The boys had been on their way to another session then, when the Cardinals were suddenly convened, when the voting process took mere days – and when their uncle went from Cardinal to Pope.
The man reportedly took on his work with unerring, unusual normalcy: he walked around Rome to pay his bills, called up his family in Argentina, gave instructions to all the priests with whom he had maintained hours of telephone time in years past; and, one night, awakened the boys on their long drive from a session in the backwoods of Pennsylvania.
The drive had been silent since the team had left the last exorcism. The session had been quiet, with the victim simply sitting calmly, looking straight at the cameras, blinking at regular intervals like a curious cat. The only problem was that the camera was mounted on the ceiling directly behind him, and everyone could hear the cartilage in his spine crack as his head turned, twisted, and remained in place for hours.
The air in that house had been heavy with darkness. Even the surrounding farm had been oppressive, dank, swarming with invisible wolves and bats. The whole team breathed as it finally exited the back roads and fled, three vans in all, for the highway. The air lightened even further when the new pope called.
Landon had picked up the call, and had been halfway through his congratulations, when he started laughing.
“He says he misses fish and chips with us,” Landon relayed the news to his brother, who had been napping then.
“Tell him we can bring him some when we’re done over here,” Bradley said, loud enough for the phone to pick up his voice, “Hello, uncle! Congratulations on getting the big job!”
Their uncle gave something between a disbelieving laugh and a sharp retort in the Spanish of the Buenos Aires streets.
“Give my regards and congratulations to Jorge as well, Landon,” was the steady sentence from the front seat, where Fr. Anthony was, “Tell him we’re on our way to New York, but we await his orders and can be moved out at any time.”
“Fr. Anthony says we should fly out to the Philippines,” was all that Landon had said, so that the old priest shook his head, and their uncle the Pope laughed loud enough for his voice to carry through the phone’s mouthpiece, “But uncle – seriously – congratulations. We’ll help you in whatever way we can.”
There was a pause, punctuated by a low, “And here comes Jorge,” from Fr. Anthony.
“Well, I am afraid I shall have to take your offer seriously, Landon,” was the slow, soothing sentence from their uncle the Pope, “I shall need my good friend Fr. Anthony here for his expertise in the ministry, so you will need to be on your own for a while.”
There was no time for Bradley to finish his groan, or for Landon to bargain and tell his uncle to grant them a trip to a Southeast Asian beach first. Fr. Anthony immediately assigned one of the priests in their team as lead exorcist for the New York case, which appeared to be minor anyway, and which would probably be wrapped up in less than a fortnight – enough time for the boys to get ready to fly out to Rome for their uncle’s installation.
As always, their experience with previous exorcisms did not predict what would happen in New York. What was meant to be a trip of a few days turned into a few weeks, and the brothers missed their uncle’s inauguration, and all the fanfare that followed it. He was the first pope in many things, and was unique in so many ways, but the man took no notice of the festivities, had little attention for the many heads of state whose public statements littered the airwaves. He was deep in work at the Vatican, where the exorcism course was only one among thousands of issues that had to be dealt with.
And after New York was another New York case, and then another New York case, and two years of New York cases before the boys made their way to Boston.
In that time, the Philippines became an even more distant dream. The country’s elections were threatening to bring forth far more than poisoned words; they pushed a quasi-dictator to the forefront, whose past was as muddy as his tongue. He cursed and cussed, railed and roared at other leaders, at those who opposed him, at non-existent issues. He fell silent when duty demanded his voice. He stepped away when work required him to be at the frontlines.
And his followers were proud, overbearing, unafraid to sneer and jeer and wreak havoc. They laughed at the opposition, wrote direct-to-the-point death threats online, labeled the murdered as deserving of their deaths because they had supposedly committed crimes – all literally scribbled on torn cardboard box lids, in angry black ink, in scrawls that described the death as lingering and violent under hands that gingerly wiped away the trails of blood.
No, the brothers could not go to a country where you could be picked off by a homemade pistol in a back alley. No, the brothers could not go to a country where the anger bristled and burbled and blew and grew. Not even if the cases were rising, not even if the priests were pleading for help because even they were being targeted, cursed, shot down.
The brothers were in the US, after all, where the soon-to-be leader seemed to be no different. He was overblown in his speeches, seemed to enjoy fomenting hate and division, advocated for causes that contradicted each other.
And so the same kind of leader seemed to reign across a world of blind resentment, darkened illumination.
The cases continued to rise.
So the boys remained in the States, tending to the cases, sending the files, double checking transcripts. And they dreamed about the beach, but their uncle told them not to dream too much.
Fr. Anthony, for his part, although busy, still reached out to the boys, and counseled them on their cases. That was where his call found them, in Boston, on the evening that they had taken leave of the family of secrets, as they drove back to their hotel in silence. Landon picked up the call in the car, and put the priest on speaker.
