“Probably not, but I’ll check into some things.”
“Check how?” I asked.
“With a private investigator I know. We’ve worked on some cases together.”
“You work with a private investigator?” I asked.
“Sometimes. Hey, psychic detectives are all the rage these days. I happen to provide an invaluable service.”
“Okay, fine,” I said. “See what you can find out, but I don’t think it really matters, does it?”
I thought about what I had just said, and realized my error.
Pauline picked up on my thoughts, too. “Exactly,” she said. “This friend of yours who helped you haul Jacob up to the rafters…”
“Is in some serious danger,” I finished.
“Or already dead,” she said. “Do you remember his name?”
“I’ll have my detective friend check everything out in one fell swoop. I’ll be back when I have something.”
We were silent. The church was active. Worshippers came and went. The boy continued miming playing the piano. Luckily, he had stopped inadvertently hitting the keys. Which was just as well. Wouldn’t want the church to get a reputation for being haunted or anything.
“Do you hate Eli for killing you?” Pauline asked suddenly.
A good question.
“No,” I said, surprising even myself. “At least, I don’t think I do. A part of me thinks I deserved to die. After all, I had taken so much away from him.”
“And now he has taken so much away from you.”
I thought about my daughter. I hated that she was going to grow up without her daddy. I also hated that I hadn’t been given a chance to make my life right, to correct my mistakes, to guarantee my entry into heaven.
Pauline, of course, was reading my thoughts. “Maybe there is no guarantee, James.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, maybe sooner or later it’s time to roll the dice.”
“Excuse me, but I’d rather not roll the dice with my eternal soul, thank you. I would rather stay here and do what I’m doing than burn in hell forever.”
“Fine. And what if I told you there was no hell, James? And, for that matter, no heaven, either?”
“I would say you were full of shit.”
“What if I told you that when you die, you go somewhere else? Another plane of existence, a spirit world filled with family and friends and love?”
“I would say prove it.”
“Some things have to be taken on faith, James.”
“So you say,” I said.
It was late, and Jacob and I were alone in the cathedral.
The kid had wandered up to the very rafters where he had fallen. Or, more accurately, where I had dropped him. He was often drawn to that spot, and I wondered if he even knew why he was. Maybe, maybe not. Either way, his memory was spotty at best, and the details of his own death were mostly lost to him.
Someday soon I was going to have to come clean with him, to admit to him what I had done. And that was going to be a very, very difficult day.
I was sitting in a pew, near the main aisle, in a pool of moonlight that shone down through the stained-glass windows above. Outside, there must have been a small wind blowing. The crooked shadows of skeletal branches waved across the floor and pews like somebody beckoning somebody, and as I sat there alone, gazing at nothing and everything, one shadow in particular seemed to come alive in the far corner of the room. It was high up, near the ceiling. First, it appeared as a sort of inkblot, separating from the deeper shadows of the ceiling. Then it moved sideways across the ceiling, developing arms and legs as it went. Many arms and legs. And many eyes. It paused once along the ceiling and turned toward me.
Apparently, I wasn’t alone.
The shadow was, in fact, three shadows. They appeared vaguely humanoid, with three sets of reddish eyes and many spiderlike limbs. They also appeared to be moving as one, with calculated, coordinated movements. Perhaps I should have been scared. Perhaps I should have fled the nave in terror.
But I didn’t. What could they do? Kill me again?
With Jacob still high in the rafters, lost in his scattered thoughts, the three shadows continued creeping sideways along the wall. Their glowing eyes, I was certain, were trained on me. Whoever—or whatever—they were, I seemed to have their undivided attention.
As they got closer, scuttling unusually along the wall like some great black insect, I was able to reach out and dip into their minds and sense who—or what—they were.
I immediately sensed great confusion and loss and fear and pain. So much pain. And flashing, distorted, murky, incomprehensible memories. Human memories.
They were human. Or were human.
What they were now, I did not know. Shadows of their former selves. Memories of their former selves, reduced now to nonsensical creatures who were completely out of their minds, having lost all memory of who they were or why they were even in the church…
No, that isn’t right.
I did sense a purpose. A single, undivided purpose that seemed somehow woven throughout their mostly fragmented memories. I looked up at the painting on the wall in front of me. The purpose had something to do with it—but what that purpose was, I did not know.
The entities crept closer.
They seemed two-dimensional, as if there were no essence to them, no depth. True shadows. Shades. They continued along the wall to my left, crawling just beneath the stained-glass windows. The bright moonlight seemed lost on them, swallowed by them.
Living black holes.
This will be you someday, I suddenly thought. Losing your mind, your memory, the very essence of who you are. Forever.
With that pleasant thought in mind, the three entities, which had worked their way along the wall directly across from me, now stopped. They seemed to be communicating with one another. Shortly, they came to some sort of an agreement, and as they did so, something unexpected happened.
Like rotting wallpaper, they peeled away from the wall and then slowly drifted out over the pews.
A demon kite, I thought, looking up at the specters drifting over me like a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade float from hell.
Now closer, I was able to dip deeper into their lost minds. And what I found there were many distorted, disturbing, chaotic images: flashes of gunfire, swirling monks’ robes, the sneering of cruel thieves, unimaginable torture. Again, all centered on the massive oil painting hanging on the far wall.
“Indeed, James,” said a female voice suddenly to my right, startling me. “They guard the painting. And they do so quite well, don’t you think?”