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26.12.2018

26

TRAVIS'S STORY

Augustus Brine sat in one of the big leather chairs in front of his fireplace, drinking red wine from a balloon goblet and puffing away on his meerschaum. He had promised himself that he would have only one glass of wine, just to take the edge off the adrenaline and caffeine jangle he had worked himself into during the kidnapping. Now he was on his third glass and the wine had infused him with a warm, oozy feeling; he let his mind drift in a dreamy vertigo before attacking the task at hand: interrogating the demonkeeper.

The fellow looked harmless enough, propped up and tied to the other wing chair. But if Gian Hen Gian was to be believed, this dark young man was the most dangerous human on Earth.

Brine considered washing up before waking the demonkeeper. He had caught a glimpse of himself in the bathroom mirror  –  his beard and clothing covered with flour and soot, his skin caked with sweat-streaked goo  –  and decided that he would make a more intimidating impression in his current condition. He had found the smelling salts in the medicine cabinet and sent Gian Hen Gian to the bathroom to bathe while he rested. Actually he wanted the Djinn out of the room while he questioned the demonkeeper. The Djinn's curses and ravings would only complicate an already difficult task.

Brine set his wineglass and his pipe on the end table and picked up a cotton-wrapped smelling-salt capsule. He leaned over to the demonkeeper and snapped the capsule under his nose. For a moment nothing happened, and Brine feared that he had hit him too hard, then the demonkeeper started coughing, looked at Brine, and screamed.

"Calm down  –  you're all right," Brine said.

"Catch, help me!" The demonkeeper struggled against his bonds. Brine picked up his pipe and lit it, affecting a bored nonchalance. After a moment the demonkeeper settled down.

Brine blew a thin stream of smoke into the air between them. "Catch isn't here. You're on your own."

Travis seemed to forget that he had been beaten, kidnapped, and tied up. His concentration was focused on Brine's last statement. "What do you mean, Catch isn't here? You know about Catch?"

Brine considered giving him the I'm-asking-the-questions-here line that he had heard so many times in detective movies, but upon reflection, it seemed silly. He wasn't a hardass; why play the role? "Yes, I know about the demon. I know that he eats people, and I know you are his master."

"How do you know all that?"

"It doesn't matter," Brine said. "I also know that you've lost control of Catch."

"I have?" Travis seemed genuinely shaken by this. "Look, I don't know who you are, but you can't keep me here. If Catch is out of control again, I'm the only one that can stop him. I'm really close to ending all this; you can't stop me now."

"Why should you care?"

"What do you mean, why should I care? You might know about Catch, but you can't imagine what he's like when he's out of control."

"What I mean," Brine said, "is why should you care about the damage he causes? You called him up, didn't you? You send him out to kill, don't you?"

Travis shook his head violently. "You don't understand. I'm not what you think. I never wanted this, and now I have a chance to stop it. Let me go. I can end it."

"Why should I trust you? You're a murderer."

"No. Catch is."

"What's the difference? If I do let you go, it will be because you will have told me what I want to know, and how I can use that information. Now I'll listen and you'll talk."

"I can't tell you anything. And you don't want to know anyway, I promise you."

"I want to know where the Seal of Solomon is. And I want to know the incantation that sends Catch back. Until I know, you're not going anywhere."

"Seal of Solomon? I don't know what you're talking about."

"Look  –  what is your name, anyway?"

"Travis."

"Look, Travis," Brine said, "my associate wants to use torture. I don't like the idea, but if you jerk me around, torture might be the only way to go."

"Don't you have to have two guys to play good cop, bad cop?"

"My associate is taking a bath. I wanted to see if I could reason with you before I let him near you. I really don't know what he's capable of… I'm not even sure what he is. So if we could get on with this, it would be better for the both of us."

"Where's Jenny?" Travis asked.

"She's fine. She's at work."

"You won't hurt her?"

"I'm not some kind of terrorist, Travis. I didn't ask to be involved in this, but I am. I don't want to hurt you, and I would never hurt Jenny. She's a friend of mine."

