Despite her depression, Irma found the warmth of Elijah Gray’s jacket and the rocking motion of the automobile comforting. She was still sound asleep when Elijah climbed out of Blaze’s station wagon and followed the sorcerer up to Mortimer Hildebrand’s door.
When the door finally opened, its hinges creaked in the fashion of all clandestine inner sanctums. Blaze exhibited how amateurish and superstitious he was to Elijah when he crossed himself and made a quick, deft sign with his hand to ward off the evil eye in anticipation of Mortimer Hildebrand’s appearance at the door. Inside the preacher’s coat Irma had felt warm and secure, but now, with the sound of the creaking door, she grew frightened.
“Come in,” a deep, resonant voice beckoned from the dark interior.
“I don’t like this,” Elijah murmured fearfully to the sorcerer. “I don’t like this at all!”
“Don’t worry,” consoled Blaze unconvincingly, “the priest sounded innocent enough over the phone.”
“Incredible!” Irma meowed, peeking out of Elijah’s coat. “A preacher, a sorcerer, now a priest!”
Holding a crucifix in one palm and a rabbit’s foot in the other, Blaze led Elijah into Mortimer’s house. After mumbling a magical formula that escaped notice too, Blaze introduced himself and the preacher, and then introduced the cat peeking out of the preacher’s coat. It was difficult for Mortimer Hildebrand to detect between his visitors who was most afraid of him: the trembling sorcerer or the cringing preacher, who followed Blaze into the room. The little cat peering out of Elijah’s coat also appeared frightened of him as he reached in to give her a pat.
Irma, who was not a practicing Roman Catholic, herself, had been startled by the man’s cold hand and, despite an earlier resolve to trust him, took an immediate dislike to the watery-eyed old man.
In spite of being excommunicated by the church, Mortimer Hildebrand still wore priestly attire. His clerical collar was frayed and his black suit was faded and worn, but he carried himself as a priest. He did not, as the preacher, approve of the sorcerer’s ankh necklace or the occult medallion on his vest. When he led the preacher and sorcerer into his small apartment, his visitors could see a picture of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the current Pope on one wall and several smaller icons on the tables and bureaus on the opposite side of the room. Blaze, who would never have confessed his misgivings about turning to a defrocked priest, was merely confused. Christianity allied with magic, he asked himself, is it really possible? What sort of practitioner is this Mortimer Hildebrand that Christ and the Virgin Mary are part of his art?
Elijah didn’t understand the iconography in Hildebrand’s house either, but he was satisfied that he didn’t see any satanic paraphernalia in the priest’s home. Hildebrand, he concluded, for all his eccentricity, seemed to be a practicing, all be it Roman Catholic, Christian. In spite of his dislike of what he called “Papists” and his disapproval of a Christian dabbling in magic and the occult, he took comfort in seeing Jesus and Mary’s pictures on the wall.
When the priest caught sight of Irma’s large ears and elfin face, he recognized her breed immediately. The little cat was a Devon Rex, he announced astutely. More importantly to him, as his watery eyes focused upon the creature peeking out of Elijah’s coat, was the expression on her face. “This,” he murmured to himself, “is no ordinary cat!” There was intelligence, along with fear, in the cat’s blue eyes and an intensity in its gaze and faint, rumbling purr. Irma responded to his kindly pat with a rising growl, which seemed to underline her protector Elijah’s fears.
“Don’t animals sense evil?” Elijah wanted to ask someone now.
Almost as if he had read his mind, the priest seemed to recoil at his expression, and was also disappointed with the reaction of the cat.
“I’m not a devil-worshipper,” he told the scowling preacher and the growling cat, as he led them all down a hall. “I sometimes work with intermediary spirits in order to achieve my ends, but I pray to the same God. When I perform an exorcism, I must do exactly as Christ once did in Capernaum.” “Do you remember the passage Reverend Gray?” He tried warming up to the preacher. “You probably don’t!” He looked disapprovingly at the sorcerer now. “But the fact is that the transformation of animals requires more than the power of prayer; it also requires the assistance of intermediary spirits to achieve my ends.”
