Wynn Auto Salvage had closed for the weekend – not that Mike kept regular hours with the business anyway. Closing came from necessity after he had received a frantic phone call and request for help. He had offered to make a run instead, but Stafford argued that immediately on the grounds that nothing could go wrong this time. His voice carried a slight tremor. Mike had never heard fear in Stafford's voice before and he had known Evan roughly the younger man's entire life. Mike got their rough location and calculated an ETA. He bothered to extend some words of comfort; to give some hope that the current situation could be resolved.
As soon as Stafford hung up, Mike set to work shutting things down in the yard, calling wrecking companies that supplied to him, and tow services that brought the occasional fixer upper in for servicing on sight with innumerable and sizable parts. Generally, having hunters stop by had not impeded business for Mike. Most hunters he knew could wield a wrench as well as they could a shotgun, crucifix or machete and they sometimes picked up the odd job if he had work. If he had not built the salvage yard around his two-story farmhouse, he would not need to close the business for the two younger hunters on their way.
It only takes an hour to set the study to rights. While Mike Wynn is patient if nothing else, the drive should take Evan six hours and that is taking into account that Evan Stafford had probably left the womb in a hurry. He had procured the books he even thought they might end up requiring. He removed some of the weapons he had brought into the study for one reason or another. Making a decent pathway for more than just him had taken the longest of all the chores. He had been in the Marine Corps, but the compulsive tidiness had unlearned itself in favor of functional disarray and convenience. With the stage set for the unsavory business Stafford and he needed to conduct, he had some hours left to start a meal – heavy on the meat and potatoes and enough to feed three, a touch of optimism for his part.
The drive from Wichita, Kansas seemed to drag on for twelve or fifteen hours. Stafford estimated it might as well have taken years or decades. He had once heard that distance or weight, time was relative, and an hour could feel like a second in joy, but in pain, a second could feel like an eternity. This drive took six and half-hours altogether from the time he had cranked the engine and burnt rubber screeching away from Hideaway Lake Resort. The owner, on the recommendation of a friend in a last ditch effort, had called them for a job. They expected when they arrived to deal with a vengeful ghost, a water spirit or a poltergeist. The job ended in less than a day with the manager of the Resort murdered in self-defense, the haunting exposed as a ruse, and Stafford left with no choice, but to disarm, nearly kill, and ultimately subdue his partner.
Stafford's stomach turned over as he slowed to hang a turn on the paved farm road. From the trunk rose another shout.
"Please, I can't breathe."
It physically hurt to listen, but he had no choice. The adrenaline and the tension his muscles held for the past several hours cramped through his shoulders and along his collarbone as if reaching closer and closer for his chest. He had tried turning the radio up as loud as the speakers in his '67 Impala could handle, but he'd learned Christeson could yell louder from the trunk. It had not been pleasant and he had made the mistake of yelling back, tipping his hand in the process. He could not drown out the noise and cranking the stereo volume encouraged physical attempts at escape, kicking and thrashing in the already crowded trunk.
"I know what you're doing. I've known this entire time, this entire ride. And it's not – it won't ever work on me. Keep it up though. Wear yourself out," He said with firm resolve, loud enough that his voice would carry past the back seats and trunk's rear wall.
"Evan, please! It left hours ago."
Stafford frowned, clenched his jaw and forced his eyes to stay open rather than squeeze shut. He looked up to the rearview mirror, saw the worry, and anger distorting his sharp features. He looked straight ahead and slowed seeing the pavement 20 yards ahead became white gravel. He swallowed and reached for his cell phone. The sun set as they left Wichita and he had driven mostly in darkness, expecting them or not, he could bet Mike had already shut the gates to his property and locked up.
"Evan, I can't breathe in here. I'm bleeding and I can't move my arms. I can't feel my hands anymore from these cuffs. Please! Please!"
"SHUT THE FUCK UP!" Evan roared, pressing down one button on the cheap throw away phone.
He always programmed Wynn's number into his phones just in case something ever happened and he needed help and in a hurry. He felt the muscles from his hand all the way up his arms shiver and he pressed down on the gas with no regard for how jarring it made the ride or possibility of catching a fly rock in the windshield. The phone on the other end of the line rang twice before being replaced with Mike's voice, Texan drawl unmistakable and relentlessly calm.
