Rector vs Spectre

It had been a good funeral, as these things go, reflected Vicar Priestly as the sun began to set behind the parish church of which he’d been the primary cleric for nearly thirty years. (Yes, his surname really was Priestly. No, he didn’t find it that amusing, and those who hadn’t met him before and were inclined to say “Hey, that’s funny, what with you being a priest and everything!” were generally treated to a tight-lipped smile and a look that some might consider unChristian.) The deceased, a Mr Jonathan Simonon, had been one of those pillar-of-the-community types, nearly eighty years of age and for over half of that time a respected parishioner, friend to the poor, regular churchgoer and part-taker in – often organizer of, in fact – all sorts of community events. The kind of parishioner vicars consider sadly few and far between, these days, and now they were one fewer again.

The vicar looked around the small but beautiful old Ch. of Ss Peter & Paul with the cod-mediaeval Victorian stained glass in the western window glowing gorgeously with the low golden rays and sighed happily. His eye roved over the beautiful arras hanging either side of the nave, the exquisitely carven 17th-century pews, the colourful but not overly complicated embroidered cloth draped over the altar; this was indeed the most stylish church for, oh, easily fifty miles in any direction. For Vicar Priestly had an aesthetic sense more highly developed than that of most of his fellow men and women of the cloth, and considered tastefulness next to godliness.

The sexton had only just finished sweeping the floor and bid the vicar a good evening when the gently incense-infused air was suddenly polluted with a great sulphurous blast, accompanied by a thrumming, whirring sound, like a plague of thousands furious flies. The vicar sighed in a resigned sort of way, turned his head to one side to spare himself from the worst of the noise and the stink, then turned back with his arms folded and head tiled to one side, trade-mark tight-lipped smile firmly in place.

“Asmodeus. What an unexpected pleasure”, declared the vicar, making it quite clear from the tone of his voice that the apparition was neither of those things. In front of him, right before the alter, was a hairy, green-skinned creature, roughly the same size and general outline as an average adult human male, although with goat-like hooves instead of feet, twisted horns sprouting from its forehead, a grotesque, satyr-like face and a penis that was remarkable not only for its implausible size but also its head, which appeared to be that of a snake. The entity was hovering about three feet above the floor of the church, crouched into something like a full lotus.

The creature grinned obscenely and held forth its left hand, or rather claw, in which it clasped a glowing, fluid-looking orb about the size of a billiard ball. Within the sphere could be seen something that looked a little like a tadpole, which was frantically darting this way and that, as if desperately trying to escape. “You know what this is, priest. And you know the drill. Present your argument.”

It had been this way ever since Dr Priestly (D.D., Cantab.) had been vicar here. Quite why an infernal being should take such an interest in the souls of the people buried in the churchyard of this particular parish, he couldn’t begin to fathom – he was, after all, a doctor of divinity and not demonology – but it had certainly not been like this at the parish he’d administered to before coming to Ss P&P. However, he’d become used to it, in fact thoroughly tired of it, in the time he’d been here, and – as stated by the demon – he certainly did know the drill by now.

It worked like this. Those buried in the churchyard who had led a pretty much spotless life of virtue and self-denial went to their eternal reward, no questions asked. Likewise, the real shits (and there had been two or three of these in Priestly’s time) took the proverbial highway to Hell, again with no ifs and no buts. However, in the case of the majority of former parishioners who’d led, as most people do, a more or less mixed life featuring both good deeds and moments of moral weakness, the demon currently hovering in Priestly’s church would appear with the soul of the departed in its claw, and effectively conduct a trial in which Priestly would put forward arguments for the inherent goodness of the dead, while his opposite number would present a counter-argument as to why he or she should be heading down rather than up. Asmodeus had a perhaps unusually well developed sense of fairness, as it happened, and would admit to good arguments from Priestly and keep its end of the bargain if the vicar’s case seemed watertight.

“I think this should be a short inquest, unless you have knowledge of Mr Simonon’s life-long conduct of which I am unaware. He devoted much of his spare time to charity, mentored troubled younsgters from the estate, was well-loved by his family, his friends, his pets… perhaps he wasn’t totally spotless but who among us is? His virtues far outweigh his sins, by any reckoning.”

“He cheated on his wife, you know…”, countered the demon, with a self-satisfied grin.

Priestly cleared his throat. “I consider myself a representative of a modern, liberal and forward-looking Church. The Simonons’ marriage had been on the rocks for some years by that point, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they hadn’t been physically intimate in the preceding twelve months. And I’m almost certain Mrs Simenon had already begun her affair with Kevin Matheson at The Hare & Hounds by that time. The marriage was to all intents and purposes well over before he had his little indiscretion, so I can’t consider it adultery. In any case, he made a full confession to me and I absolved him for his honesty and contrition.”

