I lose a lot of sleep thinking about whether or not God exists.
It was simpler before Creepy America; I was an unapologetic Atheist. My parents were technically Jewish, but that was far more of a cultural identity for me, something my family was as opposed to something I believed in. Religions were silly superstitions elevated to something more because of tradition and stubbornness. If I worshiped anything, it was the cold, hard answers that science provided, not this wishy-washy faith nonsense.
Obviously, I no longer believe that.
Not with what I’ve seen.
I’ve tried to observe the facts, sort through my experiences with Creepy America and line them up against the various faiths of the world, old and new, alive and dead, from ancient animism to the most radical of Christian Apocalypticism. Nothing fits perfectly, though. Each religion seems to answer some questions and fall short of others. They support and contradict reality at the same time. Certainty is no longer in the cards for me, it seems; all I have left is a cold, deep Agnosticism, the kind that keeps me up wondering until three in the morning.
I am certain of one thing, though:
I sure hope there’s a Hell.
Because people like Reverend Jones deserve to be burning in it.
It took me a few blurry moments to realize that we were parked in the middle of a field.
I’d had a lot of late nights recently. Budget worries were beginning to increase, our growing list of enemies was making me ever paranoid, and, as always, our schedule demanded us to be working around the clock to keep up. I had actually stayed up all through the night yesterday, trying to decide if we had enough money to be buying tasers and pepper spray and perhaps even more, and only realized it was late enough to be early when Zoey walked out of her room and told me “good morning”. One look at my face had betrayed my lack of sleep, so she had insisted on driving so I could spend the day napping in the passenger seat.
But now I was awake, and staring into a bright, sunshine-y meadow of grass.
“Zoey?” I slurred, panic beginning to creep into my mind as I imagined us getting lost, or ran off the road while I was unconscious.
She must have seen the concern in my face, because she answered “Calm down. We’re supposed to be here. This is our next stop.”
I rubbed my eye, removing the last vestiges of sleep from my head. “Whatcha mean?”
She handed me a piece of paper, and I read it:
REVEREND MICHEAL JONES
TENT CHURCH SERVICE
At the corner of old farm road and avenue EE
COME AND RECEIVE GOD’S LOVE FROM HIS APOSTLE, LET HIM CAST OUT YOUR SINS AND RECEIVE THE MODERN MIRACLE OF
THERE IS NO PROBLEM TOO BIG, TOO SMALL, TOO COMPLICATED FOR GOD
LET THE LORD ACCOMPLISH WHAT THE DOCTORS CAN NOT!
Sundays, 10:00 to noon
COME AND WORSHIP IN A GOD WHO LOVES YOU
COME AND WORSHIP A GOD OF MIRACLES
And underneath, a small hand-drawn map pointing out the location.
I sighed and handed the paper back to Zoey. “The faith healer? Really? We talked about this.”
“Yes, we did, and now we’re going to go see him,” Zoey said matter-of-factly, neatly folding the paper and placing it in her pocket.
“These people are charlatans, Zoe,” I protested. “They’re con men feeding off of the desperate. The only supernatural thing here is their lack of morals.”
“Maybe some of them. But I have it on good authority that this one is legitimate.”
I raised an eyebrow. “By who? Vulnerable, impressionable people in the presence of a charismatic individual? That’s how cults start.”
Zoey gave a frustrated sigh. “C’mon Liam. I’m so tired of investigating darkness and horror and death. Is it so much to ask for to investigate one case of something weird out there that might actually be helping people, instead of just eating them?”
I started to formulate a rebuttal, then stopped as I met Zoey’s eyes. There were dark purple rings around them, rings that I didn’t remember being there.
All of this is beginning to affect her as well, I realized, maybe even more so than it’s been affecting me.
“Alright,” I said. “But don’t get your hopes up, Zoey. Like I said, these people are fakes and crooks.”
“So sayeth the Liam,” Zoey said with a smile, rolling her eyes. “C’mon, the service is about to start.”
I grabbed a camera and hopped out of the RV, the two of us making our way over to the giant white tent. The year was beginning to transition from summer to fall, giving the air a tiny bite to it. The changing seasons had already taken a toll on the grass under our feet, draining the green blades into a yellow, crunchy surface under our and the multitude of other’s steps. With the tent and the large crowd gathering, it had the air of a carnival.
“Popular,” I noted, scanning the mass of people.
“Word’s gotten out about this guy,” Zoey said. “Quite a few people are hoping to get healed by him.”
I frowned but stayed quiet, simple observing the moving mass.
“Pardon us,” someone said from behind me. I turned to see two people, one, a young black girl with hair done up in pigtails, seated in a wheelchair, pushed by a woman in a simple white dress. Her mother, if I had to guess.
The girl brightened as she saw my camera. “Are you making a movie about the Reverend?”
Zoey smiled. “Sort of. We do a TV show where we look into people like him. You can be in it, if you want.”
“Can I?” she asked excitedly, looking up to the woman pushing the chair.
The woman shrugged. “Sure honey, if you want to.”
“I assume you’re here for the faith healing?” I asked, addressing the mother.
She nodded. “All the way from Georgia.”
“That’s… pretty far,” I noted.
She gave me a sad smile. “Hard journey, but we got here in the end, and it’ll all be worth it if Cynthia gets to walk again,” She looked down to the girl and very gently patted her shoulder.
“What’s the, um… issue, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Muscular dystrophy,” the girl answered immediately. “It makes me all weak and tired. But Mommy says that Mr. Jones is going to fix all that.”
“Hopefully,” the woman added. “We can only hope, and pray.”
“Excuse me,” a deep male voice sounded. A man in a light gray suit and tie approached us, motioning to the two women. “Could you two come with me for just a second? Reverend Jones has special seating in mind for you.”
