Oak Hill had been only a few days ago, yet it seemed like a very distance memory. It was not as if the terrible things he had witnessed, and done had escaped his memory, it was something far more peculiar than that. Those memories were very still vivid, but the thing about it was they somehow felt like someone else’s memories. The only way he could describe it if asked, was the feeling that you got as a child when your parents read a story for you.
You were there in the plot but only as an observer, you saw and felt each act and emotion. Yet you were somehow removed from it. Like watching a train wreck from a safe distance, yet imagining the trauma the passengers were feeling. That antique cane he scarcely remembered buying was another extremely peculiar thing. It had become more than just a walking aid, he found himself unable to function unless he held it in his right hand. A change had taken place in him at a level he did not understand.
Not a single night had passed since coming back from Oak Hill that he had not dreamed of his own death. The dreams alternated between him dying as the result of a fall from a great height, only to dream the following night he died as a result of being hit by a speeding train. However the most disturbing thing of all was the little blonde girl, he had begun to see her now even in a waking state. He would look up to find her standing in the corner of the room; staring silently at him with those intense sky blue eyes.
The strangest thing of all was the fact his mind somehow accepted all this as normal; it was as if James Kirby found himself living in an alternative reality or dimension. He would spend his day sitting in the dusty office waiting for the phone to ring, he had also begun to drink heavily again. But in this alternate reality, the whiskey appeared to have no real effect on him. Sometimes the blonde girl would appear in the corner of the room where she would stand for long periods silently watching him drink.
The woman’s voice on the phone had a weird otherworldly quality about it, there was no small talk. It was a matter of her talking and him listening, even then it was a list of instructions more so than her even talking. However unlike the last couple of times she rang, this time Kirby felt no apprehension as he listened to her monologue. The woman wanted the Gladstone bag delivered to a left luggage locker in central station, the fact that she told him to keep the cash he had taken from the fat man mildly surprised him.
But it was just another curiosity in a world filled with unexplained things, Kirby listened to the woman, and all the while the blonde girl watched him from the corner of the room. There was something different about the ghostly girl’s expression this time, and then the thought wormed its way into his mind. She wanted him to question the woman who issued the instructions; it was if the girl wanted him to know what was going on.
The woman had hardly finished her last sentence, when Kirby spoke. The silence on the line dragged on for so long, he thought she had hung up. Cursing silently to himself he was about to hang up when she spoke again, this time he thought he detected a slight hesitance in her voice. At least her tone did not seem so confident, but even this was short lived. The briefest of pauses followed and the woman appeared to have regained her composure, her voice was once more business-like and confident.
“Mr Kirby, who I am does not really matter, however if it makes you feel better you may call Margret. We are each just a cog in the wheel, or to be more accurate we are different parts of the same machine. You have your role to play and I have mine, you already have a fair idea of what is required of you. I on the other hand have absolutely no doubts whatsoever on what my role is; in the beginning I told you that I would co-ordinate your work for you. Whereas this was a truthful statement, it does not mean that you will only act on my instructions. My role is to gather information and act accordingly”.
There was a short pause on the line, Kirby had the unusual feeling that the woman was searching for a simple explanation that he could understand. “Some of us operate in the shadows Mr Kirby, whereas you exist and operate in place beyond those shadows. As strange as it may seem to you James, in many ways you are part of a different world now. Oak Hill was a trial if you like an initiation to the places beyond the darkness. As for me the easiest explanation is that I am your link between worlds, it is time now for you to follow the path we set you on. I will always be here as your connection, however you will find your own path now”.
The static on the line told him the conversation was over; he returned the handset to its cradle. Then he glanced in the direction of the girl he had now named Lucy, but like the ghostly voice on the line, she was no longer there.
He could have driven to the station, and now twenty minutes into the long walk Kirby regretted he didn’t. The leather bag seemed to have gained pounds in weight since he started out; he needed to put it down just to take a rest. The granite steps of the building were icy cold, but they provided somewhere for him to sit and he was grateful for the break.
