An older, stocky man opened the front door. “Dr. Elliott, I presume?”
Elliott offered a small, formal smile and a limp handshake. “Sure. Father, doctor, whichever you feel comfortable with, Mr. DeLuca.”
“I feel much more comfortable with you here now, father.”
Elliott had trained his senses to pick up on minute, ephemeral details. Was Daniel DeLuca a bit too enthusiastic? Did his smile match the reflex-crinkle of his eyes? Was his handshake firm, too firm, or phoned in?
DeLuca nodded crisply, though no one had said anything. “It’s so good that you’re here.”
He went in for a hug. Elliott chose to dodge nimbly around his other side, as if he had mistaken the gesture. Families under stress were more inclined to be physical with strangers, seeking the comfort denied them in their own home. Elliott tried to avoid undue familiarity whenever possible.
DeLuca took his coat, hanging it up on a coat rack that also held a white woman’s duffle and a brightly-colored child’s parka. The parka had a light layer of dust on it.
The front hall was sparse in both furniture and decor. There were a few nonthreatening landscape paintings, the customary bowl of random wicker balls on a table, but nothing besides that. No clutter. Few human touches.
DeLuca had come to stand just a little too close to his right flank.
“Father Corsey tells me you were a newspaper editor?” Elliott said politely, using pretext of turning to face DeLuca to put some distance between them.
DeLuca nodded. “The old St. Louis Spirit. Deader than disco now. They have an online component manned by a skeleton staff.” He leaned forward, negating the distance Elliott had bartered. “Right around my severance was when the troubles started.”
DeLuca’s face changed from an excess of enthusiasm to sorrow so quickly it was almost farcical.
“Fiona was very…affected by the change,” he related in a whisper. “To see her father fall from primary breadwinner of the household must have been quite a blow to her delicate constitution.”
Elliott made a note on his mental notepad and then underlined it. “So around….”
“Four months ago. It’s been horrible.” DeLuca seized Elliott’s hand in his own, suddenly clammy grip. “She won’t even let me touch her anymore. She won’t eat. She says such…horrible things.”
Elliott cleared his throat. “Well, the diocese has sent me here to evaluate your situation, to see that an exorcism is indeed the best course. We do not make these decisions lightly, Mr. DeLuca—”
“—and only advise it as a last resort.”
For a few moments, there was only the barely-audible rasp of Mr. DeLuca’s breathing. He smiled with glazed eyes.
“Once you meet Fiona,” he said, “I am sure you will advise the best course.”
As they struggled up the narrow staircase, Elliott saw a woman flit ghostlike down the end of the hall. DeLuca stopped just before the top of the stairs, his back a solid white square like a limestone block.
“Margerie,” he said under his breath. Then, in a louder voice, “he’s here now. Get back to your room.”
Elliott swiped his tongue along the bottom right corner of his mouth. “Your wife?”
DeLuca made a dismissive motion with his hand. “She’s not taking it well, either. Possession is hardest on the mother. Maternal instinct demands you bend to the child’s demands, but giving the demon what it wants only serves to prolong the possession.”
Elliott sifted the statement, storing certain parts in their own bins. “So, is your wife providing primary care to your daughter?”
DeLuca chuckled low, shaking his head. “She’d give her the moon if I let her. No, the only one with a key to Fiona’s room is me.” He held up a brass key from the lanyard on his neck.
Elliott frowned thoughtfully. Something he had picked up on during the course of their walk was the lack of church memorabilia. Usually families stocked up on crosses, Christ figures, anything they could. DeLuca’s key hung where a crucifix normally would be. He held off on remarking on this.
“Could I see her, please?” he asked, “I would like an interview, if that’s okay.”
DeLuca took the key from his neck and twirled it on his finger. “Ask and ye shall receive.”
He stuck the key in the knob and turned it slowly, keeping eye contact with Elliott the entire time. As the door swung open, a draft played around their ankles.
The lack of memorabilia in the rest of the house was compensated for. In spades. Someone had scratched crosses into the wall, gouging them deeply into the plaster in a variety of sizes and lengths. Someone else had sloshed a bucket of white paint over them, sloppily, so that the room still smelled of latex and acrylic.
The sole piece of furniture was a bed pushed against the wall. Leather restraints, the kind used in mental institutions, crowned each bedpost. A slip of a girl lay in the middle of the bed, limbs stretched to meet each restraint. Her hair was greasy and her pale limbs covered with scratches. She wore a white, stained shift and a rosy gold crucifix hung around her neck.
