ACOLYTES OF THE CHOSEN
THEORY OF THE CASE - CHAPTER SEVEN
The winter sun had already taken an early hiatus from lighting the world as Dr. Dorian Vinnit approached the steps of St. Gabriel's Catholic Church. The parish was located on the corner of Auven Blvd and Bronst Ave, also known as "car crash corner" to locals.
The road infrastructure in this part of town wasn't built to sustain the rapidly growing population in Covet, North Carolina. If anything, because of the conservative influence of the church and their undying wishes to maintain Covet's historical properties, Bronst Ave and Auven Blvd stand to be the most archaic, idiosyncratic corners in the city.
It had been a long-standing motion pushed through city council to have a roundabout installed to help ease the flow of traffic in this heavily populated area, but thanks to the leaders of the church this motion had been blocked every time it arose. A roundabout would destroy the historical cobblestone foundation of the two streets, cobblestone that was laid out in the early 17th century.
Because of the church's proclivity to side with preservation, more car accidents happened at this four-way intersection than all other intersections in the city combined. It was a well-known statistic, so much so that even a newcomer in town such as Dorian Vinnit had already learned about the phenomenon through town gossip.
Because of this, caution had forced him to park a block away and walk to the church, rather than chance parrallel parking curbside in front of the church where his car would be subject to being hit.
The charm of the snow had already worn off in Dorian's mind as he trudged numbly from his car to the church entrance in the cold darkness of early evening. Within thirty minutes of experiencing snow for the first time, he could easily see why people resented such weather. Its beauty was outmatched by the misery it caused. The unbearable chill it caused in Vinnit's bones, even through his woolen jacket, was not worth the beautiful landscape it created.
Dorian climbed the stone steps that ascended to the thick wooden doors of the parish. Light streamed through the stained glass above the doors, and Vinnit paused briefly to examine the intricate patterns detailed in the kaleidoscope-like glass.
The glass was a masterful portrait collaged of an entire spectrum of different colors. Like a patched-together, homemade quilt. The light from within the precinct illuminated the depicted scene adequately enough for Vinnit to revel in its meaning. The entirety of the collage made up the image of a crazed pig's head, but the illusion contained the imagery of an entire story unfolding.
It showed Jesus Christ, Dr. Vinnit contextually assumed, exorcizing a legion of demons from a man's body. The imagery moved from panel to panel, encapsulating the well-known story of the demons who fled from a man's body into a flock of pigs, possessing the pigs and forcing them to charge into a nearby body of water, effectively drowning themselves. The story was fully encapsulated within the greater image of a hog's head, its crazed eyes gazing out into the street with unjustifiable wrath, judging any passerby.
The artwork was a peculiar choice to have as a selection for what hangs above the welcoming doors of a church. But then again, it was a church. They weren't know for conforming to normative thinking or deductive reasoning, so why should their choices of artistic flare align with what society deemed beautiful?
It had been so long since Dr. Vinnit had attended a church of any capacity that he was almost unsure of how to enter. Was he supposed to knock and wait to be let in? Or was it appropriate to enter without invitation at such late hours in the day? And even upon his entrance, how was he to behave? Surely he would stick out like a sore thumb. Churches like this recognized what members attended regularly, and Vinnit's Indian complexion—candidly stated—most likely wouldn't align with the church's average milky-white racial preference.
After the better part of several minutes spent deciding the best method of proceeding, Vinnit made the daring decision to enter the church without knocking. After all, it's what Jesus would have done. What waited for him behind the heavy wooden doors was equal parts majestic and dull.
The cathedral-like body of the room was both boring and beautiful, and Dorian Vinnit couldn't quite place how an architect could create something this way. For starters, the layout of the singular worship chamber was arbitrary in the way the candlelight of the room actively fought a war against the converging darkness. Candles lined a path on stands that stretched the perimeter of the premise, lined against rich mahogany wooden walls. But there was only so much a candle could light, and so the darkness of the empty air above swam downward, descending to a noticable point, a transient veil where it swirled in the open air and retreated upon touching the aura of candlelit illumination.
The walls on either side of Dr. Vinnit were lined with stained glass, murals well-concealed within the darkness of the outer reaches of the room. Row after row of empty pew stretched from the back of the chamber to the front, the leading lines guiding the natural eye to the focal point of the room.
A large and ornate stage with an elaborate choir-stand, the back wall consumed by a convoluted conglomerate of pipes of varying sizes, all of which led back to the organ that sat nestled away in the back.
