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KILLING RITES

1

‘So, Miss Jayné,’ Father Chapin said, pronouncing my name correctly: Zha-nay. Either he knew a little French or he’d been coached. ‘You believe you are . . . possessed?’

‘Yes,’ I said.

He wasn’t what I’d expected. I only knew a few things about him—that he’d been my buddy Ex’s mentor back when Ex had still been studying for the priesthood, that he ran some kind of Jesuit exorcism squad, that he was presently working just south of the Colorado border in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of northern New Mexico. It had left room for me to imagine some kind of Old West demon hunter. If he’d walked into the ranch house wearing a black duster with a Sergio Leone movie soundtrack playing in the background, it would have been closer. Instead, he looked like someone’s pharmacist or grocery manager. Close-cropped, wiry white hair, a beard that was more a collection of individual whiskers each doing its own thing, and watery blue eyes that were a little red about the rims. He was a small man too, hardly bigger than me. His shirt was dark to match his slacks, and he didn’t even have the Roman collar.

I felt cheated.

He took a sip of the coffee I’d made while we waited for him. It was a little after six at night, and already an hour past sundown. If he was anything like me, the caffeine would keep him awake until bedtime. The pine log burning in the fireplace popped, scattering embers like fireflies inside the black metal grate. Above us, shadows danced between the vigas.

‘What leads you to suspect this?’ he asked.

‘All right,’ I said, took a breath, blew it out. ‘This goes back a little way. About a year and a half ago, my uncle died. Got killed. Murdered. It turned out he’d left me everything he had, and he had a lot. Like more than some small nations a lot.’

‘I understand,’ Father Chapin said.

‘It also turns out that he was involved with riders. Demons, or whatever. We call them riders. Spirits that cross over from Next Door and take people over. Like that. I didn’t know anything about it, so I was flying blind for a while.’

‘How did you discover your uncle’s involvement with the occult?’

‘There was a guy staying in one of his apartments. He turned out to be a vampire.’

‘The varkolâk,’ Ex said. ‘Midian Clark. I mentioned him before.’

‘So there was that,’ I said. ‘But then I started getting these weird powers, you know? Wait. That sounds wrong. I don’t mean like I can fly or turn invisible or anything. It was just that when someone attacked me, I’d win. Even if I really shouldn’t have. That, and everyone tells me I’m sort of invisible to magic. Hard to locate. We figured that Eric—that’s my uncle—had put some kind of protection on me.’

‘What did it feel like?’

‘What did what feel like?’

‘When you felt you should have lost in some conflict, but didn’t.’

‘Oh. It’s like my body just takes over. Like I’m watching myself do things, but I’m not really driving that car.’

‘I see. Thank you. Go on.’

I looked over at Ex. He was sitting at the breakfast bar, looking down at the couch and overstuffed chairs like a bird on a perch. His white-blond hair was tied back in a ponytail and he wore his usual basic black pseudo-priestwear. Looking at Father Chapin, I could see where his fashion sense came from.

I wished the others were there too—Chogyi Jake and my now ex-boyfriend Aubrey. Kim. The ones who’d been there from the beginning. I wasn’t sure what to say that I hadn’t already told Father Chapin. I felt like I was at the doctor’s office trying to explain symptoms of something without knowing quite what information mattered.

‘It isn’t fading,’ Ex prompted.

‘Yeah. That’s right. It’s not,’ I said. ‘The guys always told me that magic fades, you know? That when someone does some sort of mojo, it takes upkeep, or it starts to lose power. We were looking through my uncle’s things for months, and we never found anything about putting protections on me. We never used any kind of magic to keep them up. But instead of getting weaker, it seems like I’m getting stronger.’

‘Have you found yourself taking actions without intending to?’

‘Like what?’

He took another sip of coffee, his thick white eyebrows knotting like pale caterpillars.

‘Walking places without knowing that you meant to go there,’ he said. ‘Picking up things or putting them down. Saying words you didn’t expect to say.’