All in all, Elliott mused, a picture straight out of Hollywood.
The girl on the bed stirred, flesh of her throat flexing. Her eyes rolled down to display the whites above her iris, much like a startled horse.
Elliott turned and found DeLuca looming in the doorway like a disproving stormcloud.
“I would like to conduct the interview alone, if it’s at all possible.” Elliott said.
DeLuca didn’t move. His gaze was pinned to the girl on the bed.
“Please,” Elliott said, lightly pushing his chest.
DeLuca backed out of the room, still facing the bed. He left the door ajar. Elliott gently pushed it closed.
The girl on the bed lay perfectly still as he approached, putting him in mind of a fawn trying to look like dappled sunlight on leaves. There was no chair, so he crouched by her side.
“You’re Fiona?” he asked.
The girl swallowed, nodding gently.
“Can I ask you some questions?”
Her eyes strayed to the door. He nodded without following her eyes.
“We can talk quietly, if you like,” he whispered. “Have you seen a doctor recently, Fiona?”
Elliott motioned to her scratches. “Did you do this to yourself?”
Another headhsake. “He did this.” her voice was like the flutter of a moth’s wing.
“The demon. He comes to me at night.”
Elliott nodded, tentatively turning her wrist in his hand. There were lacerations from the restraint, some old enough to be scars, some fresh and red.
“When did this…demon manifest itself?”
“When did you first notice it?”
“When daddy got fired.” Her eyes flicked to the door again. “He showed up. It left a space for him to squeeze through.”
Elliott frowned. She hadn’t said anything about her crucifix. Usually, even the people undergoing a mental collapse in the guise of religious mania discarded the cross.
“Who made these scratches on your wall, Fiona?”
“And who gave you that lovely necklace?”
Fiona said something under her breath. Elliott leaned closer.
“Don’t let him know you can hear me,” she murmured. “He made mom tie me down.”
Elliott rubbed her arm, mindful of her scratches. “I’m going to try to get you some help, okay Fiona?”
Fiona blinked. She did not seem especially sad or happy to hear the news. She seemed as if all the energy had been drained from her, through some monumental effort. Elliott clasped her hand.
“I will be back,” he promised, “with more men like me. You will get help.”
Fiona blinked. Her eyes were the clear blue-green of thick bottle glass. “That’s what he wants,” she whispered.
Elliott rose, knees creaking. He shot one last look at Fiona before he opened the door. Her eyes had risen heavenward, or perhaps only ceilingward.
Elliott slowly turned the knob, mindful of a series of creaks suddenly starting at the door and ending at the hall. DeLuca stood at the stairs as if he had always been there.
Fiona’s mother poked her head out a side door. Her eyes carried such heavy bags they looked bruised. The marks on her neck were not bags, however. They were purple-green and clearly finger-shaped. DeLuca shifted on his feet and the woman darted, shutting the door behind her.
Elliott did not disguise the fact that he saw her. “I’d like to speak to the girl’s mother, as well.”
DeLuca shook his head. “No use. She’s too close. Wouldn’t provide anything useful.”
“Still…” Elliott let the statement hang in the air.
DeLuca did not answer. Instead he turned and ambled over to the banister, looking down over his first floor. Elliott joined him.
“I don’t like to make decisions based on such small crumbs. I’d like to hold a series of interviews. With her, her mother, some school officials, perhaps another medical official. Has she seen a psychiatrist or someone like that?”
DeLuca made a noncommittal motion of his head.
“Then, of course, I will review the information gathered here with the diocese, possibly consulting—”
With a single, deft motion, Daniel DeLuca reached over and broke Elliott’s neck. He held the body while it spasmed. Then, with calculation and care, he tipped the body over the bannister so it landed head-first on the floor.
He listened for a moment, nodding as if agreeing with something inaudible. Then he calmly went to the hallway telephone and dialed a number.
He smiled placidly as the phone rang six times.
“Hello?” he forced distress into his voice. “This is Daniel DeLuca. My daughter has—has—oh my God, I think it was an accident! She just ran and pushed—” his voice broke. “Please, can we move the exorcism up? I’m at my wit’s end, I don’t know what to do. She won’t even let me near her anymore…”