Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Night Lambs - Fiction

Welcome, New Reader, and welcome back, Constant Reader, to my little corner of the web. My novel, Area 187; Almost Hell continues to creep ever closer to hitting ink and paper, and I hope to have a full cover image to post sometime in the next week. I'm also continuing work and actually nearing completion on my zombie anthology tentatively titled "The Dead Tell Tales" which, if all goes according to plan, will be a self-published work available through Smashwords, iTunes and the normal outlets and formats. Work has slowed a bit on a free audio anthology I've been working with, but as soon as "The Dead Tell Tales" is completed I will throw myself back into that project. You can also hear my movie reviews and thoughts on life as a member of the Witch's Hat blog and blogcast.

Since my time has been rather short of late, I thought I would bring out this short number, "Night Lambs", featuring a bit of backstory on my vampire hunter, Shakespeare, who appears in the tales "The Taxman Cometh" and "Rotting Meat", which are both available in this very blog, as well as "Bait", one of the stories that will appear in the forthcoming audio anthology. I hope you enjoy this glimpse into the backstory of one of my favorite characters to write (and for many to read if my feedback is correct) and keep watching here for more updates on my continuing projects. Thanks for reading. - Author

Father Norwalk looked out into the sanctuary. It was well after ten in the evening, and there were still a half dozen parishioners scattered throughout the church. While such a thing would have been unheard of in his tiny Ohio parish, he’d been told by Father Jessup that things worked a bit differently in the city. Not everyone worked the days, slept the nights and had their Sundays free for church. Here, the church stayed open until well into the night to accommodate the diverse congregation and to be a safe haven of sorts for those that needed rest from the nightly terrors of the city. According to Jessup, the faithful and the whore, the righteous and the derelict all had a place at God’s table.

Norwalk couldn’t argue the logic, though in practical terms it proved unsettling at best. Though no expert, he’d already counted two prostitutes and three bums in the motley congregation. At least he wasn’t required to give a sermon to these… these night lambs, as Jessup called them. He supposed he could get used to such an arrangement, especially if it meant he would one day be able to minister to the more conventional congregations that had the decency to gather in the daylight.

“Father Norwalk…”

“Oh! Sorry, Father Jessup,” Norwalk said, startled. “I didn’t hear you coming. A little spooked I guess. Not used to the hours.”

Jessup nodded his gray head and looked out into the sanctuary. “I’ve always handled the evening watch. To tell the truth, I prefer it.”

“You prefer these hours?” Norwalk asked.

“Look around, Father Norwalk; it’s all fine and good to be an upstanding pillar of the community, show up on Sunday and throw money in the plate. But these people…these people need this church. You may go weeks without speaking at all. But when someone does come to you, their need is real. These are the real lambs of God, Father Norwalk. Now that I’m retiring, you’ll need to see to them. They may not be what you’re used to, but they need a shepherd the same as any other; more so.”

Norwalk looked deep into Jessup’s eyes and found emotion and compassion nearly pouring from them. “Isn’t this a little dangerous? I mean the kind of people that come through here…”

“…are the exact people that’ll need you the most, Father Norwalk,” Jessup said.

“Yes, Father Jessup.” Norwalk was already looking forward to getting a daytime assignment. Father Jessup had nearly forty years of service, and Norwalk failed to see what drew him to work such hours, especially at his age.

“Good. I have papers to tend to. Call if you need anything.”

Norwalk watched the old priest disappear behind a small door in the alcove and sighed. There would be changes to the night operations once Jessup was gone, that was sure. He looked up the aisle and noticed a scantily–dressed young woman standing before one of the poor boxes. Though he couldn’t see the box, he also couldn’t see her hands. He launched himself up the aisle as fast as his robes would allow. Norwalk slowed as he approached her and peered over her shoulder and saw the lid of the box thrown back, its small lock dangling open from the hasp. “What do you think you’re doing?” he hissed at her, his whisper carrying across the cavernous sanctuary. The girl spun suddenly, a few crumpled dollar bills in her hands. Her eyes were wide, tired, and her face showed the marks of a very recent hand.

“I’m sorry,” she sobbed, tears rolling from her large eyes. “I’m so sorry, father. My baby…he’s hungry.”

“Then you should look for honest work and an honest life! Stealing from a church! You should be ashamed!” He grabbed her bone thin wrist and shook it roughly. “You would steal from God…” Norwalk’s words trailed away as he felt… something… behind him. He kept hold of the girl and turned his head to find a large man. But then, large wasn’t the word for him. He was easily a head taller and twice as broad as the priest himself. His face was weathered yet still pale, framed by a mass of shiny, black and silver–specked hair that fell from his head and peeked out from his waist around the floor–length leather drover he wore. “Can I help you my son?” Norwalk asked in his most official voice
“Alms are for the poor,” the big man said from behind dark glasses. “I think she qualifies, don’t you?”

“What business is it of yours?” Norwalk shot back. “This is the house of the Lord…”

“He’s not here yet, Father,” the man said. “I’ll let you know when he shows up.” He reached out and separated the priest’s hand from her wrist with a deft, painless twist.

