After the funeral service Father Phillips returned to the dimly lit storeroom to resume his study of the mysterious letter. This was the fifth time he had read it since discovering it concealed behind a loose stone. He had found it during his first day at the church three weeks ago while searching for a supply of candles. This was after realizing his predecessor clearly didn’t hold the restocking of them very high on his list of priorities before he left for his new missionary post in Africa. Whilst searching, a mouse caught his eye as it scurried between the stone pillar and the wall. His curiosity of the mouse’s destination took precedence over the tedium of candles and he abandoned his search for the more interesting prospect of this tiny creature. While scanning the partially obscured area behind the stone pillar for the now invisible mouse, he noticed how one of the stones in the wall seemed to lack the lime mortar around its joints like the others. Only for the mouse, he would never have noticed it and the stone would still lay undisturbed for many years to come.
He pushed the stone without expectation of movement and was amazed to find that it sunk into the wall and then sprung slowly back out towards the pillar. He took a letter opener from the desk and levered it from the wall. The stone concealed a small leather bag.
This seemed to be the perfect hiding place. He reasoned if it had only been discovered by chance after all of these years then this would be the best place to store it when he wasn’t studying it. Yet again he carefully removed the letter from its bag and opened it out on the desk in front of him. He began to read it again:
There is a hidden and dark malignancy radiating through our society from a nefarious and powerful core. An ancient kind I had never personally believed existed until now. They are real. They walk among us, covertly controlling our lives through their pervasive network for millennia, using our own kind’s weaknesses to spread their corruption through the arteries of mankind by feeding those who accept their offerings and victimizing those who don’t.
I do not talk of any man made societies or networks. This is one of pure evil, one whose existence had only been known by those anointed by its putrid venom. A network without name formed by a hierarchy of layers radiating into our lives. Each one progressively controlled by its preceding layer and bonded by its human member's own selfish desire for power. Specially selected members of society who hold a darkness within their hearts are tempted to join its tendrils of their own free will. It has to be this way. Once initiated, only death will allow them to leave. But I wonder if even death is enough to release them from their chosen path.
Their souls are gradually permeated by the beckoning darkness that radiates from within its rotten core. These men and women of the lesser layers convince themselves they will prosper from this bond while still leading normal lives. Gradually their families begin to suffer, as they grow increasingly distant from them. These darkened souls find themselves seeking the solace of their own types while further withdrawing from their families and friends. The closer to the inner circle, the more tenebrous and powerful its members become, but power comes at a price. Gradually they are stripped of their former selves.
Each layer serves its preceding layer with an obedience surpassing that of a hound waiting for reward from its owner. Gradually, led by greed, vanity and the promise of superiority in a new world order, they continue striving to attain membership of the inner circle.
Only when they eventually attain this level do they realize it is not the pinnacle of power they once craved. This inner sanctum is controlled by a concealed core of darkness, one where membership can no longer be earned but granted only by birthright. By a bloodline so ancient it precedes mankind itself. This vile and hidden power will stop at nothing to achieve its objective, exploiting the weaknesses of mankind to achieve its goal of feeding from us, fooling us into thinking this imprisonment is how life should be.
I know that my life will never return to the blissful ignorance I once enjoyed. They know I have what they want. Faced with the horrific reality of what I have discovered I now realize I am in grave danger and feel I may fail in my attempt to protect them and inform mankind of what I believe must be revealed soon because we ar…
The letter ended abruptly. Father Phillips shook his head in confusion. So many questions but few answers.
A slapping sound broke his concentration as it echoed down through the winding stone stairway and into the storeroom. He sat up quickly, put the letter back into its bag and returned it to its original hiding place behind the loose stone. The noise turned out to be the low flat heel of Mrs. Roberts’s shoe as it slipped from the tread of the worn stone steps onto the one below. Something Father Philips had done himself on a few occasions too. Mrs. Roberts, the elderly lady who cleaned the church three times a week was on her way down.
“Are you there Father?”
“Yes, I’m down here Mrs. Roberts. Are you OK?”
“Only just.” she replied, still short of breath after the sudden surge of adrenalin brought on by her slip.
“After all of these years I still manage to slip on that cursed step at least once a month. It’ll be the death of me Father.”
She referred to one particular step on this narrow staircase. All of them displayed the usual signs of wear one would expect after hundreds of years of use, but one in particular, the second from top one, was slightly narrower than the others and the worn rounded edge in the center provided no room for the error of a misplaced foot. Luckily a curved iron handrail running the entire length of the staircase had recently been fitted, and while it detracted from the historical feel it was clearly necessary.
“Would you like to sit down for a minute Mrs. Roberts?”