His intention had been to wait and watch to see who collected the bag, but the appearance of the blonde girl by the station entrance changed his plans. It took all his self-control not to call out to her; Kirby was fully aware how it would look, with him calling out to a girl that was not there. The little girl beckoned to him and turned to walk away, she was moving fast and he felt the strain of trying to keep up with her. He eventually lost sight of her, and stopped exhausted by the granite steps. A half imagined sound made him look up; there she was entering through the large oak doors.
The interior of the building was gloomy; the only illumination was a strange diffused multi-colored light. It took him a few moments to realize the strange illumination, was daylight coming through the large stained glass windows. The tapping sound of the cane tip on the quarry tiled floor, echoed in the vastness of the building. Kirby stopped a few feet inside the door and stared around. Something in his mind troubled him, and then it came to him. He had absolutely no idea when he last stepped inside a church door; logic dictated that this was not his first time inside a church. But for the life of him he could not bring one instant to mind.
Somewhere ahead of him he caught a glimpse of movement, walking slowly down the long aisle between the rows of wooden pews was like walking in a dream. Either side of him the rows of seats were shrouded in shadow, his mind conjure up images of imagined dangers that might lie just beyond his vision. The feeling of being watched from all directions left him feeling edgy.
The longer he was in the building the more his eyes adapted to the gloom. Shapes began to form in those shadows, huge threatening figures loomed from the darkness but as his vision adapted he realized they were statues. As he neared the altar another source of illumination dispelled the shadows, to the left of the altar a brass table of offertory candles bathed the area in flickering light.
The blonde girl stood beside the candles staring at one of the pews, as he approached her, he heard the sounds of someone softly crying. It was coming from the pew she stood staring at; it was not a loud outpouring of grief, rather the sound of someone overwhelmed with sorrow and hopelessness. The small figure wore a hooded jacket that hid their features, as they sat with bowed head crying softly.
Kirby stopped beside the girl and stared at the seated figure, when he looked back at her he was alone. The crying figure appeared oblivious to his presence until he cleared his throat, when the figure raised their head Kirby was mildly surprised to see an old man’s face. But even more surprising was the fact the man wore a priest’s collar beneath his coat.
The man stared at Kirby as if he was an apparition, all the while tears ran down his wrinkled cheeks. When he spoke Kirby was taken aback. “Is it my time, have you come to take me for judgement?” The quivering voice was that of a broken man. “No father, I am neither your accuser nor your judge”. Kirby replied but the look on the man’s face told Kirby he was not convinced by his answer, and then the man hung his head and continued to cry.
Kirby took the seat next to him, and waited until he had exhausted his emotions. Once the crying had stopped the man sat in silence for a while before he spoke, when he did Kirby realized he had been led to this man for a reason. The man told a story that would have sounded delusional to most; however the man with the cane was in no doubt he spoke the truth.
In the twilight world he now existed in, such things were normal for James Michael Kirby. He left the priest staring at the man that hung from the cross above the altar, the effigy of the brutalized man stared back at him with a dispassionate expression. Outside he paused on the steps and lit a cigarette, and wondered to himself why he had agreed to help the stranger.
But the reality was there in the back of Kirby’s mind, these choices had already been made for him. Just like the woman had said, he was just a part of the machine. A machine that someone or something else had put in motion.
The small town nestled in a valley surrounded by rolling tree covered hills; it was less than two hours’ drive from the city but worlds apart from the concrete jungle. Kirby pulled over to the side of the road; from the brow of the hill he could see the town and outlying areas. The place he was looking for stood at the foot of a hill on the fireside of the small town, the spire of the church made it stand out from the rest of the buildings. The man had told him that the parochial house was just behind that church.
The sign on the church door declared that the building was closed for renovations, yet Kirby saw nothing to suggest any work was taking place here. The narrow path led him meandering through the gravestones in the church yard; through an opening in the high sandstone wall at the bottom of the cemetery he found the parochial house. It was a small two story house that looked in far more need of renovation than the church; he used the handle of his cane to knock on the peeling front door.
Kirby was about to knock again when the door opened, by the sound of it, the hinges had not been oiled for a long time. The old man looked even smaller and more fragile without the hooded jacket, the hand he offered to Kirby was wrinkled and the skin was like parchment. The old man’s grip just like his appearance was fragile, but at least he looked glad to see Kirby. Inside he led Kirby to a small kitchen in the back; he offered him a seat at the table while fumbled about brewing coffee.