‘No,’ I said. And then, ‘I don’t know. Maybe. I mean, everyone does things like that sometimes, right?’

‘Have you been sexually active?’

‘Excuse me?’

‘Have you been sexually active?’ he asked again with exactly the same inflection.

I shifted on the couch. The blush felt like someone had turned a sunlamp on me. When I glanced over at Ex, he wasn’t looking at me. I didn’t want to go into any of this, but I especially didn’t want to talk about my love life with Ex in the room. We’d both been pretty good about ignoring that he wanted to be part of it. Hauling out the fact that he wasn’t seemed rude.

Still, in for a penny, in for a pound.

‘A couple of times in college. And since last year, I had a boyfriend for a while, yes,’ I said. ‘Aubrey. But we’re not seeing each other anymore.’

‘Why not?’

‘It turned out that my uncle—the one I inherited everything from?—wasn’t exactly a good person. He used magic to break up Aubrey and his wife. To make her have an affair with my uncle. The phrase rape spell came up. When we figured that out, Aubrey kind of needed to go resolve that with her.’ I paused. ‘It’s not really as Days of Our Lives as it sounds.’

‘No other sexual activity?’

‘None,’ I said.

‘Are you Catholic?’

‘No.’

‘What is your relationship with God?’

I shrugged. ‘Well, we used to be really close, but then I went away to college. The whole long-distance thing was really a drag, so we’re kind of seeing other deities.’

No one laughed. I felt my own smile go brittle. I shook my head and tried again.

‘So, look, my parents are evangelical. We went to church all through my childhood, but the older I got . . . it just didn’t work for me. I decided to go to a secular college. Took a while to save up the money, but . . . Anyway, I haven’t been to church since then. Haven’t talked to my parents either.’

Father Chapin’s smile was a relief, if only because it meant he was skating over the ‘seeing other deities’ comment. I was a little bit annoyed with myself for wanting him to like me as much as I did.

‘What did you study?’

‘I majored in prerequisites,’ I said. When he looked quizzical, I said, ‘I dropped out after a couple semesters. Then Uncle Eric died. Since then, I’ve been kind of busy.’

The old priest sighed, wove his fingers together on one knee, and leaned forward. I had the feeling we’d just been making small talk and he was ready to get into the real business. I didn’t know what he was going to talk about if my messed-up family, my faith breakdown, Eric’s death, and my sexual history were just the warm-up.

‘Xavier tells me that you have recently killed a man.’

‘Who’s Xavier?’ I asked. ‘You mean Ex?’

‘He tells me the man was an innocent and willing sacrifice, and that you—’

‘All this stuff started a long time before that,’ I said. ‘It’s not related.’

‘Still, to take such an action could have—’

‘It’s not related,’ I said again, and my voice shook a little. My heart was racing. I felt a pang of anger at my body for reacting so obviously. Wasn’t I supposed to be the cool-as-a-cucumber demon hunter?

‘I’m not here to judge you, young miss,’ he said. ‘I know something of the circumstances.’

‘Then you know I’ve been seeing this freaky shit a long time before Chicago,’ I said. ‘If I’ve got a rider, I’ve had it since at least last year. Maybe longer.’

‘Yes,’ Father Chapin said. ‘Yes, I understand. Thank you for your candor.’

The pine log popped again. The quiet got awkward.

‘So, what do we do?’ I said. ‘Is there someplace we should go and get our exorcism on? Some kind of rite to keep things together until we’re full power? What?’

Father Chapin looked pained. He scratched at an eyebrow with the nail of his right pinky, smiling down toward the coffee table as he spoke.

‘There are many things we will need to do. Little steps. Little steps to be sure that our action is right, yes? Move forward with our eyes open.’

‘Great,’ I said, clapping my hands on my knees. ‘Where do we start?’

‘I would consult with Xavier, please. For a moment.’

When I didn’t hop up immediately, Father Chapin looked embarrassed, and I had the sense it was more for me than himself. This is my problem hunched at the back of my throat. Anything you can say to Ex, you can say to me.