"So if I tell you what I know, you'll let me go?"

"That's the deal. But I'll have to make sure that what you tell me is true." Brine relaxed. This young man didn't seem to have any of the qualities of a mass murderer. If anything, he seemed a little naive.

"Okay, I'll tell you everything I know about Catch and the incantations, but I swear to you, I don't know anything about any Seal of Solomon. It's a pretty strange story."

"I guessed that," Brine said. "Shoot." He poured himself a glass of wine, relit his pipe, and sat back, propping his feet up on the hearth.

"Like I said, it's a pretty strange story."

"Strange is my middle name," Brine said.

"That must have been difficult for you as a child," Travis said.

"Would you get on with it."

"You asked for it." Travis took a deep breath. "I was born in Clarion, Pennsylvania, in the year nineteen hundred."

"Bullshit," Brine interrupted. "You're not a day over twenty-five."

"This is going to take a lot more time if I have to keep stopping. Just listen  –  it'll all fall into place."

Brine grumbled and nodded for Travis to continue.

"I was born on a farm. My parents were Irish immigrants, black Irish. I was the oldest of six children, two boys and four girls. My parents were staunch Catholics. My mother wanted me to be a priest. She pushed me to study so I could get into seminary. She was working on the local diocese to recommend me while I was still in the womb. When World War I broke out, she begged the bishop to get me into seminary early. Everybody knew it was just a matter of time before America entered the war. My mother wanted me in seminary before the Army could draft me. Boys from secular colleges were already in Europe, driving ambulances, and some of them had been killed. My mother wasn't going to lose her chance to have a son become a priest to something as insignificant as a world war. You see, my little brother was a bit slow  –  mentally, I mean. I was my mother's only chance."

"So you went to seminary," Brine interjected. He was becoming impatient with the progress of the story.

"I went in at sixteen, which made me at least four years younger than the other boys. My mother packed me some sandwiches, and I packed myself into a threadbare black suit that was three sizes too small for me and I was on the train to Illinois.

"You have to understand, I didn't want any part of this stuff with the demon; I really wanted to be a priest. Of all the people I had known as a child, the priest seemed like the only one who had any control over things. The crops could fail, banks could close, people could get sick and die, but the priest and the church were always there, calm and steadfast. And all that mysticism was pretty nifty, too."

"What about women?" Brine asked. He had resolved himself to hearing an epic, and it seemed as if Travis needed to tell it. Brine found he liked the strange young man, in spite of himself.

"You don't miss what you've never known. I mean I had these urges, but they were sinful, right? I just had to say, 'Get thee behind me Satan', and get on with it."

"That's the most incredible thing you've told me so far," Brine said. "When I was sixteen, sex seemed like the only reason to go on living."

"That's what they thought at seminary, too. Because I was younger than the others, the prefect of discipline, Father Jasper, took me on as his special project. To keep me from impure thoughts, he made me work constantly. In the evenings, when the others were given time for prayer and meditation, I was sent to the chapel to polish the silver. While the others ate, I worked in the kitchen, serving and washing dishes. For two years the only rest I had from dawn until midnight was during classes and mass. When I fell behind in my studies, Father Jasper rode me even harder.

"The Vatican had given the seminary a set of silver candlesticks for the altar. Supposedly they had been commissioned by one of the early popes and were over six hundred years old. The candlesticks were the most prized possession of the seminary and it was my job to polish them. Father Jasper stood over me, evening after evening, chiding me and berating me for being impure in thought. I polished the silver until my hands were black from the compound, and still Father Jasper found fault with me. If I had impure thoughts it was because he kept reminding me to have them.

"I had no friends in seminary. Father Jasper had put his mark on me, and the other students shunned me for fear of invoking the prefect of discipline's wrath. I wrote home when I had a chance, but for some reason my letters were never answered. I began to suspect that Father Jasper was keeping my letters from getting to me.

"One evening, while I was polishing the silver on the altar, Father Jasper came to the chapel and started to lecture me on my evil nature.