“You…I…” Norwalk stuttered. The air in the sanctuary had taken on a palpable, heavy feeling. The priest’s breath came in heavy, short bursts as he stepped back from them. The man pulled a roll of cash from his pocket and peeled off two hundred-dollar bills. He shoved one into the girl’s hand and the other into the open poor box.

“Take care of your baby,” he told the girl. She nodded up at him dumbly then scurried from the building. He turned to Norwalk and stared down at him. “Take care of your flock.” With that, he turned and went to the basin of holy water to the side of the aisle. As the man kneeled, Norwalk felt a hand on his shoulder.
“We need to talk, Father Norwalk.” Jessup said quietly.

“That…that man…a girl stole from the poor box and…” he turned away from the old priest and saw the man sit at the end of a pew. Small wisps of smoke curled away from his bowed head. “And now he’s smoking! Honestly, Father Jessup, I can’t see why you put up with this behavior…”

“Father Norwalk, there’s something you should know.”

Norwalk didn’t let Jessup finish his sentence. “Maybe you condone such behavior from these miscreants, Father Jessup. But I won’t!” Jessup watched as he stalked across the sanctuary and came to stand before the stranger. “Do you have any respect for the church? Put the cigarette out immediately…”

The man raised his head slowly. He had removed his glasses, his eyes closed. Norwalk realized the man was trembling. There was no cigarette burning in his lips. The smoke wafted up from an angry red mark in the shape of the cross on his forehead. He opened his pupil–less eyes to reveal unearthly, glistening black orbs.

“God’s here now, Father.” the man said softly, his voice pained and thin. Norwalk stumbled backwards a few paces and turned. Jessup stood where he’d left him, motioning for the young priest to come back. Norwalk hurried up the aisle to join him, breathless and shaking.

“I…he…” Norwalk stammered. Jessup smiled and walked away towards a small alcove, Norwalk in tow.

“You have nothing to fear from him, Father Norwalk,” Jessup whispered.

“Who…what is he?” Norwalk whispered feverishly.

“He’s been coming here more than 25 years now. I’ll admit, when I first met him I had the same reaction you did. That’s how I can assure you he won’t do you or anyone else here any harm. As to who he is, well, frankly I don’t know. As to what he is…”

“That man can’t be human! Those eyes…”

“Father Norwalk, please control yourself.” Jessup looked out from the alcove and saw the man had bowed his head again. Only the occasional wisp drifted up to the frescoed ceiling now. “Since you will be taking over, I’ll tell you. But, you must remember that the confidentiality of your flock is paramount. He will seldom ask anything of you save to hear his confession, though he’s only come to me three times for that. I doubt anyone would believe you even if you did want to talk about it.”

“Confidentiality can’t apply to something that isn’t even human!” Norwalk said.

“He was human once, Father Norwalk. Now he fights to retain the humanity the rest of us take for granted.” With a groan born of age, Jessup eased his old bones onto a wooden stool in the alcove and rested his hands on his knees. “For lack of a better term, he’s what you would call a vampire.”

Norwalk snorted and leaned against the wall. “Do you pull this on all the new priests that come here?”

“You don’t believe in vampires, then?”

“Of course not! And now I certainly hope this was a very poor joke...”

“No joke.” Jessup said softly. “Whether you believe in him or not, he believes in you. And he’s sitting in your sanctuary. We’ve spoken little over the course of the years. The only thing I really know is that he hunts others. Others like him.”

Others? Now you’re telling me there’s more than one? Father Jessup, you must realize just how ludicrous…”

“I’ve seen things in my lifetime I hope no other needs to see, Father Norwalk. I was not always the sedentary turnkey you see before you.” Jessup chuckled to himself softly and sighed. “That was one of the reasons he sought out this church. Though I’d never met him before, I had developed somewhat of a reputation, in certain circles. One of the reasons the church saw fit to deposit me here, out of the way and out of sight. But that’s not this story.” He smoothed his robes across his thighs and folded his hands in his lap. “As unthinkable as vampires may be to you, he is even rarer. He is repentant.”

Repentant? You can’t be serious! Even if I were to believe…”

“You saw his eyes, didn’t you? Felt the cold chill come over you? Did that feel like some sort of practical joke to you?” Jessup asked, his eyes piercing into Norwalk’s.

“I…no…but…” Norwalk was visibly shaken by the conversation but not enough to shatter his doubts. “If he is what you claim, how can you call yourself a man of God and allow him here?”

“You don’t believe in the power of confession, of absolution? Even a murderer isn’t denied these simple comforts,” Jessup said.

“But part of that must be atonement!” Norwalk whispered hoarsely. “There’s a big difference! A convict is imprisoned, and one sentenced to die is forced to the ultimate act of atonement! They’re paying a debt to society! They’re denied freedoms! What of those he destroys when he’s not here? I don’t know what he is, Father Jessup…but I know it is not the same.”

“What he destroys are others like him...”