‘Just for a minute, Jayné,’ Ex said.

‘Sure,’ I said. ‘No problem.’

I walked out of the den, heading for the kitchen. But at the last minute, I turned right instead. Down the hall, and out into the December night. After the warmth of the ranch house, the air was like a sharp slap. To the southwest, the lights of Santa Fe were glowing against a sparse covering of cloud. The stars overhead were brilliant and crowded in the sky. A meteor passed over, a thin silver-white light, gone as soon as I saw it. I stepped out to a stretch of rough wooden fence that divided the scrub and stones near the house from the scrub and stones slightly farther away from it, sat on the top plank, crossed my arms, and waited.

It had been a little over two months since I’d killed an innocent man. I’d had a good reason—saving-the-world-from-madness-and-war-level good—and he’d known what we were going to do. He’d gone into darkness of his own free will. But I was the one who’d put him in the box, driven in the nails, and buried him and the thing living in his body while they screamed and begged. Me. Little old Jayné Heller. My palms were almost healed. There wouldn’t even be much of a scar. According to my lawyer, the police weren’t investigating. It was a missing persons case, and it probably would be forever. Once upon a time, there was a man named David, and then one day, for no particular reason, there wasn’t.

I hugged myself closer, the cold pressing into my skin. I’d bought an overcoat when we were in London—soft black wool that went down to my ankles—and I thought about going in to get it.

The days since then hadn’t been the best of my life. I wasn’t sleeping enough. I had weird spikes of anxiety and fear that felt like I’d accidentally gunned the gas with the car in neutral. I didn’t know if it was the aftermath of my very bad day in Chicago or more evidence for my new theory of why I kept winning fi ghts I should have lost.

From the moment I’d told Ex my suspicion that I had a rider in me, I felt like I’d fallen into a wheelchair that he was pushing. He’d arranged for the ritual tests in Hamburg that we’d tried with spectacularly inconclusive results. He’d orchestrated the trip back to the States—plane tickets, car, hotels. He even drove on the way up from Albuquerque International Sunport to Santa Fe.

He’d brokered the meeting with Father Chapin and his cabal of Vatican-approved exorcists. He’d made them sound like the ninja SWAT team of God. And maybe they were, but right now, sitting on my fence, I felt more alone than I had since I’d left college. I heard the front door open and close on the other side of the ranch house, then a car door. An engine came to life. Tires punished the gravel. I watched the headlights curve over the landscape of piñons and cactus without ever seeing the car itself. I figured it was safe to go in, but I didn’t. A few minutes later, the door behind me opened. I heard Ex’s footsteps coming out toward me, and I smelled the hot chocolate before I saw it. He had a cup for each of us, complete with half-melted marshmallows.

The news was going to be bad, then.

He leaned against the fence, looking out toward the smudge of light that was Santa Fe.

‘He’s in the middle of something right now,’ Ex said. ‘There’s an Akkadian wind demon that’s been possessing people all through the northern part of the state and up into Colorado. They’ve tracked it through almost three dozen cases. Father Chapin says they’ve got a rite coming up that’s going to stop it for good.’

‘Okay,’ I said.

‘They’ve been chasing this thing for months.’

He sounded defensive. I waited. I’d known Ex long enough to tell when he was working himself up to something. I let the silence push for me while I sipped the hot chocolate. It was good, but he always put a little too much cinnamon in it.

‘There’s some work we can do, though,’ Ex said. ‘So that we’re ready when he’s done with that. Hit the ground running.’

‘This is the part I’m not going to like, right?’

‘Yeah,’ Ex said. ‘It is.’

I popped what was left of the marshmallow into my mouth and talked around it.

‘Lay it on me, Preacher Man.’

‘There’s someone in Taos he’d like you to talk with.’

‘Another priest?’

‘A psychiatrist.’

I laughed. The amusement didn’t reach down as far as my gut.

