First and Only by Peter Flannery
Police have confirmed that the man’s body, found earlier this week in Didsbury, Manchester, showed signs of torture. They have refused to comment on the nature of the injuries and defended their lack of progress in finding the killer.
The lighting in the church was pleasantly subdued. Flames flickered through sconces of red glass and the still air carried the familiar smells of furniture polish, burning candles, incense and stone.
It was time for evening confession in the parish church of St Joseph’s. Two tradesmen worked quietly from a tower of scaffolding, fitting new lights above the statue of the Sacred Heart but apart from them the church was almost empty. Just two people waited silently in the pews. One was a woman in her sixties with her faded blue raincoat and dull grey hair; the other was an eight-year-old boy who sat in the pew with his head bowed and his hands twisting in his lap.
His name was Psimon, and he was terrified.
Every week he came to evening confession, not to confess his sins but just to speak to Father Kavanagh, the gentlest, most understanding man he had ever known. He enjoyed the game of pretending they did not know each other and the fact that the priest was bound by a sacred oath never to reveal a word of what was told to him. But tonight was different. Tonight something was going to happen; something from his dreams, from his nightmares. The church appeared serene and safe. There was nothing to portend the presence of evil but somehow Psimon knew.
Somehow Psimon always knew.
To the right of the pews were the two doors of the confessional each leading to a small rectangular room and joined by a pierced screen of polished brass. Psimon glanced up as the light above the penitent’s door went out and an elderly man emerged clutching a flat cap and a walking stick carved in the likeness of a Jack Russel terrier. He gave Psimon a smile and a conspiratorial wink before making his way to the doors at the back of the church. The light above the other door remained lit, indicating that the priest was still in residence. The grey haired woman turned to look at Psimon but he bowed his head and the woman gave a weary sigh before rising from her pew.
As the woman disappeared into the confessional Psimon looked up at the workmen. Except for them the church was now empty. There was no one else waiting to see Father Kavanagh. He drew a breath. Maybe he was wrong… maybe the old priest would be all right after all. He glanced eagerly at the confessional light. The grey haired woman would not take long, she never did. He was edging towards the end of the pew when he froze. He felt a prickling sensation across the back of his neck and an unpleasant chill surged through his body. Someone had entered the church behind him and Psimon knew that his fears were true.
His small hands gripped the pew as the stranger came closer until he could hear their heavy footfalls on the brown ceramic floor tiles. And there was something else… a noise; a confusion of whispers that sounded almost like a voice, or many voices. Psimon did not know if the whispers were coming from the stranger or just echoing within the confines of his own head. He tried not to listen. He did not like the voices. The stranger was almost level with him when the confessional door opened and the grey haired woman stepped out into the aisle. From the corner of his eye Psimon saw the woman check herself at the sight of the stranger. He noticed how she flattened herself against the wall to let the stranger pass.
Psimon’s eyes flitted fearfully to the side. He saw a tall youth with long black hair falling unkempt about his face. His posture was hunched and brooding but his broad shoulders spoke of the powerful man he would soon become. Without hesitation the stranger opened the door to the penitent’s confessional and disappeared inside. Psimon glanced at the grey haired woman who gave him a brief look of concern before hurrying away, the harsh click of her heels receding until she left the church and the main door closed with a soft percussive boom.
An ominous silence descended in which Psimon could hear his own shallow breathing. He could just hear the tradesmen atop the scaffolding talking in low respectful voices. And now he could hear the stranger’s voice… harsh, unpleasant and made all the more sinister by the incessant presence of the whispers; whispers that were almost words. He did not want to hear it but he could not shut it out.
‘Forgive me Father for I have sinned…’ the stranger said. ‘But then I told you I was going to, didn’t I?’
The stranger snorted in response to some reaction from the priest.
‘Yes. Your lost sheep has returned to confess his sins.’
There was a pause and Psimon could sense Father Kavanagh’s shock and fear.
‘So who needs a confessor now, priest? He who committed the sin or he who let it happen?’ The stranger spoke in a mocking tone, and in the background the voices whispered with dark malevolence.
Father Kavanagh did not answer but somehow Psimon could sense his breathing, heavy and laboured, and his heart, thumping, thumping… He wrapped his arms around his chest as his own body began to mirror the old priest’s anxiety.