“No, no Father. I’m fine thank you. I just need to get the Hoover and then I’ll be out of your way.”
“Yes, well the nights are drawing in now. I have this but it doesn’t seem to help much.”
He pointed to the electric fan heater that seemed to provide more noise than heat.
“Before we know it, it’ll be Christmas again. Would you like me to bring it up for you? I’m just about done looking for the candles.”
“Yes please Father. That would be very helpful thank you.”
As the dark wavy haired priest walked over to the upright vacuum cleaner situated under the shelving next to Mrs. Roberts, his six feet plus frame seemed to accentuate the barely five feet tall and slightly portly frame of Mrs. Roberts. He gripped the vacuum cleaner in one hand and while smiling at the well-presented little old lady in front of him, he gestured to her with his other hand to lead the way. Mrs. Roberts smiled,
“It’s only a short staircase but its very tight and I’m not getting any younger.”
The priest smiled diplomatically not wanting to agree and cause offence.
“Oh, before we go up, I don’t suppose you know if Father Crane had a stock of candles hidden away anywhere down here do you Mrs. Roberts? I noticed we were running short when I first came here but then forgot all about them. Unfortunately we may find ourselves with a slight pyrotechnic difficulty if I don’t get any soon.”
She rolled her eyes,
“Knowing him, they’ll probably be thrown in a corner somewhere Father. Tidiness wasn’t his best trait.”
She looked up at the shelves barely clinging to the walls under the weight of copious boxes of clutter collected by Father Crane during his short stay and shook her head like a mother in despair at her messy child’s bedroom.
“Ah, yes. Sorting these out is yet another of my many self assigned tasks.”
The priest realized he’d found one of Mrs. Robert’s soapbox issues as she passionately complained about the extra unnecessary work caused by Father Crane’s untidy habits. She was a very tidy and proud lady, which was evident by her appearance. Her loosely permed blue rinsed hair was always well lacquered into that style common to ladies of an age. It was as though they all visited the same hairdresser.
The priest sniggered slightly, “Yes, I heard our Father Crane was a bit of a case.”
His snigger decreased into a slight smile after being met with a look from Mrs. Roberts as though she was looking over a pair of imaginary glasses and clearly not sharing in the humor of Father Crane’s exploits.
Breaking the stare and carefully employing just enough ecclesiastical rank to get him out of the situation, the priest continued,
“Ahem, well if you come across them would you let me know please. We seem to be running very low. I’ll order some more after lunch. At least we’ll have some spare if the others do turn up.”
“How long have you been looking after us for Mrs. Roberts?”
“Oh, about sixteen years Father, although I must say I’ve been thinking of retiring soon. I used to work as a midwife at the hospital and helped out here every so often as a volunteer when I had time. Then when I retired Father Peterson asked me if I wanted to help out in a less casual capacity. He said St Faddyeons was in need of a cleaner to work a couple of days a week and if I’m honest, I don’t think I was really ready for full time retirement anyway. There’s only so much gardening you can do without becoming a full time farmer.“
“Ah a midwife. Welcoming new life into the world is a very honorable and necessary profession. You bring a lot of business our way.”
The priest had noticed a slight smirk that finally gave away a kink in Mrs. Robert’s armor, how proud she was of her work.
“So sixteen years here in total including your voluntary work with us. You must have seen a few of the previous placements then I suppose?”
“Oh yes, quite a few Father. Some of them like Father Crane only stayed for a year or two before moving onto posts abroad, but some stay for a while. Poor old Father Peterson, God rest his soul, was here on and off for about ten years before the accident.”
“Oh yes Father, it was such a tragedy. I thought you knew about him.” Mrs. Roberts’s face displayed a look of surprise that gradually developed into compassion driven by the memory of Father Peterson.
“No. I haven’t heard anything about a Father Peterson other than when you just mentioned him regarding your work here. I was about to ask you if he was one of my predecessors.”
The priest paused for a while. He had half an hour spare and this was the perfect opportunity to have a chat with Mrs. Roberts and also find out more of this church’s history.
“Mrs. Roberts. I was just about to make myself a cup of tea. Why don’t you join me and tell me a little more of the church’s history.”
Father Crane had never offered her a cup of tea in the eighteen months that he had been there, so it was a pleasant surprise to be offered one by this new priest.
“That would be very nice Father, thank you.”
After walking up the stairs into the nave, the priest and Mrs. Roberts walked across the carpet in front of the altar, dropping the vacuum cleaner of as they passed and then on to the kitchen. This was a private room at the side of the church mainly used by the different church groups who met on various days. The priest opened the door and pulled out a chair from the table.