Despite all the extravagent wonder built into the architectural details of the room, it all paled in comparison to the gruesome cross displayed center stage. The cross that held the statue of a beaten and bloody man. A man whose head hung low, averting his eyes from looking up, exposing the crown of thorns upon his head for all to see. It was the same man sent demons into the cohort of pigs in the stained mural outside.
Jesus Christ, the man who supposedly saved the world by dying a death he didn't deserve. The man who took on the sins of the world, even though the world never asked him to carry such a burden. The man was a psychological phenomenon—one that will never be understood in full by any human who chooses to put their mind to the task.
"May I help you, sir?" a voice called from off in the distance.
Vinnit snapped from his trance of tunnel vision, his eyes leaving the bloody wound in Christ's ribs to search for his host. The priest lurked in the dancing shadows in the outskirts of the front stage. Where he had come from, Dorian Vinnit wasn't sure. The man had most likely been there this entire time, silently observing the arrival of the unorthodox guest. Places like this could pin an outsider in seconds.
"Uh, yes. Sorry to arrive at such a late hour. I can come back if you are closed," Vinnit announced, nervously wiping his sweating palms on his pants.
"We are of the opinion here that a church's doors should never be locked. Never know when a stranger might wander in seeking answers," the priest replied, winking sarcastically as he came forward from the concealment of shadows.
He was black, which caught Dorian Vinnit slightly off-guard. Not that Dr. Vinnit was bigoted or racist in the slightest. Quite the opposite, to be precise. Dorian Vinnit himself was of Arab descent, leaving his complexion the same shade of caramel year-round. And it was precisely Dorian Vinnit's identification as a minority in America that had made him aware to the fact that the town of Covet, North Carolina was 73% caucasian. Add on top of this the fact that churches normally have increased populations of the caucasian race—studies show that the attending population of a church is atypically 20-30% more caucasian than the average caucasian makeup of the city they reside in.
Add on the fact that the racial makeup of Catholic clergy is predominantly caucasian in America, just as statistics can imply the race of a member of a gang in the outskirts of Atlanta. Seeing a deviation from the cold-hard, racially skewed statistics in the skin color of the priest before him was surprising, especially as an avid observer of social patterns.
But Dorian Vinnit shouldn't have been surprised himself, for he had defied the odds of a child of Arabian immigrants becoming a professional psychiatrist.
"I'm afraid I don't come here with questions pertaining to religion," Dorian Vinnit replied, his voice equally somber as it was shy.
"Then you'll be amazed to find priests can provide insight to even non-religious questions. I'm Father Desmond," the priest said, extending his arm forward with a genuine handshake. Dorian closed the remaining gap between them between them and shook his hand firmly.
"Dorian Vinnit," Dr. Vinnit replied, ditching the title of 'doctor' that normally accompanied his name. There was something about being inside a church that made the title sound braggadocios and silly.
The priest's hand was warm and soft. And meeting his eyes mid shake brought comfort to Dorian's soul. The man wasn't abrasive or overbearing. Down-to-earth. That was a good way to describe the priest.
"It's nice to meet you Mr. Vinnit. Now if you'll just follow me to the confession booth, we'll get you set up for questions," Father Desmond replied, his face serious as a heart attack. Dorian's hand went limp. His smile faded ever-so-noticably.
Father Desmond saw the gut reaction consume Vinnit's face and burst into laughter, releasing Dorian's hand and pointing at him. "Gotcha!" the priest screeched in-between unfettered gasps of laughter, the joke becoming instantly apparent with his deep-throated chuckle.
"You shoulda seen the look on your face," the priest spat, the humor of the moment filling the entire cathedral with booming echoes of laughter. "Just have a seat in whatever pew you prefer, though I would recommend aisle 32. Call me crazy, but I swear it has memory foam for seat cushions."
Relief rolled over Vinnit's expression, and he actually chuckled at the joke. The priest had a sense of humor most human's didn't, and it caught him off-guard again. He hadn't expected a priest to crack incessant jokes back to back. So far Father Desmond was the exact opposite of who Vinnit had expected a priest to be.
The entire car ride over to St. Gabriel's, and the subsequent walk through the snow, Vinnit had pictured the generic, cookie-cutter image of a pasty-white old man with thick-rimmed glasses and a face lined with liver spots. Desmond was young and walked with a pep in his step. The kind of youth that hinted to Dorian Vinnit that he hadn't been employed with St. Gabriel's at the time of the exorcism that went wrong, but hopefully he could still possess some shred of knowledge concerning the event.