"I'm on the dirt road, almost there,"
"I'll go unlock the gate,"
Evan closed the phone, ending the call and tucked it into the front pocket of his drab olive button-down shirt. He focused on the road ahead, the steady white rock that kept on coming, and looked for the mailbox with the reflector strips along the post. The road could be dangerous at night and Mike had lost more than several mailboxes over the years to drivers hugging the implied shoulder or wreckers and misguided drivers trying to back out from his driveway only to miss their mark. The mailbox made for a useful landmark since Mike could cut all the property lights when he did not want to make it easy to find at night. Evan correctly guessed that Mike would take that precaution on this night.
"Are we going to Mike's?" Christeson asked hopefully.
Evan did not reply. He slowed when yellow and white reflectors twinkled in the illumination from his headlights. He turned too fast and bottomed out roughly on Wynn's driveway. He heard a loud thud from the back and after a moment realized Christeson had likely bounced into the roof of the trunk.
"John!" Evan called, slowing in his approach to Mike's house on a coarser grade of gravel.
From the rearview, Evan saw Mike walking along the entry, pulling the heavy iron bar gate with him on along the metal track it rolled on. It reminded Stafford of a prison gate, but without the razor wire and less upkeep allowing it to rust in places. He pulled up to the covered car port and stopped before plowing into the oil drums, stacked firewood, riding lawnmower and other cast away odds and ends Mike had decided to rescue or keep in hopes of a later use. Evan put the gearshift in park, but kept the engine running. He took his foot off the brake and pulled his leg back working out the stiffness from the long haul he had just driven. He put his palms up to his eyes and rubbed at them, leaning back against his seat, and trying to collect any part of him that had come undone during the drive before Mike reached them.
"John?" he asked turning toward the back of the car.
Met with silence, he twisted the key in the ignition, pocketed the keys on habit, and swung open his door then stepped out into the balmy Texas air. He smirked at the realization that even in October it still felt like the end of summer did in most other states. Ahead of him, Mike Wynn raised a hand in silent greeting walking toward the parked car from the direction of the gate. He moved at a steady pace, not at all suggesting panic, but a focused haste.
Evan lifted his arm in reply, realizing that fatigue and hunger had definitely set in. His empty stomach growled almost hostile and despite having been kept seated for hours, he could not wait to drop into even a hard metal folding chair and prop his feet up. He moved to the rear of the Impala and reached into his jeans' pocket for the keys. With his fingers closed around them and he knocked softly on the hood just as Mike stepped alongside Evan at the trunk. They stood for a moment in silence only broken by the sound of crickets and cicadas and a light wind blowing through grass that surrounded the salvage yard.
"You locked him in the trunk?"
Evan shrugged and looked to Mike finding it difficult to meet his eyes.
"I – I cuffed him, but I couldn't take the chance. Not even in the back seat."
Mike nodded slightly and rubbed fingers over his stubbly chin, looking back to the trunk. "You did good. Safest place for him and for you,"
Evan took a breath and raked his empty hand back through his hair. "I bottomed out pretty hard and I think I flung him up into the lid. He's been talkin' to me the entire ride, but after that he went silent; won't say nothin' back when I holla'd at him,"
"Could be out cold," Mike agreed and put his hands out for the keys, "Either way, we haf'ta take him out to do anything for him,"
"What's the plan?" Stafford asked, fist tightening around the keys rather than passing them.
"Plan?" Mike couldn't help but smile, "For now, open the lid; you take head and I take feet if he's out. If he's faking, then we'll improvise,"
"That's the plan?"
"You got one better?" Mike murmured sarcastically.
Evan fingered the keys in his hand and leaned in front of Mike, sliding the key into the lock. Mike shifted on his feet and ignored the way Evan clung to the keys rather than relinquish any of the burdens – or maybe he happened to be that serious about letting anyone touch his car. Evan twisted the key and the trunk lock released with a pop. The both held their breath as Evan pushed the trunk hatch up to reveal the prisoner inside.
Stafford let out the breath through his nose first and tucked the keys back into his front jeans pocket, keeping his eyes trained on Christeson curled against three duffle bags,a loose baseball bat, pair of crowbars, a tire iron, and the toolbox with essentials for emergency car repair. He had a cut on his brow, a line of blood running from the cut down his cheek to his chin, and a goose egg forming beneath the cut radiating out. Christeson appeared asleep with eyes closed and a shallow rise and fall of his chest. His arms hung limp angled so his wrists remained behind him, linked together tight by a pair of handcuffs. Evan had to improvise with John's legs and used duct tape around his knees and nylon rope for his ankles. The yellow rope contrasted with his dark wash denim jeans making the binding look more severe.
