Stephen Laws was born and lives in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. He is the bestselling author of the novels Ghost Train, The Wyrm, The Frighteners, Spectre, Darkfall, Gideon, Macabre, Daemonic, Somewhere South of Midnight and Chasm. In addition his short fiction has been gathered together in the collection The Midnight Man. So sit back and enjoy a tale from 'the undisputed king of horror' (Starburst). For more information on Stephen visit his site at www.stephenlaws.com
'Forgive me Father,' said the voice on the other side of the confession-box grille. There was a long pause while Father Krystoff waited for the penitent to finish the phrase. When the voice from the darkness spoke again, it was with a deep and peculiar resonance. It reminded the priest of dripping cellars and heady, full-blooded wine in dark ochre barrels. Krystoff had to struggle to shrug off the image to concentrate on the needs of the penitent. A rather strange image, just from this voice. Which now spoke again.
'For I have sinned.'
Father Krystoff became aware of the odour then. In the brief pause during which the outside door of the booth had opened and the invisible penitent had taken his seat in the darkness, the priest hadn't noticed that smell. He shuffled uncomfortably, wondering if Mrs Perigord - the woman who undertook the voluntary cleaning of the vestry - had been bringing her dachshund into the church again. It wouldn't be the first time that Father Kystoff's shoe had been blessed with the leavings of that foul creature. There was movement at the grille; something like a passing shadow, as if the penitent had thought twice about the visit and had decided to leave. When the priest looked closer, he could see that the movement was actually a smoke-like wisp creeping through the grille from the other side.
Surely the man in the next booth wasn't daring to smoke while he asked forgiveness? The odour of the cigarette, cigar, pipe - whatever - was foul. Like rotten eggs.
The voice continued.
'It has been many centuries since my last confession.'
'I beg your pardon?'
'No, Father. I have come to beg your pardon.'
There was something about that voice. It was a suave, cultured voice. There seemed to be a foreign accent, but Krystoff could not place it. Even in those first, few, bizarre words, it seemed that there was an accumulation of accent - as of many accents fed through some kind of voicebox blender. Something else. A hideous resonance to the words; as if each word, each phrase was being savoured. It was deeply unpleasant.
'Centuries,' said Krystoff, trying to ignore the smell of bad eggs. 'You said centuries.'
'I did,' continued the voice from the darkness of the other booth. 'My last confession was on April 25th in - as they say - the Year of Our Lord, 1274. I use the phrase advisedly. He has not been My Lord, of course. I have served another.'
'I'm sorry. I don't understand. I believe you may have problems that I cannot help you with at this stage, my son. Perhaps I can suggest someone who can provide professional support '
'You think I'm insane. You're worried that I might harm you.'
'No, not at all.'
'It is a prerequisite of the ritual that we do not lie to each other. Is that not right, Father? I have told you only the truth thus far. In honour, in observance of your faith and your role as a Servant of God, you must hear my confession.'
There was displeasure in that voice now. Father Krystoff was afraid. If the person in the other booth was seriously disturbed, might he not fly into a rage if the priest did not go along with his fantasies? There could be the threat of a physical attack. On the other hand, if the priest disavowed him of his fantasies and sent him back out onto the streets, might he not vent his frustrations on an innocent passer-by? In faith and duty, he must surely not allow that to happen. Krystoff chose to believe that he was protecting others when he said: 'Very well, then. Let me hear your confession.'
There was a pause on the other side. The smell seemed so much stronger now.
'I was born Anton Garcia Monteros Di Santo on August 21st, 1253 of noble lineage. In my youth, I developed a taste for vice, licentiousness and cruelty. My crimes are without number. I have murdered hundreds, and have given orders to my underlings to commit every conceivable atrocity. Personally, I have strangled, eviscerated, blinded, mutilated. I have raped, forcibly buggered and sodomised. I had the eyes of an entire village's children put out with burning irons for an imagined slight. I raped my mother and sisters, and brought about the death of my father by slow poisoning. I took pleasure from slaughtering and flaying alive priests of all faiths.'
Silence.'Are you listening to me, Father?'
'Yes, my son.' A slight, nervous cough.
'You think me mad? You believe that I am some wretched creature lost in the cruel fantasies of his mind?'
'I believe you are troubled, yes.'
'Then, in faith, you must allow me to continue and give me what I request.'
'In my fortieth year, suffering from a terminal wasting illness - caused no doubt by the evil ways which I had embraced - I was visited by the Devil. He promised me everlasting life if I would continue to serve him. In my own way, you see, I had served him so well up to that point. Death would end the career of a promising would-be pupil.'
'You are still living then?'