With a brief, apologetic nod, the woman allowed the intruder to tear them away from us, moving sideways through the crowd and out of sight.
“Well, looks like the good Reverend is going to make sure they’re first in line,” Zoey said with a smile.
“Hardly,” I replied. “Those two are getting escorted out to the parking lot. This is a common tactic by faith healers: they have people near the entrances weed out the ones who are obviously sick or injured. When the healing starts, it’ll only be full of people who have tumors or pain or whatnot, nice invisible injuries that can’t be called out on stage for failing to disappear.”
“You don’t know that for certain,” Zoey said, doubt beginning to creep into her face.
I sighed. “Please don’t put too much faith into this guy, Zoey. You’re setting yourself up for failure if you do.”
“I choose to believe until proven otherwise,” Zoey said. “And if this guy is a phony feeding off of other people’s misery, I am going to enjoy exposing him as a fraud. But until then, he’s just as legit as anything else we’ve looked into.”
“Good enough, I guess. C’mon, let’s find a seat already.” I gestured up the hill to the large tent, where most of the crowd around us had already disappeared to.
By the time we had gotten all the way up there, almost all the seats had been taken.
And considering how big the place was, that was quite the achievement.
The tent was one of those gigantic tarp contraptions you see rented out for fairs and whatnot: a large white plastic sheet stretched tight over three poles and anchored into the ground with various ropes and stakes, providing an overhead covering but nothing in the way of walls. It hovered over an area maybe sixty feet long, and inside somewhere between three hundred to five hundred metal folding chairs had been crammed in, all set up around a small stage that was little more than a foot high platform with a podium resting on top. People were seated in the chairs, standing in the aisles between them, seated on the grass, standing at the end, around the ropes, wherever they could fit themselves to see the Reverend perform.
Zoey pointed to a pair of chairs that were miraculously unattended, and we took them, waiting as the general buzz of conversation washed over us.
“Get the camera ready,” Zoey hissed. “I want this whole service recorded.”
“You’re setting yourself up for disappointment,” I muttered, pointing my camcorder lens at the small platform ahead.
Zoey opened her mouth to say something, but the enthusiastic vvvrrruummmm of an electric organ interrupted her, and the mummerings of the crowd died down.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” a wide-grinning man on the platform said, “are you all having a blessed day today?”
A smattering of agreements went up.
“I said are you having a blessed day today?”
The agreements rose in volume.
“Praise Jesus!” he exclaimed, and several people echoed the sentiment. “I said praise Jesus! It makes my soul happy to see so many children of God gathered here to worship him today, in this modern tabernacle of God, for wherever-there-are-two-or-three, there he is also!”
“He sounds like an auctioneer,” I whispered to Zoey.
“Shhhh!” she hissed back.
“I want you to raise your voices, lift your spirits high and praise the Lord! As we welcome our brother-in-Christ and modern Apostle, Reverend Jones!”
That’s not Jones? I thought in confusion. The man who had just been addressing the crowd was everything I was expecting from a faith healer, white, middle-aged, overly enthusiastic and charismatic, but as the organ hummed to life once again and gospel music started up, he cleared the stage.
And Reverend Jones was helped up.
I’ve heard a lot of fans say that Jones looked a lot like the disturbing priest from Poltergeist II. I’ve never seen the movie, but I’ve Googled the character enough times to say that yes, that was pretty accurate. But far from exuding an air of menace or generally creepiness, the first time I saw him, I just couldn’t believe how old he looked.
The man was ancient, easily somewhere in his nineties. His skin was wrinkled, the deep, deep kind you only get with a lot of use, and what I’m assuming used to be a pale pallor to the man had transformed into a shade of gray. The shocks of hair that stuck out from under his hat were ghost white, and he had to be helped up by a younger woman, holding onto her with his right and leaning heavily on a cane to his left.
And an honest-to-goodness oxygen mask on his face.
That clashed with the rest of his outfit. He was done up in that traditional southern preacher garb you see in the movies: high white collar, string bolas tie, black suit coat and pants. He also had a broad black hat, like a sunhat, but more formal, and jet-black sunglass lenses covering his eyes
It was surreal, watching him limp and shuffle his way over to the stage while high energy praise songs belted from the corners of the tent. I noticed that those closest to the back, next to me, had a general look of confusion on their face, while those at the front were singing along, dancing, shouting. The regulars versus the new guys, I figured.
After five tortuous minutes, Jones finally got close enough to the podium to lean on it. He undid the strap of the oxygen mask, whispered something into the woman’s ear, and was left standing, alone, as the music wrapped up.
The tent went silent.
Jones cleared his throat. “I was walking in my garden yesterday, and do you know what I saw?”
He didn’t have a microphone. He didn’t seem to need to. His voice was soft, but it carried well, resounding clearly to our space at the back.
Nobody said anything.
The silence grew in intensity.
Jones looked to the sky. “Yes, I tell you the Lord came down to me. And he talked to me. And do you know what he said?”
“He said Jones!” he cried, raising his hands in the air. “I need your help! I’ve heard my people suffering, and crying, and praying to me, and I need you to help them.”
Excited little titterings went up from the crowd.
“And I answered him Lord, what do you mean, and he told me. He told me, ‘there is a Shila, who’s son is fighting Satan in a foreign land’...”
An excited gasp sounded from somewhere.
“‘...and I have heard the petitions of my child Mary, whose daughter is in the grips of the demons of addiction…’” As he continued, his words gained volume, becoming deeper. He began to stand straighter, no log hunched and leaning over the podium for support. “‘There is a Bill and Tom and Barry, whose jobs were taken by the Adversary, and worry about supporting their families, and I have heard them as well!’” The crowd was growing louder, each statement provoking a bigger reaction somewhere in the tent.
