Steam drifted from the surface of Marisa Ramirez’s coffee. She blew on it gently, cupping the mug between her hands to warm her chilly fingers. Golden morning light rimmed the closed curtains over the sink. The thermometer outside the window read sixty-six. The swamp cooler clicked on and blew chilled air into the kitchen. Marisa shrank deeper into her sweater.
Augustin Ramirez sat across the table with his face in his hands. The ceiling rattled above their heads as distant screams and sobs peaked in time with fists pounding against the floor.
His left cheek muscle twitched. They exchanged glances, and he found his own haunted expression mirrored in her face.
Hands shaking, she lifted her coffee cup and took a sip.
The doorbell chimed. Their daughter shrieked in response.
“Are you going to get that?” Augustin asked. Marisa didn’t respond. His jaw tightened. “I said, are you going to get that?” She ducked her head, lips trembling. The right side of her mouth was darkened with the shadow of a bruise. He made a disgusted noise, shoving his chair back as he stood. “Fine. I’ll get the door.”
She took another drink and set the mug down.
The living room blinds were shut and covered by heavy curtains, casting the room in twilight. Augustin navigated to the door by memory, unlocked the dead bolt, peeked through the door.
The woman on the other side pushed her sunglasses into her hair to study him with narrowed eyes. A single scar broke the line of her right eyebrow.
“Augustin Ramirez. Right?”
“Yes,” he said. “I’m sorry… do I know you?”
She held out a hand. She wore black gloves with a button at the wrist. “Elise Kavanagh. James sent me.”
He gave her hand a brief shake. Her grip made his knuckles ache. “James Faulkner?” Augustin asked. “He said he was going to send a—uh, an exorcist to look at our daughter.”
Elise nodded. “Yes, right. I’m the exorcist.”
“You’re not what I… that is to say…”
“Yeah, I know. Can I come in?”
“Yes,” Augustin said, stepping aside.
“I’m sorry I’m late. I was on my way to the office, and I wasn’t expecting James to ask me to do a job. I haven’t been an exorcist in a long time.” She indicated her outfit with a sweep of her hand—a black skirt, white blouse, and black blazer. Augustin wasn’t sure what he expected an exorcist to wear. Maybe leather and chains. Definitely not business casual.
She handed a business card to him. Elise Kavanagh, Certified Public Accountant. It was so absurd he had to laugh. “So you used to exorcise people a lot?”
“More often than I do now,” Elise said. “I went into retirement five years ago. Anyway, I’m not going to exorcise your daughter. I’m going to determine if it’s demonic possession.”
“Demonic possession,” he echoed. “You have me at a loss. Frankly, this all seems a little… absurd.”
She gave a humorless, thin-lipped smile that might have been a grimace.
“You’re here,” Marisa said. She hovered in the doorway, arms wrapped around her shivering body. “I’m so glad you came.”
Augustin frowned. “You know this woman?”
“She’s always at the coven meetings,” Marisa said. Her voice trembled slightly. “I think she does James’s accounting. And he told me they’re, uh, bound. Kopis and aspis.”
Her cheeks colored. “It’s Latin.”
“Greek, actually,” Elise said. “Kopis means sword, and aspis means shield. It means I am—or used to be—a warrior against the forces of Hell, and he’s my partner.” She wasn’t laughing at all. She was completely serious.
Distaste twisted Augustin’s mouth. “Coven nonsense. It’s taken me awhile to get used to the idea of witchcraft in the first place, and I don’t think—”
Elise held up a hand. “I have places to be. I don’t have the time to let you get used to it, Mr. Ramirez.”
His face grew hot. “I’m not—”
“Augustin,” Marisa said softly.
He closed his eyes and took a breath. Their marriage counselor harped on him about counting to ten when he was getting too angry, but he gave it to twenty this time. Covens and “warriors against Hell.” He could count to a thousand and still feel unsettled.
“Sorry,” Augustin finally said. “We’re stressed.”
Elise accepted his apology by inclining her head. “Where’s Lucinde?”
“She’s upstairs. We’ll go with you.”
Marisa and Elise headed up the stairs. Augustin followed a of steps behind, watching the legs of the supposed exorcist. She wasn’t wearing nylons. Another scar marred her ankle, like a dog bite that had long since healed into a fleshy white mass, and his stomach turned. Some accountant.
