Your favorite tourguide to Hell and the supernatural underbelly of Los Angeles, Richard Kadrey, is coming back Oct. 18, with a third installment in the Sandman Slim series, Aloha from Hell. Here's your exclusive first look at the "Studio City" chapter, where Stark sees the aftermath of an exorcism gone wrong.
Studio City is the kind of place where the poor have to settle for two-million-dollar "luxury properties" instead of mansions. The only difference between them and the genuinely rich in the hills is that they have to get by with one pool and they can't park a 747 in their two-story living room, though they can probably squeeze in a decent-size blimp. There are fake villas with fake Roman mosaics out front and fake castles with wrought-iron gates like Henry VIII is going to stop by with guacamole for the key party.
Lucky for everyone, the address Julia gave us belongs to a place on Coldwater Canyon Avenue with nothing but a long snaking driveway. No monarchist gates, armed guards, or a giant hermetically sealed Jetsons dome.
At the end of the drive, a gold Lexus is parked next to a clean but well-used Ford pickup. There are streaks of mud and dried cement around the truck's wheel wells. We get out and follow a stone path to the front door. I ring the bell.
A woman opens a second later. She's obviously been waiting for us. She's about fifty and pretty, with short dark hair and a high-quality chin tuck.
"Oh," she says, all the hope and brightness disappearing from her eyes.
It's Hunter's mom. I can see the resemblance from one of the photos back at the bar. Mom takes one look at my scarred face and I can practically see the words home invasion with multiple fatalities spinning around her brain like the dragon in a Chinese New Year's parade.
I say, "Mrs. Sentenza. Julia Sola sent us."
She relaxes. The storm in her brain clears and her blood pressure drops to below aneurysm levels. Her little freak-out probably shaved a good five years off her life, but they're the shitty ones at the end, so no big deal.
"Oh. You must be Mr. Stark and Mr. Vidocq. Julia said you'd be dropping by." She stops, staring at Candy in her robot sunglasses.
I say, "This is my assistant, Candy."
Mrs. Sentenza gives Candy a thin smile.
"Of course she is. Please come in."
The inside of the house is bright, with light coming through a million windows and reflecting off the polished tile floor. Obsessive California chic. Like they own the sky and are goddamn well going to use every inch of it. Hunter's father is waiting for us by the stairs leading to the upper floor of a two-story living room. (I told you.)
"This is Hunter's father, Kerry."
"Nice to meet you all. Call me K.W."
Handshakes all around. His grip is firm and serious. He has rough laborer's hands, like he actually works for a living.
"Are you three exorcists, too?" he asks.
"No. Father Traven holds the prayer beads. We're more like spiritual bouncers."
"Well, if you can fix this, we're willing to try."
There aren't any hoodoo vibes coming off these people. Nothing shifty and hidden. They come across like straight-arrow civilians who wouldn't know a Hand of Glory from an oven mitt. They're not responsible for calling a demon into the house. Unless they're a lot more powerful than they look and can throw up a glamour powerful enough to even fool the angel in my head. Their eyes are dilating and their hearts are racing. I smell Valium and alcohol in Mom's sweat. Most of what I'm getting off them is heavyweight fear for their kid and confusion and a meek mistrust of us three. No surprise there. They don't run into people like us on the golf course at the country club.
Vidocq looks around the place. Like me, he's looking for any traces of magic, in his case mystical objects.
"You have a very lovely home," says Candy. "It looks like a happy place."
"It was," says Mom.
I say, "Can we see the room?"
"It's Hunter's room. His name is Hunter."
"Hunter. Got it. Can we see Hunter's room?"
Mom isn't sure about Candy and Vidocq, but I can tell she hates me already. I'm not sure about Dad. He looks like the kind of guy who didn't come from money, and now that he has it, he's always a little on edge waiting for someone to try to take it away. That means he'll have a handgun or two in the house.
K.W. leads us to Hunter's room while Mom trails behind.