‘You knew I’d do it, didn’t you Father?’
Still Father Kavanagh said nothing and Psimon winced, hunching forward and struggling to breathe through the pain that was crushing his chest.
‘What’s the matter priest… taken a vow of silence?’
Fighting against the pain Psimon raised his head, looking up at the workmen oblivious to what was happening.
‘He wasn’t silent when I put him to the torment.’
Psimon’s eyes grew wide. He did not know what the stranger was talking about but he knew that something terrible had happened, that the stranger had done something terrible. He was about to call to the workmen when he heard a heavy thudding sound coming from the priest’s confessional. Before he knew what he was doing he dashed across the aisle and pulled open the priest’s door. Father Kavanagh had slipped from his chair and was slumped in the corner of the small room; his hand knotted in his cassock, clutching at his chest.
‘Stop it!’ said Psimon. ‘Stop it, you’re hurting him.’
‘Who’s there?’ said the stranger and suddenly the voices ceased their whispering and coalesced into words…
‘A witness… a witness in the house of Jehovah…’
‘Father, are you all right?’ cried Psimon. ‘Father Kavanagh, please…’
‘Who the fuck is that?’ snarled the stranger.
‘No one must know…’ hissed the voices.
Psimon crouched down beside the stricken priest. He jumped at the sound of the penitent’s door flying open and he knew the stranger was coming. Pressing his face against Father Kavanagh’s chest he began to cry but when the stranger grabbed the handle and tried to open the priest’s door Psimon held it shut.
‘Open this fucking door priest,’ growled the stranger, and the whispers made his intentions terrifyingly clear…
‘Silence the witness…’
‘Cut out his tongue…’
‘Fill his mouth with dirt…’
Psimon knew that Father Kavanagh was dead. There was nothing he could do. He was just eight years old and he was utterly terrified. The stranger pulled at the door, tearing at the handle with all his animal strength but Psimon closed his eyes and held it shut. If that was all he could do then he would do it. He would hold the door shut. Keep the stranger out.
‘Silence the witness…’
‘Cut out his tongue…’
‘Fill his mouth with dirt…’
Psimon sobbed against the priest’s chest. He was losing his battle with the fear and his grip on the door was failing.
Hold the door shut…
Keep the stranger out…
The shout came from the workmen on top of the scaffolding and the assault on the door came to a sudden stop. The two men began to climb quickly down the ladder and the stranger stepped away from the door.
‘What the hell are you doing?’ they demanded as they reached the floor but the stranger was already heading towards the back of the church. ‘Stop… What’ve you done? Stop!’
The stranger started to run, racing down one aisle while the workmen gave chase down the other. Oblivious to the presence of the traumatised boy they sprinted for the main doors and the stranger fled before them.
Psimon heard the men charging through the church and, trembling with fear, he pushed himself away from the body of Father Kavanagh. He opened the confessional door and peered round the church now quiet and peaceful as if nothing had happened. With a last tearful look at his friend and confidant he left the confessional and crossed over to the sacristy where there was a side door that was always unlocked. Grasping the heavy iron ring he hauled the door open and gasped as the night air cooled the tears on his face. He was halfway through door when he heard footsteps coming back into the church. Having lost the stranger in the dark suburban streets the two workmen returned to discover the body of Father Kavanagh.
‘Christ!’ said one as they opened the door of the confessional. ‘Do you think that guy killed him?’
‘Either that or he had a heart attack trying to hold the door shut.’
‘Don’t know how he managed that… there’s no handle on this side.’
The two men looked at the brass plate on the inside of the door. There was no lock, no handle, no way of holding it shut.
Quiet as a ghost Psimon closed the sacristy door. He squeezed his eyes shut and rested his forehead against the cool thick oak. He tried to tell himself that it was over but he knew that it was not; he knew that one day he would meet the stranger again only then there would be no escape. Struggling against the fear that had engulfed his soul he tried to drive the stranger from his mind but all he could see was the vast shadow of a man and the name by which the stranger knew himself…
Psimon sank to his knees and sobbed in fearful silence.
The stranger’s name was Lucifer.