“He’s reading minds?” Zoey said, sitting up and filming with her own camera. “Or clairvoyance, or something?”
I sighed. “No, Zoey. It’s another element of the scam.”
She turned to me, obvious skepticism on her face.
“This is one of the tricks some of these guys use,” I explain. “They stuff the crowd full of moles that communicate with the healer via radio, literally whispering in his ear what the audience is talking about, or they post one of those ‘prayer request’ boxes near the entrance and raid the submissions before the show. Then the preacher can come out predicting this and that, looking like he talks to angels or God or something.”
“And if he is talking to God?” Zoey shot back.
“He’s not. All he’s…”
“‘And I need your healing hands!’” Jones declared, loudly enough to interrupt our debate. He had actually stepped around the podium now, raising a beaten Bible above his head and standing in front of it without assistance. “‘Yes, your healing hands. For just like my disciples of old, you were blessed with the abilities to cast out demons, and sickness, and all manner of ills, and I need those healing hands to heal my children!’” He paused, looking around the tent. “What’s that?”
The hubbub dimmed as everyone strained to hear.
“There’s an angel in this tent,” Jones declared. “There’s an angel here among us and he’s telling me that there’s a daughter of God here and now. There’s a daughter of God who’s been cursed by the Devil, and needs a miracle. Cynthia!”
I bolted upright, standing to get a better view. The young girl we’d been talking to, the one in the wheelchair, was being rolled up a short ramp to the Reverend. He paused and leaned over a bit. “Cynthia, is that you?”
“Umm… yes.” She looked a bit overwhelmed.
“I’ve been told that you can’t walk, is that right?”
“I’m gonna fix that,” he declared, placing a hand on her forehead. “I tell you, like Jesus told the lame man, ‘pick up your mat and walk,’ so I tell you, Cynthia, stand up! I call upon the power inside of me, and I cast out your sins, and your ills, and the demon that plagues you and I tell you. Stand. Up. And. Walk!”
Cynthia began to tremble.
“Is that the girl we were just talking to?” Zoey asked.
I frowned. “Yeah, but I can’t figure out why…”
“I can’t!” Cynthia complained, but in the increasing roar of the crowd I saw her say it more than I heard it.
“Cynthia Brown, child of God, I tell you that you can! I tell you that I have driven out the demon that has plagued you, and I tell you to get out of that chair and STAND!”
And the entire crowd gasped as she stood.
“It had to be a plant.”
We were standing outside of the tent now, letting the crowd of people stream past us after the service. There had been more to the event, much more, but it was a strange animal that wasn’t like any church service I had seen, less of a planned event and more like some spontaneous religious stream-of-consciousness that had gripped the assembly. Songs, acts of healing, and more of Jones' bizarre mini-sermons were interspersed among the time with little rhyme or reason to it, flipping through the three activities with apparent randomness.
But the star of the show was definitely the healings. Cynthia’s was the headliner, no one had gotten more dramatic assistance than that, but amid the normal feats I was expecting, cancer victims and immune disorders and sufferers of chronic pains, there were the blind, and deaf, and those that came upstage with a definitive limp. Jones would call them up out of the blue, claiming God or angels or something was naming names, he’d do his little ‘out demon’ schpeil, and the healings would happen. And though I had to take the blind and deaf at their word, the emotion they expressed onstage meant that they had either received real, genuine mending, or they were actors of a skill level that Oscar winners would envy.
I felt like the latter was far more probable.
“Plant?” Zoey asked, raising an eyebrow at me amid the various men, women, and children heading back to their vehicles.
“That’s the only explanation,” I replied. “This Jones guy has obviously upped his game by planting the fakes outside, people pretending to not be able to walk, or be blind, or whatever, and they’re there to interact with the skeptics they find and make the thing more legitimate in their eyes.”
A smug smile stretched across Zoey's face. “Right, right. Jones has set up an elaborate shell game with radios and security guys and con men with fake injuries interacting with people on the hopes that all this will make it seem real, oooorrrr… he can actually heal people.”
“There’s no hard proof of that.”
Zoey threw her head back and rolled her eyes. “Would you listen to yourself, Liam? You call blood curses out of nosebleeds and believe crazy people haunted by classic rock, but this is the thing you’re fighting tooth and nail to disprove?”
“Because those things are new,” I shot back. “Faith healing and this kind of holy rolling is an old game fraught with fraud and cons. There’s plenty of evidence that all these kinds of setups actually accomplish is taking money away from vulnerable people.”
“And there’s fake witches out there and inaccurate rumors about the Hotel California,” Zoey countered. “Laying on hands has stories from way back in Bible times. Plus, this is exactly the kind of thing Archangel would cover up with lies and con men.”
I paused as someone awkwardly scuttled between us, then leaned in and lowered my voice. “Alright, for argument’s sake, let’s say that I actually believe that this Jones guy is above the board. How do you think he’s doing it?”
Zoey gave me a Really? stare and pointed to a large banner with a cross nearby.
I scoffed. “You think God is the reason behind this?”
“Tell you what” Zoey said, a flicker of genuine annoyance crossing her face. “Since you’re so fond of ‘the facts,’ let’s go ahead and lay out what we’ve learned recently.”
“Fact one: when we were messing around with that Wonderland crap, one of the places that weird computer sent us to was literally called Hell.”
“And one was called Leng, which, last I checked, is a Lovecraft thing,” I responded. “And look at ‘Wonderland.’ We have no idea if those words mean what they think they mean.”
If my protest registered with Zoey, she didn’t show it. “Fact two: Jenny’s spells, spells which worked, invoked demons.”
“As well as a Fetch and a Lord of Ravens, whatever those are. Again, vague wording.”
“Fact three: our encounters with Mr. Death seemed to back up the good ol’ book of Revelations…”
I paused. “Well, maybe there’s some truth to some…”
“Fact four,” Zoey continued, glaring at me, “when we were running away from Leshy the Bunny Man, it was holy ground from a Christian church that saved our asses.”
I didn’t have a response for that.
“And fact five: not only did Mr. Leshy refer to that move as allying with ‘the God of light’, someone he had a beef with for stealing his followers, but that also seems to be a name Sam is familiar with. Actually, how did you say he put it? ‘Anyone can be baptized by the God of light?’ Interesting word, that.’”
I stopped. She had a point. I’d remembered going over the events of the Bunny Man incident in my head quite a bit after it had happened, and the holy ground in combination with Leshy’s comments about ‘the God of light’ had connected in my head. I’d figured that he was talking about Catholic Christianity moving in and taking over as the faith of choice, something that killed a lot of pagan faiths of old, but I’d also figured that the strange force we’d seen bat him away was some kind of weird supernatural law, like how gravity kept things on the ground or the speed of light was a universal constant.
But if the ‘God of light’ was a real thing, he could have actually been stopped by a living force, and I hadn’t even considered the idea that there was something there actually fighting him off.
Which could explain why he felt the attack was so personal, and why he’d described it as ‘allying’.
But more disturbingly, I’d never realized that Sam used the exact same name while talking to me. And there was no reason why I shouldn’t have made that connection earlier.
I wasn’t comfortable with that blind spot.
Seemingly decided that I had enough time to process all that, Zoey continued. “And now that we’ve got somebody here healing in the name of Jesus, we can add that to the list. I know you’re not big on faith, Liam, but even you have to admit that’s a lot of evidence.”
“And he said unto him, ‘if they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead,’” a new voice said.
I jumped. At some point in our argument, Jones must have snuck up behind us, because he was standing there, smiling. He was heavily leaning on both his cane and the woman supporting him on one side, but the oxygen mask was gone and he was smiling warmly.
“Reverend,” Zoey said, blushing. “Sorry, we, uh… we didn’t see you there.”
Jones gave a soft laugh. “There’s nothing to be ashamed of, my dear. This isn’t the first doubting Thomas to cross my path, and I doubt it will be the last.” He paused, glancing to our cameras. “Terry told me that they were some young people out in the crowd filming. I assume that was you two.”
Zoey straightened. “Right, yes. We do investigative reports into these… kinds of incidents.”
“Those gadgets have certainly gotten small… You do this work for the television, then?”
“Of a sort. Though it’s not for any established station. It’s more an… independent thing.” I could tell that Zoey was doing her best to explain the concept of ‘webshow’ without getting into a detailed analysis of what that meant. With how old the man looked, it was possible that he considered electricity a new-fangled idea. “Would you mind if we used this footage?”
“Tell you what, I’ll do you one better. Are you free tomorrow, at around noon? You can drop by my house and I’ll be happy to answer some questions.” His gaze turned to me. “I may not be able to assuage all of this boy’s doubts, but perhaps, like the parabled farmer, I can at least sow the seeds of thought.”
“That would be wonderful,” Zoey exclaimed, “wouldn’t it?”
“That’s… very generous. I appreciate the offer,” I said.
Jones bowed his head as the woman near him scribbled something down on a piece of paper, handing it to Zoey. “The pleasure’s all mine. I look forward to it.”
Zoey and I gave a polite nod (I was actually worried about hurting him if I shook his hand) and left, heading back to the RV. Just before I stepped in, I turned back to see Jones whispering something in the ear of the gray-suited man I had seen earlier, and him, Jones, and the woman at his side all stared at us.
And kept watching us until we had driven out of sight.
The paper the woman handed to Zoey turned out to be hand-written directions to Jones’ house, which was good; for the first time in my memory, Google maps actually failed to find the place.
Fortunately, the woman’s directions were very detailed, and it wasn’t long before our little car was bumping down the country roads, taking turns at intersections and landmarks before approaching a giant farmhouse in the middle of nowhere.
Perhaps farmhouse isn’t the right word. This was more like a farmmansion. It was three stories tall, stocky, and enormous enough to loom over the property like a cat over a mouse. Even though the surrounding fields looked like they hadn’t been used in a while, the land immediately around the property was lush and neatly-trimmed, yardscaped with various trees and flowering bushes. A small army of people were scuttling about, cutting grass and weeding flower beds and doing various other tasks about the place.
“Lotta servants for a humble man of God,” I remarked.
Zoey shot me a look. “Liam, behave. You are not going to screw up this interview for me with your snarky comments, understand?”
“You really believe this guy,” I said. “Like, really really believe it. Not a shred of doubt in your mind.”
“I have to believe in some light in all this darkness,” she replied quietly.
I opened my mouth to reply, but was interrupted by a loud Slam! from the porch. “You’re here!” Jones declared, hobbling down the steps unaided. He extended a hand towards us and we gingerly shook, his grip being a lot stronger than I would have thought.
”Of course!” Zoey exclaimed. “We’re honored to be able to talk to you.”
He waved a hand. “Please, the pleasure’s all mine. Come in, come in!” he added, leading the way up the steps. Zoey gave me a gesture to start filming and we followed, entering the large front door into an area decorated with lush greens and golds.
“Wow,” Zoey said, “this is… quite the place.”
“The Jones estate has been in my family for generations,” he chuckled. “It fell into some disrepair as of late, but some good, honest stewardship helped it regain some of the shine it had in its glory days. Bit like me, in a way.”
He gestured over to a pair of wooden dining room chairs before seating himself opposite them in a large plush throne-like piece. Zoey sat in one while I undid the tripod and stood behind the camera, making sure the filming went smooth. “Can I ask you what you mean by that?”