"'You are impure in thought and deed, yet you do not confess,' he said. 'You are evil, Travis, and it is my duty to drive that evil out!'

"I couldn't take it any longer. 'Where are my letters?' I blurted out. 'You are keeping me from my family.'

"Father Jasper was furious. 'Yes, I keep your letters. You are spawned from a womb of evil. How else could you have come here so young. I waited for eight years to come to Saint Anthony's  –  waited in the cold of the world while others were taken into the warm bosom of Christ.'

"At last I knew why I had been singled out for punishment. It had nothing to do with my spiritual impurity. It was jealousy. I said, 'And you, Father Jasper, have you confessed your jealousy and your pride? Have you confessed your cruelty?'

"'Cruel, am I?' he said. He laughed at me, and for the first time I was really afraid of him. 'There is no cruelty in the bosom of Christ, only tests of faith. Your faith is wanting, Travis. I will show you.'

"He told me to lie with arms outstretched on the steps before the altar and pray for strength. He left the chapel for a moment, and when he returned I could hear something whistling through the air. I looked up and saw that he was carrying a thin whip cut from a willow branch.

"'Have you no humility, Travis? Bow your head before our Lord.'

"I could hear him moving behind me, but I could not see him. Why I didn't leave right then I don't know. Perhaps I believed that Father Jasper was actually testing my faith, that he was the cross I had to bear.

"He tore my robe up the back, exposing my bare back and legs. 'You will not cry out, Travis. After each blow a Hail Mary. Now,' he said. Then I felt the whip across my back and I thought I would scream, but instead I said a Hail Mary. He threw a rosary in front of me and told me to take it. I held it behind my head, feeling the pain come with every bead.

"'You are a coward, Travis. You don't deserve to serve our Lord. You are here to avoid the war, aren't you, Travis?'

"I didn't answer him and the whip fell again.

"After a while I heard him laughing with each stroke of the whip. I did not look back for fear he might strike me across the eyes. Before I had finished the rosary, I heard him gasp and drop to the floor behind me. I thought  –  no, I hoped  –  he had had a heart attack. But when I looked back he was kneeling behind me, gasping for air, exhausted, but smiling.

"'Face down, sinner!' he screamed. He drew back the whip as if he were going to strike me in the face and I covered my head.

"'You will tell no one of this,' he said. His voice was low and calm. For some reason that scared me more than his anger. 'You are to stay the night here, polish the silver, and pray for forgiveness. I will return in the morning with a new robe for you. If you speak of this to anyone, I will see that you are expelled from Saint Anthony's and, if I can manage it, excommunicated.'

"I hadn't ever heard excommunication used as a threat. It was something we studied in class. The popes had used it as an instrument of political control, but the reality of being excluded from salvation by someone else had never really occurred to me. I didn't believe that Father Jasper could really excommunicate me, but I wasn't going to test it.

"While Father Jasper watched, I began to polish the candlesticks, rubbing furiously to take my mind off the pain in my back and legs, and to try to forget that he was watching. Finally, he left the chapel. When I heard the door close, I threw the candlestick I was holding at the door.

"Father Jasper had tested my faith, and I had failed. I cursed the Trinity, the Virgin, and all the saints I could remember. Eventually my anger subsided and I feared Father Jasper would return and see what I had done.

"I retrieved the candlestick and inspected it to see if I had done any damage. Father Jasper would check them in the morning as he always did, and I would be lost.

"There was a deep scratch across the axis of the candlestick. I rubbed at it, harder and harder, but it only seemed to get worse. Soon I realized that it wasn't a scratch at all but a seam that had been concealed by the silversmith. The priceless artifact from the Vatican was a sham. It was supposed to be solid silver, but here was evidence that it was hollow. I grabbed both ends of the candlestick and twisted. As I suspected, it unscrewed. There was a sort of triumph in it. I wanted to be holding the two pieces when Father Jasper returned. I wanted to wave them in his face. 'Here', I would say, 'these are as hollow and false as you are. I would expose him, ruin him, and if I was expelled and damned, I didn't care. But I never got the chance to confront him.