"Don't take this wrong the wrong way, but did Hunter take anything like antidepressants? Or was he ever locked up for, you know, behavior problems?"
"You mean, was our son crazy?" asks mom.
"No. He was a normal boy. He ran track."
So that's what normal is. I should write that down.
"Did he take any recreational drugs?"
Mom's attitude has gone from hate to stabby.
"He'd never touch those. He's an athlete. Besides, when Hunter was a boy he saw Tommy, his older brother, destroy himself with drugs. He hallucinated. He was scared all the time and couldn‘t sleep for weeks on end. And it kept getting worse. Then Tommy died. Hunter saw all of it."
"He didn't die. He hanged himself," says Dad. His face is set and hard, but it's clear that admitting this hurt.
"Don't say it like that," says Mom. The tears come fast, an automatic reaction when her other son's death comes up.
These people are unbelievably easy to read. They don't have any magic. There aren't any spells that will hide it this thoroughly.
K.W. puts an arm around his wife's shoulders.
"Jen, why don't you put on some fresh coffee for our guests?"
Mom nods and heads down the hall.
When she's gone K.W. turns to us.
"Sorry. This thing has us both a little crazy, but it's hit her worse. How are you supposed to live after one son's suicide and your other son's . . . well, whatever the hell this is. What's normal again after that?" he says. He swallows hard. "I still don't know what we did to ruin our boys."
"You didn't ruin anyone," says Candy. "Things just happen sometimes. It's easier to fall off the edge of world than you might think. Even for nice people."
K.W. looks at her. His eyes are wet, but he's fighting hard not to let it go any further. I hate being reminded that rich people are still people.
He pushes open the door to Hunter's room.
"This is it," he says. "Look around at anything you want. We don't have any secrets"
Mom comes back.
"I put coffee on."
She looks past us into the ruined room.
She says, "Julia told us not to touch anything, so we haven't."
I scan the wreckage inside.
"You haven't done anything? Like a spilled glass of water or class photo?"
"Good. Never clean up after monsters."
"My son isn't a monster."
"I'm not talking about your son."
Vidocq goes into Hunter's room.
"What my associate is saying is that when powerful supernatural forces are at work, without proper preparation any encounter can be extremely dangerous. My advice would be to not enter the room at all and to keep it locked unless Julia or one of her associates is here."
Jen nods and stars, a little surprised at Vidocq's accent. She relaxes a little. Even in a pile of splintered furniture Vidocq is a charmer.
Candy and I go inside while Mom and Dad watch from the hall.
I kneel down, take some packets of salt I lifted from Roscoe's, and sprinkle a white line across the entrance. Vidocq sticks iron milagros down one side of the door frame with some green hardware-store putty.
"I have to close the door for a second," I tell the Sentenzas.
I get out the black blade and carve a protective rune into the wood on the inside of the door frame.
Vidocq reaches for my hand like he wants to stop me, but he's too slow.
"Why are you destroying their house further? Why not put an ash twig over the door?"
"Why don't we send the demon roses while we're at it? I hate hippie hoodoo."
Vidocq rummages in his coat and finds ash powder in one of his vials. He reaches up and sets it on the frame over the door.
"Okay," I say to K.W. and Jen when I open the door. "Nothing should get out of here."
"Thank you," Jen says.
The room is a wreck. It looks like it was worked over by Linda Blair on a crack binge. One of the windows is boarded up. There are holes in the wall where it looks someone punched through. The place hums with residual dark hoodoo, like there are wasps in the walls. I don't think the Sentenzas can hear it, but Candy, Vidocq, and I can. Something bad was stomping around in here, but I have no idea what. Vidocq is blowing some kind of powder into the air and watches it settle on the floor and furniture. He looks at me and shrugs. Candy is over by Hunter's closet. I look at her and she shakes her head.
Vidocq prowls the room, trying different powders and potions, trying to identify the magic residue. Candy paws through Hunter's closet and dresser.
I ask, "How did the whole thing start?"
