Three days later, Nick sat on the edge of the hospital bed and slowly pulled on the tee shirt his father had brought him. Washing and dressing had exhausted him. His father crouched down and tied the laces on his sneakers.
“Pop, I told you not to come today.”
Dom stood and rolled his head from side to side to loosen his back after bending over. “The nurse brought your pain pills while you were in the bathroom.” He handed Nick a small paper cup with two pills.
Nick grunted and set the cup on the tray table.
His father poured water from a plastic pitcher into a cup and handed it to Nick. “Take the pills, son. It will help the pain.”
Taking the cup from his father’s shaking hand, he tossed the pills into his mouth and took a long drink of water. “I’ll never understand why you’re here, but, thank you, Pop.”
The husky man in the suit, accompanied by a male orderly pushing a wheelchair, entered the room. Another taller man in a dark suit stood in the doorway watching Nick.
His father gripped him in a bear hug. “I wish . . . I’m so sorry, Nick.”
The orderly stood behind the chair as Nick eased himself into it. The husky man held out a pair of handcuffs, slipped them over Nick’s wrists and then snapped them closed.
Dom slumped on the edge of the empty bed, his face hidden behind his hands as they wheeled Nick out the door.
The elevator ride downstairs made him light-headed. The orderly pushed him out the front doors of the hospital, down a side ramp and stopped at the curb. Bright sunlight stung his eyes. One of the men waved to a dark brown van parked a few yards away. It pulled closer and parked with the engine running. Nick could barely stand, and the two men had to lift him into the middle row of the van. The tall man slid in beside him and the shorter one got into the front passenger seat. A third man, the driver, shifted into drive and pulled away from the curb. He looked familiar, but Nick couldn’t focus his blurry vision on the man’s reflection in the rear-view mirror. The sun flickering through the front windshield made him squint and his body fell forward into the back of the driver’s seat whenever the van braked at a red light. The man next to him pushed him back with one arm. They rode in silence with only the hypnotic hum of the van’s engine and the muffled sounds of traffic filtering through the rolled-up windows. The heaviness in his eyelids spread throughout his body. As the van made a right turn, Nick couldn’t stop himself from falling over sideways.
He knew his arms were tied down before he opened his eyes. Small flames clustered around him in the dim room. As his eyes focused, he saw two stands of tall candles on either side of him. He sat in a high-backed chair made of heavy, carved wood, his wrists lashed to its sturdy arms with brown leather straps. Another fastened across his chest and more straps secured his ankles to the thick chair legs. He struggled against the bonds but couldn’t budge them or the heavy chair. The small room looked familiar. A green couch to his left and floor to ceiling shelves of books lined the three walls he could see.
“Hey!” he shouted.
The room felt warm, stuffy and smelled of burning candles. A door opened behind him. He turned his head but the tall back of the chair obscured his view. The three men from the van entered and stood in front of him. Instead of dark suits, they wore white albs and purple stoles. One carried a crucifix and another a glass bowl. The third carried a thick leather-bound book. They stepped back as Father Santore entered. He stood in front of Nick, wearing an embroidered purple and gold chasuble over his robe.
“Father? W-what’s going on? These men are priests?”
Santore didn’t answer. He dipped his fingers into the glass bowl, flicked the water at Nick and made the sign of the cross as he murmured a blessing. The tiny droplets stung Nick’s skin, burning like acid. The pain angered him and Santore’s monotonous prayers fueled his anger into rage. He spat at Santore and screamed curses to drown out the priest’s words.
Father Santore’s solemn, brown eyes stayed fixed on Nick. He nodded to the priest holding the book. The young man opened it to a page bookmarked with a long purple ribbon and held it up for Father Santore.
“Let us begin.” Santore recited the Litany of Saints. The other three responded in chorus.
“Lord, have mercy on us.” The older priest’s deep voice filled the room.
The three younger priests answered in unison, “Christ, have mercy on us.”
“Lord, have mercy on us.” Santore and the priests continued their alternating recitations.
“Christ, hear us.”
“Christ, graciously hear us.”
“God, the Father of Heaven, have mercy on us.”
“God the Son, Redeemer of the World, have mercy on us.”
