Chapter 2

The stairs to the second floor told a story. Wood, as old as the home but resurfaced at some point in the past decade. They were now scarred by scuffs, the wall with dents and black marks. A lot of people and equipment had moved along the stairs recently, heavier traffic than they had ever previously experienced. That traffic also took less care than the denizens would.

Olivier inhaled sharply as he arrived at the middle of the flight. Gaudy aftershave, two coats, one fainter than the other. A waft of anise, clove, and sage. Olivier paused, reached into his bag, and scribbled a note before slapping a yellowed parchment talisman on the wall.

He bent down to inspect a particular scuff on the top step. A heavy boot had pressed a deep crevice into the hardwood leaving a semi-circular imprint.

The second floor was brighter than the first. Blue crepe paper-colored walls, a hallway of soft yellow carpet. Clouds were painted above, a small handprint and the initials “LW” next to each tuft of billowing white.

Olivier inhaled again. New notes joined those from the stairwell. Blood, torn skin, oil and brass. Another set of notes in the moleskin. Another paper talisman prepared and attached to the door.

It hung loosely, the bottom hinge ripped from the molding and chips scattered from a hole on the right side. Elizabeth had done an impressive amount of damage to the solid Brazilian walnut door. The bolt had been removed from the jamb, but the handle remained.

Olivier whispered a silent prayer and stepped into Laura’s room.

The air surged. The walls wavered. His vision swam as he was overtaken by a powerful vertigo. He took a reflexive step back and the world ceased to lurch and shift.

He checked the talisman on the door. It was torn, with fragments smoldering on the hallway carpet. He collected the scraps, placing them in an external pocket of his satchel.

“Is everything alright?” called James from the foot of the stairs.

Olivier strode back to the stairwell and fixed the man with a stern look. “Everything’s fine. Could you get me a list of the first responders and police who came here? I’d like to ask them some additional questions. They may well tell me something about neighborhood activity that they were embarrassed to share in the wake of your tragedy.”

James nodded. “I’ll start working on that.”

Olivier watched James walk past the stairwell and heard a door open. Confident he wasn’t about to be interrupted, he turned back toward Laura’s room.

He pulled out two more talismans, deftly applied arcane calligraphy to each, and attached them on either side of the door. He closed his eyes and focused, a subtle, golden light wreathed his head as tendrils of dark flame crept up his ankles. He stepped back into the room.

Again, the walls wavered and the air surged. This time, however, it did not reach him. He took a second step. The air pushed harder but did not find purchase against him or his senses.

The walls were brightly colored, the same blue as the hallway but the carpet was more subdued, more gold than sunshine yellow. A veritable cornucopia of animals covered the walls in cartoonish murals that wrapped around three of the four walls. The east wall, the wall containing the shattered French doors to the balcony, changed theme. There, a mockup of the New York skyline was constructed out of oblong black and gray splotches highlighted by spots of yellow and white windows. Each building featured a small handprint and the initials “LW” on its roof.

The buildings were crude, not so much squares as square-ish. The edges of the buildings tended to flare at the top and tapered to a neat, geometric edge at the base. A few charcoal lines revealed the original guide that blocked out the underpinning of the skyline design. The bases also featured “EW” in an elaborate, well-practiced script. Atop the building nearest the door, Laura’s initials were incorporated into a tall stick figure that held a smaller figure in its arms.

Olivier made a mental note of this macabre portent before looking to the north wall. Archaic and extinct animals frolicked in a field. They were bight, colorful, and soft. The sabretooth tigers were fluffy, their teeth rounded. The archosaurs lie on their backs kicking their legs into the sky and smiling. Alongside each the “EW” initials were gracefully incorporated into the stalks of a flower or sun beams. The mural was reasoned in its layout. The further edges covered in trilobites and mega fauna, the inner ring dinosaurs and the center focus the ice-age mammals and Allotheria. The apex of the mural was a shining sun, casting a cheerful glow across the landscape and stretching into the ceiling.

The west wall featured more modern animals. Colorful birds covered the sky. Cats from great to small made their way up a jungle path from the door toward a clearing at the center. On the left side, wolves stalked through a forest gradually shrinking into joyful, happy dogs that cavorted with kittens in the clearing.

The south wall was more subdued in the color if its sky. Horses, flowers threaded through their manes and tails, galloped across a background of wildflowers and short trees. Butterflies and bees flitted among the flowers with playful, cartoonish smiles.

On the right side of the wall, a Dutch door was open across the top. Beyond it, a playroom complete with dollhouses, an easel, and a child-sized table ringed with stuffed animals in chairs.

Judging by the depressions in the carpet, the bed had been returned to its original location. The bed was another example of the Wilk’s taste for solid wood furniture. It was squat but wide, fitted with a queen-sized mattress. Not a traditional four poster bed, it was nested in a cocoon of curtains fitted into rails on the ceiling. Only one curtain, toward the south wall, remained hanging. A tattered array of fabric scraps and bent hooks filled the rest of the space.