"When I pulled the two pieces apart, a tightly rolled piece of parchment fell out."

"The invocation," Brine interrupted.

"Yes, but I didn't know what it was. I unrolled it and started to read. There was a passage at the top in Latin, which I didn't have much trouble translating. It said something about calling down help from God to deal with enemies of the Church. It was signed by His Holiness, Pope Leo the Third.

"The second part was written in Greek. As I said, I had fallen behind in my studies, so the Greek was difficult. I started reading it aloud, working on each word as I went. By the time I was through the first passage, it had started to get cold in the chapel. I wasn't sure what I was reading. Some of the words were mysteries to me. I just read over them, trying to glean what I could from the context. Then something seemed to take over my mind.

"I started reading the Greek as if it were my native language, pronouncing the words perfectly, without having the slightest idea of what they meant.

"A wind whipped up inside the chapel, blowing out all the candles. Except for a little moonlight coming through the windows, it was completely dark, but the words on the parchment began to glow and I kept reading. I was locked into the parchment as if I had grabbed an electric wire and couldn't let go.

"When I read the last line, I found I was screaming the words. Lightning flashed down from the roof and struck the candlestick, which was lying on the floor in front of me. The wind stopped and smoke filled the chapel.

"Nothing prepares you for something like that. You can spend your life preparing to be the instrument of God. You can read accounts of possession and exorcism and try to imagine yourself in the situation, but when it actually happens, you just shut down. I did, anyway. I sat there trying to figure out what I had done, but my mind wouldn't work.

"The smoke floated up into the rafters of the chapel and I could make out a huge figure standing at the altar. It was Catch, in his eating form."

"What's his eating form?" Brine asked.

"I assume from the deal with the flour that you know Catch is visible to others only when he is in his eating form. Most of the time I see him as a three-foot imp covered with scales. When he feeds or goes out of control, he's a giant. I've seen him cut a man in half with one swipe of his claws. I don't know why it works that way. I just know that when I saw him for the first time, I had never been so frightened.

"He looked around the chapel, then at me, then at the chapel. I was praying under my breath, begging God for protection.

"'Stop it!' he said. 'I'll take care of everything.' Then he went down the aisle and through the chapel doors, knocking them off their hinges. He turned and looked back at me. He said: 'You have to open these things, right? I forgot  –  it's been a while.'

"As soon as he was gone I picked up the candlesticks and ran. I got as far as the front gates before I realized that I was still wearing the torn robe.

"I wanted to get away, hide, forget what I had seen, but I had to go back and get my clothes. I ran back to my quarters. Since I was in my third year at seminary, I been given a small private room, so, thankfully, I didn't have to go through the dormitory ward rooms where the newer students slept. The only clothes I had were the suit I had worn when I came and a pair of overalls I wore when I worked in the seminary fields. I tried to put on the suit, but the pants were just too tight, so I put the overalls on and wore the suit jacket over them to cover my shoulders. I wrapped the candlesticks in a blanket and headed for the gate.

"When I was just outside the gate, I heard a horrible scream from the rectory. There was no mistaking; it was Father Jasper.

"I ran the six miles into town without stopping. The sun was coming up as I reached the train station and a train was pulling away from the platform. I didn't know where it was going, but I ran after it and managed to swing myself on board before I collapsed.

"I'd like to tell you I had some kind of plan, but I didn't. My only thought was to get as far away from St. Anthony's as I could. I don't know why I took the candlesticks. I wasn't interested in their value. I guess I didn't want to leave any evidence of what I'd done. Or maybe it was the influence of the supernatural.

"Anyway, I caught my breath and went into the passenger car to find a seat. The train was nearly full, soldiers and a few civilians here and there. I staggered down the aisle and fell into the first empty seat I could find. It was next to a young woman who was reading a book.

"'This seat is taken,' she said.

"'Please, just let me rest here for a minute,' I begged. 'I'll get up when your companion returns.'

"She looked up from her book and I found myself staring into the biggest, bluest eyes I'd ever seen. I will never forget them. She was young, about my age, and wore her dark hair pinned up under a hat, which was the style in those days. She looked genuinely frightened of me. I guess I was wearing my own fright on my face.