Father Desmond led his guest to aisle 32 and claimed his seat, crossing his leg over his knee in a feminine manner. He twisted his core so he could face Dorian's direction and invited him to sit beside him. Dorian did, though he sat as close to the edge of the pew as possible, not being a fan of close quarter conversation. It was a deviation from how he was used to conversing with people. For starters, he was normally the one who guided the flow of conversation. But the even the layout was perverted from what he was used to. He normally sat several feet from his patient, facing them head on. Now he was forcibly smooshed next to Father Desmond, directly beside him. The two were so close that Dorian Vinnit held with confidence that he could smell the tuna on the priest's breath from his last meal.
Vinnit awkwardly shifted in his seat so he could make eye contact with his lateral host, then cleared his voice, not specifically sure how to start such a conversation. "Uh, I came here because I work at Seoborn Mental Institute." Dr. Vinnit watched as that statement alone caused a distinctive gloss to roll over Father Desmond's eyes. He would need to be cautious with what he said next.
"Ah, so you are a doctor?" Desmond asked, instantly pushing away his look of superstition and replacing it with a faked look of admiration.
"Yes, I've recently been brought on to replace a psychiatrist who passed away."
"I am sorry to hear that. Is that why you've come? Grappling with the impending fear of death that grips us all?"
"No, not exactly. I hold no fear of death," Vinnit replied matter-of-factly, as if the statement had been something he'd held dear to his heart since he was a child. "I am here because I believe one of his patients came here. Five years ago. The child responsible for Father Grisham's death."
The revelation came out faster than Vinnit had planned for it. He had been planning on slowly building relevance, but for some reason the words poured out of him like projectile vomit. There was no holding them back, his stomach wouldn't allow them to be swallowed back down.
All humor left the priest's eyes and his face became distant, as if a camera flash had just left him blind.
"If that's what you came to discuss then I think it would be best if you left now," Desmond muttered, his voice sounding entirely different than it had been moments ago. Completely cold. Painfully poignant. Suspiciously sardonic.
"Forgive me, Father. I didn't mean to offend you in the slightest," Vinnit gasped, backpedaling as fast as he could. He had been wrong to jump into the conversation so fast. The last thing he needed to do was make an enemy out of his gracious host.
"You're one of them, aren't you? You've completely lied to my face just so you can try to leech from me more information on that night. We have told your kind before that we will seek legal mediation if you don't stop harassing us," Desmond said, standing up abruptly.
Vinnit remained seated, knowing the underlying psychological escalation that would take place if he stood as well. Instead he appeared submissive, lifting his hands up innocently, palms exposed, nothing to hide. "I have no idea what you're talking about, Father Desmond. I tell no lies! I moved here a month ago to replace Dr. Jagen at Seoborn Mental Institute. I am now overseer of his patients. I don't know who it is you speak of, but I have no affiliations with them."
"Then show me the inside of your lip, wise guy," the priest spat, as if the odd request was what would scare Vinnit away. Naturally, Dorian hesitated. Not because Vinnit was guilty of whatever accusation the request implied, but because this was the first time he'd ever been asked to expose the fleshy inside of his mouth to someone other than a doctor. But the priest was obviously offended to some degree by his question, so Dorian conceded to the command.
He gently rolled his bottom lip forward for Desmond to see and watched relief instantly wash over the priest's demeanor. He fell back into his seat, a deep chuckle dismissing his paranoia. "You must forgive me, Mr. Vinnit. We have been dealing with these sychophants for so long. Many times they've tried to slip someone into our ranks to get information on that night. It's sickening. In everything we do, we must be cautious. Surely you understand that as a psychiatrist? Confidentiality and all that."
"Of course, but I must admit that I have no idea what the hell you're talking about. I moved to Covet only a month ago. Whatever the church is dealing with I'm completely ignorant to."
"And if you're smart you'll stay that way. No need to go digging into things that don't concern you."
"Any information concerning this child warrants my investigation. After the passing of Dr. Jagen, the child falls into my psychiatric care. All records of the child have gone missing upon Dr. Jagen's death, and so I now launch an investigation of the child's origin so I can play catch up," Vinnit said, his voice getting drier as the lies continued to pour out. Lying to a priest, in a church nonetheless. Even for a nonbeliever, such an act was stooping low for Dr. Dorian Vinnit. Hopefully God would forgive him.
"Well first you would be wise to stop calling it a child, if we are going to speak on the child's origin. The thing that walked through those church doors five years ago was no child. But I was not here when it happened, and I won't tell the story of it as if I was. I was still in seminary at the time. All that I know has been passed down to me from word of mouth. As for the reasons of my paranoia, I can speak candidly. The child has garnered quite an occult following. Acolytes of the Chosen, they call themselves. All a crock, for all I'm concerned. I'm sure they've had no communication with the child whatsoever, but you wouldn't know it from the way they worship it as if it's their savior."