“My God, I don’t believe this!” Irma tried saying in a series of meows. “If only you could read my thoughts! All this occult trivia won’t help! You’re wasting time with this clown!”
“Exactly what intermediary spirits are you talking about?” inquired Elijah, his eyes flickering with distrust. “Ghosts, angels, poltergeists? Are these spirits heaven-sent or among the dark forces used by sorcerers and witches in their rites?”
“Spirits of the dead are in fact ghosts, not angels,” the priest explained, gently reaching into Elijah’s coat to touch the cat. “Angels only come down here for special reasons. There are no such thing as poltergeists on earth. But there are evil spirits, which we often call demons: free-moving agents, the counterparts of angels, from hell instead of heaven. I am, in addition to having the gift of spell-changing and exorcism, a medium. I can utilize the spirit world—ghosts, if you prefer—who can help bring out the demons who have given the witch or sorcerer their powers.”
“Sweet Mother Mary,” spat Irma, rolling her blue eyes, “I never heard such crap! You’re going to have to use her spell against her or kill the bitch!”
As if to say “Ah hah, I told you so!” Elijah flashed Blaze a triumphant look. Irma was growling and hissing, her nails digging into the underlining of Elijah’s smelly coat. This was, in Elijah’s mind, dabbling in the occult: witchcraft. Why couldn’t the priest just admit it and forego this claptrap? Although the self-styled sorcerer was incredulous, himself, about the priest’s claims, Blaze, as had Irma, now rolled his eyes, but at the pig-headed preacher, not the priest, as Hildebrand continued to make his point. Of the two visitors, the priest liked the preacher the most and felt spiritually closer to Elijah than the sorcerer in spite of the preacher’s distrust. Before hearing Mortimer’s claims, Irma had high hopes that priest might help them. Now, as he continued his discussion, Elijah was forced to reach in and continually console the unhappy cat.
“It’s true,” declared Mortimer pedagogically, “that in the Apocryphal Scriptures, Saint Thomas’ Gospel relates a story of the Christ Child performing a shape-changing miracle too.”
“Oh,” groaned Irma, “now a Bible story!”
“It seemed so outrageous to the early church fathers,” droned Mortimer, “they eliminated it from the Canonical Scriptures. But the fact is there was a precedent from the Master, himself, the greatest magician of them all, for such transformations. You must understand gentlemen: no sorcerer can do such a feat, and only a priest in direct communion with the Savior has the power to reverse such a spell. The difference is that Jesus Christ didn’t require intermediary spirits. He is God. A spiritually connected priest such as myself needs all the help he can get.”
“But you’re considered a heretic and blasphemer,” the sorcerer played the Devil’s advocate this time. “You were, just like me, excommunicated from the Roman Rites. Why would the Lord work with someone like you instead of working through the legitimate Catholic Church?”
“Because, unlike some people,” he looked squarely into Blaze’s eyes, “I didn’t forsake my Christianity to practice magic. My faith is my magic, and it’s my life. I don’t play with it or mock God. The center of my magic is Christ, and the prime force moving everything else is prayer.”
“Incredible!” The sorcerer muttered to himself as Irma continued to growl.
A smile played on his bearded face. The preacher, however, was not amused at all by these conflicts.
“What causes humans to be transformed into animals in the first place,” he redirected the subject. “Is it through the power of Satan or simply the ability to harness these free-moving agents? How is it possible that a man of God would associate with such things?”
“It’s the power of a great demon, whose identity I must discern,” explained the priest without hesitation.
After hearing his answer, Irma realized just how knowledgeable the priest was. All of a sudden, after such a long-winded seemingly irrelevant stream of information, his words came as a thunderclap in her mind. The power of the great demon! Had she not seen such a demon in India’s apartment? Was not this apparition invited during India’s circle of lights?