Olivier took notice of all these details in a simple, deliberate counterclockwise turn. A total of five cuts scarred the walls. Two on the north, two on the west, and one on the south. The north wall cuts were deeper, more pronounced, cutting not just the wall but through to the beams and wiring beyond, exactly as Elizabeth had noted.

He inhaled again: slowly and deeply. Latex, ammonia, graphene, more of that gaudy, stringent aftershave. Rising above it all, faint but discernable, a haze of burnt ozone. He frowned. It wasn’t surprising but it was disappointing. A thread of brimstone or the awkward warmth of honeysuckle and vanilla would go a long way to figuring out who was involved.

He paused on the threshold to the fire escape and inspected the broken French doors. The glass was completely missing from the upper panes while the lower were melted out. The door itself was a thick wood like the internal doors. Bright white on the outside and black inside to match the skyline mural.

He knelt down, pulling a papyrus swab from an outer pocket of his satchel. He wiped it around the bottom edge of the molten glass. It sparked, a thin hissing sound escaping as the energy woven into the ancient paper mingled with the sample. Then, finally, it burst into a golden plume that faded in an instant.

Olivier smiled. A guardian had been involved.

He stepped out onto the fire escape. As he did so, he dropped his aura. It was a calculated risk. The girl drew significant attention and being seen, even in the faintest vestiges of his Office, would cause unnecessary complications. However, if the same energies that lingered in the room were present, he would be assaulted, possibly forced to jump from the fire escape itself.

The chaotic energy of the room was thankfully not present. The area was calm, the scent of fresh linen overrode even the smells of the park and the city beyond. The feeling of being wrapped up in a soft cloth basket was amplified by the subtle, artistic weave of the cloth strips as well as their surprising thickness.

Laura paid him no mind, staring out at the alley, the street, and the park beyond without so much as a twitch of her hair.

Olivier stepped close the girl, bent down and spoke in her ear with commanding tone. “I am Olivier, Prince of hell, General of the Host, seeker of Redemption. I stand beside you in the Name and ask that you identify yourself.” The words flowed from him, not so much a sound but a lyrical staff of gold and black scribbled into the air and transmitted as a string.

Laura stirred at this. Her legs straightened and her grip shifted from the bars to the top of the rail. She pulled herself up, turned and looked Olivier straight in the eye. Her affect remained flat, her motion less that of a girl and more of a marionette driven hastily and clumsily. Her head twitched to the left, her eyes drooped, and her tongue lolled. A guttural sob began to pour out. Tears flooded her face. Suddenly, she bolted upright as if electrocuted and a sound took shape above her head.

It grew. First in size, then in complexity. A writhing, snarling mixture of golden script and a lyrical staff that erupted in a chorus. The walls shook and the bulbs of the flood lights popped. The fire escape rattled as the sound reverberated between the buildings and crept through the iron stairs. Then, silence. A distant car alarm spilled into the silence and then the rest of the sounds of the city and street returned.

Laura turned away from Olivier and resumed her vigil.

Olivier stepped back and turned to the French doors as James ran into the room.

“What was that?” James was shaking, his arms raised defensively.

Olivier addressed the man as one would a puppy. “Mr. Wilks, return to the parlor and wait for my return. I will have questions for you and Mrs. Wilks.” He looked to Laura then back to James. “I’ll also provide an explanation. Please, sir.”

James took a step back to the door, the talismans catching his eye and he took another step back.

Olivier kept his tone even. “Yes, I’ll explain that as well. To the parlor, Mr. Wilks.”

James turned and walked away.

Olivier waited until the sound of footsteps on the stairs had ceased. He moved to Laura’s side and whispered his gold on black script into her ear. “I will find answers.”

He stepped back to the threshold, focused and adopted his aura to cross through the bedroom. He looked around, studying the details he had noted on the way in. Then he saw it, a single change. The building next to the door now featured another figure. It was not attached to the building but hovering to the side about a quarter of the way up. It was difficult to make out exactly what was intended. At a glance it seemed as if the arms were drawn hastily, outstretched as if falling, but there was another set pointing straight down, as were the legs. It was clear to Olivier this was a crude child’s rendition of an angel. What wasn’t clear was whether the figure was rising in flight or falling.

Olivier stepped into the hallway and checked the talismans along the door. They remained unchanged. He took out his notebook and wrote down the pertinent details of his observations, timing his notation to finish as he reentered the parlor.

James stood in the entryway, pensive. “Explanations Mr. Kelley, now.” He pointed emphatically at the couch Olivier had been sitting on before.

Olivier nodded and took a seat. “Please, Mr. Wilks, sit, or get a drink. Whatever you need to keep it together. I have a few more questions.”

James tensed, blood rushing to his head.

Olivier held up a hand. “So I know where to start with the explanation, please, Mr. Wilks.”