"I guess it started with the migraines," says K.W. "His head would hurt and he'd get real sensitive to light. He said there were ants eating their way into his brain. I get migraines sometimes, too, so I'd give him some of my Imitrex and put him in a dark room. Sometimes it helped, but other times it made things worse. I'd hear him talking and he said it was to the voices in his head. After a week of that, things got really bad."
Jen picks up the story.
"Hunter stopped sleeping. He said he had horrible dreams. Things were chasing him. Not to hurt him, Just to have him. He drank coffee and energy drinks to stay awake, but he'd fall asleep anyway. There would be marks on the walls where he clawed them. His hands would be bleeding. It was like Thomas all over again."
Hunter's bed is just a bare mattress. The scene of the exorcism. All four corners are stained with blood. The kid cut himself on the restraints during the ritual. The rest of the mattress is stained with every fluid a human body can produce. There are deep claw marks by the head of the bed. Even some bite marks.
"Did he ever take anything more powerful to stay awake? Speed? Amphetamines, I mean."
K.W. says, "I know what speed is. And no, not that I'm aware of."
Candy stands at the foot of the bed looking. It's the sigil Julia told us about, which was burned into the ceiling. I can't place it, but I'm sure I've seen it before. I snap a picture with my phone.
Neither parent has moved from the door. Jen has one hand over her mouth as she watches us ransack her younger son's room.
"What you've told me so far could be anything from a bad batch of acid to a brain tumor. When did you start thinking it was supernatural?"
Jen says, "There was the time I found him floating in midair."
Vidocq stops pouring his potions.
"Julia didn't mention that," he says.
Jen turns away so she doesn't have to look at us.
"Tell us what you saw," says Candy. She has a good instinct for this kind of work, for knowing when it's best for a woman to ask another woman a painful question.
"It was early in the morning. It was still dark out. I couldn't sleep, so I came by Hunter's room to check on him and I saw that."
She nods at the scorched symbol on the ceiling.
"You saw him making it?"
"He was floating there over his bed, smiling like he was the happiest boy in the world. He was digging that symbol into the ceiling with his fingers. There was blood all over his arms. He looked at me and then back at the ceiling. Then his whole body convulsed like he was going to throw up. He opened his mouth and out came a jet of flame. It spread all across the ceiling. I thought it was going to burn the house down. When he stopped, all that was burned was the symbol. After that he fell onto the bed and lay there like he was asleep. That morning we went looking for someone who could help."
K.W. squeezes her shoulder.
"It smells like coffee is ready. Would you go and bring us some?"
She nods and disappears down the hall, her arms wrapped around herself.
When she's out of earshot K.W. says, "Hunter did take drugs. Jen doesn't know about it. It was Hunter's and my secret. We made a deal. I'd pay for rehab and we'd never let his mother know. After Thomas, it would have killed her."
"What was he on?"
"Some new thing. Akira, he called it."
"I haven't heard of it."
"I have," says Candy. "It's a hallucinogen. Real popular with the Sub Rosa cool kids."
"I've heard of it, too. It's supposed to enhance a user's psychic ability. However, Akira seems to work on anyone, so it's moving out into the civilian world."
Candy says, "A bunch of kids take it together. The high comes from being able to touch other users' minds."
Brilliant. Teenyboppers use condoms to fuck safe and then they bore psychic holes in their heads so that anyone or anything can get inside.
"Were you here during the exorcism?" I ask K.W.
"Jen and I were in the living room. We could hear it, but we didn't see anything until Father Traven got hurt. He was on the floor. Hunter was already gone."
He nods to the boarded-up window.
"We haven't seen him since."
While I talk to dad, Vidocq examines the smoking patches some of his potions have left on the floor. They spread out in spider legs, each one a different color. I have no idea what it's telling him, but it looks impressive.
I give Candy the last packet of salt and she lays down a line beneath the window.
K.W. gives us a half smile and shakes his head.