"And you thought I was a member of this..." Dr. Vinnit paused, trying to think of a more respectful term than 'cult'. "Organization?"
"Like I said," Father Desmond explained, his tone expressing fully well the disdain he held for these people. "I have dealt with these crazies. They snuck in here after-hours and beheaded Jesus," he said, motioning with his hands to the crucifix center stage with the tormented savior displayed in agony. "We've only just repaired the sculpture. Made the mold bronze this time though to avoid further damage."
"Why behead Jesus?" Dr. Vinnit asked, the correlation between the child and this group's agenda not aligning.
"Do you believe in the devil, Mr. Vinnit?" Father Desmond asked.
There was no reason to present a facade where it wasn't necessary, so Dr. Vinnit answered truthfully. "No, not particularly. It's a rather arbitrary topic I find, the concept of good and evil."
"Quite the contrary, sir. Now, if you were to say that concept of God is arbitrary, then you'd have some footing. But evil? That is not arbitrary whatsoever. It's quite quantifiable. It surrounds us."
"But some would argue evils are relative," Dr. Vinnit interposed, playing the devil's advocate, as it was natural for him to do.
"Do you suppose the slaughter of six million Jews during the Holocaust was relative evil?"
"Come on Father, you've taken the concept to an extreme. That's reductio ad absurdum."
"No, it would be reductio ad absurdum if I was using the Holocaust as my basis for why evil exists. I needn't rely on only that. I sit up there in that booth day after day accepting confessions, Mr. Vinnit," Desmond said, pointing at the confession booth to the side of the stage. His face had grown serious. Passionate. His finger trembled with repressed anger as he pointed at the booth. "Day after day I sit in there and listen to the dark nature of people. I've heard men and women who have been holding in lies for decades come clean. Lies that are at times unbearable. I have had rapists confess of their crimes to me, Mr. Vinnit. Me and you are not so different. Both of us, listening to people and their problems all day long. Allowing them a safe space for them to open up. We just diagnose the symptoms differently. You, with scientific lingo. Me, with religious. You, with schizophrenia disorder. Me, with possession."
"What does any of this have to do with the child, sir?" Dr. Vinnit interrupted, not favoring the direction the conversation was headed. It seemed as if the priest's insecurities were beginning to make him defensive, which would close him off to open-minded conversation.
"Well, I asked if you believe in the devil," Father Desmond replied, conceding to bring about whatever point he was trying to make. "You've admitted that you don't, and so I'm here to warn you that there comes a day in all our lives when we witness something so horrid—so shockingly evil—that it can only be explained by extremes. I believe this child will be that reckoning for you. There is nothing more for me to say on the child's nature or origin. You will find no one working here anymore who was there the night of the exorcism."
Dr. Vinnit's ears pricked when they heard the final statement. "Were there others there that night?"
Father Desmond was confused for a moment, then remembered that Dr. Vinnit had nowhere near the education on occult exorcism that priests received in their training. "Three. There must always be three present. There is strength in such a number."
"And the other two who were with Cardinal Grisham?"
"Still alive, though they both probably wish they weren't."
"I hate to be pushy, Father Desmond, but do you happen to have their contact information? Address? Anything I could use to touch base with these two."
Desmond's face took on a certain look of reproach. It was the look any man adopted when his conscience was weighing the ethical repurcussions of a decision. Like someone swishing wine in their mouth, mulling over their judgement of whether or not it was acceptable.
"Father Rowski and Sister Galen. Those were the two there that night. That was their last night as official clergy in the Catholic church."
"Why's that?" With every question the psychiatrist asked he could sense he was coming closer to a question that would end the conversation. He was walking on eggshells to continue trudging forward, but he wasn't afraid to burn the bridge that connected Father Desmond and him.
"They nearly died that night, Mr. Vinnit," Desmond said matter-of-factly. "They escaped by the grace of God alone. They are both maimed beyond repair and were forced to resign. Father Rowski lives with his son in Charity. It's about three hours west. Sister Galen, on the other hand, you won't need to go far to speak to."
"And why's that?"
Father Desmond looked at Dr. Vinnit quizzically, eyebrows raised, forehead creased in wrinkles. A look that implied the answer should be obvious. "Didn't you say you work at Seoborn Mental Institute?"