James fumed but made his way to the hearth and a waiting glass of port resting on the mantle.

Olivier cleared his throat and opened his notebook. “I noted a lack of religious iconography in your home. No personal talismans or jewelry on either of you, as well. Do you have a background with any religion or neighbors that have perhaps shared religious experiences?”

Elizabeth sat up, fully attentive for the first time. “James was raised Catholic but hadn’t seen the inside of a cathedral since his Confirmation. My family is culturally Jewish Armenian, but I’d not considered the faith of my people. That is, until I became pregnant with Laura.”

James refreshed his port and Elizabeth’s wine. He paced self-consciously as she continued.

“I was sixty-one at the time. A few abortions in the late 70s. Not all of them with the benefit of medical staff. When it came time to want children, I was told there was irrevocable damage.” She took a drink and gestured for another cigarette.

Olivier pulled a lighter from his bag. “Yours was compromised a bit earlier, here.” He lit her cigarette and James finally sat down.

Elizabeth took a short drag inhaling through her nostrils, comforted by the smell more than the nicotine. “We gave up the though of children as we passed through our 40s. Adoption was considered but we were busy with careers. It never felt like a priority. Then one day I visited my GP with a shortness of breath, dizzy spells and was told I was with child. Laura is our little miracle baby…” Elizabeth drifted off in a jagged sob and curled up on the couch once more.

James held a weak smile for his wife’s benefit, sighed, and continued, “I returned to my childhood parish. I’ve lived in Georgetown almost my whole life, save a few years of travel and college. I was excited to have a child in my life and drawn to give her the same traditions I had grown up with.”

Olivier took diligent, rapid notes throughout the explanation but snapped the notebook closed suddenly. “Mr. Wilks, I asked you for a list of names earlier. I’ll still need that, but I assume that the priest of your childhood parish is one of the people on there?”

James nodded. “Father O’Hugh. He was my second call after the police and emergency services had come and gone.”

Olivier reopened his notes. “Laura turned seven how long ago?”

James looked at a calendar by the door and mouthed numbers as he counted. “Her birthday was in September, so nearly two months now.”

Olivier pressed the point, “Reuniting with your traditions, you had her baptized shortly after birth?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Did she take her first communion or complete her Confirmation?”

James looked to Elizabeth. She shook her head. James pounded his leg with a fist. “I wanted to be present for that. We didn’t attend church, but we donated time and money to their social efforts. I worked a few weekends on charity fundraisers and the like to get O’Hugh to agree to let us have the ceremony. He would have preferred Elizabeth convert and that I renew my own communion, but we didn’t see the point. As excited as we were for our child, we wanted the cultural milestone, we didn’t…” he paused and looked to Elizabeth again, “We aren’t people of faith.”

Olivier filled in the blanks, “You were called away for business a few times, missed the day, rescheduled, and then missed it again. Did this lead to an ultimatum from Father O’Hugh?”

James shook his head. “Not as such. He called me while I was in New York last, told me that I was doing a disservice to the Church, wearing his patience thin. But mostly he said I was risking Laura’s soul to leave her unsealed so long after the Age of Reason.” He stood, jabbing a finger in Olivier’s face. “You. Are you telling me that my daughter is, what? Possessed? That the devil came for her because of this? What kind of psychologist would believe any of that!”

Olivier remained still, subtly covering his notes with one arm as he met James’ trembling gaze. He took a breath and forced a languid quality into his voice, a sound shaped by hours in a library, pages turned and aging in grand halls of learning. “Mr. Wilks, I am not here to accuse you or to create questions. When a child faces trauma like your daughter has, they regress into iconography, symbols, broad feelings of comfort and stability. There need not be anything more real behind your Catholic heritage than there needs be behind the notion that the full moon causes lycanthropy. What is important is that Laura be introduced to symbols and be able to draw upon them. If she were speaking in Portuguese or drawing Senegalese Yoruba on the wall, that would be of concern.”

James sat down, his hands and legs trembling. “I just need answers, Mr. Kelley. We can’t keep going like this.”

Olivier tapped his notes for emphasis. “I’m getting a clearer picture. If you would stay with me a bit long, I have a few more questions.”

James nodded.

“Now then,” Olivier started, “the paintings and murals upstairs. From the initials, I assume that Laura participated in the work but that you, Mrs. Wilks, are the primary artist?”

Elizabeth remained fetal on the couch, her voice a patchwork of croaks and sobs, “Does it matter? Does it help Laura?”

Olivier offered James a warm smile. “I ask because any information will narrow down the options and help me find answers faster. Why don’t I ask my other question to James while you collect yourself. A few minutes of your time and then I’ll be gone. For now. I’ll return once I’ve followed up some leads, but I am confident Laura has a strong chance of recovery.” He considered pushing an emotion into the space but balked. It was so much to ask of them after his initial offer of hope, he couldn’t tip the scale any further.