"Seeing you three reminds me of Tommy's friends. They were into magic. Claimed to know about these kinds of things. Some of them called themselves Sub Rosas. It just seemed silly at the time. You know, kids dabbling in old stuff no one understands to impress their friends and bug their parents."
His smile gets broader, like he's found a memory that doesn't hurt.
"You're not quite like them, though," he says. "You look like you might have a clue."
"Thanks," I say.
I wish we had a fucking clue right now. I go to where K.W. is standing. He's still in the hall. Hasn't so much as stuck a toe into Hunter's room.
"Let me make sure I have this straight. Thomas, your older son, was heavy into magic with his fashion-victim friends. Did Hunter want to play Merlin, too? Even something small and silly like a Ouija board."
K.W. shakes his head.
"Not after he saw what it did to Tommy. He was just a kid at the time, but he remembers. Hunter's into sports, Xbox, and girls."
"You sure? You didn't know he was taking drugs."
He waves a hand, palm up. A dismissal.
"That's different. You can hide drugs. When Tommy was into that stuff, there were magical books, crystals, twigs, and potions all over his damn room. When Jen asked him to clean up, he said his friends were the same way. There's a picture of him and a bunch of the kids. Would that help you?"
"You never know."
He still won't come into the room.
"You, lady," he says to Candy. "By your left foot, there's a photo in a frame. Would you bring it to me?"
She gets it and hands it to K.W.
He looks at the photo for a minute, not sure he wants to show it to us, an intimate thing he doesn't want to share. Finally, he hands it to me.
"See what I'm talking about?"
There's a group of six kids. Harry Potter by way of Road Warrior. My neck hurts and my stomach is in knots. I hand him back the shot. Take out my phone and pretend to look at the time.
"Mr. Sentenza, before we go any further, I think we should talk to Father Traven. Thanks for letting us have a look around."
"That's it? That's all you're going to do?"
"We'll know how to proceed after consulting with the father. Don't want to piss off any spirits by coming at them the wrong way."
"That makes sense, I guess. So, you'll call when you know more?"
"Exactly. Thanks." I turn to the others. "Let's go."
Vidocq and Candy look at each other, but follow me out. Vidocq shakes K.W.'s hand.
"Thank you for your hospitality. Please say good-bye to your wife for us."
I'm heading for the door, leaving the two of them to catch up with me.
"You'll call back soon, right? Hunter is still out there somewhere."
I turn and give him what I hope is a reassuring smile.
"We'll call right after we confer with the father."
I head back to the Volvo and fire it up. I already have it in gear when the others get in.
"What's wrong with you?" asks Candy. "Why are we running out on that family?"
I don't answer until we're down the driveway enough that I can't see the house anymore.
"I need to get clear of that place. I've got to think."
Vidocq is in the front seat. He's looking at me hard.
"Thomas, the older kid in that photo? Hunter's big brother? He's TJ."
"Who's TJ?" Candy asks.
"He was in my magic Circle with Mason. He was there the night I got dragged Downtown. I never even knew his name was Tommy. I was going to kill him with the others when I came back, only Kasabian told me he'd already killed himself."
"It seems more likely now that the demon who sang that ‘Mr. Sandman' song knows you after all."
"Doesn't it just? But I can't think of any demons I've pissed off. I kill Hellions and hell beasts."
"People, too," says Candy.
"They usually deserve it most."
Vidocq says, "Perhaps at Avila. Or something you did for the Golden Vigil. Perhaps you killed or injured a possessed person, ruining the demon's host. That might be enough for it to want revenge."
"Then why wouldn't the demon come after me? Or you or Candy or Allegra? Even Kasabian? Someone I give a damn about."
"Perhaps the father can answer that question. Let's hope so."
I cut around cars and thousand-dollar mountain bikes cruising Studio City's quiet, privileged streets, running the Volvo away from TJ's Haunted Mansion ride and onto the freeway. The exhaust fumes and clogged lanes are like a welcome-home party. The knots in my stomach are getting worse. I feel cold. I hold the steering wheel tight enough it feel it bend and get close to breaking. The angel in my head moves back into the dark. It recognizes this kind of anger and knows it's not going to talk me down. If it speaks or touches, it might burn up in the heat.
