can’t be! Here, in this day and age?”

“Quick, hide the children! And your silver!”

This he heard, and more. The crowd parted before him, the women shielding their children, the menfolk shielding their women.

Through the gap he saw the soldiers. An entire company of foot infantry, resplendent in their immaculate green-white-yellow uniforms. They stared him down, their faces impassive. Their Kapitan, front and center, glared at the rider, and sniffed.

“Identify yourself,” the officer demanded.

“Johann Roger Werner,” the rider said. “And yourself?”

I am Kapitan Paul Heinrich Frank Welf Friedrich Eisenberg, Second Company, First Battalion, Twenty-Fifth Fusilier Regiment, in the service of Herzog Klein of Marenland.” He paused to breathe. “Are you a Hexereiter?”

Werner held out his amulet. It was a beast’s head impaled on a sword, beaten and rough and dull.

“Yes.”

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What Can Your Demon Do For You?

The candles flickered in the dull red light that filled the room. A cloaked figure danced in circles around the white, chalked pentagram on the floor. He muttered under his breath to the beat of a drum that was being played from a dusty gramophone.

Oriens splendor lucis aeternae,” he said.

The dust on the floor began to rise. The figure paused and raised his hands, his voice getting louder, “Et Lucifer justitae: veni. Et illumine sedentes in tenebris. Et umbra­ –.”

“HAROLD. ARE YOU CHANTING AGAIN?” The voice echoed up from below the floorboards.

Harold dropped his hood and sighed. He walked over to the door, careful not to upset the chalk pentagram on the floor. He opened the door as he heard a pair of footsteps climbing the stairs.

“Muuuuuum. I was almost finished.”

His mother stood at the top of the stairs. She had her hands on her hips and her lips were pressed tightly together.

“What have I told you about summoning demons inside the house? Go do your chanting in the hanger,” she said.

Harold tried hard not to roll his eyes. His mother was brandishing a wooden spoon from the kitchen covered in a dark red substance.

“But Dad’s working on the ridge,” Harold said.

His mother’s eyes narrowed sharply. She turned around to go back down the stairs as the smell of something burning became pungent.

“I don’t care. Just get out of the house.”

Harold huffed and went back into his room. He shut the door with precisely enough force to make the shudder reverberate around the entire house. A pile of books by the door fell over. Among them was titles like, A Practical Guide to Summoning, Pentagrams for Dummies and What can your demon do for you?

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The Return of Cosmo Draper

“Yes, I was there. As a matter of fact, you could say that I instigated the whole thing,” old Mr. Porter admitted. “Now?” he inquired of his guest, his voice raspy from age. “You want to hear about it. . . now?” He glanced at his wristwatch. “Well, I . . I guess I have time.”

“It was back in the holiday season of ’79. President Carter had recently given his ‘malaise speech’ – saying how the whole country was in kind of a funk. That was certainly true where I was working: A little daily newspaper called The Northbridge Beacon in Massachusetts. It was a nice little paper. We didn’t report much hard news. It was mainly Little League scores and Rotary Club meetings – stuff like that. Northbridge was where I grew up. It was great back then, but lately. . . well, like the president said: Malaise.

“It all started late one evening between Turkey Day and Christmas. A light snow had started falling. My fellow reporter, Andy Carr, had taken a jaunt down to old man Bellini’s general store to fetch us some sandwiches while I held down the fort.”

Carr entered the Beacon’s offices, quickly closing the door behind him. He stomped the snow from his shoes. “Boy, it’s getting cold out there,” he said. “I’m tellin’ you!”

“The snow looks kind of pretty,” Porter responded from his desk, looking out the window.

“For now, sure. After the traffic gets at it tomorrow morning, it’ll turn into a kind of brown, ugly mush that’ll hang around until April.”

“Well, let’s enjoy it while we. . .” Porter rose from his desk and instantly noticed that something was wrong. “Where are the sandwiches?” he asked.

“Back at Belinni’s,” Carr answered unhappily.