Elizabeth unwound from the couch and stood shakily. James moved to steady her. She clung to her husband and sobbed. “James, give me a moment to collect myself. Make us some coffee.” She stepped past him, moving beyond the stairs and further west into the house to a small washroom opposite the kitchen.

James watched her go, his thin mask of bravery cracking even before she closed the door. “If you’ll join me in the kitchen, Mr. Kelley? I’ll answer any questions while I prepare something.”

The kitchen, unlike the parlor, was decorated in a modern, minimalist style. Black tiles ringed the cooking surfaces and set-off the eggshell walls. The appliances were high-end, polished silver metals gleamed from the range to the fridge to the dishwasher. Despite the décor, the kitchen was original to the house and featured a dumbwaiter in one corner. It was sealed with a heavy brass padlock. “Just Oliver is fine. Now, the east wall is quite different from the other parts of the mural and the hallway. Whose idea was that?” Oliver held his notebook ready, displaying rapt, but courteous, attention.

James opened a cupboard and pulled out a small bag of coffee beans. A simple brown bag, the logo featured a rustic, stone-aged shovel standing in soil that had produced a small sapling. Above the shovel’s handle the name of the brand, Adamah, beneath the soil the same in Hebrew script. James scooped beans into a grinder and noted Olivier’s interest. “A gift from some uncle of Elizabeth’s. Single source Ethiopian. Not Fairtrade, I’m afraid.”

Olivier shook his head. “I’ve a passing familiarity with the brand. Anyway, the mural?”

James held up one hand while the burr grinder whirred away. He scooped the fresh grounds into restaurant-grade espresso machine. “It was Laura’s idea, but it was my influence overall.” He turned on the machine and spoke in bursts as he fetched cups, sugar cubes, cream, and chocolates which he arranged on a vintage silver tray. “Elizabeth bonded with Laura instantly, as tends to happen. I took on some big contracts during the pregnancy, hoping to shore up the finances.” He sighed. “I know, WASP problems, but I didn’t come from money like Elizabeth did and I wanted to avoid feeling… lesser? The gifts that were rolling in from her extended family. A litany of cousins and aunts and uncles showering us with gifts. I missed the birth. I was in Seattle approving plans for a housing development.”

He steamed milk in a silver carafe, using the steam as an excuse to wipe tears from his face. “When I returned, I swore I would always be there for her. That was part of why I came back early from that last trip…” His hand shook from the thought nearly sloshing the hot milk. He took three breaths, steadying himself. “It’s fine, Oliver. I know. There was nothing I could have done. Anyway,” He put the carafe on the try and started pulling shots from the machine, arranging them in a tight circle at the center of the tray, “I went overboard trying to make up for that lost time. I didn’t exactly have child-rearing in mind at this stage of life, I don’t know how to be warm or silly. All I know is my work, so I would sit with her and read from an architectural text or magazine. Explaining the angles of the buildings. The supports. The importance of light and space. Anything to just spend time with her. She would often fall asleep early on and I would hold her and finish the chapter or the article, hoping my voice and intent would get through.”

He picked up the tray. “Elizabeth, we’re set here.” He nodded to Olivier and returned to the parlor. He set the tray on the end table next to his customary couch. “Please, sit, I’ll serve once Elizabeth is out. When we repainted the nursery, transforming it into a proper bedroom, we asked Laura what she wanted. She was obsessed with animals; we frequented the zoo and the aquarium often. She surprised me by asking for one wall to be about buildings. ‘I want a daddy wall’ she said.”

The washroom door opened, and Elizabeth came out. She had washed her face and put her hair up into a tight bun. Her blouse was straight and tucked. She was every bit the picture of New England old money that the house presented. She moved the pillows from the arm of her couch and rearranged them along the back before sitting down. She gave James a curt nod and then fixed Olivier with an inviting smile. “How do you take your coffee?”

Olivier took a moment to answer, weighing their pain against the veneer of normality they presented. “Americano, with a touch of milk, just enough to cut the acid,” he said.

James started preparing the coffees, pouring milk, water, and espresso shots with a practiced hand. There was a slight smile in Elizabeth, the comfort of the ritual, the admiration of her husband’s engineering proclivities. “Worried about ulcers, Mr. Kelley?”

Olivier smiled, sheepishly, “Just, Oliver, please. Yes, can’t be too careful in my line of work.”

Elizabeth nodded. “You deal with this type of thing often?”

Olivier sat took the finalized cup from James and sat back. “He didn’t need to care about such mundane problems as ulcers, headaches, or aches but it was important to allow the Wilks to offer their own form of empathy and succor. Humans are far better at helping with pain than enduring it. “Almost exclusively. This is not to say that there’s anything routine or banal about what is happening to Laura. I don’t treat this as a statistic, but, if it helps, know that I’ve dealt with similar situations many times.”