“There you go Mrs. Roberts, you make yourself comfortable there.” He rubbed his hands together as though in anticipation, “Now, let’s get the kettle on.”
As Mrs. Roberts sat down the priest filled the kettle and prepared the cups. She was surprised and slightly amused to see him casually ‘borrow’ the tea bags from the cupboard marked “Women’s Institute”, and liked to think he replaced them at a later date, but preferred not to ask. This whole thing was quite an unusual experience for her. It was the first time a priest had made her a cup of tea during working hours since Father Peterson and initially made her feel a little uncomfortable, although she soon allowed her strong almost military like work ethic to drop just enough to enjoy the down to earth and slightly cheeky character of her new boss.
“So Father Peterson,” the priest enquired. “What happened to him?”
“Well,” Mrs. Roberts reached out and accepted the cup from the priest, “he was a lovely man and a very popular priest. The sort who would pay a great interest in other people's thoughts, but I suppose that's one of the things that made him such a good priest. He would always listen to a valid argument. He said an open mind is a good thing and how it also improved his understanding of his congregation.”
The priest’s eyebrows lifted whilst he nodded. Mrs. Roberts smiled as though approving of her new boss’s gesture of agreement with this philosophy.
“But the accident?” he enquired, taking a sip of tea.
“Yes, well it was ten years ago, just after he’d returned from the expedition to Israel with the other two Fathers.”
“Expedition?” The priest frowned in further confusion.
“Yes, he’d been sent to Israel with some other priests to research something found out there by some locals. I can’t remember what it was, but I remember him being very excited when he received the news that he’d been chosen to go. He must have been out there for about six months. We all missed him, but unfortunately when he returned he was a very different person to the man who had left. I remember noticing he was a little withdrawn after he’d returned which I’d just put down to tiredness, but he never seemed to get his old spark back. I was expecting the excited stories of his adventures, but he didn’t really want to talk much about it and seemed to spend most of his spare time in the storeroom studying.“
“The storeroom? Really?”
Mrs. Roberts smiled gently, “Oh yes Father. It hasn’t always been a storeroom. It was only used as one after his accident. Up until about ten years ago it used to be used as a study. Those shelves still hanging from the old walls, the ones you said you wanted to sort out?”
The priest nodded.
“Well they were put up by Father Peterson to hold his books, but these days they’re just used as extra storage surfaces. It’s really a miracle how they’re still clinging to the walls considering the amount of boxes stacked on them.”
“I didn’t realize, but yes, it makes sense now I think about it. Is that why there’s a desk down there?”
“Yes, it was Father Peterson’s desk. You’re probably the first one to use it as a desk since him.” She pursed her lips and paused for a second, “Actually, you’re the first one to use it as a study since him.”
The priest’s face dropped. “Is there something wrong Father? Father Phillips, is everything OK?”
Father Phillips looked up, “Yes, yes of course.”
“I’m sure he wouldn’t mind you using it Father if that’s what concerns you. He’d probably be pleased someone was getting some real use out of it other than stacking boxes of junk on it.” Mrs. Roberts was about to go into another moan about Father Crane, before Father Phillips interjected,
“So, was it the stairs then?”
“The accident. Was it the stairs?”
“No, sadly not. They told me he was reading late at night and probably stood on a chair to get something, maybe another book from high up on one of the shelves. Anyway, they said he must have slipped because he was found in the morning lying on the floor.”
Father Phillips noticed her eyes fill just before she looked down. “They said,” her voice weakened as she struggled to continue, “they said he’d broken his neck when he hit the floor.”
Father Phillips momentarily grimaced but quickly adjusted he expression to one of care before Mrs. Roberts noticed.
“I’m sure it would have been quick.”
“They said so Father, which I suppose is a blessing. I was very upset when I heard what had happened. He was a lovely man. Awful, awful.” she repeated shaking her head slowly.
Father Phillips noticed her eyes welling up and handed her a piece of kitchen towel from the bingo club cupboard.
“I was never informed of this Mrs. Roberts and I’m sorry if it’s caused you any upset.”
“No Father it’s fine, it’s something you should have been told about. I’m surprised you weren’t, considering the fuss that followed after.”
“What sort of fuss?”
“The very next day a bishop turned up with two priests accompanying him. I’d never seen this bishop before or the two priests. They said they were a part of the expedition team and had come to collect some records. The bishop smiled and told me I could take the rest of the day off. When I said it was ok, I only had another half an hour until I was finished, his voice changed and he became very insistent that I should leave early. He was smiling all of the time. I won’t forget his smile Father.” She hesitated for a while and looked a little nervous as though not sure whether to continue.
