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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *