The interior of the Iglesia de San Miguel was humble and sparse, little more than four bare white walls under a lofty ceiling. Untidy bird nests sat cradled in the joints of the rafters, and the gentle cooing of roosting pigeons was the only sound that filled the hot silence of the late afternoon. Bird droppings stained most of the pews that sat in quiet congregation facing the empty pulpit. Then the stillness of the church, along with its aura of spiritual peace, was abruptly shattered.
The moment Johnny Blaze crossed the threshold with his otherworldly burden, the pigeons scattered as if lighting had struck the roof. They jettisoned out through the open windows with a lunatic flapping of wings. Pale gray feathers slowly drifted to the floor after the exodus, almost as if angels had fled before the Devil. Or his progeny.
Blaze followed the nervous figure of Father Espinoza across the shallow foyer and past the holy water font, cradling Blackheart's limp, heavy body in his arms like a wounded bride. The matrimonial feeling only amplified itself as he walked down the aisle in the priest's hurried wake. To have and to hold. For better or worse, Blaze couldn't help but think. 'Til death do us part. Christ almighty, what am I doing here?
He glanced around anxiously. Plain whitewashed walls. A dusty plankwood floor. Windows without panes. The smell of wax and sand. This place engendered the same feeling of emptiness as the godforsaken desert outside. The altar was practically bare except for a large wooden cross with the Christ's body nailed to it, a thin, gaunt, pathetic human form with large suffering eyes, bleeding forever and ever for the sins of mankind. Johnny, who had been raised sans-denomination, especially of the Catholic persuasion, had never understood the morbid worship of such a gruesome icon. To him it seemed unnecessarily sick and perverse, but he wasn't about to openly criticize Christianity's fascination with blood, torture and death; he already had enough religious problems to deal with. Like the one he was carrying.
There was a round window high in the wall over the altar, and it was the only source of color in the washed-out drabness of the sanctuary: stained glass depicting the Sacred Heart on a blue background, spewing a fountain of orange flames from its top, bleeding drops from its bottom-left ventricle, haloed by a Crown of Thorns that pierced its circumference.
More religious gore, thought Johnny. But the setting sun spilled light through the glass and cast down a rainbow pool in the aisle, like a window to Oz. Red and gold and blue, colors made so much more beautiful for being in a monochrome hell like the American southwest.
As Johnny stepped across the Technicolor oval of light, he felt the fear in his heart loosen its grip a little. Whispers of hope seeped through his mind. Maybe things weren't going to be so bad. Maybe he could do this task, however impossible it seemed, and earn a few points with the Good Guys. Maybe he'd even get some professional help for all his troubles. Just a little miracle, nothing spectacular. Like maybe getting Mephistopheles off of his back for good, or having the Ghost Rider permanently exorcised from his soul. That would be nice. Having his life back.
"Here," Father Espinoza beckoned, leading Johnny through a doorway to the left of the altar. He followed the priest through a few small, disjointed rooms with old wine crates and boxes of rotting hymnals packed against the walls like prisoners. On the far wall of the last rubbish-choked room was a heavy wooden door with a line of rusty locks running down its edge. The old man bent and began to work the bolts free with his trembling, bony fingers.
"Is no much," he apologized in his heavy accent. "I use it for help de family and come from over Mexico." He pronounced it Mehico. "Is a long time since family come here again."
Johnny, whose arms were beginning to tire, gave Blackheart a little chuck and repositioned his body. His head slid against Johnny's sweat-stained tanktop, leaving a smear of blood over his heart like the mark of Passover.
"How far are we from the border?" he asked, though he didn't really care. Hell could be within spitting distance for all it mattered—and it might as well, all things considered.
Father Espinoza frowned, his leathery brow creasing like an old treasure map. "Six kilometer? Seven? Is no far . . . But de desert is grande, and de sun kill so much family. So much die before San Miguel." He gave a fleeting glance at Blackheart, dropped his eyes, and swallowed with difficulty. "What is he's name?"
"Blackheart. That's how I know him, at least."
The priest nodded quickly, and Johnny was intrigued to see the old man's eyes glistening wetly. Maybe he's scared, thought Blaze. I know I am. Poor guy.
The hinges wailed like ghosts as Father Espinoza opened the door. Stairs led down into a hellish, frightening darkness. A wave of cool dank air washed over the sweat on Johnny's neck. He shivered as he gazed at the black pit of a cellar that seemed more like the bowels of a man-eating monster.
The priest began the descent, unbothered by the darkness. He seemed to have memorized the placement of each step. Blaze followed carefully, stair by creaking stair, one foot in front of the other, half-expecting to step down onto nothing but thin air and end up like Alice down the rabbit hole, falling forever and ever. Straight through Hell and out through Shanghai. (If he was lucky.)
After what seemed like fifty stairs or fifty minutes, Johnny's boot met with the cellar's rugged stony floor. He heard Father Espinoza moving around in the dark ahead, and suddenly a rectangular ray of yellowy light shot down through the blackness. The old man set aside the piece of wood that had been blocking the small window high on the cellar wall, and moved down to uncover the rest. The windows were about ground level, all of their glasses cracked and stained with dirt. As more light was let into the cellar, Johnny was able to see with greater clarity what was to become his home for the next several months, though he did not know it.