Father Phillips wanted to know more and broke the tension by revealing a past experience by way of an equal trade,
“It’s ok Mrs. Roberts, I met a bishop once who looked like Hitler. I imagined him with that odd moustache every time I saw him. I sometimes found it difficult to hide my smirk as I imagined him goose-stepping up and down the church with jack-boots. You’re the first person I’ve ever told this to Mrs. Roberts.”
This comment seemed to do the trick and raised a little smile on her face before she resumed.
“Well even though he was smiling at me I could see by his eyes he was in no mood for niceties and the other two priests just stood there saying nothing, staring at me as though waiting for me to go. As I said, he was very insistent so I just nodded and agreed to leave early. Even though he was pretending to be nice, I’m sorry to say Father that I could see in his eyes he wasn’t a man I would associate with niceness. It was obvious he wanted me out of the way.”
Father Phillips listened intently and developed a slight frown of confusion at the last comment, “Do you remember his name?”
“Do you know, I’m not sure he ever told me. Maybe I’ve just forgotten after all those years, but I’ve never seen him since.”
“Did you leave?”
“Oh yes Father, I really didn’t feel as though I had a choice. I could almost feel him watching me as I made my way toward the doors. He must have gone down into the study when he was convinced I was leaving because when I got to the door I realized I’d left my coat behind and was in two minds to just leave it until later but noticed he’d gone when I turned around.
I quickly and quietly made my way back to the front pew past the curtain at the top of the study stairs. I was watching the curtains swaying and frightened out of my wits that he’d be standing behind them as I walked past. I walked very carefully, almost on tip-toes. I was praying my coat was actually where I remembered it. If it wasn’t there and he’d seen me then I would have found it hard explaining why I had returned without sounding as though I was a nosey old woman trying to make excuses for being caught. Luckily it was there crumpled on the seat of the front pew after slipping off the back. I collected it, turned very quietly and made my way back toward the doors. As I walked past the curtain I heard a loud crashing noise from the study. I remember jumping, but the fear kept me silent. I felt like an intruder in my own church. My heart was pounding. All I wanted to do was run for the doors, but I controlled myself and started to walk quietly toward them instead. Then I heard the bishop shout at one of the priests.”
“He was shouting at them? What was he shouting?”
“Father, I’ve said enough. I’m not sure I should say any more.”
“Whatever you tell me I shall not repeat. The amount of confessions I’ve taken are testament to this. You have my word Mrs. Roberts.”
He could see this elderly lady in front of him was clearly nervous and facing a dilemma whether to go out on a limb or not. She looked into his deep green eyes and nodded.
“I don’t like profanity Father and was shocked to hear the bishop shout at one of the priests and call him a ‘bloody idiot’. He told them nothing must be damaged and that they should find ‘the damn thing’ and ‘remove any trace’. I became very frightened Father and just wanted to leave as quickly as possible. In my hurry I didn’t notice one of the metal buttons hanging down from my coat as it was draped over my arm. Rushing to get out, I bashed the button against the side of the pew and made quite a loud cracking noise. It instantly went quiet down in the study. I knew they’d heard it. Someone came running up the stairs. I didn’t know whether to just explain or run, but before I realized, I had my back to the wall on the other side of the staircase. How he never saw me I don’t know.”
“Who was it?”
“Well, at the time, I assumed it was one of the priests because they ran up the stairs. The bishop seemed a little old for that sort of thing.”
“And was it?”
“Yes, although I was never sure which one because I only ever saw him from the back. After the running stopped I knew someone was standing near the curtains at the top of the stairs. I couldn’t tell which side of the curtains they were standing at first, but then they walked to their right just in front of me. Luckily they were looking diagonally over to the doors and then gradually turned to the left still facing away from me toward the altar.
When he started looking back over in the direction of the doors again I could hardly breathe. I thought any moment he was going to see me out of the corner of his eye. All he had to do was turn to his right a little more and he would have seen me. I must have only just been out of his sight and remember being so scared that I could hear my heart beating like a drum in my head. I was so worried he might hear it beating, it sounded so loud to me.
He stood there for what seemed like an age. I recall how increasingly difficult it was becoming to keep my breathing quiet. I just kept praying over and over that he wouldn’t hear me. Luckily the other priest must have dropped something else because I heard another quieter muffled bang, like a box dropping onto the floor or something. My prayers must have been answered Father because the priest near me never did turn around. He just walked slightly sideways to the left and disappeared back behind the curtain and down the stairs again. It was such a relief Father, hearing his footsteps growing fainter as he went back to the study. I was so near him, I just don’t know how he ever missed me. I waited for a few seconds until I heard a conversation in the study and then left.”