Elizabeth took her own coffee and sipped it. “Wonderful, James, as always.” Then, to Olivier, “Next you’ll say you’ve never lost a patient or had a case end badly.” Her lips curled with disgust, creasing well-worn lines. She’d dealt with toxic positivity and being oversold before. Still, her eyes watered as she said it, she was near a breaking point.

Olivier exhaled slowly, a mixture of fire, cascading darkness, heat, and thousands of years of loss all fell out, unbidden. “No. I would never say that. No false hope, no lies of convenience.” He sipped his coffee. The taste had a wistful quality, one that carried memories of a world abandoned long ago. “I won’t give you numbers or offer percentages and chances. I have been through this kind of thing; I know what to look for and how to act. If I find the right information, I can alleviate the issue. If I can’t find the answers, the case becomes terminal quickly.” He watched a grim mask descend on each parent. “As it stands, I have some answers and further questions. We’ve not hit a stall yet. Please, tell me about the art on the walls of Laura’s bedroom and any discussion you had with her while creating them.”

Elizabeth drained her coffee and handed it to James who set about fixing her a second cup. “Only one more, dear.” She closed her eyes, reminiscing. “I painted the first mural while the room was being prepared as a nursery. Five months pregnant, glowing with pride, beaming with each stroke.” She tilted her head up and stroked her left arm from elbow to wrist. “The walls depicted seasons while also illustrating separate biomes and epochs of earth. Spring was the morning, an ocean carrying little more than plants and Protista. That was later covered by the cityscape. Next was summer, day, plains filled with prehistoric animals. The jungle represented modern animals and the evening. The south wall contained night, winter, and mountains. The animals here gave way to some flights of fancy, mystical creatures from folklore. Aside from the city, that was the wall that underwent the most change.” Elizabeth opened her eyes and cocked her head at James. “It’s strange, the older Laura got the more she disliked the fantasy elements. She still liked the animals cartoonish, simple, safe. But she wanted them to be real. The unicorn and Pegasus became simple horses, though they kept their flowery manes. The rocs and phoenix morphed into parrots. Colorful but mundane.”

Olivier took notes throughout her explanation, deftly resting his coffee in one hand and writing with the other. “What is your background in art, Elizabeth?”

“I was introduced to art by my own mother, classically trained and tutored in Greece before attending undergrad at the Yale School of Art and graduate work at the Sorbonne. Originally, I studied the Pre-Raphaelites but later emphasized Medieval Christian art. I’ve worked as a curator, restorer, and gallery coordinator. My own art, while sufficient, never had enough of a spark to be more than a pastime.” This last statement uttered rapidly, a bitter litany that she’d perhaps repeated too often, even if seldom out loud.

Olivier drank deeply of his coffee, not to finish but to give the room space. James, darting between his wife and the visitor, looking for someplace to insert his own guilt. Elizabeth looking for someone to change her past but unwilling to sacrifice the present. He soaked in the ambiance of the parlor, the way it lacked any evidence of the child upstairs. These were walled-off people. They held quick and fast to their categories of work, home, and child to the point that none were allowed to overlap with the others. “Laura broke the rules, here, didn’t she?”

A stunned, quizzical silence from both. Elizabeth tried to speak but shrank. James stared into the fire to avoid eye contact.

Olivier continued, “She embraced your work lives –art and architecture. She mixed the past with the present; she was migrating out of the space you kept her in.”

Another voiceless protest from Elizabeth.

“The clouds spilled out from her own room and into the hallway, the carpet was changed to accommodate her. But she almost fell down the stairs and you panicked, sealed her up. The psychologist was called then. Behavioral problems, medications that didn’t need to be. Then she was quiet, and your world returned to normal. To a sense of safety that protected you.” Olivier shook his head. “You doubted your art but every time you entered her room, she wanted you to make something new, to express yourself more earnestly.” Then to James, “And you, she wanted you to be a part of her mother’s work. To show that you belong in this world, that her old-world money didn’t make you lesser in the relationship. In every conceivable way, she made you whole.”

Olivier stood. “I have what I need to begin. It would be best if you kept to the house, didn’t invite in any more experts, police, and spiritual leaders. Especially whoever did that appalling smudging in the stairwell and Laura’s room.”

Elizabeth, struggling to speak broke free. “What?” she addressed James, coldly.

James looked at Elizabeth, sheepishly. “She came by the second day. You were in your room, zonked from whatever Dr. Stallings gave you. She said it would help release the bad energy. Clear the channels so Laura’s spirit could return to her body.”

Elizabeth slammed her coffee cup onto the floor. “You let my sister into this house?”

James was on his feet, moving behind the couch and pressing himself into the wall, hands raised. “I don’t know! She wanted to help. We NEEDED help, Liz. Christ. We still need help.”

Elizabeth stalked past Olivier and ascended the stairs. “See out our hope-bringer and clean that up, James. Don’t let my rug stain.” Her footsteps echoed as she took the second flight up and then thundered as she stomped into her rooms overhead.

Olivier put his cup on the tray and stowed his notebook in his bag. “I’ll need that list of visitors. And the name of this sister, which I assume you intentionally left off the list to avoid this exact circumstance.”

James nodded, scribbled the name on the back of the list he’d printed in the study before and handed it over. “Why? Why did you bring that up?”

Olivier took the paper and stashed it in an outer pocket. He walked to the entryway and picked up his coat. “It was important that you both understand what keeping things from me can cost your family. Anything you don’t tell me risks your daughter’s life. When I come back, I expect this lesson will be remembered.” He opened the door and walked out.

Chapter 1

“Fuck me!”

The outburst startled a middle-aged man in a short, plaid coat. He looked up toward the sound and then immediately down to the sidewalk. After a moment he looked up again then spun in a slow semi-circle searching the horizon for cameras, police, bystanders, anything to explain the situation in which he found himself.

The voice propositioned him at every turn. “Yeah, up here, you wanna fuck me real good. Just come on up and whip it out.”

The man looked up again, locking eyes with the demure, waif-like girl who called to him. Wispy blonde hair and bright, glassy green eyes. She sat motionless on the fire escape adjoining the second floor of a three-story midcentury townhome. The house itself occupied the middle section of the block, bordered on the right by a nearly identical home and on the left by a field wreathed in ivy and hedges. Beyond that, another townhome marked the far-left edge of the block. Behind it, another row of houses, elevated as the blocks ascended to a peak some five streets beyond. Narrow alleys separated the houses from each other. They contained a fire escape of wrought iron steps and small balconies winding down from the third story to the second with a spring-loaded ladder connecting the second floor to the ground.

The second-floor escape was wrapped entirely in cloth. It resembled, depending on the angle, either a padded cell or an Easter basket. Bright pastel pink blankets, more subdued blues and green towels, and the fluttering remnants of white sheets wound about the bars. Her legs were pushed through the bars, chubby about the ankle and the arch of the foot. Her right knee was scuffed. The legs were bare but even in the shadows of the escape, it was clear she wore a dressing gown pulled up and pressed into the bars.

The man backed away, casting nervous glances behind and above until he got to the left corner and bolted up the street.

Despite the graphic taunts she cast, she presented a flat affect. Her words carried a variety of pitches and intonations, adding a hyperactive, almost gleeful quality to her words. However, she remained stiff, almost inanimate, while speaking. Her legs didn’t so much as sway in hours. Her hand held tightly to the bars in a grip that left her knuckles white and her thumbs red.

Olivier sat on a small bench in the park across the street. Late 30s, average height and build, his wavy hair was brown but could appear reddish in the right light. He wore a blue t-shirt under a black dress shirt and matching dark-colored jeans. The t-shirt hung loose with the words ‘free the’ visible. He wiggled his worn sneakers in the grass. It was early spring and the grass was overgrown, waiting for that first cut to mark the emerging season. He made notes to himself in a tattered moleskin. Like many behaviors, writing notes was an affectation learned through centuries of scrutiny. “Subject: Laura Wilks. Seven years old. Blonde hair, green eyes.”

Hanging on the back of the bench, Guriel nodded emphatically. A tow-headed scamp with ruddy, cherubic cheeks and a twisted nose. His short pants were ragged from wear and his thick corduroy coat was smeared with grease and dirt. “It’s like I told ya, Ollie. She’s been up there for weeks yelling at anybody who comes by. She don’t eat or sleep. Just sits there all day and night yelling shit at people.”

Olivier cringed, “What’s with the Oliver Twist accent? You’re in New England, not England England. Do people not question you?”

Guriel pulled himself up and over the bench, flopping and rolling to the grass on the other side. “It’s all part of a schtick. Not like most people listen to me. I claim to be from Boston and they let it go. Look, I’ll do my thing, you do yours.”

“Anything else you can tell me?”

“String of experts gone through. Doctors, psychiatrists, I saw a news van but that didn’t go anywhere. Can’t report on a kid yelling obscenities on broadcast networks. Small community, probably kept the Internet away, sir.”

Olivier chuckled. “That would be Ireul. She’s been redirecting traffic.” He sighed and looked at his watch. “I’ve got to consider my approach carefully.”

Guriel scraped grass off his filthy coat and stomped his feet as if he were cold. “You’re the boss. I know it’s weird but why bother poking into it?”

Olivier opened the moleskin and made another note. “It smells off. A few days of aberrant behavior we can point to trauma. Weeks? This has supernatural written all over it.”

Guriel shrugged, “I dunno. It’s weird, sure, but I don’t feel anything in particular.”

“That’s just it. Nobody has done anything about it. A nefarious agent would be stoking the misery. The Host would be cleaning it up. I’ve not heard any chatter either way. Even as the Angel of Orphans and Whelps you’re barely picking up anything.”