"This is what I get for going soft. For backing off. I don't kill anything for a while and the world starts coughing up this shit. Okay. I get the message loud and clear."
"You need to calm down if we're going to talk to the father," Vidocq says.
"I am calm. I don't know what exactly is going on, but what I do know is that someone or something is daring me to find them and maybe this preacher can tell me what. I'll do it old-school. No bullets. Just the knife and the na'at, like back in the arena."
"You scare me when you're like this, Jimmy."
"Not me," says Candy quietly from the back.
"Good, because when I get this thing figured out, I'm going to bring down all kinds of Hell on these assholes and this city."
I've calmed down a little when we reach Father Traven's place near the UCLA campus.
Vidocq's been playing navigator, running us up and down every little side street in the county. He can read a map as well as anyone, but I think he's been buying time, hoping that if he drags out the drive long enough, I won't storm into Traven's place like it's D-day. The plan sort of works, but mostly it's seeing where the father lives that brings down my blood pressure.
Traven has an apartment in an old art deco complex from the thirties and the place really shows its age. It was probably beautiful once, back before reality TV, when lynching and TB were the most popular pastimes. Now the building's best quality is that it stands as a big Fuck You to all the developers who wake up with a hard-on every morning dreaming of plowing the place under and turning the land into a business park or prefab pile of overpriced condos. If I ever find out who owns the place, I'll buy them a case of Maledictions.
Father Traven lives on the top floor. In a normal building, that would be luxury central. The penthouse suite. In this one, it's pretty much a sock drawer with a view. The original architect had the brilliant idea of putting storage and utility areas at both the top and bottom of the building. Maybe elevators didn't work that well back in the thirties. Maybe he was anal-retentive. Sometime in the long history of the building, someone chopped up those top-floor spaces and tried to convert them into apartments, only they weren't designed to be a happy place for anything except rats and mops. The ceilings are too low and are at funny angles. The untreated wooden floors are warped. You'd have to call in Paul Bunyan to chain-saw the top of the building off and rebuild it from scratch to make Traven's bachelor pad into something anyone but a ghost or an ex-communicated sky pilot would love.
We take the elevator up to the floor below Traven's and walk up a set of bare, uncarpeted stairs. Traven's apartment door is open a few inches when we get there. I don't like unexpected open doors. I knock and push it open, my other hand under my coat on the .460.
Traven is sitting at a desk scribbling away on yellow paper that looks old enough to have Spanish Inquisition letterhead at the top. He stops writing and lifts his head, speaks without turning around.
"Ah. You must be God's other rejects. Please, come in."
Traven gets up from a long desk piled high with books. Really, it's the kind of fold-up conference table you see in community centers. I don't know if he's getting ready for work or a church bake sale.
As we come in, Traven extends his hand. He gives us a faint smile, like he wants to be friendly but hasn't had any reason to be for a long time and is trying to remember how to make his face work.
"I'm Liam Traven. Good to meet you all. Julia has told me a lot about you."
He turns to Candy.
"Well, about two of you."
She takes off her sunglasses and beams at him.
"I'm Candy, Mr. Stark's bodyguard."
Traven grins at her. He does it better this time.
"It's very nice to meet you all."
He steps out of the way so we can get farther into the place.
The apartment is small but neat and brighter than I expected. Whoever cut up the place installed a couple of big picture windows overlooking UCLA. There are books, scrolls, and folded sheets of vellum, mystical codices, and crumbling reference books everywhere. Even some pop-science and physics textbook covered in highlighter marks and Post-its. Brick-and-board bookshelves line the walls and there are more books on the floor. Vidocq heads right for them and starts eyeballing the piles.
"I owned many of these years ago. Not here. I had to leave my library when I left France. I haven't seen some of these texts in a hundred years."
