On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
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“Forgive me, father, for I have sinned.”
“Well then it must be a day with a Y in the name, Peter,” Father Hirst said from behind the screen, the smile evident in his voice.
“What does the Bible have to say about sarcasm, again?” Peter asked, and the priest gave a small laugh.
“I have special dispensation on that front,” he replied. “Now why don’t you start at the beginning.”
The confessional was mobile, constructed within the cargo area of a plain black, long-wheelbase high-top van. Peter’s position was tracked at all times via GPS, and Hirst would follow after him, making himself available to provide the required absolution. It was an eminently contemporary arrangement, and much more efficient than having Peter return to his own church after each of his trips. It wouldn’t be safe to seek absolution from any priest except his own, and so they had evolved along with the society around them.
“It was a bad one this time,” Peter began, settling into the narrow seat constructed for just this purpose. They had forgone the kneeling position in deference to comfort; the church owed this man a great deal.
“Bad how?” Hirst asked quietly, and Peter sighed.
He was an orphan, of course, like all those in his strange line of work. Living on the streets and stealing to survive, he had broken into the church that would later become his home on a frosty night when he could no longer bear the cold. Hirst, then a much younger man of only thirty-one years, had found the grubby and waif-like adolescent curled up under a pew in the darkest part of the nave. Their bond was immediate.
“The man was a teacher,” Peter continued. “Primary school. Children of about age seven. He was taken in broad daylight during a class trip. The kids were walking around the neighbourhood using a tablet device to follow the live navigation street view to their own houses, to acclimatise them with technology. Luckily there was a classroom assistant with them too, to take over. All the kids are fine.”
“And probably better versed in satellite navigation than their teachers,” Hirst observed. “You said the man was taken. Who was the Other?”
“A murderer of women,” Peter replied, in a matter-of-fact way. “From the nineteenth century. He was hanged not far from here. Buried in the local yard.”
Hirst nodded. It was a common enough set of circumstances these days. Belief was waning, but the things that people no longer believed in weren’t. They were as dangerous as ever, and there were all too many unprotected innocents out there. Never baptised, or anything comparable. Never even saying a prayer.
“What did it get up to with this poor teacher?” Hirst asked, and again Peter sighed.
“By the time we caught wind of it, it had killed a young female police officer, and badly hurt an old lady who tried to come to her aid. It ran off when police support units arrived. CCTV allowed them to make a biometric identification, but we managed to keep that out of the system. I caught up with it at the river about half a mile from here.”
Hirst nodded. The restless dead were drawn to water, and it held even more of a fascination to them when they had taken one of the living as a vessel. It was a curious thing, unexplained except as God’s will. The important point was that it was an advantage: it was so much easier to trap and banish them, because with or without a vessel, they could never actually cross running water.
Which is sufficient to prove that it’s all part of His design, Hirst thought, even though he was unsure what he personally believed on the matter. He turned his attention back to Peter.
“And what happened when you did catch up to it?” he asked, easily able to picture the face of the other man despite the screen separating them.
“The Other was furious,” Peter replied ruefully. “They usually are. But it had been waiting a long time to be free under the sky again, and I think it had a lot more killing to do. It told me it would take me next, but I’ve heard that before. It was armed, though. There was no opportunity to capture it. No time either.”
Hirst nodded, knowing that Peter would continue in a moment. This was also a familiar part of the story. It was very rare to be afforded the chance to remove an inhabiting soul from its host. Unfortunately, decisive action was almost always called for.
“I did try to speak to the teacher, but the thing had complete hold of him. The man was meek, and without faith. I felt no strength there, or hope. Eventually, it was clear what God wanted me to do.”
“Of course it was,” Hirst replied. “We have the most sacred of duties, just as I’ve always told you. As the cardinal has, too, and His Holiness himself.”
Peter ignored the words of comfort, which he had also heard more than once before.
“I killed it with silver,” he said simply. “Killed it for the second time, and the man it held for the first. I sent both of their souls away, but in opposite directions.”
It was an old joke in their unique trade, but it was never funny. More of a ritual than anything else.
“I did the work of the Lord,” Peter said at last, and Hirst knew that it was the final statement of the younger man’s confession. This, too, was a ritual, after all.
“I absolve you of your sins,” Hirst said, passing his hands through the air in a gesture which was dimly visible in shadow through the screen. “There is no penance for freeing a soul captured by evil, and when you have your reward you’ll speak to this teacher again in our Father’s kingdom. I daresay he’ll absolve you too.”
Peter made a sound of acknowledgement, but didn’t otherwise respond before pulling back the curtain and moving into the rear of the van. Hirst joined him a moment later, putting a hand on his shoulder.
“You did well,” he said. “You should rest for a while. There’s more work tomorrow.”
Peter nodded. “What is it this time?” he asked, but Hirst shook his head.
“That’ll wait for the morning. Not like this nasty business, either. Not urgent, but important. You’ll see.”
Peter looked a him for a moment, and then shrugged. “You’re getting mysterious in your old age,” he said at last.
“Well you know what they say about the man upstairs,” Hirst replied, and then he opened the side door and both men stepped out into the grey daylight.
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