“God the Holy Ghost, have mercy on us.”
“Holy Trinity, One God, have mercy on us.”
“Holy Mary, pray for us.”
“Holy Mother of God, pray for us.”
“Holy Virgin of Virgins, pray for us.”
Father Santore blessed himself and called out, “Saint Michael, pray for us.”
“Saint Gabriel, pray for us.”
Nick strained at the straps and shouted for them to stop. Words tumbled from his mouth that sounded foreign to his own ears. His voice deepened into a guttural growl and then rose to a shrill shriek. He glowered at the priests through a red haze that deepened with his fury.
Father Santore continued to call out the seemingly never-ending list of saint’s names.
“Saint Cecilia, pray for us.
Saint Catherine, pray for us.
Saint Anastasia, pray for us.
All ye Holy Virgins and Widows, pray for us.”
Each syllable the priest uttered stung like a vicious slap across Nick’s face. The room temperature soared. He rocked the chair from side to side and fought to kick his legs free.
Santore continued, “From All Evil, O Lord, deliver us.
From all Sin, O Lord, deliver us.
From thy Wrath, O Lord, deliver us.
From a Sudden and Unprovided Death, O Lord, deliver us.
From the Deceits of the Devil, O Lord, deliver us.”
A gleeful shriek shot from Nick’s mouth as one of the ankle straps broke with a loud snap. The three young priests converged on him. Two struggled to hold down his flailing leg, while the third used his stole to tie Nick’s ankle to the chair leg.
Unruffled, Father Santore recited his monologue, his voice clear and steady. He ignored the obscenities Nick shouted and used a white linen cloth to wipe Nick’s saliva from his face.
“Holy Lord, almighty Father, everlasting God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who once and for all consigned that fallen and apostate tyrant to the flames of hell, who sent your only-begotten Son into the world to crush that roaring lion; hasten to our call for help and snatch from ruination and from the clutches of the noonday devil this human being made in your image and likeness. Strike terror, Lord, into the beast now laying waste your vineyard. Fill your servants with courage to fight manfully against that reprobate dragon, lest he despise those who put their trust in you and say with Pharaoh of old: “I know not God, nor will I set Israel free.” Let your mighty hand cast him out of your servant, Nick, so he may no longer hold captive this person whom it pleased you to make in your image, and to redeem through your Son; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, forever and ever.”
The tall, tapered candles had burned down to tiny nubs in the candelabras. Nick slumped, gasping in the chair, his clothing soaked with sweat and his throat raw from screaming. Still the priest read from the pages of the book, stopping only to bestow blessings and sprinkle holy water over him.
“I command you, unclean spirit, whoever you are, along with all your minions now attacking this servant of God, by the mysteries of the incarnation, passion, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ, by the descent of the Holy Spirit, by the coming of our Lord for judgment, that you tell me by some sign your name, and the day and hour of your departure. I command you, moreover, to obey me to the letter, I who am a minister of God despite my unworthiness; nor shall you be emboldened to harm in any way this creature of God, or the bystanders, or any of their possessions.”
Violent spasms rattled Nick’s body and a fiery column surged into his throat. He instinctively opened his mouth to give the vile-tasting acid churning inside his gut an outlet. A dense black mist streamed from his mouth and snaked through his nostrils. The blackness exited his body like a mass of stinging wasps. He writhed in pain and cried out as thousands of burning needles pierced his flesh.
Nick’s head lolled forward until his chin touched his chest and his eyelids closed. His bandaged wound throbbed, its rhythm synced with the drumming of his heart. Opening his eyes was an effort.
Father Santore dipped his thumb into the holy water and traced a small cross on Nick’s forehead. Cool water drizzled down his nose and cheeks. It soothed the sting of hot needles pricking his skin.
“May the blessing of almighty God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, come upon you and remain with you forever.”
Nick’s head rolled to one side and he looked up at the priest though half-closed lids. “Thank you, Father. Thank you,” he whispered.
One of the younger priests unstrapped him. Nick slouched in the chair, too weak to move. He remembered this room. A small library located behind the Sacristy in Saint Michael’s church. He and Ray had changed their clothes in here when they were altar boys.