He kneels and picks up a bound manuscript from the floor. It's so old and worn it looks like someone sewed dried leaves together and slapped a cover around them. Vidocq opens it carefully, flips through a few pages, and turns to Traven.
"Is this the old Gnostic Pistis Sophia?"
Traven nods and walks over to Vidocq.
"There it is. I've been looking for that. Thank you. And yes, it's the Pistis."
"I thought there were only four or five of these left in the world?"
Traven gently takes the book and puts it on a high shelf with other moldering titles.
"There's more than that if you know where to look."
I say, "Maybe there's one less now that you're not punching the clock for the pope. I bet that wasn't a going-away present."
Traven glances up at the manuscript and then to me.
"We do rash things at rash moments," he says. "Later, we sometimes we regret them. But not always."
"God helps those who help themselves," says Candy.
"Especially the ones who don't get caught. Don't worry, Father. We don't have a problem with rash. The first thing I did when I got back to this world was roll a guy for his clothes and cash. He threw the first punch and I'd recently woken up on a pile of burning garbage, so I figured God would understand if I helped myself to some necessities."
Father Traven is in his fifties, but his ashen complexion makes him look older. His voice is deep and exhausted, but his eyes are large and curious. His face is lined and deeply creased by years of doing something he didn't want to do, but did anyway because he thought it needed to be done. It's a soldier's face, not a priest's. There's something else. He's definitely not Sub Rosa-I would have known that the moment I touched his hand-but I can feel waves of hoodoo coming off him. Something weird and old. I don't know what it is, but it's powerful. I bet he doesn't even know about it. Also, I think he's dying. I smell what could be the early stages of cancer.
"The lucky among us might get the same deal as Dysmas. Dysmas was one of the thieves crucified next to Christ. When he asked for forgiveness, Christ said, ‘Today you will be with me in paradise.'"
Candy and Vidocq wander around the room. I'm still standing and so is Traven, protectively, in front of his desk. He likes seeing people, but values his privacy. I know the feeling.
"I know a dying story, too. Ever hear of a guy named Voltaire? Vidocq told me about him. I guess he's famous. On his deathbed the priest says to him, ‘Do you renounce Satan and his ways?'"
"And Voltaire says, ‘My good man, this is no time for making enemies,'" says Traven. "It was a popular joke in the seminary."
Framed pictures of old gods and goddesses line the walls. Egyptian. Babylonian. Hindu. Aztec. Some jellyfish-spider things I haven't seen before. Candy likes those as much as Vidocq likes the books.
"These are the coolest," she says.
"I'm glad you like them," says Traven. "Some of those are images of the oldest gods in the world. We don't even know some of their names."
The angel in my head has been chattering ever since we got here. He wants to get out of my skull and run around. This place is Disneyland to him. I'm about to slap a gag on him when he points out something that I hadn't noticed. I scan the walls to make sure he's right. He is. Among all the books and ancient gods there isn't a single crucifix. Not even prayer beads. The father lapsed a long time ago or he really holds a grudge.
"Would you like some coffee or hot chocolate? I'm afraid that's all I have. I don't get many guests."
"No thank you," says Vidocq, still poking at Traven's bookshelves.
"I'm fine, Father," says Candy.
He didn't mention scotch, but I get a faint whiff of it when he talks. Not enough for a normal person to notice. Guess we all need something to take the edge off when we're booted from the only life we've ever known.
"I'm not a priest anymore, so there's no need to call me ‘Father.' Liam works just fine."
"Thank you, Liam," says Candy.
"I'll stick with ‘Father,'" I say. "I heard every time you call an excommunicated priest ‘Father,' an angel gets hemorrhoids.
"What is it you do exactly?" I ask.
He clasps his hands in thought.
"To put it simply, I translate old texts. Some known. Some unknown. Depending on who you ask, I'm a paleographer, a historical linguist, or paleolinguist. Not all of those are nice terms."
"You read old books."