'Then surely you cannot be '
'A demon? Oh, but yes. You must not believe everything that you've been taught about my kind. To continue the enactment of evil on mankind requires a physical presence. A Deal with the Devil - a Pact, if you like - is really very simple. Continued life, free from the ravages of time, in return for a commitment to pain, horror and misery.'
'And you wish me to absolve you of these sins?'
'How can I, if you are in league with the Evil One?'
'I am human. I was born a Catholic, into the faith. If I have a wish to be absolved, you cannot withhold that from me.'.
'If you are a Demon, you cannot be human. Therefore the blessing cannot be made.'
'I have told you nothing but the truth.'
Krystoff paused again. Should he follow through with the madman's logic? Should he give him absolution? Wouldn't that be enough to calm him down, give him some peace? Should he keep him talking, find out who he really was and where he lived? Perhaps then he could alert social services to follow-through and give him the help he really needed? Or perhaps he should simply dismiss him, revile him for his blasphemies. If he were to give the blessing, and this madman had committed hideous crimes of some kind, would he feel that the slate had been wiped clean and that he could go out with a fresh conscience and start all over again?
'Touch the grille,' said the voice from the other side.'I beg your pardon -?'
There was a chuckle from beyond the grille. It sounded hideous. 'You've confused our roles, Father. If you will allow - put your fingers to the mesh between us. Our fingers will touch. And you will know that I'm telling you the truth.'
'This is nonsense. I suggest that you - '
'Touch the mesh!'
Krystoff's hand was even now moving to the grille, the priest unaware that he had made a conscious effort to do so. He watched it move but could not find the will to stop himself.
His fingers touched the tight criss-cross frame.
On the other side, he had a brief glimpse of something thin and white moving to meet those fingers. And then something deathly cold flowed into his fingertips.
Instantly, Krystoff's mind was flooded with scenes of unparalleled horror. The priest convulsed in his seat, retching - but his hand remained fastened to the mesh. A hellish kaleidoscope of images scoured his soul. Atrocities that beggared belief. Cruelty and torture. Anguish, hatred and despair. Blood and torn flesh. A cacophony of monstrous brutalities, bloodlust and obscenity.
When Krystoff's fingertips were released and he slumped back in his seat, he fought to regain his breath. He had been into the Pit - he had seen in those few brief seconds every hideous act that Anton Garcia Monteros Di Santo had committed. And now he could not doubt the truth of the Demon's words.
'My God,' breathed Krystoff at last.
'Yes,' said the voice. 'But not only yours. Mine too, as I was born into the faith.'
'Never,' moaned Krystoff, trembling fingers moving to his sweat-beaded face. 'You foreswore God, made your pact with that Other.'
'So have other men over the centuries. They have received absolution for their sins when truly penitent. I too am penitent. I have confessed my crimes. I ask for absolution.'
'Never! Your presence here, in this church, is a blasphemy.'
'Then you refuse me?'
'I refuse you.'
'But surely you are a vessel for God? My appeal is to Him, through you. You must act in faith. You have heard my confession. It is heartfelt, and I ask for forgiveness and absolution.'
'I refuse you!'
'Did you refuse Heinz Gromheld?'
'He was a Nazi Administration Officer in 1942, when you were a young priest in Berlin. His conscience was troubled because of the transportation work he was undertaking at that time. Don't you remember, Krystoff? He acquisitioned several dozen cattle-trucks for the transportation of Jews to Auschwitz, and other concentration camps.'
'How can you ?'
'Know that? What a naοve question to ask of someone like me. He came to you, confessed all. You absolved him.'
'He was truly penitent.'
'He was not, and you know it. He hated the Jews, but he felt that he must go through with the ritual to make sure that he was cleansed. 'Go and sin no more,' you told him. Is that not a part of the rite? Is it not true that forgiveness can only be forthcoming if the penitent agrees to change his ways, promises not to commit the same sins?'
'Yes, but - '
'On leaving your church, with a lighter heart, Gromheld continued in his official duties. He continued to organise the transportation. His conscience no longer worried him.'
'That is not a matter for me. That is a matter between Gromheld and '
'His Maker? But of course. And is my request not also a matter between my Maker and myself? Once again, you have heard my confession. Once again, I ask for forgiveness.'
'No,' Krystoff's voice was breaking. 'I will not '
'Tell me Father,' continued the Demon. 'You knew what was happening to the Jews then. What did you do about it? How many other confessions did you listen to, how many other absolutions did you give?'
'Leave. For God's sake, leave me in peace.'
'You were afraid, weren't you, Father? Afraid for yourself. Afraid to do anything to stop it.'
'The Church had had '
'Are you going to say 'unofficial position'?'
'No, nothing like that. It was just that '
'And the Rogetson family. Only two years ago. What about Yvonne, Krystoff? What about her father?'
'Oh dear God, leave me alone.'