It was a large, open area, perhaps as long and wide as the church's footprint. Slivers of light shone through the cracks in the wooden floor above. Up and down the room thick wooden pillars supported the weight of the upper floor, like a gathering of silent Atlases. The far corner was overflowing with boxes and broken furniture and old signs and buckets, brooms, mops, even a partially-smashed upright piano on which hymns might have been played long ago. The windows above this unconquerable mass of refuse were unreachable, so they remained shrouded and dark. A stout iron beam in the center of the room stretched up from the stone floor and disappeared into the planks overhead, whether structural or some kind of water pipe, Blaze didn't know. Behind the stairs was a series of doors spaced evenly apart — maybe closets or small rooms—all of them closed except for one. As more light entered the cellar Johnny perceived the grimy edge of a prehistoric toilet and a mold-stained bathtub from the 1940s. He grimaced as if with pain, but he had seen worse—he was a carnie kid, after all.
Adjacent to the decaying bathroom was a narrow nook in the corner, consisting of a sink with an old fashioned hand pump mounted on the side, a wall of rat-eaten cabinets, and a sad little "table" made out of a large industrial cable spool. Broken liquor bottles and crumpled newspapers littered the surface and surrounding floor. A few retro appliances and shattered dishes stood lonesomely on the counter. A thin layer of dust cloaked everything like a gauzy film.
"Is a long time when I use this," Father Espinoza repeated. "I am sorry if is no very good."
Johnny squatted down. "This will do just fine," he said, laying Blackheart's body on the floor. His hands were still bound together at the wrist with the leather belt, though Johnny doubted it would last long if the little monster woke up. He wiped the sweat from his brow and looked up at the worried priest. "Thank you. Gracias."
"You're welcome, Señor . . .?"
"Johnny." No sense in giving his surname—it would only get him into trouble. "My name is Johnny."
The old man nodded as if he understood. "I am Padre Fernándo Espinoza. This is my church, de Church of San Miguel." His peered down at Blackheart, whose only movements came from the slight rising and falling of his breast. There was fear in his eyes, as well as a gleam of concerned interest. "You have bring a . . . a great abominación with you, Señor Johnny. Who is him, this Black-heart? How can you know he's name?"
Johnny took a seat on a nearby crate that looked as if it had once been used to hold chickens. He leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. His ponytail draped off of his shoulder as he clasped his hands together and stared at Blackheart, who even in sleep seemed no less dangerous than a nuclear warhead. A warhead capable of a deathtoll to the tune of around six billion.
"He is the prince of demons," said Blaze slowly. "The son of Satan, el Diablo Grande."
Espinoza's eyes widened and he shrank back against one of the wooden support beams.
"I know him because I met him a few years ago . . . and because I'm a demon, too." Johnny flexed his left hand slowly, and the flesh melted away from bone in a curtain of orange fire. The priest uttered a low cry of terror, but he did not flee. He continued to stare fixedly at Johnny's hand until the flames disappeared and muscle and flesh regrew over the skeletal digits.
"I'm a slave to the Devil, or I used to be, before I went rogue," he went on, not really concerned if Father Espinoza was still following; he was speaking to himself. "But I'm not a bad person. I try to use my powers for good. Mephistopheles has taken everything from me—my whole life and everyone who was a part of it—so I'm taking away from him all of the evil that would end up in Hell, feeding the flames of his goddamn furnace. I'm taking his power away from him, one soul at a time."
Johnny grinned, little more than a sad smirk. "You could call me a Shepherd of Lost Souls. The demon inside me, the Ghost Rider, he leads me to evil, and when I find it I put the fear of God into the hearts of the wicked. I guess it works sometimes, but I wouldn't know. I never stick around to find out. I have to keep moving. Evil never sleeps."
The priest was silent for a moment, perhaps trying to translate Johnny's story in his head. Finally he said, "You are like Jesús."
Blaze shook his head. "Jesus wasn't a monster. He wasn't driven by a need for revenge. I am." He sighed, a heavy sound filled with long years of pain. "I'm doing this for myself, for no reason other than getting back at the Devil. I might as well be digging to China with a plastic spoon."
Espinoza wet his dry, papery lips, his demeanor suddenly energetic. "But you take de Devil's son . . . if you can make good in him. And revenge against de Devil, so grande!"
"I see what you're saying, Padre, but I don't think even I could ma—"
A wet gurgle came from the floor, and Blackheart let out a frame-rattling cough that sent spatters of blood raining onto his face. Johnny stood up so fast that the crate turned over; Father Espinoza yelped, sprinted to the base of the stairs and froze, waiting for one more reason to flee, his whole body rigid with terror.
Blackheart continued to cough raggedly, a phlegmatic, tearing sound. He rolled over onto his side, gagged, convulsed, then vomited a thick pool of blood onto the stone floor.
"Jesus Christ," Johnny uttered, not entirely in vain, as he stared with disbelief at what seemed to be a full gallon of crimson liquid spreading between the stones. It was a dark red, black in some places, and seemed to be almost boiling with heat.