"Not ordinary books. Some of these texts haven't been read in more than a thousand years. They're written in languages that no longer exist. Sometimes in languages that no one even recognizes. Those are my specialty."
He looks at me happily. Is that the sin of pride showing?
"How the hell do you work on something like that?"
"I have a gift for languages."
Traven catches me looking at the book on his desk, pretends to put a pen back into its holder, and closes the book, trying to make the move look casual. There's a symbol carved into its front cover and rust-red stains like blood splattered across it. Traven takes another book and covers the splattered one.
I sit down in a straight-back wooden chair against the wall. It's the most uncomfortable thing I ever sat in. Now I know what Jesus felt like. I'm suffering mortification of my ass right now. Traven sits in his desk chair and clasps his big hands together.
He tries not to stare as the three of us invade his inner sanctum. His heartbeat jumps. He's wondering what he's gotten himself into. But we're here now and he doesn't have the Church or anywhere else to run to anymore. He lets the feeling pass and his heart slows.
"Before, you said, ‘When I got back to this world.' Are you really are him, then? The man who went to hell and came back? The one who could have saved Satan's life when he came here?"
"God paid your salary. Lucifer paid mine. Call it brand loyalty."
"You're a nephilim. I didn't know there were any of you left."
"That's number one on God's top-forty Abomination list. And as far as I know, I'm the only one there is."
"That must be very lonely."
"It's not like it's Roy Orbison lonely. More like people didn't come to my birthday party and now I'm stuck with all this chips and dip."
Traven looks at Vidocq.
"If he's the nephilim, you must be the alchemist."
"Is it true you're two hundred years old?"
"You make me sound so old. I'm only a bit over one hundred and fifty."
"I don't think I'd want to live that long."
"That means you're a sane man."
Traven nods at Candy.
"I haven't heard about you, young lady."
She looks at him and smiles brightly.
"I'm a monster. But not as much as I used to be."
"Ignore her," I tell him. "She's just showing off and hardly ever eats people anymore."
Traven looks at me, not sure if I'm kidding.
"If you're in the exorcism business, you must know a lot about demons."
"Qliphoth," he says.
"It's the proper word for what you call a demon. A demon is a bogeyman, an irrational entity representing fear in the collective unconscious. The Qliphoth are the castoffs of a greater entity. The old gods. They're dumb and their lack of intelligence makes them pure evil."
"Okay, Daniel Webster. What happened at the exorcism?"
Traven takes a breath and stares at his hands for a minute.
"You should know that I don't follow the Church's standard exorcism rites. For instance, I seldom speak Latin. If Qliphoth really are lost fragments of the Angra Om Ya, the older dark gods, they're part of creatures millions of years old. Why would Latin have any effect on them?"
"How, then, do you perform your exorcisms?" asks Vidocq.
"My family line is very old. For generations we served communities the Church hadn't reached or wouldn't come to. I use what I learned from my father. Something much older than the Church and much more direct. Best of all, God doesn't have to be involved. I'm a sin eater, from a long line of sin eaters."
Candy comes over.
"I don't know what that is, but can I be one, too?"
I give her a look.
"How does it work?"
"It's a simple ritual. The body of the deceased is laid out naked on a table in the evening, usually around vespers. I place bread and salt on the deceased. I lay my hands on the body. The head. The hands. The feet. I recite the prayers my father taught me, eating the bread and salt.
"With each piece, I take in the body's sins, cleansing the deceased until the soul is clean. When my father died, I ate his sins. When his father died, he ate his sins, and so on and so on, back centuries. I contain all of the accumulated sins of a hundred towns, hamlets, armies, governments, and churches. Who knows how many? Millions I'm sure."
I take a pack of Maledictions from my pocket and offer one to Traven.
"Do you smoke, Father?"
"Yes. Another of my sins."
"Light up and we'll ride the coal cart together."
I light two with Mason's lighter and hand one to the father.
Traven takes a puff, coughs a little. Maledictions can be a little harsh if you're not used to them. Really, they taste like an oil-well fire in a field of fresh fertilizer. Traven sees the pack in my hand and his eyes widen a fraction of an inch.