“Oh? How about what, or who, he has for dinner? What about them? I’m no expert on mythology, but I’m pretty sure they don’t eat salad!”

“But I am an expert on mythology, Father Norwalk,” Jessup said darkly. “What you call mythology, I have lived. He is a… different sort. Though he told me this in the confidence of confession, I will impart it to you, as a professional courtesy to hopefully ease some of your fears.” Jessup paused, waiting for a signal from Norwalk to acknowledge the sanctity of the knowledge he was about to share. Jessup took the confidentiality of the confessional very seriously.

“I’m listening,” Norwalk said.

“He was not made a vampire in the traditional way, the way you would know from movies and books. He would not give details, not because he didn’t trust me but because he doesn’t trust them… the ones that made him. The less I, or you, know about it, the better. He is not wholly undead, yet he is not wholly alive, either.”

“So… you’re saying he’s not a real vampire, as ludicrous as that sounds?” Norwalk asked.

“As I understand it, he is, yet isn’t. I’m sure it’s all far more complicated than that. He was part of an experiment during the Korean War…”

“Korea?” Norwalk gasped. “That would make him…”

“Yes, Father Norwalk; far older than he appears. The hope was to create elite warriors with the strength and stamina of the vampire without the messy side effects.”

“Messy?” Norwalk breathed, almost laughing.

“I only say it as it was said to me. That man sits in a prison far worse than any mortal man will ever know, Father Norwalk. No longer alive, not yet dead. Desperately seeking redemption yet knowing that salvation must be nothing more than a word. What kind of atonement would you recommend, Father Norwalk? How many Hail Mary's do you think could absolve him, eh?”

“If that’s the case, why doesn’t he fall on a stake? Maybe wait to see a sunrise?”

“This is not a joking matter, Father Norwalk.” Jessup interrupted. “Perhaps it is not yet time for me to retire after all. Perhaps you should return to Ohio. I’m sure they’ll have your old position open for you.”

“Now Father Jessup, let’s be reasonable,” Norwalk said.

“You obviously don’t have the best interests of your congregation at heart, Father Norwalk. You seem possessed by the idea that all you need do is conduct a few masses and a few weddings to serve the Lord and your flock. You will be leaned upon for far more than that here. Perhaps this is not the best place for you.”

Norwalk leaned against the wall and sighed. Ohio was the last place he wanted to be. But even for this late–night post, he also knew Father Jessup’s name carried not a small amount of weight. If he’d done the type of questionable work he alluded to in days gone by, it would only stand to reason. But even so, the thought that not only were things like vampires real but that one so brazenly sat in the house of God was still hard for him to take. “Father, let’s assume he is what you say. Who else knows?”

“Here? No one. You will only see him at night, and you will be the only priest here,” Jessup said.

“This is too much, father…”

“Look at it this way, Father Norwalk; he is not only one of your flock, he is also one of the leading silent contributors to this church. Over the years, his donations into that very poor box have fed and clothed hundreds. We recently sought donations to repair the organ. He learned of it and a week later there was a team of four men from Germany at our door. They refinished, repaired and tuned the old girl. They never asked for a dime and did the work over the course of several nights, never in the day.”

“You think he…?”

“He’s never said, and I’ve never asked. I told the church the donations came from several benefactors that wished to remain anonymous. Wisely, they didn’t question. But the greatest irony? He’s never even heard it play. How many of our parishioners do you think would do such a thing? Most of them would want a gold plaque bearing their names for the ages,” Father Jessup said.

Norwalk looked out into the sanctuary and watched as the man got up and walked across the expanse to the confessionals. He paused outside for a moment then squeezed his large frame into one. “Father Jessup…”

“I know.” The old priest stood slowly, achingly from the stool. He paused and looked at Norwalk with a piercing gaze. “Perhaps this would be a good time for you to fully assume your duties. Tend your flock. He has to know I’m leaving. It’s been in the bulletins for weeks.”

“I…me? Father Jessup…maybe you should see to him. I mean, it is your last night and all…”

“Yes. But he’s your lamb, now. He wouldn’t have come tonight if he wasn’t willing to give you a chance, to trust you with the very nature of his being. If he puts such faith in you sight-unseen, can’t you put your faith in the Lord that he has come here from a higher calling, just as you and I have been called? He is looking for aid and comfort, no matter how slight, to keep what little shreds of his dignity and humanity he has left. Would you deny him that?”

The two men of God stood staring at each other for long moments before Norwalk turned without a word and went to the confessional. He paused for a moment, his hand on the delicate latch. He didn’t look back. Jessup smiled and left the alcove just as the last of his lambs filtered out of the church. He went to the pew where the vampire had sat and found the small leather pouch waiting for him in the usual way. He opened it, filled the many small vials inside with holy water and placed it back on the pew then extinguished the candles around the basin. Looking out past the alter he paused to admire the massive brass tubes of the pipe organ glowing softly in the candlelight thrown off from the altar. He cracked his knuckles gently and cast a smile to the confessionals before making for the old organ. Goodbye should always be more than a word.

-Just write, damn it- Author

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