With considerable effort Blackheart raised himself to his knees. He leaned over and retched again, spine arching, acid and bile and mucous mixing with what he had already expelled. That seemed to empty him, but he continued to heave and spit, drooling long strings of viscous saliva into the puddle. After another moment he stopped gagging and began to breathe. It was an ugly rasping sound, like air being sucked through a perforated hose. Johnny and Father Espinoza looked on with horrified fascination, stone-still and all eyes. The demon crawled a short distance, his tied hands making him as awkward as a three-legged dog, before crumpling to the floor. A few seconds later the moaning began, loud and pathetic. He withered into a fetal position and lay there, shuddering frailly, his groans filled with unutterable agony.
The old priest seemed to snap out of his trance then; he darted away from the stairs and hurried toward the decrepit kitchen. Johnny, hoping that Blackheart would lose consciousness again, slowly crouched at his side and watched for any signs of attack. When none came he reached out and laid a hand on the motionless shoulder. Blackheart started and cringed, sheltering his head with his bound hands as if he expected to be beaten.
"It's alright," Johnny said in a low, reassuring tone. "I'm not gonna hurt you. You're safe here."
The demon's body gradually relaxed, and he made no other movements except for the slight rise and fall of his shoulder. Each breath he took sounded like it could be his last. "Blackheart?" No response.
Suddenly Father Espinoza was back, kneeling down beside Johnny with a metal bucket half filled with dingy water. "Rápidamente, él a su vez sobre su espalda. El podía ser asfixia a la muerte!"
". . . What?"
He made a hurried circular motion with his hand. "Rodar, rodar!"
"Roll him over? Is that what you mean?"
Johnny swallowed down his nervousness and carefully turned Blackheart over onto his back. His looks had not improved since his rescue. His dark eyelids were shut, his lips shining red like a brand new Corvette. It was hard to imagine the demon's handsome, arrogant face underneath that mutilated mask. The blisters on his sunburned flesh had drained and now pink skin was peeling off in patches. The cuts, scrapes and bruises weren't faring much better. The heat seemed to have aggravated his injuries. While he seemed unconscious for the moment, Blaze wasn't going to make any bets on it.
"Siéntese erguido," said the priest, then remembered himself and added, "Up. Make him up. Vertical."
Johnny shuffled into place, grasped Blackheart under the arms, and pulled him up. The reaction was immediate.
Blood drops sprayed into the air as Blackheart let out a hysterical scream. Father Espinoza fell onto his back, almost knocking the bucket over. The frenzied demon thrashed and started kicking his legs, straining against the belt binding his wrists and spitting like a viper. The Ghost Rider overthrew Johnny's instinct to let go and run; instead he locked his hands around Blackheart's chest and braced himself. The hellion continued to shriek and struggle, but was in no position to fight with his arms pinned uselessly and his energy rapidly waning. It was only a minute or two at best, but Johnny couldn't have been more relieved when Blackheart finally ceased his violence and went limp with exhaustion. With a resigned sigh Blaze sat himself on the floor and held the abominación in the V-shaped space between his legs. Blackheart lay still, panting grotesquely and twitching every few seconds.
"Christ," Johnny grunted. "What a nightmare. Look at all this fucking blood." It covered the floor. And now it covered Johnny. He could feel it, slimy and warm and growing sticky as it cooled on his bare arms.
Espinoza had pulled himself off the floor and taken up the bucket. He kneeled down beside Blaze and rolled up his sleeves, exposing the sinewy thin forearms of a man who had spent his life working in the sun. He dipped his cupped hands into the water, paused as if to reconsider, then carefully lifted them and let a cascade of the soothing liquid pour over the bloody pulp of Blackheart's face. The demon gasped and squirmed, but did not resist. The water seemed to revive him a little, and Espinoza repeated his ministrations until the front of the demon's shirt was soaked and the blood was rinsed from his skin. The whiteness of Blackheart's pallor made his bruises stand out like ugly purple nebulae. And then, displaying greater bravery than Johnny thought the old man was capable of, he held his cupped hands to Blackheart's lips. He tipped them, allowing the water to trickle past the Blackheart's mouth. He drank until the hands were empty, and then he let out a long breath. It sounded much better than before.
Johnny raised his eyes to the Father. "If you want us to leave now, just say it."
Espinoza stiffened his lips, almost as if he was insulted. "No. You go and he is death. You kill him, I know. Or he kill you, and all are lost. Here you has de church, and God. You stay here, Señor Johnny. You make him good, and you make everything good. I will help."
Blaze felt his throat tightening. He knew that the priest meant what he said—the seriousness in his eyes was evidence enough—but it still seemed unbelievable. No God-fearing man in his right mind would volunteer to do what Father Espinoza had already done.
"Why?" he asked softly. "Why are you helping us?"
Espinoza rose to his feet like the fragile old man that he was. "Because God put de Devil in your road, Johnny, and de road bring you to me."
He bent slowly and picked up the bucket. "Come," he said. "We get him and clean de blood off."