"'Are you all right? Shall I call the conductor?' she asked.

"I thanked her but told her that I just needed to rest a moment. She was looking at the strange way I was dressed, trying to be polite, but obviously perplexed. I looked up and noticed that everyone in the car was staring at me. Could they know about what I'd done? I wondered. Then I realized why they were staring. There was a war on and I was obviously the right age for the Army, yet I was dressed in civilian clothes. 'I'm a seminary student,' I blurted out to them, causing a breeze of incredulous whispers. The girl blushed.

"'I'm sorry,' I said to her. 'I'll move on.' I started to rise, but she put her hand on my shoulder to push me back into my seat and I winced when she touched my injured shoulder.

"'No,' she said, 'I'm traveling alone. I've just been saving this seat to ward off the soldiers. You know how they can be sometimes, Father.'

"'I'm not a priest yet,' I said.

"'I don't know what to call you, then,' she said.

"'Call me Travis,' I said.

"'I'm Amanda,' she said. She smiled, and for a moment I completely forgot why I was running. She was an attractive girl, but when she smiled, she was absolutely stunning. It was my turn to blush.

"'I'm going to New York to stay with my fianc��'s family. He's in Europe,' she said.

"'So this train is going east?' I asked.

"She was surprised. 'You don't even know where the train is going?' she asked.

"'I've had a bad night,' I said. Then I started to laugh  –  I don't know why. It seemed so unreal. The idea of trying to explain it to her seemed silly.

"She looked away and started digging in her purse. 'I'm sorry,' I said, 'I didn't mean to offend you.'

'You didn't offend me. I need to have my ticket ready for the conductor.'

"I'd completely forgotten about not having a ticket. I looked up and saw the conductor coming down the aisle. I jumped up and a wave of fatigue hit me. I almost fell into her lap.

"'Is something wrong?' she asked.

"'Amanda,' I said, 'you have been very kind, but I should find another seat and let you travel in peace.'

"'You don't have a ticket, do you?' she said.

"I shook my head. 'I've been in seminary. I'd forgotten. We don't have any need for money there and…'

"'I have some traveling money,' she said.

"'I couldn't ask you to do that,' I said. Then I remembered the candlesticks. 'Look, you can have these. They're worth a lot of money. Hold them and I'll send you the money for the ticket when I get home,' I said.

"I unrolled the blanket and dropped the candlesticks in her lap.

"'That's not necessary,' she said. "I'll loan you the money.'

"'No, I insist you take them,' I said, trying to be gallant. I must have looked ridiculous standing there in my overalls and tattered suit jacket.

"'If you insist,' she said. 'I understand. My fianc�� is a proud man, too.'

"She gave me the money I needed and I bought a ticket all the way to Clarion, which was only about ten miles from my parent's farm.

"The train broke down somewhere in Indiana and we were forced to wait in the station while they changed engines. It was midsummer and terribly hot. Without thinking, I took off my jacket and Amanda gasped when she saw my back. She insisted that I see a doctor, but I refused, knowing that I would only have to borrow more money from her to pay for it. We sat on a bench in the station while she cleaned my back with damp napkins from the dining car.

"In those days the sight of a woman bathing a half-naked man in a train station would have been scandalous, but most of the passengers were soldiers and were much more concerned with being AWOL or with their ultimate destination, Europe, so we were ignored for the most part.

"Amanda disappeared for a while and returned just before our train was ready to leave. 'I've reserved a berth in the sleeping car for us,' she said.

"I was shocked. I started to protest, but she stopped me. She said, 'You are going to sleep and I am going to watch over you. You are a priest and I'm engaged, so there is nothing wrong with it. Besides, you are in no shape to spend the night sitting up in a train.'

"I think it was then that I realized that I was in love with her. Not that it mattered. It was just that after living so long with Father Jasper's abuse I wasn't prepared for the kindness she was showing me. It never occurred to me that I might be putting her in danger.