"Let's get him inside before he comes out of it. I set everything up in the study," said Wynn, moving first to take the hold of Christeson's legs.
Evan felt dizzy, but stood still and waited before following Mike's lead. He expected Christeson to stir when Mike put hands on him. He could imagine his dark hazel eyes suddenly open and using both feet joined as a weapon to kick Mike square in the chest. Instead, Mike lifted limp legs and hoisted them up, before he turned his head sharply toward Stafford.
"You gonna help here?"
Stafford shook off the worry that John would come to and struggle. It had not been a ploy or they would already be at odds. He reached in and rolled Christeson over from his side onto his back, slid both arms beneath him, and in tandem with Mike lifted him from the trunk. Mike tucked his legs beneath one arm and quickly shut the trunk with the other, then resumed his two-handed carry backing up in the direction of the house.
"We get him settled and then you tell me what happened over pot roast." Mike grunted as they lugged Christeson's dead weight up the porch steps.
"I can't just sit down for supper," Evan complained, "Not with him – like this,"
Mike toed open the screen door and nudged the front door with a tap to open fully. "You can and you will. If we're going to have a chance at actually pulling this off, you can't go in half cocked, worn out and on empty."
After carrying Christeson to the study, Evan helped Mike systematically limb by limb untie and un-cuff John and retie him to a sturdy wooden chair. They lashed his legs at ankles and just beneath his knee to the front legs of the chair. Then they bound his wrists much the same with two lengths of rope to secure his arms to the armrests. He did not stir during the efficient yet delicate process and that allowed a quiet retreat from the study to the kitchen.
Mike happily unveiled his crock-pot creation. Evan already had the scent working on his resolve and empty stomach from the moment he entered Wynn's house. A side of mashed potatoes and greens materialized while Evan filled his plate with the tender beef, carrots, onions and cubes of red potato. The same occurred with a pitcher of sweet tea and glasses. While Evan busied himself with mustard greens waiting for pepper sauce and smothering mashed his potatoes in gravy from the pot, Mike took a seat across from Evan and started fixing his own plate.
They sat in silence, Mike alternating between taking his fork to his lips and watching Evan take mouthfuls at a time, small whimpers of pleasure escaping ever so often. Wynn could only guess the last time Evan or John had a home cooked meal and not fast food, rations for the road or the occasional splurge on a sit-down establishment. He held off his questions for as long as possible, letting Stafford forget his troubles for the moment by having his fill.
When Evan tipped his head back finishing his second glass of sweet tea and rested his fork on the edge of his half-full plate, Mike folded his hands purposefully over his empty plate. Evan put fist to his mouth and muffled a belch, grinned and stared back at Mike, smile fading as quick as it had appeared.
"So what happened in Wichita, other than the obvious?"
"I don't really know what the hell happened," Evan replied, putting elbows on the table and sighing.
Mike waited for a moment and then lowered his folded hands, crossing his arms across his chest instead. Evan looked down at his plate, huffed out another breath, and frowned.
"Got to the resort late morning and met with the owner who had called us. He showed us around, took a spin in the golf cart and saw the lake and cabins. Agreed not to let the manager in on who we were, but said we were consultants to work on the resort image and damage control for the accidents that happened."
"Started over the summer, he said. A couple guests nearly drowned in the lake to start. Maintenance man is on workers comp after taking a tumble off a cabin roof. Same cabin had more trouble with the chimney and it couldn't be rented out, kept filling up with smoke like the flue was clogged. Called a chimney sweep, guy went up, cleaned it, went back in to do a test run – same thing with the smoke going right back in. Thinks maybe he shut the vent by mistake lighting the fire, he jacks with it and no dice. Said he doused the fire and intended to go back up on the roof to sweep again – door wouldn't budge and he almost suffocated like all the oxygen got sucked out with the fire. Broke a window to get out. "
"You're thinking haunting then?" Mike stated more than asked.
"Yeah, seemed like that would explain it. Owner had that cabin closed and then other accidents start popping up other spots. Weekenders started to come out less and less with all the weird things happening. Manager on duty knew we were there and the owner. No guests had any rentals, but they had a few reservations for the weekend they didn't want to lose. So we got to work checkin the place out with EMF. Musta been two hours before we finished. Thought we might as well go back to the haunted cabin before dark and post up there, see if the spooks would come out for us after dark."