“I take it that you were preoccupied all day,” Fr. Anthony said, above the ringing of church bells across Rome, “You weren’t picking up my calls, but I trust that the session went well?”
Bradley checked his phone, then reached into his jacket pocket to get Landon’s phone as well. There were no missed calls at all.
They could hear Fr. Anthony sigh, “Let me guess…”
“No calls whatsoever, Father,” Bradley exchanged glances with his brother, “Looks like the demon played with my stuff, too.”
“Well – let’s not give it too much credit,” Fr. Anthony chuckled, voice deep, mischievous even, if the boys didn’t know the old priest any better. They sensed that he was simply irritated and holding his temper down, in the same way that he checked his impatience when cases grew increasingly difficult, or when he simply narrowed his eyes at the boys when they forgot to save important recordings or handed over transcripts that should have been sent much earlier to the Vatican.
The old priest allowed the church bells to finish their tolling, then spoke once again.
“His Holiness and I have been discussing the course these last few days,” he said, slowly, the sound of turning pages interrupting him, “And he does agree that there doesn’t seem to be a pattern to anything at all. My colleagues here also agree that we need more groundwork to revise the course.”
Bradley and Landon exchanged glances, and both mouthed, with comical disbelief, “His Holiness?”
“And His Holiness has asked the Papal Nunciature in Manila for help, for security, for both of you.”
Bradley gasped, holding a smile down.
“So yes, to cut to the chase, you can both go to the Philippines in a month or so for some immersion before we start with the research project,” Fr. Anthony struggled to finish the statement, as the boys were already cheering halfway through it, “His Holiness will ask you to leave once the Boston case is completely settled, but he does not expect it to be immediate.”
“It does look immediate, Fr. Anthony,” Landon turned on a street, and drove the car up the hotel driveway, “We’ve got a lot to report on this one, but it looks done, at least from tonight’s session.”
“We got the full story from the parents. Abridged version: They kept secrets from her,” Bradley rejoined, “Something in the mother’s past.”
“Secrets and resentment, and some mending,” Landon mused, finding a parking slot, “We’ll tell you more when we meet with you and Uncle His Holiness.”
The boys could not help snickering as Landon parked their car.
“Well I’m glad that you both have never changed and have not been contaminated by the darkness of the Boston case,” Fr. Anthony retorted pointedly, so that the boys laughed even harder, “If you can give me the less abridged story in under a minute, then I can perhaps explain to your Uncle His Holiness why his Black Book keeps on disappearing.”
The boys sobered immediately.
Their Uncle Jorge kept a notebook bound in black leather, which had been a gift from his Jesuit superior in his first year at the seminary, and which he had used to keep records of all the exorcisms to which he had ministered. He had been either assistant or principal exorcist at over a hundred cases, and he took brief notes of the highlights, from what the demons’ names were, to how they responded to his prayers, to the objects that the victims coughed up. Bradley’s case was one among the many; the boy never asked to look at his case notes, and would ignore his uncle’s entries on his possession whenever he chanced to pick up the notebook and browse through it.
Their uncle always carried the notebook around, even if it was quite heavy, and even if he had no pending cases to work on.
“One never knows when one needs to examine one’s work”, he would remind the boys.
The same reminder became, “One never knows one’s knowledge until its only record is lost,” whenever the book suddenly disappeared, only to turn up in the most unlikely places days, even weeks later. The notebook would be perched on a tree branch so that it had to be prodded down by a fruit picker, or it would be in a pile of rubbish that would nearly have sent it to the Buenos Aires landfill, or – and this was Bradley’s personal favorite – it would be folded in among Landon’s dress shirts.
The book always disappeared when major cases came to what some exorcists loosely referred to as the break point: the hours when the most powerful demon in a legion was on the verge of defeat, so that it resorted to petty means to play on its tormentors’ patience. Some priests reported losing their pens, if they were writers; shoes, if they were pastors; or even important computer files, if they were doing any kind of administrative work. Uncle Jorge would lose his book.
Everything would come to rights after a few prayers, or after a few days of patient waiting. But always, always, there was a hiding game; and always, always the exorcist was reminded to be patient, to guard his temper, to ensure that he did not find himself ensnared by the wiles of the Evil Ones. Their uncle was a veteran of sorts when it came to waiting patiently, as he knew that at one point, there the book would be again, ready for reading, re-reading, and analysis. Never for transcription, and transfer to digital files though; that, too, seemed to cause it to disappear, and for an even longer time.
On that late evening, in their car, and on the verge of summer, the boys felt the excitement of a coming trip that was years in the making, but they also felt that they had miles to go before the Boston case would finally be closed. As they did with all their prospective break points, they had no expectations: they either broke through after plodding through tunnels in the darkness, or simply drew back at the sudden brightness of change and light. For some reason, there was no in between.