"As we pulled away from the station, I looked out on the platform, and for the first time I saw Catch in his smaller form. Why it happened then and not before I don't know. Maybe I didn't have any strength left, but when I saw him there on the platform, flashing a big razor-toothed grin, I fainted.

"When I came to, I felt like my back was on fire. I was lying in the sleeping berth and Amanda was bathing my back with alcohol.

"'I told them you'd been wounded in France,' she said. "The porter helped me get you in here. I think it's about time you told me who did this to you.'

"I told her what Father Jasper had done, leaving out the parts about the demon. I was in tears when I finished, and she was holding me, rocking me back and forth.

"I'm not sure how it happened  –  the passion of the moment and all that, I guess  –  but the next thing I knew, we were kissing, and I was undressing her. Just as we were about to make love she stopped me.

"'I have to take this off,' she said. She was wearing a wooden bracelet with the initials E + A burnt into it. 'We don't have to do this,' I said.

"Have you, Mr. Brine, ever said something that you know you will always regret? I have. It was: 'We don't have to do this.'

"She said: 'Oh, then let's not.'

"She fell asleep holding me while I lay awake, thinking about sex and damnation, which really wasn't any different from what I'd thought about each night in the seminary  –  a little more immediate, I guess.

"I was just dozing off when I heard a commotion coming from the opposite end of our sleeping car. I peeked through the curtains of the berth to see what was happening. Catch was coming down the aisle, looking into berths as he went. I didn't know at the time that Catch was invisible to other people, and I couldn't understand why they weren't screaming at the sight of him. People were shouting and looking out of their berths, but all they were seeing was empty air.

"I grabbed my overalls and jumped into the aisle, leaving my jacket and the candlesticks in the berth with Amanda. I didn't even thank her. I ran down the aisle toward the back of the car, away from Catch. As I ran, I could hear him yelling, 'Why are you running? Don't you know the rules?'

"I went through the door between the cars and slid it shut behind me. By now people were screaming, not out of fear of Catch, but because a naked man was running through the sleeping car.

"I looked into the next car and saw the conductor coming down the aisle toward me. Catch was almost to the door behind me. Without thinking, or even looking, I opened the door to the outside and leapt off the train, naked, my overalls still in hand.

"The train was on a trestle at the time and it was a long drop to the ground, fifty or sixty feet. By all rights I should have been killed. When I hit, the wind was knocked out of me and I remember thinking that my back was broken, but in seconds I was up and running through a wooden valley. I didn't realize until later that I had been protected by my pact with the demon, even through he was not under my control at the time. I don't really know the extent of his protection, but I've been in a hundred accidents since then that should have killed me and come out without a scratch.

"I ran through the woods until I came to a dirt road. I had no idea where I was. I just walked until I couldn't walk anymore and then sat down at the side of the road. Just after sunup a rickety wagon pulled up beside me and the farmer asked me if I was all right. In those days it wasn't uncommon to see a barefoot kid in overalls by the side of the road.

"The farmer informed me that I was only about twenty miles from home. I told him that I was a student on holiday, trying to hitchhike home, and he offered to drive me. I fell asleep in the wagon. When the farmer woke me, we were stopped at the gate of my parents' farm. I thanked him and walked up the road toward the house.

"I guess I should have known right away that something was wrong. At that time of the morning everyone should have been out working, but the barnyard was deserted except for a few chickens. I could hear the two dairy cows mooing in the barn when they should have already been milked and put out to pasture.

"I had no idea what I would tell my parents. I hadn't thought about what I would do when I got home, only that I wanted to get there.

"I ran in the back door expecting to find my mother in the kitchen, but she wasn't there. My family rarely left the farm, and they certainly wouldn't have gone anywhere without taking care of the animals first. My first thought was that there had been an accident. Perhaps my father had fallen from the tractor and they had taken him to the hospital in Clarion. I ran to the front of the house. My father's wagon was tied up out front.

"I bolted through the house, shouting into every room, but there was no one home. I found myself standing on the front porch, wondering what to do next, when I heard his voice from behind me.