Evan paused and looked up at Mike.
"I couldn't figure out what the hell a ghost even had against the place. John wanted to do some research on it, maybe hit the library and see if anyone had died there in the past. I went to see the manager to get directions. John said he'd call the owner, have him give the manager a head's up that we'd be staying on the premises so he wouldn't think we were up to no good. I leave the office in the clubhouse and no John anywhere to be found.
"I start calling his cell phone and it rings until it goes to voicemail. Then I hear it ringing. I'm calling for him and trailing the noise. I find the cell tossed in a garbage can. Now I'm totally freaking out. I double back to the car to get supplies not knowing what the hell we're dealing with. Pop the trunk and get hit from behind. Next thing I know I'm on the ground and John's got a shotgun on me."
"You were with the manager in the clubhouse when John went missing?"
"The entire time?"
"Yeah." Evan emphasized, "he gave me directions with a hand drawn map. I tried to tell him I was good with street names. It bored the shit out of me to be honest, but didn't take too long."
Mike lifted a hand and scratched over the stubble on his chin, nodding at Evan to continue.
"So, he's got a gun on me. I'm pretty sure it's loaded. He's just smirking, like a complete – I don't know. It was creepy. I'm trying to think of a way to knock him off balance or something to save my neck. This is all just happening in seconds and I'm pretty sure I'm done because I don't see any damn way I'm going to dodge or stop him. He's serious, finger on the trigger, sighting right on me. It wasn't a negotiation.
"I think I yelled at him, maybe. I don't know for sure. I think I yelled his name at him. He just smirks and says 'Fuck you,' and then I hear the gun go off. He kinda jerked or something and the shot went wild. I went for him and caught him at the waist. He went down, there wasn't much of a struggle. I pulled the shotgun right from his hands and he looked – "
Evan shook his head and reached for his glass of tea, took a short sip and lowered the glass. He held it midair, eyes drifting from studying it to the kitchen wall, avoiding Mike.
"He looked scared. And sorry. I wanted to ask him what the hell was going on. He told me to kill him. Then he went for my throat and we wrestled it out. I clocked him with the butt of the shotgun. I tried to go easy on him, but by the time I got off the ground he was starting to get up too. I yelled at him to stay down or I'd shoot him.
Evan swallowed and took another sip, putting glass to table and stared at the inch of deep amber liquid left.
"He looked up at me smiling real big, his eyes they were all black – nothing there, no white, no pupils, just hollow almost like he didn't have any at all. I racked the shotgun, he moves off the ground, faster than I've ever seen John move – it wasn't him, but I mean, at the time. I flipped the shotgun last minute when he came at me and cracked him square in the side of the head. He pretty much threw himself into the punch.
"I tied him up, cuffed him and tossed him in the trunk. I didn't know what else to do. I couldn't .."
"Evan, you did fine." Wynn said quiet and warm, "You did just fine."
"Then I called you and got the hell out of there. I knew what he was, but I couldn't risk doing it alone. The longer he's in there with that thing the harder it's going to be to exorcise it. And the stock to the face; it took him down demonically possessed. What if –"
"Hold it. It ain't going to come to that." Mike said, unfolding his arms fully, pointing a finger at Stafford, "You have to keep it together. I can't go in there by my lonesome, and if you're not squared away you know what's going to happen when we drag that sonofabitch out of Christeson. You might as well put a welcome mat on your chest and invite it in for coffee."
Evan snorted and tried to subdue a smirk. He glanced at Mike, took a breath, and then let it out slowly. He ran both hands over his chin and his cheeks, feeling the prickly stubble of a day's growth. He felt grimy and sweaty, on edge. He could not get rid of the image in his mind playing over and over – the black eyes and that sickening huge smile plastered on Christeson's face. It took his features and manipulated them, adding its own signature to them.
"John's tough. He knows what's at stake and he's still in there. He's strong enough to send that shot wild, smart enough to wait for the right moment to try to take his body back over, and that's what we need to go in there thinking about."
"When are we going to do this?" Evan asked.
"You should rest before we go in there. You're exhausted and you probably feel as shitty as you look."
