The visiting theologian caught a whiff of sizzling bratwurst and made a beeline for the food court across from the hotel parking lot.
“Riverfest,” the concierge said as the man slipped out of the lobby. Wichita’s annual welcome to ‘summer done right’ with music, food, and outdoor happenings. “You from out of town?” the glorified bellhop called.
But the kindly gentleman — a Rev. Dr. Johann Strauss if anyone cared to inquire — merely smiled and waved his thanks. His smile faded when he saw the lines. Stubborn German that he was, the silver-haired bible professor cut through the press of bikers, cowgirls, and blue-collar types to establish his place behind a middle-aged woman who shouldn’t have been wearing skinny jeans. He nodded politely but wrinkled his nose when she lit a Marlboro and puffed smoke through a sideways kiss.
“You ain’t from around here.”
Nice to meet you as well.
The woman turned and ordered one of the heart-clogging delicacies advertised above the booth: deep fried Snickers, chocolate-covered cheesecake, red velvet funnel cake. He’d pass. His stomach was set on bratwurst and it grumbled an objection when he considered, briefly, ordering a Pronto Pup.
Accepting his sandwich in an exchange that put the ouch! in price gouging, Dr. Strauss looked for open seats amongst the scattered tables along the sloping bank of the Arkansas River. There were none. So he stood there, still clad in the suit and tie he’d worn on the plane, and listened to country music twanging from the main stage.
He thought he sensed a familiar presence, an unwelcome one, and scanned the crowd for any kind of disturbance. No, it’s not quite time. He felt the heat of his bratwurst slipping away. He took a bite at last, savoring the warm juices and the taste of grilled onion and bell pepper.
Strauss looked up when a woman screamed. The zip line that spanned the river had snapped and he saw a figure splash into the water. People yelled. People ran. Three or four jumped in to save her.
She’ll be fine. The commotion was all preliminary. Flash and fanfare. There was more to come, surely. Beelzeboul’s spawn wouldn’t have it any other way. The professor shook his head in disgust. He’d been tracking the arrogant bastard for years and now that he was within moments of their confrontation, he couldn’t help feeling a bit let down. Chaos and mayhem? Evil had become so prevalent in recent generations as to become banal.
Still, he had a job to do. And there was no guarantee he’d succeed in banning his assigned foe to the abyss. Johann knew the risks. This particular demon had outmaneuvered — and outlived — the best of God’s soldiers for centuries. It demanded a bit more than what the typical local priest could offer.
A Vatican veteran was needed. The stakes were too high. A devil spirit in flesh and bone meant not only a superhuman resistance but an inhuman counterattack. Winner take all. This wasn’t the movies, after all. Once it entered a willing host, all bets were off. That’s why Johann was sent to confront it.
Riverfest’s food court was a serendipity.
A loud speaker blew. Sparks erupted from the sound equipment beside the main stage. The music stopped abruptly and more people yelled, more people ran. The professor scanned the crowd and thought about the kind of person a demon might use in a situation like this. A drunken thug? A scrawny tripped-out teen? The Reverend Doctor shrugged. Who knew? There was little he could do about it at the moment. He looked at his watch. Almost show time.
He started toward the stage, then stopped and pursed his lips. Damn it all. The demon could wait.
It would have to; he wasn’t finished with his bratwurst. The aging theologian took another bite and let out a sigh, satisfaction mixing with a kind of solemn resignation. When he’d gotten the phone call that brought him to town, he’d thought about food of all things. If there was but one meal left to eat, what would it be? He swallowed. Now he knew.
Gazing thoughtfully at the sinking sun as it raced to find its place beyond the horizon, another person screamed. He took in his surroundings, ready at last to face his demon. Then he saw it.
Or her, rather.
The old prof chuckled softly. He should have known. It had been ages since the corrupt spirit had appeared to him in this particular form. Back to the beginning, eh? Fitting. And pure irony that she was wearing a blue dress. The effect was far from sexual, however.
“Hello,” the little girl said.
“Heidi,” Johann replied. It was uncanny. Her face was the exact image that haunted his dreams.
“You remember me.”
“Of course. You wouldn’t have me forget my sister, would you? You’re the reason I studied for the priesthood. You… she’s the reason I’m here.”
The girl smiled not quite innocently. “You have a long memory, for which I’m glad.”
“It’s been a long forgiveness. And since you aren’t actually Heidi, let’s end this little charade, shall we? Finish our business once and for all?”
“Oh, we shall, doctor, we shall. But not today, I think. You aren’t quite ready.”
But I am!
“No, I sense that you’re still uncertain. You haven’t made up your mind as to whether I’m real or simply a projection of your own guilt.”
The two stared at each other in silence; the moment, supernaturally frozen in time. No music blaring, no people shouting. Just the man and his demon, who broke the silence with a murderous, thrusting accusation, “Accident or no, you did kill me, Johann.”
The Rev. Dr. Strauss turned away in silence as the demon laughed. The moment for his final exorcism had passed, but he prayed for another showdown. When he knew for certain. And he vowed that next time he wouldn’t fail.
Lyndon Perry is a middle school Language Arts teacher, part-time swim coach, full-time husband, and grateful father of two. His stories usually contain a dash of the fantastic (and sometimes cats). As Garth Perry, he pens mysteries and thrillers.