“How did he know that?” She wanted to ask the preacher. “He couldn’t of known it… unless, unless…”
Irma’s tense little body suddenly relaxed as the priest reached boldly into the preacher’s jacket and brought out the trembling cat.
“Calm down,” he said soothingly, “you are among friends!” “…. I’ve heard about it before but mostly in cats,” he explained calmly, “a dog, a pig, and even a horse. It’s impossible to determine if a human can be turned into a primitive form of animal or a plant.” “For a creature such as this,” he said, placing the small cat below them on the desk, “it’s easier to detect how much humanity is left in the beast. It only takes a small trace when bringing them back to humanity. After that, when they are fully a beast, it will be too late.”
Irma found herself lulled by the benign forces of these men. Regardless of whether they could help, she did, in fact, believe that she was among friends.
“I’ve never really believed this was possible, myself,” Blaze responded in awe. “Have you ever brought out such a demon and undone his magic. This isn’t some sort of pet theory of yours, is it Mortimer? Can you really save this little cat?”
“Yes, father,” she looked up quizzically at the priest, “I need more than theories right now.”
“Please remember that this isn’t a pet nor a cat.” Hildebrand said, smiling at his play on the words. “…. It’s merely a woman transformed into her current form. She’s still spiritually human…. With the Lord’s help, I’ve done it in the past. I can do it again!”
With these words, the strange man won Irma’s affection, and her growl was replaced by a pleasant purr.
“Once,” Hildebrand continued softly, stroking the small, purring beast, “I wrote a paper on it and was promptly censured by the church. It was considered heretical. Later, when I refused to retract my theory on free agents, I was ex-communicated. It didn’t matter that what I was doing was for Christendom and the Holy Mother Church. I am, they believe, a heretic and blasphemer. I consider myself still a priest, but I’m on my own now. The Lord is my guide!”
“So our free agent or demon has magical powers,” Blaze muttered in amazement. “Why didn’t I know about this. I’ve never read anything like this before. What kind of powers are being let loose on the earth?”
“Oh, this is nothing new,” explained Hildebrand, studying the small cat closely now. “It has been going on for thousands of years without anyone understanding the evidence at hand. Cats, dogs, and other intelligent mammals might communicate their dilemma to a practitioner, if one were available, but no one was the wiser when a man, woman, or child was transformed into a dumb brute or plant. They simply disappeared, when in fact they might be close by, unable to communicate to their family members, spouses, or friends, as had our little friend, what happened to them. Fortunately, most conjurers aren’t very original, since the common house cat (felis catus) is the most common result. It seems as if every witch with the power to cast transformation spells will, in fact, change her victims into cats. Perhaps it was such cats who accompanied so many witches on their nightly journeys. But it’s believed that great master witches could turn their victims into funguses or lichens if they wished. This is, of course, almost a death sentence for their victims. Their demons have much greater power!”
“So we’re dealing with a mediocre witch?” Blaze pursed his lips in meditation.
“And a mediocre spirit,” Elijah offered, looking down protectively at his new friend.
“Good grief!” Irma thought looking back and forth between the three men.
“If this was the sixteenth or seventeenth century, I would say that you’re both right,” the priest commented as he fondled the cat. “However, considering that this is the twentieth-first century and this has occurred only ten times in the last one hundred years, we must accept the fact that this is a very dangerous witch.” “…. This is, after all, gentlemen” he paused for emphasis, the Age of Unbelief. We don’t have an inquisition to capture and try such a witch nor do we have a credulous public to give us moral support. We can’t rely on local law enforcement to help or protect us in our endeavor. We can’t even expect local Christians to believe such a tale. We are alone in this, gentlemen, totally isolated as any other member of a lunatic fringe seeing Leprechauns or little green men.”
Blaze exchanged a frightened look with the preacher as Mortimer paused to study the expression of the little black cat purring contentedly in the arms of her latest protector.
