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As Cardinal Montgomery pulled the immense black Buick onto the shoulder of the highway, the aging shocks strained against uneven dirt and gravel. He parked near a gaunt white ash tree with delicate fingers of branches that pointed towards heaven at odd angles. It was the only landmark in miles of barren country.

He turned off the motor, then paused, savoring the silence, broken only by the gentle clinking of his keychain as it swayed against the dashboard. A gentle wind passed through the open windows, displacing the stink of cigarettes and vinyl upholstery for the welcome odors of nature. He inhaled them deeply.

Montgomery was ordained in 1963, as the winds of change from the Second Vatican Council were still sweeping away centuries of stagnant thinking. Full of vitality and excited by the opportunities the changes afforded him, he quickly made a name for himself among those in power. As the years passed, he rose in both stature and domain, until he entered the inner sanctum of Vatican City.

A fit of coughing interrupted Montgomery’s reverie, the painful result of decades of smoking. It continued, growing louder and harsher, until he was forced to lean out the driver’s window and spit a foul wad of something upon the ground. Enough nostalgia, thought the greying Cardinal. Wiping his wet mouth with the back of a jacket sleeve, Montgomery pulled the keys from the ignition and stepped out of the massive vehicle.

The morning light stung his tired eyes as he walked to the rear of the car. He sighed heavily at the sight of the bullet holes and shattered tail light, then proceeded to open the trunk. There they sat: five red canisters surrounding a black leather satchel.

He went to work methodically, enjoying the harsh odor of the gasoline as it poured down the sides of the car. He tossed each plastic container onto the dusty ground as it spilled the last of its contents. By the third canister, the upholstery was thoroughly soaked; by the fifth, a large puddle had formed beneath the chassis. With the fuel all set, the Cardinal took the small satchel from the trunk and returned to his place at the driver’s seat.

The satchel held only two small items. The first was a half-smoked pack of American Spirits. He had kept up a pack-a-day habit, even after his doctor had told him of the tumor in his lungs. He knew the cigarettes weren’t the cause of his inner decay. It was the texts.

Montgomery pulled the second item from the satchel, a crumbling stack of yellowed papers bound by rough twine. The Gospel of Simon Magus. Ancient texts of dark magick, purged from the Bible and hidden away from civilization centuries ago.

There had been rumors in seminary, of course, but when he learned the texts actually existed, Montgomery knew they needed to be studied. The early church had condemned them, but a post-Vatican II world demanded a fresh look at things. Exhuming the texts from the bowels of the Vatican released something dark into the world, and into Montgomery himself. Man was not meant to dabble with these demonic forces; the power was too corrupting.

Cardinal Montgomery glanced in the rearview mirror and saw the horrid reflection staring back. Twisted black veins crisscrossed his sunken face. His eyes were hollow and pale. The bad stuff was in him, the painful result of decades of heresy. There was no way to purge it from his system. But he could purify the world from its influence once and for all.

His wrinkled fingers pulled an American Spirit from the crumpled turquoise pack and placed it between his dry lips. He then procured an engraved silver Zippo from his jacket pocket. It had been presented to him as a joke on the 50th anniversary of his ordination. Hebrews 12:29, it read. For our God is a consuming fire.

He lit the cigarette and inhaled deeply. He casually tossed the still-lit Zippo onto the dusty ground. For the first time in a very long time, Montgomery felt pure.

writingJoel Zawada