Father Phillips hoped the sensation of blood draining from his face wasn’t showing, “Do you know what they were looking for?”
“All I was interested in at that moment Father was getting out.”
“Of course, of course.”
“I went down into the study the next morning and all I could notice was how the top of one of the doors on the old wooden cleaning cupboard was broken. The crashing noise must have been that breaking as it fell forwards onto the shelves. A part of the shelf was also damaged too where the door must have hit it on the way over.”
Mrs. Roberts stared at the ground for a while shaking her head, “Father Peterson’s body, God rest his soul, hadn’t even been buried when they came. I don’t know what went on down there but I haven’t seen them since.”
Her eyes started to well up again, “Even though it was a long time ago it sometimes feels like only yesterday.”
Father Phillips nodded and gently placed a hand on her shoulder, “Well I appreciate you telling me Mrs. Roberts and if you ever feel down then you know you can talk to me at any time.”
“Yes, thank you Father, but I’ll be fine. I’m sure that I imagined a lot of the strange things. It was probably just the loss of a lovely man. Just being a bit of a silly old woman.”
“Not at all. You were obviously close to him and your reactions are only human.”
The weeks passed and Father Phillips’s visits to the storeroom subsided in the chaos of the Christmas preparations. He became so preoccupied organizing the various masses and visits to different institutions within the parish that his thoughts of the situation took a welcome place in the back of his mind. On the occasional visit for supplies he would momentarily stop and look over at the column. The result was always the same, an immediate flood of anxiety as he remembered what lay behind it. This feeling was further compounded by the memory of what Mrs. Roberts had told him.
During the brief respites from the Christmas mayhem, his fearful thoughts would again surface. Just thinking of what it could mean if Father Peterson was the author of this letter brought a knot in his stomach as tight as a clenched fist. He was at times thankful for the distraction brought by the festive period.
Mrs. Roberts quite looked forward to their chats and had fell into a rotor with Father Phillips when it came to making their mid morning cup of tea. They even shared Christmas Day together, which turned out to be a great idea as they were both alone in the world and enjoyed each other’s company.
Father Phillips often enjoyed talking to the elderly as they seemed far less prone to boasting and had so many first hand accounts of historical events, both good and bad. Although he also remembered that even war criminals got old and being old did not make you instantly pass through a cleansing process. That aside, he would often spend far more time than required sitting and listening to these natural historians when they would tell of their experiences during the Second World War. He experienced a mixture of emotions when he heard the accounts that some of these people would give. He would watch as their eyes would often stare as though their brains had disengaged from the information of the present in favour of the information of the past now showing like a cinema screen in their mind’s eye.
These were real personal accounts. No exaggeration or bravado. They just relayed what they recalled from their experiences. One of his parishioners was an elderly man who grew up in the East End of London and proud of the fact that he was born within the sound of Bow Bells, this made him a ‘true Cockney’. He told of the stark contrast between the quiet and picturesque countryside of Cornwall where he was sent to live as an evacuee and the derelict looking streets of London that he returned to. He smiled as he recalled the lovely young couple without any children of their own.
“They treated me like a son”.
Then his smile disappeared. “Not everyone was as lucky as me you know Father. I heard some had a really rough time of it.”
As he gave his account, it surprised Father Phillips to hear that he had been at home in London for a lot of the Blitz. He recalled how he used to watch the VI rockets fly overhead and listen to their engines.
“You knew you were safe while their engines kept running. It was when they cut out you were in trouble. Run out of fuel you see. Jerry knew the amount of fuel needed to get them roughly over London. Then down they come.”
He continued to give a tragic account, one like so many others of that period from both sides could probably do.
“The VI’s were bad, but later the others came along. The VII’s. You never heard them. There was just an almighty bang and half a street had gone. I used to lay in bed at night listening to the bombs. At first we all went down the tube station. There used to be a shop near the entrance that would charge a small amount to look after our gear. You know, blankets and stuff. That way we didn’t have to go home to get them first. As we got used to the bombs many people didn’t bother going down the tube stations. They’d all got so used to it all and started thinking when your time’s up, it’s up. Silly really when you look back, but that’s what started happening after a while. Sometimes we’d all sit in the cupboard under the stairs or even under the kitchen table. Anyway, there was a really loud bang one night. We knew it was near. I was told to stay in bed. In the morning I went out to play and most of my friend’s street had gone including his house. The whole family had been killed, including him. Not sure about his dad. Probably away fighting. He’ll be long gone now though.”
Although obviously very sad, these conversations were rich in history and experience, and even though Mrs. Roberts hadn’t any wartime tales to tell, her other experiences were still worthy of an ear and her roast potatoes were fantastic too.
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