"Are those what I think they are?"
"The number one brand in Pandemonium."
He holds the Malediction out and looks at it.
"It's harsh, but not as awful as I thought it would be."
"That's Hell in a nutshell," I say. "Tell me about Hunter."
"It seemed to be going well. You see, a Qliphoth can only possess an imperfect and impure body, one that's sinned. Of course, that describes al humans except maybe for the saints. When I eat a possessed person's sins, their body returns to a pure and holy state. With nowhere to left to hide, the Qliphoth is ejected like someone spitting out a watermelon seed."
"Where did it go wrong?"
"I'd laid out the bread and salt and I was saying the prayers. Not in Latin, but in an older language supposedly spoken by the Qliphoth and possibly the Angra On Ya."
Traven opens his mouth and what comes out is all humming, gurgling, and spluttering, like he's drowning and speaking Hellion at the same time.
"I felt the Qliphoth being drawn out as I swallowed Hunter's sins. It knew what was happening and fought back hard. No doubt you've see the wreckage. Toward the end of the ritual, the Qliphoth tried to drag the boy's body into the air. I shoved bread and salt into Hunter's mouth, hoping it would draw out the creature. I prayed and ate the bread. That should have worked. It's always worked before, but something went wrong. Imagine that I was erecting a castle to push the Qliphoth out and keep it out. Something went wrong and it burst through the walls and back into Hunter's body. That's the last thing I remember before Julia helping me to my feet. By then, Hunter was gone out the window."
"Did you recognize the demon?" I ask.
"No. It's none I've ever encountered before. It wasn't angry or frightened until it realized that I knew how to force it out. That's unusual for Qliphoth. They're incomplete creatures and they know it, so it makes them fearful and vicious. This one was patient and thoughtful."
Traven walks to the windows and opens them to let the smoke out. I follow him so I can flick my ashes outside over the university.
I say, "I think we're going to need more information before we try the exorcism again. We're missing something important."
"I've been going through my books trying to identify the specific creature, but I haven't had any luck."
"Perhaps I can help you with your research," says Vidocq. "I have my own library, if you would like to see it."
"Thank you. I would."
"You two can play librarians. I'm going to make some calls and break some people's toys until one of them starts giving us answers."
"Cool," Candy says.
"Father, I know you must use the university library. Have you ever heard anyone talk about a drug called Akira?"
"Of course. It's popular among some of the students. Artists. New Agers. Those sort of thing."
"Do you know anything about the drug itself?"
"Not really. All I remember is that it seemed like it was harder to get than other drugs. That there were only a few people who sold it."
I shake Traven's hand and I let Vidocq and Candy go out ahead of me. I start out, stop, and turn. It's an old trick.
"One more thing, Father. Julia never told us why you are excommunicated."
He's thinking. Not sure he wants to answer.
"I'll tell you if you promise to talk with me about Hell sometime," he says.
Traven goes back to his desk and picks up the book he'd hidden earlier.
"I don't like other people to see this particular book. It seems wrong for it to be a mere curiosity."
"I saw you cover it up."
The spray of red on the front of the book nearly covers an ancient sigil.
"I don't recognize the symbol."
"It's the sign of one of the Angra Om Ya cults," says Vidocq, looking over my shoulder.
"You'll understand why the church was so angry with me. They have an unswerving policy that there is no God but their God. There never was and there never will be. But there are some who believe that there's more to Creation than what's in the Bible and that the stories in this book are at least as convincing as those."
"You translated the Angra Om Ya's bible. No wonder God doesn't want you whacking his piñata anymore."
"Certainly the Church doesn't."
"It isn't all bad, Father. I own a video store. Come around sometime. The damned get a discount."
He gives us one of his exhausted smiles.
"That's very kind of you. Since leaving the Church, I've come to believe that it's the little, fleeting pleasures like watching videos that mean the most in this life."
"Amen to that."