Stafford rolled his eyes, "Well, thanks. I'm pretty sure Christeson feels worse right now,"
"You go out to the parlor and stretch out on the couch. Shut your eyes, put your feet up on the arm and count some sheep. I'm going to clear the table and put away the food. I need time to think about how this should go down."
Stafford opened his mouth to object, but Mike cut him off. "It won't take but fifteen minutes. You're too keyed up to nod off in fifteen minutes, Evan. Now git,"
Stafford swallowed his protests and pushed his chair back from the table. He noted his stiff knees and quads as he rose from his seat and ambled around the table to obediently trek to the parlor. Mike followed him with his eyes until he disappeared from the room, before pushing his chair back.
"If I don't hear the couch springs squeak, I'm coming in there!" he hollered after Evan, standing up to begin on the table.
"Yeah, yeah," he heard before a squeak, and sigh of cushions, and noisy relieved breath.
"You said you wouldn't let me sleep!" Stafford complained, following behind Wynn to the study.
"No. I said I'd be fifteen minutes and you were too keyed up to nod off in that short a time,"
"Same thing," Evan muttered.
"You needed the rest. So can it. You'll thank me when this is over and that demon doesn't hand you your ass for falling asleep in the middle of reciting your latin,"
Evan had no retort and simply made an annoyed face at the back of Mike's head. Mike looked over his shoulder and caught the expression before Stafford could straighten up. Mike rolled his eyes at Evan with exasperation and a crooked smile, lost on Evan who could only see one-half of Wynn's face.
"Two hours, though. What'd you do for two hours?"
"Other than try to figure this whole thing out, oh, I started my memoirs and caught up on reruns of Wheel of Fortune,"
Mike stopped at the door of the study and turned to face Evan.
"It's clearly on a mission to take you out, whatever it is. We'll get its name and find out if maybe you sent packin any cousins or friends it had,"
"Demons have friends, now? Wonderful."
"I'm serious. It lured you out there, possessed your partner and like to have blown your head off. Sounds like a planned hit to me,"
Stafford swallowed and nodded lightly. Mike gave him a hard look and nodded back, then turned to the door and opened it. They entered the study, lit up by the four-bulb lamp on the ceiling fan. Christeson was in the sturdy wooden chair with the thick legs and thick arms. Stafford idly wondered whether Mike had repurposed the chair or scooped it up for the expressed purpose of exorcisms. He did not voice this question aloud, but planned to do so as soon as they finished this ordeal. Mike had the chair placed on a folded blue tarp, which somewhat bothered Stafford as it implied Wynn expected if anything went wrong there to be a hell of a mess to clean when it was all over. The intended purpose he, of course knew, was to conceal the devil's trap drawn on the floor; a little surprise for the demon.
They stopped about five feet from the where Christeson sat, slumped to the left, chin tucked against his chest. Stafford could see the wound from the butt of the shotgun. The bleeding had stopped and dried crusted blood left a trail down the side of his face and neck. Christeson stirred and slowly lifted his head, looking at Evan and Mike with a dazed expression, tired and loopy.
"Mike," he croaked, in a hoarse whisper, turning his attention to the older hunter. "Help me?"
Mike took a step forward toward Christeson and cocked his head to the side. "That you, John?"
"Of course, it's me. Who the hell else would it be?" he didn't look over to Evan, but kept his eyes on Mike who looked on at him, "My head is killing me,"
Mike looked over his shoulder to Stafford and back to John. Stafford looked at Mike warily and then at John.
"Do it," Evan affirmed, before crossing his arms, guilt written on his face.
Mike moved forward and reached behind to his right back pocket. He paused just a foot shy of the chair and withdrew his hand. Instead of revealing a knife to cut the bonds, he produced a silver aspergillum. He shook the cylinder filled with holy water at Christeson, flinging drops of water into his face and chest. Christeson jerked back nearly toppling the chair over and twisted away screaming. Mike stepped back and looked over to Stafford who moved to join Mike, taking a book and another aspergillum from a duffle Mike had placed beyond the tarp.
Christeson cried out when Mike again flung the blessed water at him, but the cry changed from Christeson's voice to a deeper howl, throaty and riveting like no other sound Stafford had ever heard. He gripped the pages of the tome in his hands and cleared his throat, though he did not really need to. He began to read the foreign prayer for their ritual. Christeson roared at him angrily and jerked arms and legs against the ropes.