"Sister Galen has been a patient there for the past five years. Whatever she saw that night, it shattered her brain. I've visited her. The accident caused her to go insane, Mr. Vinnit."
That's impossible, Dorian thought to himself. There is no mention of Sister Galen in Dr. Jagen's journal. Surely he would have made the connection and followed up. Two patients that are inextricably linked must be cared for by the same doctor.
"But I'd warn you to put yourself in their shoes before you go prodding them with questions like you have with me, Mr. Vinnit. I enjoy a speculative conversation every now and then. But these two have spent years building up walls to cope with their trauma. What good would it really do to ask them to remember what happened that night?"
Dr. Vinnit stood, slightly offended by the remark. "No offense, Father Desmond, but I am a trained psychiatrist. It is my job to help people face their demons, not encourage them to build walls to hide from them."
"Ah, but as these two know better than most, some demons cannot be faced if one wishes to remain alive. Cardinal Grisham could tell you that, if he was still here," Father Desmond said, standing to meet Dorian.
"Is there anything else I need to know about these acolytes you mentioned?" Vinnit asked, preparing to leave.
"No sir. I have a feeling that if you continue down this route of investigating you will find out more about them than you wish you knew. As a friend, I'd say watch you back. You never know who you can trust in Covet's city limits."
"Thank you for your wise words tonight. I think I have everything I need to get to the root of this, though I do wish you'd tell me what happened that night instead of making me drive three hours to dig up past traumas from a firsthand witness," Dorian said, extending his hand for a customary shake.
"Something tells me it will be better for you to hear it from someone that was actually there," Desmond said, grabbing the psychiatrist's hand. "And part of me is hoping Father Rowski can instill in you the fear of the devil."
"And part of me is hoping I can convince Father Rowski there is no such thing as devils," Dr. Vinnit said, tightening his grip and shaking firmly. Father Desmond smirked at the statement.
"Come back if you ever need to talk. The confession booth is always open, and we need not sit in it for you to get things off your chest."
"Thank you, Father. Good night."
The shadows of the cathedral shifted malevolently across Father Desmond's face in a way that made Vinnit feel uncomfortable. It was like when a cloud overhead blots out the sun, covering those below in shade. Except they were inside, and there was no reason for the shadows to be actively moving.
And the moving shadow that covered half of Desmond's face was accompanied by a perverted grin. One that wasn't a priestly smile in the least. One that was devilish in its own right. A smile that curled his lips ever so slightly. Just enough to expose something dark on the pinkish flesh inside.
A dark birthmark? No.
Birthmarks do not appear inside a person's mouth.
This was something entirely different. A tattoo.
The devilish smile revealed the smallest trace of a tattoo on the inside of the priest's bottom lip.
"Goodnight, Dr. Vinnit. Travel safely. Lots of accidents in these parts at this hour," he said threatingly.
Dr. Vinnit turned immediately and briskly left the church, not looking back, too focused on the goosebumps raised on his skin and the shiver that wanted to run down the course of his spine.
He was greeted by the cold embrace of winter once more, its frigid embrace doing little to deter the goosebumps across his body. Dr. Vinnit stumbled down the steps, nearly slipping halfway down on the slick snow. He caught himself on the railing, steadied his feet, and proceeded. His heart was thudding fast, and he wished it was from the prospect of almost falling on his ass. But no, this was the sort of thumping one's heart does when they've seen a ghost. And Dr. Vinnit wasn't superstitious in the slightest, but even his mind was beginning to lose its inner battle against supernatural dogma.
It was as he was walking past the church's attached cemetery that his footing left him. Black ice—an enemy uncommon to a Southerner—pulled Vinnit's feet out from beneath him. His body hit the ground with a disgusting thump and the air left his lungs. He felt a pop in his hip from the fall, followed by a sharp pain down his leg. A person's body wasn't meant for falling as hard as Dr. Vinnit's ungraceful body did.
And so he lay there, the snow in the air falling fast on top of him. Like a corpse being buried by shovelfuls of dirt. His eyes peered through the fence of the cemetery while his body tried to gain the energy to get off the ground. And it was his averted eyes that saw it.
There, amidst the morbid sight of a thousand headstones, was the stone statue of a headless Jesus Christ perched upon the cross. The moon shined down on the headless figure, illuminating the unfairness of the situation. Jesus Christ, the man who took upon his shoulders the weight of the world. The same man who gathered a world of hate for doing so.
About the author
I am a 22-year-old recent graduate from Mars Hill University. I have a double major in Criminal Justice and Religion & Philosophy. I also played collegiate lacrosse! In my free time you can find me writing fiction and hiking with my dog.