Father Santore held a glass of water to Nick’s lips.
He nodded, clutched the glass with trembling hands and gulped the cold water. Santore handed the empty glass to the priest and instructed him to refill it.
The priest returned with the water, wet cloths, folded towels and a clean tee shirt. Nick mopped his sweaty face with a cloth and then let his arms drop limp in his lap.
“Now do I go to jail?” he asked Santore.
“Get dressed.” Santore and the three priests filed out of the room and closed the door.
Nick stood on trembling legs and struggled to peel off his sweat-logged shirt. He wiped his torso with a moist cloth and then pulled the dry shirt over his head. Lifting his left arm made the wound in his side throb. He pulled off the shirt and started over, inserting his arms into the sleeves first and then stretching the neck opening over his head. He turned toward the sound of the door opening. He blinked. Katie stood in the doorway.
He yanked the tee shirt over his head and blinked his eyes again. Katie ran toward him. His heart hammered in his chest and his legs shook. She grabbed his arms but couldn’t stop him from falling backward onto the couch, pulling her down with him.
Clasping her hands in his, he ran his fingertips over her soft skin. He stared and mumbled, “You’re real. You’re alive.”
She sat next to him and smoothed his damp hair from his face. “I’m so relieved to have you back. They wouldn’t let me see you until after the exorcism.”
Her words barely registered, but her familiar voice did. He touched her cheek and ran his fingers through her hair. “You’re really alive.” Tears flooded his eyes.
“Nick, why didn’t you tell me what was happening to you sooner?”
“I had to protect you, Katie. That’s why I . . . broke up with you.” His heart beat quickened. “I thought I’d killed—”
“No.” She swiped tears from his cheeks with her fingers.
“I had the bloody knife in my hand. Blood . . . all over me. Blood on your kitchen floor.”
“It was Tara’s blood.”
Nick’s eyes widened. “I, I killed Tara? God, I am a murderer.”
“Shh, listen to me. You didn’t kill anyone.” She squeezed his hands. “Sal and I found Tara, murdered. You came after the police and EMTs had arrived. I saw you stagger from your car across the lawn. I called to you, but you were in shock from blood loss. The police wouldn’t let me near you.”
“They arrested me.”
“Yes, but you were injured. They took you to the hospital. Nonna pressured Captain Brannigan. Your knife didn’t match the wounds on Tara’s body and the only blood on you and the knife was your own.” Tears rolled from Katie’s eyes. “I knew what you tried to do. Same as your character, Julian, in your story. You tried to kill yourself to save me.”
“I failed. Ruby destroyed my gun. He gave Artie more strength. I couldn’t stop him.”
“You didn’t fail. You slowed Artie down. Ruby sent someone else to my apartment.”
Nick kissed Katie’s lips. “I love you so much. All this time, I believed I’d killed—”
“I’m so sorry. We had to let you believe it until you were strong enough for the exorcism. I showed your letter to Nonna and Father Santore. He thought if you believed you had murdered me, it would calm the demons. Possibly drive them out, if they thought you would end up in prison. Father ordered me to stay away from you.” Katie brought his hand to her lips and kissed it. “But I sneaked into the hospital after your surgery. You were still out from the anesthesia, I thought it would be safe. I touched your forehead and your eyes shot open . . . that horrible red. Y-you tried to choke me. A demon possessed you.”
Nick fingered the small gold cross dangling from the chain around Katie’s neck and recalled the twirling gold star in his dream. “I thought you were an angel. I reached for you, but the demons came, and everything went black.”
“It took three orderlies to put restraints on you. I had to stay away after that. Your dad sat with you at the hospital.”
“Yes. It about killed him to see you suffering, believing you killed me. He insisted on staying with you, even though he couldn’t tell you the truth. Nonna told the hospital psychiatrist the priests were there to take you into counseling program after your attempted suicide.”
“I thought they were detectives, there to arrest me.”
“I know. It was the best way to bring you here for the exorcism.”
“Did they catch Tara’s killer? It had to be one of Ruby’s thugs.”