“It’s nothing I’m too proud to admit,” Jones replied. “My father was a Reverend, God bless his soul, and he did his best to raise me with a fear of the Lord in my veins. Unfortunately, I was a bit too stubborn. I rejected it, went to New York, made a fortune by lucking my way into a few good business deals, and just felt… restless. Unfulfilled, perhaps is the word for it.” The woman who had been helping him walk yesterday came into the room holding a tray, pitcher and glasses balanced on it. He nodded to her as she set it down on a nearby end table. “Tea?”
“No thanks,” Zoey replied. “When was this?”
“‘86 or ‘87. Sometime around that year. I came back here, to home, looking for answers, and that’s when I met Him.”
I raised an eyebrow. “God?” I couldn’t help myself.
Jones smiled at me. “Yes. As sure as you’re standing there. I was walking around the house, late at night, wondering what in the world I was doing here, when a light came down in front of me and a figure too bright for me to see materialized out of it. He told me that he knew why I was here, why I felt so lost. He told me I’d been blessed with healing hands, and I wouldn’t know peace until I used my gift to help him heal his children.”
Jones paused to take a long sip from one of the tall glasses now filled with tea. “I didn’t believe it, of course. Thought I was crazy. Checked myself into a clinic and everything. And while I was there, I came to know a girl, a young thing, who wouldn’t stop cutting herself. Long thin scars all up and down her arms. They tried to make sure she didn’t have access to anything sharp, but she’d find a way regardless. One day, she started right in the common room, in the middle of everyone. I was disturbed. I asked her to stop, reached out and tried to grab her arms to restrain her and… poof! Cuts gone. Even the scars. After that, I promised God I’d help him and checked out of the clinic, came back home to start my holy mission.”
“The revival tent?” Zoey clarified.
Jones nodded. “That’s the one.”
“A lot of donations came out of that yesterday,” I noted. “Pretty lucrative.”
Zoey gave me a look that said she was about ready to kill me, but Jones waved a hand. “Now now, he has a point. Only a fool refuses to question a man’s motives.” He turned to me. “Yes, the services donations make quite a bit of money from our grateful congregation, but I can assure you, I make no profit from it simply because I choose not to. Whatever we make is a fraction of what I earned in my previous lifetime, and all the money gets poured back into the church, salaries and whatnot. Anything left over gets donated somewhere else.”
Zoey narrowed her eyes at me before addressing Jones again. “So how did you get started?”
“Slowly,” Jones said with a shrug. “I went to seminary. Felt I had to do this the right way. After that, all I did was rent a tent and started to talk. Didn’t take long for the people to come. Miracles have a tendency to do that, I suppose.” He began to stare out the window. “There’s so many of them nowadays, and they come from so far away. We had one couple come all the way from Germany, of all places, looking to be healed. And my heart goes out to those who can’t make the trip. We’ve talked about taking the show on the road, trying to get closer to those who need it…”
Something caught in the corner of my eye. Jones' battered old Bible was clenched tightly in his hand, the same one he’d been waving around the day before.
“Is that a family heirloom or something?” I asked.
I tilted my head towards the book. “I only ask because it looks so old…”
“Oh! Yes, yes it is.” He looked down at it with an expression of affection, like a mother cradling a newborn. “Positively ancient at this point, I suppose. I got it from my father, who got it from his father, who got it from him, and so on. It’s been in the family since, well… since the Jones line has been a thing.”
“The Jones line?” I asked.
“Legend has it that we moved here from Germany a long, long time ago, before America was a nation, in fact. But that makes it sound more glamorous than it is. Coal miners and farmers us all, with a few country pastors and doctors in there for flavoring.”
An awkward silence fell.
Zoey cleared her throat. “So what’s it like, running that kind of church?”
The conversation turned back to a normal flow, and my mind slowly tuned out.
All that day, all I could think about was Jones.
He dominated my thoughts. On the ride back to the RV, the interview kept replaying over and over again in my head. In the RV, doing our routines, Cynthia’s healing blared through my mind. His talking to us, meeting us outside, smiling, nodding, talking, clutching the book…
Why couldn’t I get rid of him?
I was back on the sofa again, trying to get to sleep, but all I could accomplish was tossing and turning back and forth.
There was no reason to think him a fraud. Alright, I wasn’t ready to swallow all this ‘chosen by God’ crap, but there were a million other things that could have visited Jones in the garden that day, things that Jones could have believed was God talking to him. And he did seem to have some kind of mojo. Zoey was right, it was just too much work for too little returns otherwise.
I closed my eyes, trying to force my mind to quiet, but instead the image of Jones clutching his Bible flared behind my eyelids.
The book. There was something about this book. I could feel it. The way he looked at it, talked about it… no, that didn’t make sense. There was no evidence of it being anything other than just a battered old Bible.
And yet. And yet. And yet.
I sat up, getting dressed. Screw laying around. I needed to get my hands on that book. Only that, I felt, could settle it. That Bible had the answers I needed. I didn’t care if I got caught, I didn’t care about it being right or wrong to take it. I need to see what was inside.
I was going to see what was inside.
“This is a mistake.”
I hissed it at myself as I slowly creeped the car up Jones' drive with the headlights off. I hissed it at myself as I got out, crouched, snuck up to a side window and tried it.
It was unlocked, and it slid down silently and smoothly.
“This is a mistake,” I whispered again.
I stood there, debating with myself, trying to convince myself to just get back in the car and drive off. I hadn’t committed a crime, yet. I hadn’t gotten caught, yet. I hadn’t been arrested, yet, and hadn’t had to worry about going to jail, yet. If I just left, drove off with no one the wiser, everything would be fine.
But the image of the book still burned in my mind.