Elise spoke to Marisa as they walked, oblivious to the reaction her scars evoked. “I need to ask you some questions. Have you summoned any demons or used a Ouija board?”
“Of course not.”
“Any unusual noises or sightings? Animals with glowing eyes, objects flying across the room, strange noises on the telephone…”
Marisa shook her head. “Aside from Lucinde’s illness, everything has been normal.”
“What about nightmares? Have you experienced sexual dreams of a dark nature?”
“That’s a personal question,” Augustin interrupted.
Elise’s lip curled, but she didn’t respond.
“I haven’t,” Marisa said. Her voice was hardly louder than a whisper. “Augustin?” After a moment, he shook his head. “Lucinde was having nightmares before. Not… sexual. But she kept waking up screaming.”
“Did she tell you what she was dreaming about?” Elise stopped to peer at a family camping photo beside an artful arrangement of silk flowers. In the picture, the Ramirezes were tan and smiling. Lucinde’s low, croaking moans echoed through the house.
“She told me a monster was eating her heart,” Marisa whispered. “I thought… I mean, what a strange thing for a little girl to dream about. She dreamed a monster ate her heart and sat in her chest.”
Elise’s eyebrows lifted. “Really.”
“It’s not weird for her to have bad dreams,” Augustin interjected. “Especially not about her heart. She has a condition. The doctors don’t think it should be fatal, but you know how kids are. Of course she’s scared of bad things happening to her heart.”
“What kind of heart condition?” They reached the top of the stairs, pausing down the hall from Lucinde’s room. All the doors were open but hers.
“I don’t think you need to know that to do your job,” Augustin said.
“Just wondering. I assume you’ve already taken her to see a doctor and a psychologist?”
“Those were our first choices. They gave us the option of waiting to see if she would improve or sticking her in an institution. I wouldn’t have let Marisa call you unless we didn’t have any choices left.”
“I see. I’m going to go in and look at her now.”
“Be careful. She’s gotten… violent,” Marisa said.
“How violent can a five-year-old be?” Elise gave an unpleasant smile that didn’t suit her angular face. “I’m sure I’ve handled worse.”
“Just be careful. She’s in here.”
Elise approached the door Marisa indicated, and the Ramirezes hung back. The girl became quieter as she grew near. When she stood before the door, Lucinde became entirely silent.
Elise pushed the door open and went inside.
Lucinde’s room was even colder than the rest of the house. Heavy curtains cast the room in near-complete darkness, and a portable swamp cooler made the air chill and muggy. A white canopy bed blocked the back half of the darkened room.
There were multiple obstacles strewn across the floor: an overstuffed comforter, rose-colored pillows in varying sizes, and a toy chest. Possible hiding places included the closet and the shadowed area behind a pink trunk with princess costumes draped over the sides. No girl in sight.
Elise didn’t like the room’s poor visibility. It felt confined. Dangerous. “I’m going to open the window, Marisa.”
“She won’t like it.”
She moved toward the window, hugging the wall, and stepped over a toy unicorn with blood caking the mane to its neck. Ears perked for any hint of motion, she jerked aside the first layer of curtains, then the second.
Light filled the room. Someone squealed.
Elise rounded the bed in time to see bare feet disappearing under the bed. “Lucinde?”
She dropped to her hands and knees and leaned her cheek close to the carpet. A pair of luminous eyes stared back at her. The girl under the bed looked nothing like Marisa. Her skin was dark, like her father’s, and her flat nose was offset by his same expressive lips.
“Cold,” she hissed. “Cold!”
Elise’s gaze traveled over her bared legs. Her knees were heavily bruised, purple and black and brown on the edges. The flesh on her shins looked like broiled strawberries. “Have you used force to restrain her?” Elise asked.
“She hurts herself,” Marisa said. “We can’t stop her.”
“Colder!” Lucinde demanded again, sinking further into the corner as though she wanted to hide inside the wall. Elise glanced at the swamp cooler. Colder.
Lucinde tried to jerk away when she touched her foot, but Elise caught her ankle, pulling her foot into the light. A few remaining flakes of pink nail polish decorated her toenails under caked blood. One nail had been torn out. She released the child’s ankle, and withdrew again.
“How are you doing?” Elise asked. “Quomondo vales?”
Lucinde froze. Her eyes widened fractionally.
“Quomondo vales?” she repeated. “Loquerisne Latine? No? ¿Hablas inglés?”
“She speaks English,” Marisa said, offended.