“Not yet, they have nothing. No forced entry, no witnesses and no weapon.” Katie cuddled closer and rested her head on his chest. “Sal walked me home that night. Again. I yelled at him to go away, but he refused to leave me. I feel terrible for treating him so badly now. My door was unlocked. Sal insisted on going in first. He turned on the kitchen light and we saw Tara on the floor. I didn’t recognize her at first. We heard a noise and Sal ran to check. Someone was climbing out of Tara’s window, but it was too dark to see who.” Katie shivered. “It was awful, Nick. The most horrific thing I’ve ever seen. So much blood.”
“The killer was still in your apartment?” Nick wrapped his arms around Katie and pressed his lips to her forehead. “I’m sorry about Tara. She didn’t deserve that. But it could have been you. That vicious bastard, Ruby. He’ll never leave us alone. All the people he’s hurt and killed. Now, Tara. I have to destroy him once and for all.”
“You will.” Katie stood. “Father Santore and Nonna are waiting for you in the church. You have to light the candle,” she said.
“Candle? You mean for my mom?”
“No, for Ruby.” She tugged on his hand as she stood. “C’mon. I’ll show you.”
Nonna and her group of friends gathered in the pews near the alcove of votive candles and the statue of Saint Michael. His fierce eyes, engraved in stone, glared straight ahead over his drawn sword. Nick limped toward the group, his arm around Katie. His side ached, but his relief to be free of the demons and his sheer joy to hold Katie again made the pain bearable.
Nonna rushed up the aisle and hugged and kissed him. Nick continued walking with one arm around Katie and the other around his grandmother. They stopped in front of the alcove.
“Show him.” Nonna nodded to Katie and then took her seat in a pew next to Ray’s grandmother. The rest of the women sat in the pews behind them, their heads bowed in prayer.
Katie picked up a partially burned white pillar candle from the votive shelf. She turned it over and held it up to show him.
He read the words carved into the wax on the bottom of the candle. “Lamar Evans.” He looked at Katie. “The guy who shot Ray? He was hung on the rosary beads.”
Katie nodded, took the candle from his hand, replaced it on the rack and took down another. “Frank Jones,” she said. “The man who shot your father and tried to burn down the restaurant.”
“And was killed in the car chase.” Nick reached for the next candle. “Robert Owens,” he read. “The name sounds familiar.”
“The pedophile who killed little Benjamin Ryan. He was crushed to death in the garbage truck.”
Katie put the pillar back and touched two candles in the upper row, “Jimmy Graziano and Big Tony Borrelli. The two men who attacked your mom and threatened you with a knife when you were a baby.”
“Pop told me about them.” Nick stared at Katie. “They were found in the river with their throats cut.”
She pointed to the other candles. “Nonna told me about the others. I forget all the names now, most were from before we were born.”
Nick stared at the candles, shaking his head. “Every time something bad happened in the neighborhood, Nonna and her group of ladies would come here to pray . . . and light a candle. All the bad guys died. I had no idea . . .”
Katie slipped her arm around Nick’s waist. “You look pale.” She led him to a pew. “Sit down.” She rolled up his shirt and checked his bandage. “I was worried you might have ripped open your stitches, but I don’t see any blood seeping. How do you feel?”
“It’s a lot to take in.” Nick leaned his head against hers. “Being with you is all that matters.”
Footsteps scuffing on the stone floor approached. Father Santore carried a wooden box. He stopped in front of Nick and held out the ornately carved box. “Open it,” he said.
Nick lifted the small gold handle. Inside he saw a red pillar candle on a white satin lining.
“Take it out,” Santore said.
The top of the candle revealed three, concentric layers of wax. Red on the outside, then a circle of black and finally a pure white center. Nick looked up at the priest.
“It’s the one candle I hoped we would never have to light. It was made to destroy the devil himself. The red represents the bloodshed he has caused. The black, the souls he has stolen and corrupted with his evil. The last layer, white is God’s pure light. As the flame burns, the outer layers melt away until God’s light is all that remains.” He sat next to Nick in the pew and asked, “Do you believe in, God, son?”
“Do you love God?”
“I’ve always believed, Father, especially now after the demons were exorcised, but . . .”
“How do you love someone who doesn’t care? Who doesn’t answer your prayers?”