Kirby watched the old man as he tried to lift the coffee cup, his hand trembled so much he eventually had to use both hands to get it to his mouth. The silence dragged on until Kirby finally grew impatient. “Okay father start at the beginning and tell what is going on here”. The fear was back in the man’s eyes now, but taking a deep breath he began to tell the full version of the story he told Kirby in the church. The old man’s expression became blank, and he stared into the distance as if watching something beyond the walls of this house.
“I was already retired when this job was thrust on me, the last parish priest just up and left one night with no notice. It was only to be a temporary arrangement until they could find a new priest, but that was three years ago. Three years in which I have found myself doubting everything I ever took for granted, but most of all my faith and my sanity. Something is very wrong in this parish Mr Kirby, and I fear I have failed my calling and my parishioners. I have not opened the church or said mass in months now, and even if I did the most devout among the small community are afraid to set foot inside the building”.
The old priest eventually manged to turn the key in the big lock, and open the doors. But once they were open he immediately cowered back, and waited for Kirby to enter the church first. The man was a priest that was afraid to enter his own place of worship; Kirby began to doubt whether the man’s metal state was good. But when he entered the church Kirby immediately felt it, the atmosphere inside the small church had a bad feel to it. Something dark had taken place here and it had left a residue that permeated the atmosphere, a noise behind him startled Kirby. When he looked behind he found the old priest had got the courage to follow him inside.
The smell of urine and feces still lingered by the altar, and the white altar cloth bore copper colored stains that may have been blood. Someone had desecrated this church and in doing so, those responsible had left an evil imprint on the building. “In the beginning I would clean up the place every time it happened, but for a finish every time I came in here I felt the darkness closing in on me. May god forgive me; I eventually closed the church and have been too afraid to reopen it. I let down my flock in their hour of greatest need”. Something in the old man’s ramblings suddenly caught Kirby’s attention.
Kirby sat opposite the priest in the small kitchen. Wondering to himself, why in the world the old man had not mentioned this before. The church was only part of the problems facing the community here. What the old man had to say this time painted an even darker picture, but one that went far beyond a small church and a fragile old priest. Animal mutilation, grave desecration and the small matter of some missing children, tie in the fact that the local police seemed less than enthusiastic in their handling of it all. Then you were looking at a far bigger picture.
The main street of Cedar Grove was deserted, and it dawned on him that he had not seen another single person except the old priest since he came here. Even the small shops on either side of the street seemed empty, yet Kirby had a peculiar feeling of being watched. The priest had directed him to the small book shop just of the main street; the inside of the place was bear with nothing on the shelves but dust. The tinkle of the bell on the door seemed to echo in the empty room, Kirby was about to turn around and leave when the man appeared from a back room.
“Sorry my friend I am afraid the shop is closed, you just caught me tiding up a few things before I leave. Today is my last day in Cedar Grove.” The small man seemed pleased with this, and smiled broadly. “You see I am afraid that the population of this town are not big on reading for a hobby. Either way my work here is completed, I actually stayed longer than I had intended. However thankfully I am ready to spread my wings again, off to the next adventure”. For all his babbling and cheerful demeanor, Kirby had immediately formed the opinion that this man was scared of something.
He was smiling and chattering on but he could not hide that look of fear in his eyes, when he finally talked himself out, he shifted nervously from foot to foot staring at Kirby. When Kirby explained the reason for his visit, a puzzling expression spread across the man’s face. This quickly changed to a conspiratorial one, and he beckoned Kirby to follow him into the back room. But not before he had locked the front door and pulled the blinds. The backroom was a small office, a desk and two chairs were surrounded by stacks of cardboard boxes. It looked very much like Peter Kearns had not much luck selling off his stock.
Kirby sat patiently listening as Peter Kearns fidgeted while he told his life story, but in doing so it seemed to have a calming effect on him. Peter had come to Cedar Grove more by accident than design; he had taken some time out of his job as a lecturer in modern American history.