“Well, I wish you both luck and blessings,” the old priest chuckled at the other end of the line, as the silence had gone on for a trifle longer than usual, “We’ve been looking at the recordings you just sent, and they really are quite – frightening is the fallback, interesting is the less charitable word.”
The boys turned to each other sharply.
“We sent in recordings?” Bradley exclaimed, “I thought they were all erased when – you know…”
“Sad to say, I don’t know,” Fr. Anthony put in before Landon could answer, “But I received several files on the Vatican server, all of them with timestamps from your morning. The victim – the girl – child,” and here, Fr. Anthony paused, mumbling. The boys could hear the clack of a keyboard and low instructions from another priest, whom they assumed was working as Fr. Anthony’s assistant.
Bradley crossed his arms about his chest; Landon’s hands gripped the wheel, and his brother could see his knuckles in the darkness.
“We have files from when her brother was thrown against the wall,” Fr. Anthony spoke, ever so calmly, so that the air in the car froze, “And we will need to flag and file this just in case the police ask for it. Dare I ask for the abridged version of the victim’s story now?”
“We probably won’t need the flag,” Landon’s voice came in a croak and crackle as the temperature dropped further, “The brother’s all right – the doctors called, and the dad’s with him.”
The priest-assistant began talking over the end of Bradley’s sentence, so that the clicking and murmuring filled the car with static.
“Sorry, I just have to continue this because our priests here have to go to another meeting,” Fr. Anthony spoke in a level, one would say exasperated, voice, “We have files for the latest exorcism? Right? The session that ended with the girl alone with the priests and doctors?”
“We also need to talk to the exorcist about his – reaction to the victim,” the brothers heard another priest talking, “How much training has he had?”
“Four years?” They could hear, farther away, as though the phone were in the middle of a long table in a cave.
“Too short,” another priest said.
“This is my fault,” Fr. Anthony put in, “I assumed it would be a quick session, and I was wrong. I shouldn’t have relied on Fr. Callahan too soon.”
The boys knew genuine humility when they heard it; Fr. Anthony was not one to grovel or beg for the sake of saving his skin. The other priest must have sensed it was well, as he said something along the lines of retraining and pushing for curricular revisions.
“So we have four files,” Fr. Anthony resumed, addressing the brothers again, “We have the one right before the exorcism, the exorcism itself, then another file of the exorcism that suddenly starts around ten minutes after the end of the last one, and then closing prayers.”
Landon mouthed his amazement, “That must have been when Spooky Girl came knocking,” he could not help saying.
“That requires a bit more explanation than we have time for,” Fr. Anthony spoke above the rustle of paper and moving folders, “We’ll have time for conversation soon. Just write everything down. You were saying something earlier, Landon?”
Landon cleared his throat. The air in the car had not yet warmed, “I said the brother’s all right.”
“Good!” Fr. Anthony exclaimed, “What a miracle! Wonderful! How did you find out?”
“The hospital called the house and said that the brother was conscious, and they needed someone to watch over him.”
The pause went on for too long. “What?”
“Yes,” Bradley kept talking, ignoring Landon’s low curse, “So the dad went to take care of him -”
“What?” This time, Fr. Anthony’s voice thundered across the car, “The parents are split up?”
And this time, the boys chorused in curses.
“Where are you now?” Fr. Anthony almost growled, “Who’s with them? I don’t care about the story. Go back right now! Call me when you get there but go back – right now!”
Landon took but seconds to restart the car and back out of the hotel driveway. He was praying above the sound of the engine, the rub of tire against asphalt, Bradley’s low curse as he kept trying to switch his mobile phone on.
“Use my phone,” Landon said, as he entered the highway.
Bradley reached into the back to get Landon’s backpack, hands precise, stance calculated. The same thing had happened a few times before, in varying forms, with varied consequences. There were the parents on the Nebraska farm who attempted their own exorcism on their son as soon as the team had left, only to be hurled out their bedroom window. There, too, were the parents in the Iowa farm who nearly took out their shotguns as the exorcism team knocked on their doors, as those same alarmed boys and priests disrupted the family’s first night of good sleep in years. There was no telling what this latest episode would bring.
“I should have paid more attention,” Landon interrupted his praying as he changed lanes, “I should have slept better last night, is what.”
“It’s ok,” Bradley opened pocket after pocket in his brother’s backpack, in search of the phone, “It could be something, or it could be nothing. Or maybe -”
Bradley’s deep, almost exhausted intake of breath nearly made Landon step on the brakes.
“It’s something,” Bradley murmured, as he pulled something dark from between the folds of his brother’s clothes.
It was their uncle’s black book.