‘It’s not about you,’ Ex said. ‘It’s standard. It didn’t used to be, but . . . well, it is now. People come to him and say that they’re hearing voices or that demons are trying to control them or . . . anything really. What he does won’t help people who are mentally ill, so it makes sense to have someone do that kind of triage. And he doesn’t know you. All he sees is your history.’

‘And what does my history look like?’

Ex’s sigh plumed out white in the freezing air.

‘It looks like someone with a very controlled, fairly sheltered childhood who’s been through a lot of changes in a very short time. Just falling into that kind of money can put lottery winners into therapy. Then there’s everything else. It wouldn’t be strange for someone who has been through all the things you have to be . . .’

‘Mentally ill?’

‘Shell-shocked.’

‘Great.’

We were quiet for what felt like a long time. The moon was new, a starless spot in the star-strewn sky. The breeze was no more than a breath, cold and dry. For as long as I could remember, I’d had dreams of being in a desert not entirely unlike this one. I wondered now if they’d really been my dreams. Maybe they belonged to something else that was living in my skin. Or maybe that was really mine, and everything else in my life was the falsehood. I thought I was a woman, but maybe that was a mistake.

I bit my lip, pulling myself back from that train of thought.

‘You know I’m not going to do it, right?’ I said.

‘Yeah, I figured.’

‘So do we have a Plan B?’

‘Sort of,’ Ex said.

‘What’s it look like?’

‘Step one: Make a Plan B.’

‘Let’s get inside,’ I said. ‘I’m freezing.’

He took my hand, steadying me as I got down. He kept hold of my fingers for a few seconds longer than he needed to, and I let him. My plan to tour all the properties Uncle Eric had left in my name and catalog everything I could find had gone off the rails when I’d been called to Chicago. In the aftermath, we hadn’t gotten back to it. But of places I’d actually seen, the New Mexico ranch house was one of my favorites. It sat alone on fifty acres of undeveloped wilderness, a single gravel road the only way in or out. It had power from the grid and utilities from the city, but there was also a generator and a well. The walls were white stucco that caught the desert sunlight, glowing yellow at dawn, pink and red and gold in the five o’clock winter dusk. And there was a patio that looked out to the west, catching the gaudy, improbable sunsets that had been different every day I’d remembered to look. I couldn’t imagine myself living there. It was too isolated. But I could see curling up there to lick my wounds for a few weeks. A few months. Years, maybe.

I went to the kitchen and poured out the hot chocolate now well on its way to tepid. Ex went to the front room and stirred the fire with a black iron poker. The floors were red brick with thick Navajo rugs over them. My cell phone rested on the couch next to the leather backpack I used as a purse. It said I had one new message. The number was Chogyi Jake’s, and I told myself I’d call him back later. After dinner, maybe. A demon-ridden mob had beaten him a good three-quarters of the way to death in Chicago. All his news would be about recuperating, which I didn’t want to know. All mine would be about my quest for a first-class exorcist, which I didn’t want to tell him. It didn’t leave a lot in the middle.

‘I could be wrong, you know,’ I said, sitting on the couch. ‘Maybe there’s another explanation. The whole thing about having a rider on board could be crap I made up, and I’m scaring myself for no reason.’

‘I’m not willing to take that chance,’ Ex said. ‘It fits the data too well. If we can’t figure out what’s going on and Father Chapin won’t help us, then I’ll find someone else. I’m not giving up on him yet, though. He’ll be in a better position after he’s done with this thing with the wind demon. If I can just get him to look at you himself, try a few cantrips and pulls to see what’s there to see, he’ll change his mind.’

‘You’re sure of that?’

‘I’m not.’

‘I thought this guy was your Yoda.’

Ex smiled toward the fire. In the flickering shadows, he might have looked sad. It was hard to tell.

‘He taught me most of what I know about riders. The occult. I trained with most of the men he’s working with now. I was going to be one of them.’

‘So what happened?’

Ex shrugged. The fire muttered to itself. When it was clear he wasn’t going to say anything more, I stopped waiting.