"Regna terrae, cantate Deo, psallite Domino"
"You have no power here," Mike snapped at Christeson – or the demon, anyway, "So save your breath,"
"You have no idea of my power," Christeson seethed, opening his eyes to stare directly at Mike, revealing they had succumbed to the empty black Evan had described. "But you will,"
Stafford spoke louder, snapping through the unfamiliar flowing words.
"Qui fertis super caelum caeli ad Orientem"
"I was just going to kill these two quickly," said Christeson, "but now I will take my time –"
Mike flung water against him singing his skin and leaving pink and red marks on Christeson's cheeks. The demon stiffened suddenly and turned its focus on Evan.
"Ecce dabit voci Suae vocem virtutis,"
Evan hesitated and whipped the aspergillum in John's direction, water spraying against the black eyes and his forehead. Another terrible scream erupted from his mouth. Suddenly, Evan understood why the scream sounded unreal – two screams from the same body at once. He shuddered and looked back to the book.
"tribuite virtutem Deo."
Evan had reached the end of the scripture and turned the page. It gave the demon the in it needed to interrupt him.
"He's dead in here you know," the demon smirked, laughing, "And he's not going anywhere. He wanted to be so strong in the end, trying to take back dominion before I could take your life. He was weak and he begged you to let him go, but you didn't –"
Stafford glared down at the book. Wynn took a step backward and put his hand on his shoulder.
"It's lying to you Evan. They lie."
Stafford nodded resolute, agreeing with Mike, but bit out the words on the page.
"Exorcizamus te, omnis immundus spiritus omnis satanica potestas, omnis incursion infernalis adversarii, omnis legio"
The black in Christeson's eyes faded slightly and he yelled out, voice throaty and inhuman at the start. Tears started to run down his cheeks, his screams came out high-pitched, and his face turned red. He gasped for breath repeatedly and looked from Mike to Evan with hazel eyes, wet with tears and wide-open, blinking furiously.
"omnis congregatio et secta diabolica."
"I can't!" he screeched and jerked against the ropes, weaker than before, "I won't do it. I won't do it."
Stafford and Mike both looked to John's face, and his human eyes. His lip trembled slightly and he yelped, dropping his chin to his chest.
"Just kill me," he moaned, "I won't do it. Just kill me,"
"John!" Stafford shouted.
"Evan," Mike sternly warned, "Don't. Just keep going."
Stafford hesitated, his breathing speeding up as he watched John struggle against the rope and against the demon that had possessed him. He shut his eyes to it and turned his head, opening them and forcing them down to the book.
"Ergo draco maledicte et omnis legio diabolica adjuramus te."
"Evan," John cried to him, "oh god, oh god. I'm burning, Evan. Don't-" he gasped and gagged suddenly and twisted his head away from Wynn and Stafford. "NO! I won't,"
"DO IT! JUST DO IT!" John sputtered, urgently, a strangled gurgle escaping his lips.
"Mike.." Stafford murmured, "What the?"
"Finish it. It's trying to get to you. Don't listen to a damn thing it says."
When John turned back to Evan and Mike, he had narrowed his black eyes at them.
"You know we're not lying, Evan. John is burning inside this carcass covered in fire. It just gets hotter for us both with every word you say."
Stafford shook his head and looked back down, away from the cold black eyes.
"I let him talk to you in here and from the trunk. Don't you remember? He begged you for help. You want him to live, Evan? So do I. It's no fun when they stop screaming,"
Stafford growled and tried to step forward, only succeeding in pushing against the arm clamped on his shoulder. He whipped the aspergillum cracking Christeson across the face with another round of water that sizzled on his flesh, drawing out a scream. He twisted from Mike's grip and flung the aspergillum across the room, angrily.
"Stop it," Mike stepped between Evan and John, pushing close enough that he could feel the quiver of Evan's breath on his skin. "Remember what I told you before we came in here. Don't give it an inch,"
"I can't do this," Stafford whispered. "It's going to kill him. It's already killing him."
"It's the only chance he's got." Mike stared. "It's almost over,"
"Okay," he said simply, shutting his eyes to Mike and taking a breath, "Okay."
"Oh, you're going to kill me? Going to send me back to hell?" the demon laughed with Christeson's voice, "Good luck, with that. Your diction is terrible. No surprise there; you are a complete failure. You could not cut it anywhere in the real world, so you float around trying to be some big hero. Now your pathetic weak partner – your friend you never should have brought along with you - is going to be dead. Kick me out of his meat suit and you can bury him out back."