Gritting my teeth, I climbed through the window and tip-toed through the house. With every step I took, a floorboard creaked. Every creak would sound like a gunshot in the silence of the night. I would stand, quiet, making sure there was no other movement from the house before taking another step and feeling my heart stop again when the floorboards betrayed my presence.
This is such a mistake, I thought to myself. I don’t even know where it is.
There was a bookshelf in the house, I suddenly remembered, in the hallway that connected the front door to the sitting room where Jones had brought us. It was full of fancy-looking volumes, the kind you would put on display to show off to guests.
Maybe he had put it there.
Step after agonizing step, I creeped over to the hallway and to the shelf. I recognized the Bible even in the dark; it was the only one there that didn’t look pristine, with a cracked spine and frayed edges sandwiched in between large bindings with gilded edges. I took it down and started to open it.
My heart leapt into my throat. I squeezed myself into a darkened corner…
An eternity stretched by.
The house, settling, I realized.
I couldn’t read it here. What if Jones came down, saw me sneaking around his home? What if one of the servants were still around?
Back to the car then.
I repeated my step, wait, step, wait crawl back to the window, out to the yard, slid the pane back up, and snuck back to my vehicle.
In the car?
No. I could still get caught here. Best to take it back to the RV.
And what if the book was just a Bible? How was I going to get it back inside the house before Jones realized it was missing?
I shoved the thought aside. I’d figure something out if it did turn out to be a Bible. But that was only if.
And the more I held this thing, the more I doubted it.
I started up the car, then held my breath and listened to make sure no one heard the engine turn over. Then I slowly reversed off the gravel drive, and back onto the road.
Three miles later, I turned on my headlights and sped back to the RV.
With the Jones Bible curled tightly in one hand.
Zoey was waiting for me when I got back.
“Where the hell have you been?” she demanded, standing in the open doorway of the RV.
“I got Jones’ Bible,” I said, squeezing past her.
Several different emotions flashed over her face. “You WHAT?”
“I got his Bible,” I repeated, shoving a laundry pile off the RV table and flopping the book down on top of it. “The one he was holding the whole time.”
She paused, and I could tell she was doing her best to control her anger. “Are you telling me that you broke into Jones’ house and STOLE his Bible, a precious family heirloom?”
“I need to know.” I cracked the book open to the middle, letting the pages fall away. I switched a nearby camera on, ready to record the words inside. “I need to know how he’s doing it.”
“Liam…” she growled. I’m not kidding, she actually growled. “This has gone too far. We are going to take that book and go back to Jones’ house, right now, knock on the door, and beg, beg for forgiveness. You hear me? Liam? LIAM?”
I didn’t answer.
I was too busy staring at what was written inside.
Written. Like a journal. The book had once been a Bible, you could see the neat little typeface every so often at the edge of a page. But every page had been covered with something, white paint, or white-out, perhaps, blotting out the words.
And making way for the scribblings on top.
A hundred different handwritings. A hundred different inks. A hundred different commentaries.
A hundred different secrets.
A bold black pen, in large capital letters: THE CORRECT CONSTRUCTION FOR A DEMON GATE
A neat, cursive scrawl in red ink: ...though most grimoires instruct the practitioner to write all 950 names of God in the summoning circle, only three are actually needed and even functional. The first…
Shaky, chicken-like handwriting: ...the WONDER-MAKER can’t trust LENG. After all, KAG, his brother-in-arms, tried to steal his prize; what would THE KING IN YELLOW, an enemy, attempt? That’s when he tamed the beast known as MONSTRO…
And in tiny printed letters: Of healing magiks
Zoey looked over my shoulder, and instantly went pale.
“Occultism. Spells. Like Jenny Walsh.” I turned to her. “It’s not God. It’s magic.”
“You… don’t know that.” Her voice was soft. Small. “This could just be a reference book of some kind, something to help identify…”
“Healing magic,” I read out loud, “is some of the hardest magic to cast, mostly due to the tricky nature of communicating your request. After all, what does a supernatural creature know of beating hearts or broken bones? It is best to requisition fae for the task, due to their affinity for the natural world; members of the Court of Ravens, hovering between the borders of life and death, are preferred, but Summer, Sunlight, and even Moonlight Courts may prove helpful. For mass healings, it is best to requisition favors through tests of will, as described below…”
And I trailed off.
Neither of us spoke.
“He…” Zoey stopped and rubbed an approaching tear out of her eye. “It’s fake. It’s all fake.”
“The healing’s real,” I said, tracing a finger down the paragraph I was reading. “But the God part is just window dressing for black magic.”
I spotted a part that began Raven Court Fae are also partial to eyeballs and tongues from living… and closed the book. “Very black. But what do we do with this now?”
Zoey’s voice went hard. “We burn it.”
There you are.
We both whirled around. A deep voice, deep and loud enough to feel in my chest, had just spoken from somewhere in the RV. There, in the far corner, were glowing red eyes, tiny slits of light burning, glaring hatred at me…
...and it rushed me, a figure of shadow and those hateful red orbs, charging me, and I felt it force it’s way down my throat. Hot, ashy air, like inhaling a campfire, traveled though my nostrils, though my lungs, expanding, until…
...it was in my head.
I could hear what it thought. I could feel what it felt. A second mind, right alongside my own, stretching into my body, fighting for control.
And I didn’t like what it was thinking.
It was so good to be out, I heard it muse. The MASTER was so strict. But here, now, I have permission to bring back the BOOK. The BOOK, stolen by one of the TYRANT’S creations.
And here, a worshiper of the TYRANT? My eyes slid to Zoey, stepping back from me with fear. How good it would feel to slit her throat. How good it would feel to hear her cry out, uselessly, to HEAVEN as her life blood slipped away…
“NO!” I shouted, and the thing inside of me retched backwards. The hot shadow curled up inside of my chest, forced back from my limbs and my mind, and I stumbled back.