Guriel shrugged again. “I’ve got a thousand new cases a day. I kick the weird stuff up to management. So, manage.”

“I’ll take it from here. If I need anything else, I’ll find you later. Best to keep the loop small, though, right?”

“I get ya.” Guriel slapped the back of the bench and waved as he departed.

Olivier remained nearly motionless on the bench for much of the day, observing the foul-mouthed girl and the reactions she garnered. Several times, her parents answered the door to offer apologies to outraged pedestrians. As the sun descended beyond the horizon of Georgetown, Olivier stood from the park bench, shouldered his satchel, and made his approach.

“Hey you! You need some? Only thirty a pop. I work cheap but I do quality. Come on, it’s okay to look. Yeah, up here. Seriously, buddy. Thirty-seven and I’ll touch it, stroke it, stick it wherever you want. Thirty-seven for thirty. Just come into the alley and pony up.”

Olivier crossed to the door of the townhome and knocked on the door. He notated the interaction, word for word as he waited. The door cracked and he stepped back, fully aware that the exhausted parents would be more comfortable if they didn’t feel crowded in their own home.

An older man opened the door. Once trimmed eyebrows growing unruly, face pallid and eyes puffy. He stood behind the door, regarding Olivier through a crack only wide enough to extend a hand through. He was missing a button from his green knit vest. “Yes?” he inquired with a sense of longing.

Olivier offered a card. “I’m sorry to bother you, Mr. Wilks. I’m a psychologist, Oliver Kelley. I heard about your daughter and wish to offer my services.”

Mr. Wilks took the card with trembling fingers and held to the door like an anchor. “I… don’t know. We’ve… we’ve already had several doctors in. I don’t think…” He gave up and pulled the door open, gesturing Olivier in.

The sitting room was immaculate, midcentury décor with reds and golds setting off the exposed beams and hardwood flooring. An 18th-century Tabriz rug acted as a centerpiece for the décor. It was in impressive shape, faded along one corner but well-preserved. Diffuse track lighting bathed the walls in an inviting, almost candlelit glow while protecting the piece from damage. It was bordered on three sides by short sofas, offering little more space than two adults would occupy. On the north wall, a gas fire burned behind tinted glass.

Mr. Wilks pointed to the couch opposite the fire, nearest the worn elements of the rug. “Please, sit and have your say.”

“Thank you. I know this is an imposition in a trying time. I’ll explain my interest, and my qualifications shortly.” Olivier removed his suede coat and handed it to Mr. Wilks before sitting.

Mrs. Wilks lolled sleepily against the arm of the couch to his right. She wore pearls, her hair in a bedraggled bun. A tight cinched blouse, buttoned to the collar, was partially untucked and her skirt had ridden up to reveal knicks and tears in her dark stockings. Her left ankle was bandaged, and her toes were bound by a cast. She held a partially full wine glass in one hand and a smoldering cigarette in the other. She sneered, “Stop letting them in James. I can’t take it anymore.”

James hung the coat on a startlingly bare rack in a recess near the door. Tufts of fur and feathers on the floor the only indicators that the rack had ever been used. He turned back to Olivier and strode to the couch bordering the inner wall. “Elizabeth, please! I apologize for my wife, it’s… been—”

Olivier cut him off. “No need. I understand.” Then, to Elizabeth, “I apologize for intruding. I’m certain you’re at wits-end with experts and promises of hope.” He allowed a touch of sorrow into his voice. A sense of time spent at sea and the grim tedium of walking through an endless desert. “Hope is important. However, it is far more important to understand. I can’t promise it will be alright, but I can promise I will find out what has happened to your daughter.”

Anger bled from Elizabeth’s eyes and her jaw loosened. Tears welled up and started to slowly flow. She placed her wineglass on a rich oak end table and took a long drag on her cigarette, nearly extinguishing it. “I was ready to smash you in the face with that glass. Shriek and send you out the door bleeding.” She stubbed out the cigarette and gestured for another. James picked up a silver case from his own end table and handed it to her. “Yes, James, I said that was the last one, but…”

James shook his head and retrieved a silver Zippo. “I understand.”

Olivier breathed in the lingering smoke and let it drift through him as the fire flared and new smoke rose to join it. He tapped his pen on his knee. “Please, start from the beginning and tell me what’s happened.”

James threw the lighter at the fireplace and collapsed into the sofa. “You don’t even know what’s happening and you say you understand? You have answers when you don’t even have questions!”

Olivier glanced to the weeping Elizabeth and back to the trembling James. He pushed the thought of a winter morning warming with the rising sun into his eyes and offered a small smile. “I was told some details when the case was referred to me. I don’t like to let secondhand accounts color my judgment. Please, in your words, explain when this started. What you noticed. How you felt.”

James retrieved the lighter and remained standing at the hearth in silence.