"'You can't run from me,' Catch said.

"I turned. He was sitting on the porch swing, dangling his feet in the air. I was afraid, but I was also angry.

"'Where is my family?!' I screamed.

"He patted his stomach. 'Gone,' he said.

"'What have you done with them?' I said.

"'They're gone forever,' he said. 'I ate them.'

"I was enraged. I grabbed the porch swing and pushed it with everything I had. The swing banged against the porch rail and Catch went over the edge into the dirt.

"My father kept a chopping block and an ax in front of the house for splitting kindling. I jumped off the porch and snatched up the ax. Catch was just picking himself up when I him in the forehead with it. Sparks flew and the ax blade bounced off his head as if it had hit cast iron. Before I knew it I was on my back and Catch was sitting on my chest grinning like the demon in that Fuselli painting, The Nightmare. He didn't seem at all angry. I flailed under him but could not get up.

"'Look,' he said, 'this is silly. You called me up to do a job and I did it, so what's all the commotion about? By the way, you would have loved it. I clipped the priest's hamstrings and watched him crawl around begging for a while. I really like eating priests, they're always convinced that the Creator is testing them.'

"'You killed my family!' I said. I was still trying to free myself.

"'Well, that sort of thing happens when you run away. It's all your fault; if you didn't want the responsibility, you shouldn't have called me up. You knew what you were getting into when you renounced the Creator.'

"'But I didn't,' I protested. Then I remembered my curses in the chapel. I had renounced God. 'I didn't know,' I said.

"'Well, if you're going to be a weenie about it, I'll fill you in on the rules,' he said. 'First, you can't run away from me. You called me up and I am more or less your servant forever. When I say forever, I mean forever. You are not going to age, and you are not going to be sick. The second thing you need to know is that I am immortal. You whack me with axes all you want and all you'll get is a dull ax and a sore back, so just save your energy. Third, I am Catch. They call me the destroyer, and that's what I do. With my help you can rule the world and other really swell stuff. In the past my masters haven't used me to the best advantage, but you might be the exception, although I doubt it. Fourth, when I'm in this form, you are the only one who can see me. When I take on my destroyer form, I am visible to everyone. It's stupid, and why it's that way is a long story, but that's the way it is. In the past they decided to keep me a secret, but there's no rule about it.'

"He paused and climbed off my chest. I got to my feet and dusted myself off. My head was spinning with what Catch had told me. I had no way of knowing whether he was telling the truth, but I had nothing else to go on. When you encounter the supernatural, your mind searches for an explanation. I'd had the explanation laid in my lap, but I didn't want to believe it.

"I said, 'So you're from hell?' I know it was a stupid question, but even a seminary education doesn't prepare you for a conversation with a demon.

"'No,' he said, 'I'm from Paradise.'

"'You're lying,' I said. It was the beginning of a string of lies and misdirections that have gone on for seventy years.

"He said, 'No, really, I'm from Paradise. It's a little town about thirty miles outside of Newark.' Then he started laughing and rolling around in the dirt holding his sides.

"'How can I get rid of you?' I asked.

"'Sorry,' he said, 'I've told you everything that I have to.'

"At the time I didn't know how dangerous Catch was. Somehow I realized that I was in no immediate danger, so I tried to come up with some sort of plan to get rid of him. I didn't want to stay there at the farm, and I didn't have anywhere I could go.

"My first instinct was to turn to the Church. If I could get to a priest, perhaps I could have the demon exorcised.

"I led Catch into town, where I asked the local priest to perform an exorcism. Before I could convince him of Catch's existence, the demon became visible and ate the priest, piece by piece, before my eyes. I realized then that Catch's power was beyond the comprehension of any normal priest, perhaps the entire Church.

"Christians are supposed to believe in evil as an active force. If you deny evil, you deny good and therefore God. But belief in evil is as much an act of faith as belief in God, and here I was faced with evil as a reality, not an abstraction. My faith was gone. It was no longer required. There was indeed evil in the world and that evil was me. It was my responsibility, I reasoned, to not let that evil become manifest to other people and thereby steal their faith. I had to keep Catch's existence a secret. I might not be able to stop him from taking lives, but I could keep him from taking souls.