“Liam…” Zoey took a step towards me.
“Don’t…” I told her. “There’s something… possessing me. It wants to know what color your blood is!” The sensation forced itself back, snarled something in that deep voice that was not my own, and caused my body to lunge at her, teeth bared, ready to sink them into her…
I, it, we paused.
There was a new voice. Calm. Worn with age.
You have the book, it said. Killing the girl will only complicate matters. Leave her alone and bring it back to me.
I will do what I please! the thing spat back in my mind, and attempted the charge again. A cold, icy, oppressive feeling settled across me, and I froze.
You will do what I tell you, Jones said matter-of-factly. Bring the book back now. I will not ask again.
Rage boiled inside the thing, lashing out, screaming in languages I couldn’t identify. It grabbed me and started to drag me out the door.
Zoey got up and started to chase me. “Liam!”
With an extreme burst of will, I focused, and for a second, the burningness was driven away from my head. “It’s Jones!” I shouted. “He wants the book back! There’s something…!” But the thing returned and snarled at her, then bounded away outside.
I ran. I ran at speeds not possible for people. I bounded, each step carrying me into the air, forward, crashing back down. Each leap must have taken me ten feet. The night air flew past my face strong enough to sting. I couldn’t see, it was too dark, but the thing controlling my body didn’t seem to have a problem. Time after time, something would appear in front of me too late to adjust for it, a tractor sitting out in the field, a sign post, a building, and I would cringe, waiting to crash, full speed, into it, but each time it just stuck out one of my feet and confidently smash it down on the object, propelling it away and back forward.
And I knew where we were going: Jones’ house.
The house of the MASTER.
I struggled. I struggled with everything I had, trying to wretch the thing away from my mind and my limbs, but each time I began to make headway it would notice and lash back. Painful, searing sensations in my brain, like red hot needles, would flare up, and the pain would be so great that I’d cry out and lose focus, only regaining cognizance once the thing had already settled back inside.
An extra-hard landing jolted me out of my struggle for control. We’d landed on the ground, hard enough to make an impact crater, in front of the massive, looming silhouette of Jones’ house.
And Jones was standing on the front porch.
The thing walked me over to him, stopped in front of the steps, and knelt, holding the book out to him. “Your grimoire, Master,” it hissed in that voice that wasn’t mine.
“Thank you, Forneus.” Jones took the book and placed it back under his arm, holding it there. It was too dark to see his eyes, but I could feel the hunger in his look as he stared at me. “Now, question is, what do we do with our would-be thief here?”
“We kill him!” the thing snarled, and I felt enraged at it. I struggled with it again before that icy feeling enveloped us.
“Not yet,” Jones said. “First, we need to find out how he even knew about the Jones Bible. After that, who knows? If he’s a talented enough occultist to know about this book, then perhaps we could…”
A bright yellow light suddenly seared the landscape. Car headlights. My car headlights, bouncing off-road, coming straight for us, with Zoey behind the wheel.
Hope, anger, flared in my chest as I saw Zoey, worshiper of the TYRANT, barreling towards us, but that turned to concern as I noticed that she wasn’t slowing down.
She was planning on crashing right into Jones.
And my anger turned to bliss.
I glanced back and forth, but neither Jones nor the thing were worried about this. Jones had just casually turned to face her. His face was a placid mask, perfectly calm. The thing inside me was cackling, rolling with laughter, delighted at this turn of events.
I had to warn her. I had to get her to stop. The thing noticed, and another wrestling match engaged as I tried to pull away that burning presence from my lips, just long enough to shout something. The engine roared, the car picked up speed, and it was mere seconds from colliding with Jones…
Jones lifted his hands outward, and the car collided with something that wasn’t there. Just smacked into thin air and crumpled as surely as if it had rammed into a brick wall. Terrible screeching metal ripped through the air.
My heart dropped.
Jones nodded at the scene, then turned around. As he did, the car door popped open and
Zoey, cut, bruised, but thank heavens alive, rolled to the ground, scrambling to her feet.
“Red like roses!” she shouted, eyes screwed shut tightly. “Blue like breath! White like AH!”
Jones made a motion like a backhanded smack, and despite the fact that Zoey was five feet away, she flew through the air, landing with a cry of pain.
“Really? You’re going to attack me with a blood hex, and one from the Hecate school at that?” Jones shook his head. “I’m giving the two of you far too much credit, aren’t I? You’re not spies, you’re just lost children.”
Zoey dragged herself back up and gripped something compact in her hands, aiming it at Jones. “Fine, I’ll just shoot you.”
A gun? Where had Zoey gotten a gun?
A gun? Jones snarled, and I heard a command ripple across my mind: blade, to his throat. Now. I don’t know where the knife came from, I definitely didn’t have it a second ago, but now there was a sharp edge of black rock resting on my neck.
“Put that down, child,” Jones commanded.
“Let go of Liam first!” Zoey shouted.
“You are not in the position of power,” Jones replied. “Now put that down or I will make this boy slit his own throat.”
Yes, do it! The thing inside me urged. Spill the blood of the TYRANT’S child! Kill him here and…
And now there was a third presence in my head. One that reminded me of graves and rancid meat and nails on chalkboards. One I was familiar with.
HE’S MINE! Sam shrieked in my head. MY DISCIPLE! MY CHOSEN ONE! MINEMINEMINEMINE!
What on earth…? Jones marveled, and the icy grip renewed itself on me.
This doesn’t concern you! the thing growled, and the searing heat also joined in as well.