“You never got them?”

“Belinni wouldn’t sell them to me.”

What?”

“He said he was closing up shop.”

Porter looked at the wall clock behind his co-worker. “But it’s only 8:15,” he said. “He’s open until 9:00 every night.”

“That’s what I told him as he locked the main door. He said there were no customers, and he was closing early to go home and watch a Bonanza rerun.”

“He turned down business?”

“Yep. He said it wasn’t worth his while to open up his deli counter for just a couple of sandwiches. I told him I’d buy more – two Cokes and a big bag of chips – but he still said no. I was thinking of heading over to the House of Pizza, but the roads are getting pretty icy.”

“So what’s for dinner?” Porter asked.

“I guess we’ll have to make due with whatever’s in the vending machines.”

“Stale chips and warm soda? Yum! I swear there’s a Milky Way in there that’s older than I am!”

“I’m not happy about it either, Tim,” Carr said. “Any news while I was gone?”

“No. I was just sitting here, watching the snow fall, and thinking about how great of a town this used to be back when we were growing up. Remember?”

“Oh yeah! And I can sum up those good times in two words.”

“Cosmo Draper,” they said simultaneously.

“Now there was a man’s man,” Carr continued.

“My dad used to say there were two ways you knew everything was right with the world: FDR was president, and Cosmo was the mayor.”

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Unknown Woman #42

Dotty stood and stared down at the simple marker, a metal plaque, time-drawn patina across its letters, set into a simple stone block, and like every other instance, every single one of them, she remembered. She read the date once more: June 22, 1918. Somehow, she was always drawn back to this place.

Around the markers stood four elephant statues, their trunks lowered in mourning. She remembered. She thought that there had been elephants….

Of course, there were elephants. There was a tiger too, though the lions were gone for some time now. It took quite a bit at the beginning for the transport cages to be appropriately modified, because the elephants didn’t like the train much. You could hear them banging around sometimes even above the noise of the tracks. Some of the performers lived together, like Bezo the Clown and The World’s Shortest Woman (Clarissa was her real name), or Julius/Julia, Half-Man, Half-Woman and Titus the Strong Man who’d only recently decided to shack up together. Madam Orenska, the Psychic, sometime wondered if it would be more appropriately called carriaged up, but in the end, that didn’t quite flow. Just like Dotty Smith didn’t quite work as a psychic name. She guessed, in the end, that was why people had stage names. Madam Orenska worked one of the side tents, not like the stars of the show. They worked the Big Top. Not so for Dotty Smith. The Flying Forellis had their own carriage, but they were a family, and they worked the Big Top.

Between the carriages that transported the animals and those, further back, that served as living quarters ran the gear flatbeds, the yellow and red striped big top, the poles and ropes and spikes, the tools to put it all together. It gave them all a few meters’ separation from the noise and stink of the animals. Just as well; she didn’t much like the smell of horses. Dotty didn’t much like the lovely Agneta who pranced around on their backs in her blue sequined costume, teeth bared in her performance smile, arms held aloft either. But you couldn’t like everyone, could you? Though everyone else seemed to like her. Dotty just didn’t get it. After the gear and the animals came the living quarters and the sleeping cars and finally, the last couple of carriages, shared by the roustabouts, all packed in like sardines. At least she wasn’t back there.

They had about five hours before the next stop. Some small town in the middle of nowhere, but that didn’t matter. Everyone loves a circus. Dotty had been with Bayley Brothers and Ryan for about four years now, but they’d only started using the train about two years ago. To be honest, she preferred the old style with the caravans and the wagons. Places you could truly call your own. They could go anywhere they wanted, finding interested crowds, people who’d never seen them before. Now they were more limited, stuck with the places that the tracks led. Sure, it was quicker getting to wherever they were going, but not by much. They had a big circuit now, bigger towns and cities. It meant that they had to regularly change up the acts, keep them fresh. Still, despite those differences, she wouldn’t change the life for anything. It was where she belonged.

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