It was Elizabeth who finally spoke. “It was the last weekend in February. James was wrapping up a project at work, plans for an office building in New York City. I put Laura to bed and came downstairs. We finished book club, and I sent the ladies home.” She picked up her wineglass, scrutinized the legs running down the sides, and placed it back down. “I wasn’t expecting James to be back until Monday morning. I woke suddenly when I heard a noise of glass shattering.”

James kicked at the glass of the fireplace absently, his hands gripped tight around the lighter. “My flight was early. I came back in the early hours of Sunday morning. Four or maybe five.”

Elizabeth took another drag. “It was four thirty-seven exactly.” She turned to Olivier and offered a weak smile. “I checked with the cab company.”

Olivier nodded. “Details like that are important, thank you.” He made a flurry of quick, exacting notes. “Please, continue.”

Elizabeth’s smile faded. She took a breath. “I ran downstairs as soon as I heard the glass break. It was from Laura’s room. The door was stuck.” She gestured to her foot. “I kicked it in, but it wouldn’t budge.”

James pounded the mantle piece. “I was just outside. I could hear the sounds as Elizabeth kicked the door. I wanted to run to the door, but Laura was out on the balcony. She was struggling, screaming. It looked like she was being pulled or carried but I didn’t see anyone. It was dark, the floodlights across the alley weren’t on.” He gripped the lighter harder, hard enough the cap flew off.

Elizabeth winced as the cap clattered to the stone and then under the couch. “James… calm down.” She addressed Olivier directly, “Our neighbor, Mr. Arnold Carmine swears the lights were in good repair. We’ve tested them several times since.”

Olivier made further notes, his rhythmic scratching invoking the practiced surety of a composer jotting down notes to a score. “Continue,” he said at length.

James continued, “There were no lights, no moon. I couldn’t see who had Laura. I only saw her being carried along. Her feet weren’t touching the ground but were kicking, she was punching at the attacker, but her eyes were closed.”

Elizabeth picked up the thread, “I got the door open then. I sprained my ankle and broke two toes. I couldn’t tell when that happened. The door was held so tight then it just came open. I rushed inside.” Her breathing was uneven and she sniffled as she spoke, years of training in decorum the only thing keeping her from bawling and smearing her makeup in her hands.

Olivier held up a hand. “Please, Mrs. Wilks. Finish your wine. Take a moment.” He stood and crossed to James at the fireplace. “If I may?” he gestured to the Zippo oozing lighter fluid down James’ arm.

James handed over the broken Zippo.

Olivier took it and led James to the couch opposite Elizabeth. “You should have a drink as well. But before that, finish with your account.”

James blinked through his own tears and huffed. “I went into the alley and tried to block their escape. The ladder didn’t move and I didn’t hear anyone heading up but they must have gone to the roof because they dropped Laura and were gone.”

Olivier poured a glass of port from the bar behind the couch he had been sitting in. “I assume you checked the alley for footprints, signs of entry?” He handed the glass to James.

James took it, nodding. “I lapped the block three times looking for anything.”

Elizabeth placed her empty wineglass on the end table and moved to stand. Olivier waved her back down and fetched the open bottle from the bar. “Alright. Now, Mrs. Wilks. What did you see when you came into the room?”

She took the wine and settled into the arm of the couch. “The room was a mess. The bed was flipped over. There were gashes in the walls. Gashes! Not just the wallpaper! Beams and wiring were cut and broken. The glass of her balcony doors was melted into the frame where it wasn’t broken.”

Olivier returned to his seat and took another set of notes. “And how was Laura after the attacker fled?”

James steadied his glass with both hands and took a long sip. “Elizabeth tried to pull her in but she screamed and struggled. She refused to come inside.” He pointed to his bruised cheek and pushed his hair aside to show a bandage on his left ear. “She punched me when I tried to pick her up, damn near tore my ear off.”

Elizabeth drained her glass and held it loosely in front of her, staring at Olivier through the tinted crystal. “I didn’t try to touch her after she attacked James. Two firemen were hospitalized. As long as nobody touches her, she just sits there calling out her horrible vulgarities. Trauma they say.”

Olivier made a show of looking over his notes, turned back two pages, and then forward again. “The cloth tied around the fire escape?”

James shook his head. “Every blanket, sheet, and towel, all of her clothes aside from the dressing gown she was wearing. In the first day, while we were still filing reports, she would just have them in her hands, tearing them up and wrapping the escape. Nobody saw her collect them.”

Elizabeth dropped her glass and wept openly. “By the second day, she was done moving. She’s just sat there. Sat there for weeks yelling obscenities.”

Olivier picked up the glass and offered a handkerchief to Elizabeth. “With your permission, I would like to check Laura’s room, maybe ask her some questions?”

James nodded and stood. “I’ll show you the way.”

Olivier grabbed James’ shoulder. “Tend to your wife. I’ll be back down in a few minutes.”