The sensation was nauseating. I began to swim in my own thoughts as three separate people tried to control me. I could feel each sensation, the cold willpower of Jones, the burning hatred of the thing, the alien presence of Sam, wrestle, toss each other, mix into each other and combine before separating again.
I fell to all fours, gasping for breath. I wanted to vomit, but felt like I couldn’t. My psyche was unraveling, I could feel it. Memories were falling apart. Ms. Clarkson, third grade math, telling the class how impressed she was with my answers, but Ms. Clarkson didn’t have a head, and all the other kids had bags tied over theirs. I could see myself in a board meeting at the Empire State Building, clinking martini glasses with Jimmy Smatters, college buddy from three decades ago, telling me good to have you onboard, Jones, it really is. I remembered how Spot, my first dog, whined and whined as I bashed his head in with a rock till the brains spilled out over the driveway but that wasn’t right, dammit! Spot got hit by a car! I loved that dog! I would never…!
I grit my teeth and got to one knee. I needed to do something. If this struggle went on for much longer, it would kill me, or worse. I needed to tip the scales somehow. I had to side with someone.
I didn’t like Sam. I didn’t even know what he wanted. But out of the three, Sam was the only one who wanted me alive.
I needed to help Sam win.
I shoved myself at the heat and ice buzzing around my skull. There was some careful war being waged in there, I could tell, but I didn’t have any of the rules, so I just lashed out. I replayed how Jones had hurt Zoey. The car. The backhand. That thing had dared to crawl into my head, used me as his puppet, forced a blade to my throat…
And there was a gentle, soft click.
I don’t remember Sam’s possession of me. Not in the way I remember the other thing, anyway. Wherever I try to recall that moment in time, standing there in the night air, my memory gives way to strange, disjointed sensations. A foggy forest with thin, black trees, the high-pitched whine of screaming gears, the feeling of live worms wriggling in my mouth: that’s what’s there instead.
But I saw the footage later. Zoey had the camera on the car’s dash, and by some miracle it had survived that crash, so we had the recording of the whole thing. So I can remember that third person perspective of what happened. How I just got still. How my voice transformed into that hollow, raspy thing.
How my eyes glazed over into milky white dead orbs.
“WHY BY THE BELLS OF ST. CLEMENTS,” I, Sam, said. “IS THAT YOU, JONES? OH, BUT WHICH ONE IS IT? THE TIMID CHURCH MOUSE? THE DRUNKEN RAMBLER? IT’S SO HARD TO TELL BEFORE I GET TO RIP OUT YOUR INSIDES!”
I lunged at him, but Jones held up a hand and I froze. He was trembling. “You… you…”
“ME,” Sam confirmed.
“So this is you?” Jones asked. His voice was now wavering. “You’re behind this theft, I suppose? Revenge, is it?”
Sam laughed. “AS IF YOU OR ANY OF YOUR PATHETIC ANCESTORS IS WORTH MY ATTENTION. NO, JONES, THIS IS JUST A CHANCE MEETING BEFORE THINGS REALLY GET INTERESTING. AN OMEN, IF YOU WILL.”
“You don’t mean…”
“A RAPTURE COMES AGAIN,” Sam continued. I licked my lips before speaking. "THIS BOY IS ONLY PART OF THINGS, BUT MORE THINGS MOVE AGAIN THAN JUST ME. A WISHING STAR HAS BEEN BORN. MIRRORS OF MOONLIGHT LIE SHATTERED. A FORCE OF HATRED AND DEATH, A RED EYED MAN OF BLACKED STONE, WALKS THE EARTH ONCE MORE.”
“You’re… you’re bluffing!” Jones staggered back to the railing, grabbing it. “Lies! All you’ve ever been is a liar!”
“BELIEVE WHAT YOU WILL. YOU’LL HAVE PLENTY OF TIME TO CONSIDER IT AFTER I RIP YOUR THROAT OUT WITH MY TEETH!” I lunged at him again, but Jones grimaced and shouted “DESTUTIO!” and this is where my memory comes back. I felt something… bright, not the painful heat of the thing but a pleasantly warm sensation, washed over my mind and I collapsed on the ground.
Everyone was gone.
My mind was now my own again.
Almost immediately, there was choking force at my throat, like someone was strangling me. Jones had his hand stretched forward in a claw. He gestured up and I was dragged up with it, pressure still around my neck, keeping me from breathing.
“A receiver of the dark baptism,” Jones said, seemingly to himself. “I never thought I would live to see one in the flesh. Too dangerous to use, at any rate. Better to kill you. I’ll be doing the world a favor if I…”
The voice was small, almost fragile, in the aftermath of all that chaos.
Jones turned to its source.
Zoey was still standing on the grass, one hand outstretched. The gun in her hand had fallen to the ground, revealing itself to be just a twisted piece of metal Zoey had tried bluffing with.
“No,” she pleaded again.
“No?” He almost looked amused.
“Don’t… kill him.”
“You have no idea what you’re asking,” Jones replied. “You don’t know what’s in this boy’s future, the things that are planned for him.”
“Please…” I could see tears in her eyes now. “Please. I’ll do anything.”
“Anything?” Jones put a hand over his mouth and the pressure let up, but only barely. Enough to gasp just a little bit of air, like breathing through a straw, but not enough to talk. Not enough to move. “And what exactly do you think you can offer me, child?”
“Anything! Everything!” Zoey exclaimed. “We’ve talked to Archangel! They know us! They’ll listen to us! And we’ve talked to Sam, and the Red Eyed man! And know where Wonderland things are! There has to be something, please just let him go and we can do it for you!”
There was a prickling sensation across my scalp, digging fingers in my mind, and Jones nodded. “She’s not bluffing. You really have done all that, haven’t you? Promising talent, baptism or no…”
“Yes!” Zoey seemed to be getting excited now. “Yes, that’s right!”