The idea behind his sabbatical was to write brief histories, on some of the lesser known areas of the country. So he had set out from his home in the Midwest, stopping off in various communities and documenting the history of those communities. Peter had arrived in Cedar Grove two years ago, seeing there was no book shop in the small town he had set up one. This was more in the hope of drawing in the locals, to garner knowledge of the area from them.
The book shop owner abruptly stopped and glanced nervously around the small room. “Why exactly are you here Mr Kirby, and who are you working for?” Kirby realized that if he wanted Kearns to open up, he would have to come clean with him. Kearns listened to what Kirby had to say, nodding as if he agreed with what Kirby was talking about. Then he rose from his seat and retrieved a bundle of typed pages, from a brief case that had been concealed behind the boxes. He resumed his seat but kept the papers tightly clamped against his chest, it was plain to see he was still not convinced with Kirby’s story.
But in the end he just shrugged and laid the papers on the desk top between them, Kirby made no move to touch the papers instead preferring to allow the other man to dictate the pace of this. Kearns leaned forward and tapped the stack of papers with his index finger.
“This is the sum total of two years’ work Mr Kirby, nothing of any consequence in those pages came from local knowledge. You see no one in Cedar Grove is interested in the local history of the area, or at least no one is interested in telling that history. The moment I would ask any questions about this town, I would end up getting the cold shoulder. For a finish no one would even come into my shop”.
Peter Kearns paused and looked straight into Kirby’s face, as if to emphasize the importance of what he had just said. “Everything thing in there and I mean everything, I got through painstaking research of old newspapers and records at the county library. Cedar Grove may look like a quaint old world town Mr Kirby, but something sinister and dark lies just below the surface. For quite a while now I have the feeling I am being watched and followed, I even gave up the rental on the cottage I got when I came here first, I have been commuting between a small apartment in Silverton and this shop. Mind you I only open the shop on rare occasions; I suppose I still hoped someone would talk to me. The rest of time was spent in the county library in Silverton, but I am out of here shortly and glad to be going”.
The history recorded by Kearns was sketchy and full of gaps, parts of it was even hearsay from books dating back a hundred years and more. But other parts were from newspaper reports, and it seems that for a small town it had more than its fair share of missing kids stretching back many years.
Kearns watched him in silence as he leafed through the pages, when he came across a newspaper clipping from the Silverton Herald, dating back some ten years ago. Kirby looked across at Kearns, and the man nodded silently. The story was about missing people in this area of the state, a photograph of a map was included that marked last know sightings of some of them people. And a hell of a lot of them, were last seen within a ten mile radius of Cedar Grove.
“As I already told you Mr Kirby, there is something dark about this place. The congregation the priest told you about were never really his flock. There are no Christians in Cedar Grove; it was just a way for them to keep an eye on a stranger”.
Kirby asked him how he knew this, and the man got all nervous and shifty again. Eventually he started talking again.
“I explored the area every chance I got, one evening I was out driving in the hills. I spotted a convoy of cars and trucks going into the woods, the next day I went back to see what they had been up to. There is a clearing deep in the woods and in the center is a flat rock like an altar, the symbols on it are Satanic and it looked like someone died there”. Kearns got up and went to the brief case again, this time he returned with two more pieces of paper.
One was a copy of a very old newspaper clipping with a grainy photograph of the town sheriff; he was an absolute giant of a man towering above the people standing near him. The next was another newspaper clipping of the current sheriff taking delivery of the new patrol car. It was the same man, the only problem being that the photographs had been taken a hundred years apart. “You see Mr Kirby these people worship a different god than your priest, and he seems to be more demanding”.
Kearns walked Kirby to the door and all but shoved him onto the pavement, but Kirby stood his ground until the man told him where to find that clearing in the woods. The bookshop owner had all but closed the door, but then he hesitated. “There is something rotten at the core of this town, and I for one do not want to be around when it reveals itself. Take my advice Mr Kirby, leave this place as soon as you can and tell the priest to do the same”. He stepped back inside and closed the door before James Kirby could even reply, but Kirby had a feeling the man was giving sound advice.