The priest frowned. “Do you hate God?”
“No.” Nick lowered his gaze. “I’m angry at Him for letting Mom die.”
Nonna stood and moved behind Nick. She wrapped her arms around his shoulders and spoke softly into his ear, “Nickie, you know how much I loved your grandpapa, Vincente, yes?”
“Of course, Nonna.”
“I get angry at him. Sometimes we fight. But I never, never hate him. You angry, yes, but you don’t hate God. The devil, he try to take your soul, use your body for his evil. You fought him, because you love Katie, your family, your friends.” She patted his chest, over his heart. “You have a pure heart. I know this. The devil could never take that from you. You tried to give your life for your love.” She squeezed Katie’s shoulder. “There is no greater love.”
“Without a pure heart, even this sacred candle will be useless,” Father Santore said.
Nick stood and limped to the kneeler in front of the votives. He touched the small candle marked Rose, and then knelt and bowed his head. He closed his eyes and thought about his mom. A bright light filled his vision despite his closed eyes. A figure emerged from the center of the brilliant light. His mother walked toward him. Her eyes sparkled and she looked as he remembered her before her illness. She smiled. “I love you, Nick. You must do this. I know you can.” The sweet scent of her tea rose perfume wafted in the air. He drew in a deep breath, squeezed his eyelids tight and held onto the vision as long as he could before it faded away. When he opened his eyes, he saw Katie kneeling next to him. He took her hand and stood.
Nonna handed Nick a thin, pen-shaped instrument. The stylus was made of solid gold with a pointed tip and weighed heavy in his hand for its slender size.
“Write the name the devil calls himself,” Nonna said. She turned the candle over.
With deep, even strokes, Nick etched Victor Ruby into the smooth wax. Nonna righted the candle and then handed Nick a box of matches.
“Light the candle. Have faith in your heart, Nickie.”
He struck a match. A burst of sulfur scent filled his nostrils and a flame flared on the end of the wooden stick. Ruby’s black eyes and evil grin flashed in his mind. His sadistic laughter rang in his ears. The flame quivered and shrunk. His hand trembled as he touched the tiny blue ember on the match head to the wick. It caught, flared straight up and then settled into a brilliant, flickering oval atop the candle.
Father Santore placed the candle on the outstretched, flat sword in Saint Michael’s hand. He and Nonna knelt in front of the statue. They bowed their heads and made the sign of the cross. Together they recited Saint Michael’s prayer. Nick, Katie and the women in the pews repeated the words after them.
“Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle; be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray: and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God, thrust into hell Satan and all the evil spirits who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls.”
Red wax pooled on top of the candle and dribbled over the rim. Red liquid ribbons ran down the sides exposing stripes of shiny, black wax beneath. The warm red wax dripped and then hung suspended in the cool air like hardened drops of blood from the edges of the sword.
The group continued with a series of prayers. Nick didn’t know the words, so he prayed silently in his own words, gazing at the candle and gripping Katie’s hand. Gradually the black wax melted, revealing patches of bright white beneath.
Nonna rose from the kneeler and whispered to Nick, “Father Jonathan will drive you two home. You rest, Nickie. Heal.” She touched Katie’s cheek. “You take care of him, yes?”
Katie hugged Nonna. “Always.”
“Is it done? Aren’t you coming home with us?” Nick asked.
“Later. Now, we pray.” She walked them to the vestibule where Father Jonathan waited. She took Nick’s hands in hers, stood on her toes and kissed him on each cheek. “Keep faith, Nickie. And remember, Katie likes sugar in her tea.”
Nick nodded. It seemed an odd thing for her to mention, but with his pain, weariness from the prolonged exorcism ritual and the knowledge of the special candles, his thoughts were shrouded in a surreal fog. As they exited the church, he tried not to lean his full weight on Katie’s shoulders. Exhaustion overwhelmed him, his side ached, yet an oppressive weight had been lifted from his soul.
Getting out of the church van and climbing the stairs to the apartment sapped the last of his strength. They made it in the front door just as thunder boomed overhead, unleashing a heavy torrent of rain. Nick collapsed into a chair at the kitchen table, still gripping Katie’s hand.