“During the Middle Ages and fifteenth through sixteenth century,” he continued thoughtfully, “when thousands of witches were burned, tortured, and hanged, it was much more common. Back then we could hunt them down with a force of ruffians or police and drag them off to justice, if they didn’t hex us first. There were, of course, untold numbers of frogs, lizards and especially cats who had once been human beings. Since those dreadful times, the ability to transform humans into animals seems to have disappeared almost entirely. There is no record of it again until a few isolated case in the late nineteenth century and the period of time during the nineties when I encountered seven related cases in California, Utah, Mississippi, and New York. I believe that, with the new millennium, super witches—the kind that were encountered by the Inquisition and witch hunters of the sixteenth and seventeenth century—began sprouting up.”
“These are,” he turned to face the two men, “the End Times, are they not? We must expect all manner of evil in the world!”
“Okay, priest, enough of your fine words. You claim you can do it. So do it!” Elijah responded in a put-up or shut up tone.
Blaze was growing impatient himself but found the preacher’s sarcasm intolerable, and yet Hildebrand understood Elijah’s concern. As Elijah had felt earlier, he was not fond of the sorcerer. It must have been painful for him to associate with such a man, he told himself, as the preacher cast him a reproachful eye. Elijah, ironically, had begun to feel sorry for the sorcerer, who was trying so hard to be Hildebrand’s friend. Blaze, he realized, was a harmless eccentric, whereas the priest’s claims defied everything in which he believed.
Silence fell over the room as the priest considered Elijah’s demand. Irma was very tired. She hadn’t slept more than a few moments at a time since her escape from Shadowbrook Arms. Even in the safety of Blaze’s apartment and in his automobile the two men had kept her awake with their constant chatter, allowing her only a few catnaps tonight. Considering everything she once believed and the elements of India’s newfound profession that had rubbed off on her, she still couldn’t understand how a defrocked priest, street preacher, or make-believe sorcerer could undo the spell. And yet the priest seemed to be on the right track, and if it hadn’t been for the kindly preacher and inquisitive sorcerer, she would still be on the street…. She was, if nothing else, among friends.
Exhaustion was overtaking her again, so that even the mesmerizing touch of the priest failed to cause her to purr. Instead of a feline purr, the small black cat looked up at Mortimer, sighed, and purposefully laid her chin on his hand. Moved by this human gesture, the priest’s eyes twinkled and a smile broke his wrinkled face. “I can work with this cat,” he announced cheerily. “There’s plenty of humanity left in her. Look at that adorable posture. I just need to communicate with her. We need to find out as much information about the antecedents of the spell as we can.”
“Excuse me sir,” Elijah cleared his throat with irritation, “we’ve got all the information we need. All we need is for you to unzap her, if, in fact you can!”
“Oh, how rustic, Reverend Gray,” Mortimer’s eyes narrowed slightly, “just when I was beginning to like you, too…. Tsk-tsk-tsk, a Doubting Thomas!”
“Listen, you fools!” Irma came alive again. “You need more than his pretty words! You need the words to India’s spell.”
“We don’t have much time,” Blaze reminded him, as he reached down to scratch Irma’s head.
“Don’t worry,” the priest smiled reassuringly, also stroking the cat.
Irma now bristled at Mortimer’s touch, not knowing what to expect from him. Hildebrand wanted to perform a few tests on her to see how far gone she was. It seemed redundant to the preacher, but the sorcerer signaled patience with his eyes. Mortimer began by teasing her with his hand. She reacted to his playfulness with a disapproving hiss, batting her paw at his advancing and retracting hand. She was cranky, at this point, and yet she purred when he began gently scratching her head and seemed to be falling asleep. Irma was anxious to communicate some more and had no patience for his silly tests. She was also exhausted. After he thumped the table behind her to check her reactions, she humped her back up in a typical cat-like pose and hissed again, this time growling deep in her throat.
“Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!” She meowed loudly.