The blonde girl stood statue like among the headstones, watching the man with the cane as he approached. It was the first time he had seen her since the evening in the church, when he drew near; she raised her arm and gestured towards the gateway to the parochial house. Kirby immediately knew something was wrong, he looked in the direction she was pointing and when he looked back she was gone.
A part of his mind wondered why he accepted her presence unquestionable, but in his heart Kirby believed he was now as much a part of her world, as she was of his. He had traveled down the rabbit hole, and now there was no going back.
The peeling wood was splintered and the door hung forlornly from one rusting hinge, Kirby could almost smell the priests fear hanging in the still air. There were very little signs of a struggle but then again, he did not believe the frail old man was capable of putting up much of a fight.
Outside parallel lines stretched across the pea gravel of the yard, abruptly finishing by a set of tire tracks. He knew instinctively that the lines were made by the toes of the holy man’s shoes, as he was dragged across the yard. The tracks turned in a semi-circle and seemed to have headed in the opposite direction to the town, Kirby walked to the dark saloon and climbed inside. He knew where they had taken the priest, and he had a bad feeling it was too late to save him.
It was dusk before Kirby found the small road leading into the woods, a mile or so down the road he came up on the group of parked cars. Among them was a new police cruiser, the bookshop owner had been right all along, the whole town was bad. He found the clearing on a narrow trail a hundred yards from where he had parked; the perimeter of the clearing was ringed by a circle of black candles.
Each candle was placed on a skull, some were animal skulls and quite a few were obviously human. Of these the majority seemed small and underdeveloped; they were obviously children’s skulls. The group of people surrounding the flat rock were all naked, except for one who wore ceremonial robes and a mask. This person towered above the rest, and Kirby knew it was the sheriff.
The naked wizened body tied to the rock, whimpered as the huge man approached. The man in the robes raised his hand and something glinted in the dull light, before Kirby could react the hand fell swiftly in the direction of the old priest. A cheer rose from the naked on lookers and the old man stopped whimpering; Kirby took aim and squeezed of a shot just as the man with the knife moved.
Panic erupted and within moments naked figures ran in all directions only to be swallowed up by trees, Kirby stepped into the circle and approached the naked figure lying on the rock. The priests head hung backwards over an ornate bowl; the bowl was already half full as the blood from his throat flowed down the rock and into it.
Kirby stood transfixed by the dead man’s vacant stare; he somehow felt the old man was looking accusingly at him. There was nothing more he could do here, he had failed the priest and even he could not take on an entire community. The faintest of sounds drew his attention away from the rock altar, the huge cop no longer held a knife, he had retrieved a hand gun from somewhere.
The impact of the bullet lifted Kirby clean off his feet and drove him backwards against a tree trunk; the giant man was almost on him now. With his last once of strength, Kirby managed to lift his own gun. It took four hits in the centre of the big man’s chest before he eventually fell; Kirby leaned back against the tree exhausted.
His vision seemed to narrow and he felt his strength seeping away, dark shapes gathered around him now. Shadowy things that reached hands like wisps of smoke in his direction, they plucked at his jacket and whispered in lisping voices. Kirby could not make out the words, but he knew they were here to draw him so far into the darkness that he would never return.
His eye lids felt heavy as led, he blinked and when he opened his eyes again she was there. The blonde girl stood between him and the shadow things, they retreated in fear from the blonde girl. He could still hear them whisper but there was fear in those whispers, his eyes closed again.
Kirby drifted in and out of consciousness over the next few hours; whenever he awoke she was kneeling by his side her ice cold hand clamped over his wound. When he finally awoke properly, it was day light and she was gone. Kirby was still weak but the bleeding had stopped, someone had been back and taken the sheriffs, and priest’s bodies. The trappings of the ceremony had been removed too; all that remained was the copper colored stains of the priest’s blood on the rock altar.
Kirby had no recollection of the drive back from Cedar Grove; he had a faint recollection of her small hand on the wheel beside his. Climbing the stairs to his apartment had been an ordeal, but when he awoke in his own bed the following day the wound had completely healed. A vivid star shaped scar remained, and the faint outline of her hand where it had stemmed the blood flow.