Evan looked back down to the pages. He tried to find the place where he had stopped.
"Hurry up, white knight. I cannot stand listening to daddy-bear- Mike wonder what is wrong with you. You never listen to what he says. You can't even do one simple job and read a stupid book. It's not like he asked you to memorize the prayer! You have a cheat sheet and you STILL can't do it, right!" The laughter started up again, mocking him.
"You can do this," Mike stepped out of Stafford's way, and to his side, then whispered into Evan's ear, "Everything it's said this entire time has been bullshit,"
Stafford swallowed and nodded, and landed his fingertip to the end of a paragraph. Mike pulled his hand away and strolled to the bag.
"Don't bother." Christeson snapped shifting eyes from Evan to the bag as Mike stooped to reach inside.
Mike withdrew an iron cross and looked over at the demon, quizzically. It stared back; face falling through its black eyes robbed some of its expression. Mike raised the cross at arm's length and began walking slowly toward the demon. It flinched and turned back to Evan and hissed at him.
"Guess you must have missed the part when I told you that your power was no good here." Mike told it, "Trying to toss my bag? Well good luck with that."
Christeson turned back to Wynn, his upper lip curling. He growled through his teeth and flexed against the ropes, trying to twist his legs against them.
"Trying fling or knock us over the head with something isn't going to happen, either. So, I guess you're all out of party tricks," Mike continued needling, enjoying having gotten one over after the demon's attempt to derail Stafford from finishing the exorcism.
The demon grinned, with a snarl. "I will pull this one's soul with me to hell. There isn't a thing you can do to stop me."
Mike Wynn raised an eyebrow at the demon and smirked. "Wanna bet?"
Mike touched the cross to Christeson's cheek and he immediately flung his head back and howled in pain. The cry again changed from Christeson's familiar voice to the inhuman bellowing. Stafford walked forward closer to Mike and the demon.
"Ergo draco maledicte et omnis legio diabolica adjuramus te. cessa decipere humanas creaturas, eisque aeternae Perditionis venenum propinare."
"Read louder!" Mike shouted over the shrieking demon, before tugging the cross away and changing hands, pressing the metal to the other cheek.
"Vade, Satana, inventor et magister omnis fallaciae, hostis humanae salutis. Humiliare sub potenti manu dei,"
Christeson convulsed in the chair and Mike pulled the cross away. Stafford looked up at the screams falling silent and saw John jerking violently, held to the chair by the ropes. Mike lightly brought the cross back to his forehead and his body halted suddenly.
"contremisce et effuge, invocato a nobis sancto et terribili nomine, quem inferi tremunt."
Mike put up his hand to Stafford and he paused, putting his finger to the last word he had read so he wouldn't have a repeat performance of losing his place. Keeping the cross in place, Mike looked down at Christeson towering over him. His eyes were wide open, as was his mouth, as if he had become frozen mid shout with his head flung back and back arched.
"What is your name?"
"Do you want blood on your hands, again, Mike Wynn?" came the snide reply through Christeson's open mouth – lips completely still.
"I want you to tell me your name."
"I know who you are, Wynn. I know all your dirty little secrets. And when I leave this broken corpse, your days are numbered. Then you can be together again with all your friends – even the ones you killed yourself,"
Mike did not move an inch or and his face remained steely, not even the annoyed twitch of a jaw muscle. Stafford almost began to read the exorcism rite, but Mike's calm and even voice broke the silence as he stared down ice cold into the demon's black eyes.
"I command you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. What. Is. Your. Name?"
The demon growled low at Mike who stared back focused.
"Arioch," it ground out bitterly before growling at Mike, furious.
Mike removed the cross, leaving a smoldering red mark behind where it had been laid. He looked over to Stafford who lowered his eyes immediately, back to the prayer.
"Ab insidiis diaboli, libera nos, Domine. Ut Ecclesiam tuam secura tibi facias libertate servire, te rogamus, audi nos."
Arioch groaned through Christeson's lips and reclined back against the chair. He tipped his head forward and stared spitefully at Evan, eyes flickering between solid back and Christeson's normal hazel. He smiled crookedly and shook his head, patronizingly clucking his tongue. Evan looked over to Mike and back to John. He licked his dry lips with a stale tongue and studied the last verses. Then Evan heard a new voice, a familiar voice, and his heart froze. He jerked his head in the direction and listened.