'She came to you first. Begged you to hear her confession. She was sixteen, and her father had been sexually molesting her since she was six years old. Isn't that true, Father? He'd told her that it was alright, but she wasn't sure. Now she could stand it no longer. You listened to her confession, and gave her absolution. In the following week, her father came and asked for the same forgiveness. Can you remember what you did?'
'Please. Go. I can't stand any more.'
'You absolved them both. Yvonne believed that your granting of that forgiveness was a sign of her own sin. Why be forgiven if there was nothing to be forgiven for? She killed herself, didn't she? And you absolved the father, too. Now his conscience is clear, and he does not mourn the slut who was a temptation to him simply living under the same roof.'
'For the last time - go!'
'For the last time, I ask for absolution. Unlike those we've discussed, I will go and sin no more.'
'Never! Leave this place! I will not absolve you. I WILL NOT!'
Suddenly, the smell of brimstone was gone.
Krystoff had buried his face in his hands. Now, he looked back to the grille. There was no other sound from behind it; no suggestion of movement. And yet, instinctively, the priest knew that the presence on the other side had gone. Horror lay thick and vile in the pit of Krystoff's stomach. Breathing out - a loud and heavy sigh - he braced his hands on either side of the confessional and tried to bring himself back to the world he knew. He could not pretend that this had been some kind of hallucination; that perhaps he had been working too hard and had undergone some kind of localised nervous breakdown. The touch of the Demon had been only too real. Krystoff had been in contact, for the first time in his life, with something truly supernatural - and truly Evil.
The confessional was too confined. He felt as if he might suffocate. But when he reached for the curtain, he paused. Could this all be some kind of trick? Was that evil thing even now crouched directly outside, waiting for him to emerge? Krystoff closed his eyes, murmured a prayer - and pulled back the curtain.
Beyond, the church lay cold and still.
Anton Garcia Monteros Di Santo had gone back to Hell.
Shuddering, Krystoff clambered from the confessional. His legs felt weak as he staggered down the central aisle of the church, back towards the vestry. He felt strange inside. As if something vile had scoured his very soul. There was a stillness now; a stillness that lay deep and heavy over the pews and the stone walls. It pressed against the stained glass windows, somehow robbing the colour from the vestments of the painted saints. This was unlike the peace and tranquillity that he had so often associated with his church.
At the vestry door, he paused again.
There was much to think about; many questions that he had to ask of himself and about what had happened back there. Too many thoughts now; crowding into his mind, clouding his heart and his soul. Perhaps a glass of sherry would calm his nerves. Krystoff pushed open the door.
And recoiled from the sight that met his eyes on the vestry floor.
A figure was lying there, sprawled on its side. The arms were outflung; the fingers clutching at the tiled floor as if he could somehow drag himself back to life after the fatal heart attack had smashed him to the floor. The face was a frozen rictus of pain, and for a moment Krystoff had only a vague feeling that he knew who this person could be. This was a priest, like him.
The man had a shock of white hair.
The figure had the little finger of his left hand missing.
And then Krystoff realised that the face was the same face as his own, albeit frozen in agony.
In that moment, he knew.
He had been dressing himself, preparing for his appointment at the confessional as usual, when the heart attack had felled him. He had died here - had never left the vestry.
The smell of brimstone was suddenly overpowering.
Turning slowly to look back, Krystoff saw that the Church had vanished.
He was no longer standing in the vestry doorway. There was no longer a vestry. No longer a still and silent figure lying on that vestry floor.
Now, he was standing in a vast cavern. Giant stalactites and stalagmites dwarfed him. Gigantic plumes of volcanic flame and ash erupted from the cavern floor, spouting in clouds of molten fury. Lakes of lava bubbled and surged, rivers of molten steel roared and cascaded. Krystoff could see the tiny silhouettes of human figures tumbling and screeching in those lakes and rivers; could hear the constant metallic pounding of gigantic anvils, the explosive hellish roaring of the damned.
A fireball erupted from that inferno. Like some hellish meteorite, it roared from the flames, straight towards him.
Krystoff could not move.
He could only watch as it came on.
And as it came, it began to change. Now it was no longer a fireball, no longer a thing of flames. Now it was a constantly changing maelstrom of eyes and tongues and teeth. It was a huge, monstrous amalgam of everything hellish and obscene in the living world. It was jaws and spider-eyes and hooked beak and razor tongue and blood-sucking, flesh-rending, soul-devouring nightmare. Just at the last, before it arrived, Krystoff heard the deep-echoing voice of Anton Garcia Monteros Di Santo erupting from each of the monstrosity's obscene orifices.
'Such a shame,' said the would-be penitent. 'That you could not practice what you preach.'
(C) Stephen Laws 2005
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