His father burst into the kitchen and wrapped his arms around Nick’s shoulders. “You’re home. The exorcism worked. Thank God.”
Nick reached up with his free hand and grasped his dad’s beefy arm. “Katie told me everything you did. Thank you, Pop.”
His father straightened up. “It was nuthin’ compared to what you’ve been through.” He patted Katie’s arm. “Both of you. I felt awful when I gave you those drugs to knock you out, Nick. It was the only way to get you to the church without the demons fighting back.”
Katie wriggled her hand free of Nick’s tight hold. “I have your real pain pills.”
His hand felt naked without hers. He watched her walk to the sink, fill a glass with water and take a prescription bottle from her bag. “Here.” She handed him a pill and the glass.
“Coffee’s brewing. Tea for you.” Dom smiled at Katie. He turned up the gas under the kettle. He gripped Nick’s shoulder and asked, “Or, would you rather sleep now?”
“I’m beat, but I don’t think I can sleep. Coffee sounds great, Pop.”
He and Katie sat close together, holding hands, while his father set out cups and spoons.
“Where’s Sal?” Nick asked.
“Where else? With Stephanie.” Dom laughed. “He sneaks out every night to see her. Thinks we don’t know. He got her the job and apartment at Eddie’s Gym.” Dom sighed. “Sal’s a man now, graduated high school and he’ll be eighteen next month. Time goes by so fast.” He wagged his finger and chuckled. “I remember when you snuck out every night to see Katie.”
A dull ripple of pain stabbed Nick’s side as he laughed and leaned to kiss Katie’s cheek.
His father poured boiling water into Katie’s cup and set the coffee pot down on a trivet. He settled into his chair and poured coffee into his and Nick’s cups. He passed the cream and then sat back, smiling at Katie and Nick. “Oh, Katie, I forgot the sugar.” He started to push himself up from his chair and then stopped. He rubbed his chest where the bullet had hit him.
“Sit, Pop. I’ll get it.” Nick stood to reach into the cabinet behind him. The pill had removed the stinging edge from his pain. The dull throb in his side paled in comparison to the searing pain of the demons’ claws.
Something rattled inside the sugar bowl when he lifted it from the shelf. He removed the small porcelain lid and tilted the bowl under the kitchen light. The diamonds on Katie’s engagement ring sparkled inside the empty bowl. Nick laughed out loud.
“What?” Katie and Dom asked simultaneously.
Leaning on the back of Katie’s chair, Nick slowly lowered himself down on one knee.
“What’s wrong? Are you all right?” Katie asked, rising from her chair.
Nick held up the ring. “Katie, I love you with all my heart. Will you marry me?”
Katie eyes glistened. She smiled. “Again, yes. I will.”
He kissed her hand and then slipped the ring onto her finger. With Katie’s help, he stood up. Dom rose from his chair and hugged them both. His head bobbed up and down. “Good, good.” He grinned as he wiped tears from his eyes.
“You should lie down and rest.” Katie slipped her arm around Nick’s waist and they walked to his bedroom. “I’m afraid I’ve taken over your room.” She motioned to the boxes lined against the wall. “I was going to stay here until the police allowed me back into the apartment. But after seeing Tara . . . your dad and Sal moved my things here in your Mustang. Must have taken them ten trips. Your family’s taken such good care of me this past week.” Katie’s eyes watered. “I wish Tara and I hadn’t fought so much. I wish I had forgiven her before. . . I can’t go back to the apartment.”
“You won’t. You belong here.” Nick pulled her close and kissed her.
Katie pressed her face into his chest. “I’ve missed you so much. The real you.” She looked up at him and smiled. “You look exhausted. Lie down in bed. I’ll sleep on the couch.”
He grasped her hand tighter. “There’s plenty of room.” He eased himself onto the narrow bed and turned on his right side, pulling Katie next to him. She snuggled her back against him, and he wrapped his arm around her. She clutched his arm with both hands.
“Do you think the candle will work?” he whispered. “If it doesn’t, I’ll have to find another way to kill Ruby, before he comes after you again.”
“Nonna said to have faith,” Katie murmured as she brushed her lips over his hand.