"If I read this out loud, what if he dies?" Arioch told Evan, using Evan's voice.
Evan's mouth fell open and he stared in surprise. Arioch smiled back at him, and sing-songed. "I-know, what-you're, think-ing,"
Mike stalked across the tarp and yanked the book out of Evan's hands. Stafford continued to stand dazed, hands raised uselessly and gaped at Arioch. Mike scanned the pages in front of him to find the last lines Stafford had read.
"Could he hear me the whole time?" the demon repeated, again in Evan's voice.
Evan balked and covered his ears, backing away.
"Evan, keep it together!" Mike called, skimming over the Latin words.
"Oh, yes! Recite the prayer, Mike," Arioch laughed with Christeson's voice, "Your star pupil is wide open for me, but then – it wouldn't be the first time in that position for John-boy. Would it, Evan?"
"Fuck this," Evan snapped, dropping his hands, "You can go right the fuck back to the pit. I am done with your hellfire ass,"
Mike did not resist when Evan jerked the book back from him. He stomped forward, up to the chair and looked into John's eyes cold.
"Ut inimicos sanctae,"
"You just signed his death warrant, Evan!"
"Ecclesiae humiliare digneris,
"You hear me! As soon as I am gone, so is he! He's too weak to make it!"
"te rogamus, audi nos. Ut inimicos sanctae Ecclesiae te rogamus, audi nos."
Arioch/Christeson groaned and doubled over.
"You waited too long to do this." Arioch/Christeson panted, moaning louder in pain, "He is coming along with me."
"Terribilis Deus de sanctuario suo."
"I'll make you a good deal," Arioch
" Deus Israhel ipse truderit virtutem et fortitudinem plebi Suae."
The demon cried out again and sat up in the chair, panting and gasping. Christeson's eyes flashed black like one last-ditch effort to evoke some sort of fear.
"Your loss." Arioch tempted, " I could have saved his life. I could make you a deal,"
Stafford almost wavered, but before the second guess caught up with him, the first syllable rolled off his tongue. The demon shook its head at him and he went for broke.
"Benedictus Deus. Gloria Patri."
Christeson's head flew back and his mouth opened. With a final cry, black smoke poured from his throat into the air and like any other cloud, the wisps curled and unfurled around it as it all came together. It hovered for mere seconds and traveled quickly – gone in the blink of an eye.
The book fell from Evan's hands. John had slumped over to the left side; hanging awkwardly forward leaned over the arm of the chair. Evan cupped the back of his neck and moved him backward carefully, cradling his head to keep his neck straight.
"John," he began to repeat his name, shoving on his shoulder to roust him.
Mike moved into action, dropping the cross and reaching back to his belt for his knife. He dropped down to one knee and cut at the ropes binding John's arm. Stafford was still calling to him from the other side of the chair repeating his name. He slapped at his cheek, but Christeson did not respond. Mike cut through the ropes holding his leg, while Evan continued trying to bring John around.
Stafford put his cheek to John's lips shutting his eyes, listening and hoping to feel breath against his skin.
"He's not breathing. I don't think he's breathing," Evan said panicked. "Cut him loose."
Mike nudged Evan to move aside so that he could reach Christeson's opposite leg. Wynn began to saw through the rope. Evan leaned close to John to listen again for his breath.
"Don't do this to me." Evan begged John, "Wake up. That piece of shit was lying. I know you're still in there. Wake up!"
Mike finished with the ropes on John's legs. He stood up, sliced through the rope holding Christeson's wrist and then through the last rope tying down his forearm at the elbow. Evan wasted no time and after carefully resting John's head back, Evan got behind him, slipped his arms beneath John's armpits and hoisted him up from the chair. Mike grabbed John's legs beneath his knees and together they laid Christeson down on the tarp.
Evan dropped to his knees and put his ear to John's chest. Mike held his breath and watched Evan bent over John, listening for any sign of life. Mike could see the tension uncoil from Evan's back and shoulders and he relaxed, knowing Stafford had found some sign of life. Evan let out a relieved sigh and stayed stretched prostrate over Christeson for a moment, looking over his face, neck and chest.
"Oh you motherfucker," Evan shuddered, rising up and putting a hand to John's forehead, stroking back through his hair.
"He's breathing. His heart's beating. He's still alive," Evan said, turning to look at Mike who afforded a small smile and nodded back.