"I decided to remove him to a safe place where there were no people for him to feed on. We hopped a freight and rode it to Colorado, where I led Catch high into the mountains. There I found a remote cabin where I thought he would be without victims. Weeks passed and I found that I had some control over the demon. I could make him fetch water and wood sometimes, but other times he defied me. I've never understood the inconsistency of his obedience.

"Once I had accepted the fact that I couldn't run away from Catch, I questioned him constantly, looking for some clue that might send him back to hell. He was vague, to say the least, giving me little to go on except that he had been on Earth before and that someone had sent him back.

"After we had been in the mountains for two months, a search party came to the cabin. It seemed that hunters in the area of the cabin, as well as people in villages as far as twenty miles away, had been disappearing. When I was asleep at night, Catch had been ranging for victims. It was obvious that isolation wasn't going to keep the demon from killing. I sent the search party away and set myself on coming up with some kind of plan. I knew we would have to move or people would discover that Catch existed.

"I knew there had to be some sort of logic to his presence on Earth. Then, while we were hiking out of the mountains, it occurred to me that the key to sending Catch back must have been concealed in another candlestick. And I had left them on the train with the girl. Jumping off the train to escape Catch may have cost me the only chance I had to get rid of him. I searched my memory for anything that could lead me to the girl. I had never asked where she was going or what her last name was. In trying to recall details of my time with her I kept coming up with the image of those striking blue eyes. They seemed etched into my memory while everything else faded. Could I go around the eastern United States asking anyone if they had seen a young girl with beautiful blue eyes?

"Something nagged at me. There was something that could lead me to the girl; I just had to remember it. Then it hit me  –  the wooden bracelet she wore. The initials carved inside the heart were E + A. How hard could it be to search service records for a soldier with the first initial E? His service records would have his next of kin, and she was staying with his family. I had a plan.

"I took Catch back East and began checking local draft boards. I told them I had been in Europe and a man whose first name began with E had saved my life and I wanted to find him. They always asked about divisions and stations and where the battle had taken place. I told them I had taken a shell fragment in the head and could remember nothing but the man's first initial. No one believed me, of course, but they gave me what I asked for  –  out of pity, I think.

"Meanwhile, Catch kept taking his victims. I tried to point him toward thieves and grifters when I could, reasoning that if he must kill, at least I could protect the innocent.

"I haunted libraries, looking for the oldest books on magic and demonology I could find. Perhaps somewhere I could find an incantation to send the demon back. I performed hundreds of rituals  –  drawing pentagrams, collecting bizarre talismans, and putting myself through all sorts of physical rigors and diets that were supposed to purify the sorcerer so the magic would work. After repeated failures, I realized that the volumes of magic were nothing more than the work of medieval snake-oil salesmen. They always added the purity of the sorcerer as a condition so they would have an excuse for their customers when the magic did not work.

"During this same time I was still looking for a priest who would perform an exorcism. In Baltimore I finally found one who believed my story. He agreed to perform an exorcism. For his protection, we arranged to have him stand on a balcony while Catch and I remained in the street below. Catch laughed himself silly through the entire ritual, and when it was over, he broke into the building and ate the priest. I knew then that finding the girl was my only hope.

"Catch and I kept moving, never staying in one place longer than two or three days. Fortunately there were no computers in those days that might have tracked the disappearances of Catch's victims. In each town I collected a list of veterans, then ran leads to the ground by knocking on doors and questioning the families. I've been doing that for over seventy years. Yesterday I think I found the man I was looking for. As it turned out, E was his middle initial. His name is J. Effrom Elliot. I thought my luck had finally turned. I mean the fact that the man is still alive is pretty lucky in itself. I thought that I might have to trace the candlesticks through surviving relatives, hoping that someone remembered them, perhaps had kept them as an heirloom.

"I thought it was all over, but now Catch is out of control and you are keeping me from stopping him forever."