They lay in the darkened room holding each other. A cool, moist breeze fluttered the curtains on the open window and let in peeks of yellow light from the streetlamp below. Nick’s eyelids drooped as he combed his fingers through Katie’s silky hair and breathed in her fragrance as she slept. The steady, drumming of the rain soothed him into a drowsy, twilight state. Still, he fought giving into sleep, afraid he would wake and find tonight had been only a dream. Holding Katie tighter, he closed his eyes and prayed, “Please God, all I want is for Katie, my family and friends to be safe. Nothing else matters.”
A thunderous boom shook them both from their sleep. The old sash window rattled inside its wooden casing and the bronze crucifix vibrated on the wall above them. Katie leapt from the bed and ran to the window. “My God! Was that thunder?”
Nick struggled to sit up and rolled his sore body out of bed. He stood behind Katie with his hands on her shoulders and stared out the window. A tower of fire sliced through the purple-gray, predawn sky about a mile away in the downtown business district.
“Sounded and felt more like an explosion,” he said.
They watched the flames rise through the early morning fog. A lone siren blared in the distance. Someone knocked on the bedroom door.
Katie opened the door to a wide-eyed Dom standing in the hallway in his robe, running his hand through his disheveled salt and pepper hair. “You heard it?”
“We think something exploded downtown. We can see the fire from here,” she said.
Dom shuffled to the window and peered out at the inferno across the city. Billows of black smoke spiraled into the air. More sirens wailed.
“Is it . . . Ruby’s building?” Nick asked. “It’s the right area and distance from here.”
“I’ll turn on the news,” his father said.
Katie brought coffee into the living room while Nick and his father scanned through news channels. After twenty minutes of fragmented news flashes, a reporter finally confirmed the explosion had occurred at the Ruby International Promotions building.
Firefighters and police officers on the scene gave brief, live interviews. Controlled chaos enveloped the entire block, with fire hoses aimed from all sides at the tall spire of raging flames. One city official speculated a gas main may have blown due to the sheer force of the explosion and the fact it had been felt over a mile away. The gas also accounted for the ferocity of the fire.
A block away, another reporter interviewed a handful of early morning commuters waiting at a bus stop. A young Latina woman stared wide-eyed into the camera and told the reporter she saw a bolt of lightning strike the top floor and then the entire building burst into flames. “A huge bolt of light, so long, so bright! Like nothing I ever see! As if God’s finger come down from the sky!” She made a hasty sign of the cross.
The camera turned to the reporter. “Due to the early hour, the buildings here in the business district are hopefully, unoccupied. While it will be some time before firefighters can extinguish this massive blaze and sift through the rubble, city officials are hopeful there will be few, if any, casualties.”
Nick stared at Katie. “Ruby lived on the top floor of that building.”
Katie pressed closer to him on the couch and squeezed his hand.
They all turned when they heard the kitchen door open. Nonna and Father Santore entered. Both looked exhausted.
Nonna took Nick’s hand in hers. “You did it, Nickie. It’s over. God’s justice came in the fire.”
She and Father Santore sank into chairs. Katie poured coffee and brought cups to them.
“Nonna, fire won’t kill the devil,” Nick said.
Nonna pointed toward the ceiling. “God’s cleansing fire, not like the fires of hell. No man can kill the devil. All we can do is chase him away.”
Nick leaned forward, wincing from the sting of his wound. “If Ruby’s contracts are destroyed, what happens to the people who signed them?” He thought about Chris and Bethany and added, “Both the living and the dead?”
“The fire will destroy the contracts, severing the devil’s bond,” Father Santore said. “The dead souls will be freed from the eternal despair of Hell. They will be judged according to their deeds on earth. As for the living, they have their God-given free will. They must make their choice; denounce the devil and his demons or join him.”
Katie picked up the coffee pot. “I’ll make more coffee.”
A minute later, she returned and whispered to Nick, “You’ve got to come see this.”
She led him to the kitchen window. The morning had dawned gray and cool. Across the city, shrouded in patchy fog and smoke, stood the blackened silhouette of Ruby’s high rise. The only visible flames flared at the roof of the building. From a distance, it looked like a giant candle.