“Then there is the positively infamous case of his bribing Mr Maskowitz at the garage to ‘fix’ the clock on his vintage Jag when he sold it. Surely that’s a clear case of dishonesty and, in effect, theft as well?”

The vicar raised one eyebrow. “Alright, that little trespass had eluded me. But I remember when he sold that car – it wasn’t long after his divorce and he was barely keeping his head above the water financially. Whoever he sold it to must have been far better off than he was, and if the buyer had to take it for a service just a little sooner than he or she would have done otherwise, is that really so great a sin? Recall that not once during that very difficult period of his life did he neglect his various charitable works. Whatever extra couple of hundred pounds he may have made by doing that may well have been what saved him from homelessness while he rented that sorry little flat after losing the house.”

The demon’s grinning face turned sour, producing an effect that would have chilled the blood in any man not already well used to these exchanges. Clearly, he was going to have to pull out all the stops on this one.

“Very well, let us say that Jonathan Simonon led a life as close to morally blameless as is possible for a fallible creature of flesh and blood. But there is one more argument I have to put to you, priest. Although it is not so much an argument as an exhibit. You may well have entered the Simonons’ front room for tea or later been round to Jonathan’s bungalow, but in every place he’s called home, he’s had a room that neither you nor any other visitor will have seen. This is how it looked in his last residence – behold:”

With that, the demon waved its free hand and the air immediately to its right shimmered and swam with colours. Then there was a clear oval-shaped image or portal, suspended in space right in front of the vicar, who peered doubtfully into it. It looked like a standard bedroom in a nondescript twentieth-century house, but it was the contents of the room that filled Priestly with a gasping horror. A clock decorated with a large colour photograph of Princess Di dominated the far wall, while eidolons of the same woman smiled with mock demureness from a multitude of other surfaces. She was rivalled and perhaps outnumbered by images of Elvis, who crooned and sneered from a calendar, framed film posters, paintings on shiny black velvet and at least two of what seemed to be holograms! Priestly reeled as his eyes took in further blasphemies; a rack devoted entirely to ties featuring Homer Simpson in a variety of amusing poses – an illuminated and animated ‘waterfall’ wall decoration – Dalton Mint porcelain figurines of ladies in 18th-century ball gowns, of the sort invariably advertised in the Mail on Sunday magazine – Swarovski crystal teddybears – the Athena poster of the tennis girl scratching her bare bum… and, worst of all, one thing that proved beyond all doubt that this Aladdin’s cave of aesthetic excreta had once belonged to the late Mr Simonon: a photograph, unmistakably of the deceased, grinning from ear to ear and eating a vast polychromatic cone of candyfloss while dressed in an oversized Babylon 5 T-shirt, shorts with a mobile phone holster attached at the belt, baseball cap and sandals-with-socks, with a Disneyworld employee in full Mickey Mouse costume in the background.

This was an aspect of Jonathan’s personality previously totally unknown to the vicar, and he stumbled back from the vision, telling himself over and over that it couldn’t, mustn’t be true, but knowing from long experience that no demon of Asmodeus’s class could realistically conjure images of things that didn’t exist, or hadn’t once existed. Even if the dead man’s children had recently dismantled this chamber of horrors and (Priestly fervently hoped) sold off or simply destroyed most of its contents, it had undeniably been a real thing at some point.

The demon, as if reading the vicar’s thoughts, grinned wickedly and said: “Oh yes, it’s all still there, they haven’t disturbed so much as a single knick-knack – you can go round and see for yourself, if you don’t believe me.”

But that was it: Priestly was defeated. Of course, there were certain conventions that nonetheless had to be observed.

“Um, well, I suppose… I mean, adultery is adultery, however you look at it, and Thou Shalt Not Steal is a pretty unarguable part of the Decalogue, and, er…”

He gulped and looked at the demon almost pleadingly, as if hoping it would save him the embarrassment of having to reverse himself any more explicitly. But he needn’t have worried, for the being had already got a full understanding of Priestly’s new position, and was slowly sinking into the floor of the church, bearing the maniacally swirling bauble with it.

As the grinning demon vanished from sight, its cackling laughter faded away and the mephitic stench dissipated, Vicar Priestly shuddered, crossed himself, muttered a benediction and quickly prepared to close up his beautiful little church for the night and make his way home. He had done his level best, he consoled himself, but there was only so much one could do in these situations.

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