Elise pulled the chains of her necklace over head and picked a bronze pendant from amongst the other charms. It caught the sun and scattered gold light on Lucinde’s forehead. The whites of her eyes were almost yellow, shot through with crimson veins, and a long, low hiss issued from between her lips.
“Crux sacra sit mihi lux,” Elise whispered. Lucinde recoiled, covering her face.
“What are you doing?” Augustin demanded.
Lucinde remained flat against the carpet, fingers spread through the dusty shag as though she feared being dragged away. She whimpered like a wounded dog.
She was so small. Elise was sure she had never been that small.
Elise leaned closer. “Can you speak?”
Marisa stepped forward. “Watch out—”
The girl’s foot lashed out and the bedroom exploded into red stars. The pain struck a moment later like being struck in the jaw by a baseball bat.
She reeled, hand flying to her mouth. Lucinde scurried from beneath the mattress.
“Colder! Colder!” Her voice was shrill, piercing.
Lucinde’s nails flashed. Elise raised her arm in defense—but the little girl stopped short, swiping the hand inches from Elise’s face. Lucinde’s wrist was roped to the corner of the bed.
Augustin hauled the exorcist to her feet, dragging her away from Lucinde. She shook her elbow free of his grip.
“We told you to be careful,” he said, voice rough. “She’s not normal anymore.” Elise ignored him, meeting the girl’s eyes.
“Cold,” Elise echoed.
Marisa moved into the room, making soothing noises. Lucinde screamed a long note with the tenor of a beast. Augustin guided Elise out of the room and shut the door. Without windows, the hallway was darker than Lucinde’s bedroom, but it felt much less oppressive.
“We won’t be held liable for our daughter’s—”
“I’m not going to sue you for my wound, if that’s what you’re getting at. I’ve had many injuries much worse than this.”
“Good.” His mouth twisted. “Good. What were you doing in there?”
“Testing her,” she said. “This is the pendant of Saint Benedict. He’s the patron saint of a lot of things—nettle rash, servants who have broken stuff that belongs to their masters. Spelunkers.”
“He’s also invoked during exorcisms. I wanted to see if she would react to Latin because a lot of Greater Demons don’t speak any living languages.”
“She’s been speaking English,” Augustin said. “She keeps saying ‘cold.’”
“I saw that.”
“So… what do you think?”
“I can’t say if she’s possessed,” Elise said, touching the back of her hand to her mouth. It came away bloody. “She’s definitely got an attitude problem.”
“She was never like this before,” Augustin said.
“I’m sure.” She headed down the stairs, leaving Lucinde’s screams behind her. “I’ll do some research. I’ve seen my share of possessions and exorcisms, but never one as spontaneous as this. You’re sure nothing has been flying around?”
“Completely sure. We’re not freaks.”
“You don’t have to be a freak to be targeted by demons; just unlucky or stupid. Since you haven’t summoned anything, you could be the former.”
“We’re not stupid.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Don’t put words into my mouth.”
Augustin puffed out his chest. “Can you exorcise Lucinde or not?”
“I could, if she’s possessed,” Elise said. “It definitely seems like a demon problem.”
“Like in the Bible.”
“Yes. ‘Like in the Bible.’ I’m going to confer with James, after which he’ll be in contact with you. What would be the best number to reach you at?”
“Marisa’s so-called high priest has it,” Augustin said.
“Okay. Keep Lucinde in her room for now. Try to keep her eating and drinking water, because if she is possessed, she’ll resist it on her own,” Elise said. She touched her bleeding lip. “You already know to keep your distance.”
He opened the front door to let in the hot summer air. The clouds had thickened since Elise’s arrival, and it smelled like rain again. “You have my card. Call me when she gets worse,” she said, stepping outside.
Augustin was already closing the door. He looked as inclined to give her a call as he was to offer a finger to his daughter’s mouth. “Right, thanks,” he said.
Elise paused by the Ramirezes’ gate. She glanced up at Lucinde’s window, half-covered in a heavy drape. As she watched, a hand came up to jerk it closed.
“You’re welcome,” she muttered. Elise turned on her car, cranked the radio, and pulled out of the cul-de-sac.
In the bushes between the Ramirezes’ house and their neighbor’s, an earless gray creature crouched in the shadow of the tree watching Elise’s car pull away. A small tongue darted out of its mouth to lick its leathery lips.
It blinked, dedicating Elise’s face to memory, and vanished.