The priest told the preacher and sorcerer that he had performed his simple tests successfully and that it was not too late, but they had, in fact, only a few days to undue the spell. In too many ways she was behaving like a beast.
“Well, duhhh,” Irma gave him a feline sneer.
“Now I want her to communicate with me this time,” Mortimer said, looking around his cluttered office, and biting his lip pensively as he searched the room.
“Don’t tell me,” she collapsed unhappily onto the table, “you don’t have a computer! He’s looking for a piece of paper for me to write on! I just know it! I can see it in his eyes!”
“Let’s see, where’s my laptop?” he mumbled aloud now.
“Huh, what did he say?… At last!” she brightened, the purr returning to her throat. “Gimme a keyboard. Better yet gimme a computer with a graphics program, and I’ll give you a first rate report!”
“Thank God. He’s computer literate,” Mortimer could hear Elijah murmur to Blaze.
“Oh, I have a computer too, but it’s busted right now,” Blaze replied conversationally. “I’m going to buy a laptop, myself.”
“I have a state of the art model,” the priest explained, rummaging around his cluttered desk, “a 1.1 gigahertz speed, 4 gigabyte Ram, and 500 gigabyte hard drive. Every bell and whistle possible, including a web cam and fast internet cable,” “… but it’s tiny,” he added cheerfully, glancing down at Irma, “much smaller than a laptop—a mini-notebook they call it, just big enough for our little friend!”
The priest’s house was not nearly as messy as Blaze’s apartment. His study was neatly arranged, in fact, except for his desk. Piles of notes lie in a bizarre order that only the priest could explain. Beneath the papers a shiny, silver Hewlett Packard notebook emerged. A modest sized printer/fax machine unit nearby implied that the priest meant business. His visitors were duly impressed.
“I have a feeling that she wants to tell us something more,” Mortimer now declared, setting the notebook in front of Irma’s face. “Now here’s how were going to do this kitty,” he said lightheartedly. “Since you have only stubby little paws, I want you to come right up to the keyboard and use only one claw.” “Can you hold up one claw for me?” He asked, tickling her chin.
“Yes-yes, let me have it! Let me have it!” Irma wiggled excitedly now.
“Oh good, you’re right-pawed,” he sighed with delight. “…. That’s it, one claw…. She’s got the hang of it boys!”
Slowly but steadily, in hunt-and-peck style, Irma typed out with more difficulty this time “by powers within an powers that b, a rat you once wr an a cat you now b.”
“It’s the spell the witch cast upon her!” cried Mortimer, who danced a little jig.
“So that’s what she was driving at when she was pointing at the yellow pages,” Blaze said, scratching his beard.
“Boy, are we dumb!” Elijah said, shaking his head.
“Well, I’m impressed.” the priest whistled under his breath.
Mortimer corrected the errors Irma had made then watched her nod with approval. Although he seemed genuinely awed, a frown played on his wrinkled face. Irma now typed out the incantation India uttered in her apartment. Recalling the blasphemous prayer, he was convinced it was used to invoke the demon. Genuinely proud of herself for remembering the incantation, she pointed her paw at the screen. Immediately, to her satisfaction, the priest corrected the errors then read it aloud in a deadpan voice:
I deny the creator of heaven and earth.
I deny my baptism and the worship I formerly paid to God.
I cleave unto thee and in thee I believe.
Oh Lucifer, Prince of Darkness, come to me tonight,
so that we can make our trade.
I will sign a contract with you: my soul for your power.
Please father Satan, hear me at last!
Elijah cringed at this blasphemy. Even the liberal-minded Blaze blanched at what Irma had typed, now uttered by the priest. A flicker of disappointment clouded Mortimer’s expression that grew to compassion as he considered Irma’s achievement. Obviously, she felt as if she had done something quite important and she was waiting for him to acknowledge it now.
“Listen, my child,” he addressed her as a human this time, “I know what you have typed below the spell: it’s the incantation…. I’ve seen this before. But these formulas, remarkable though they are, cannot be used to reverse India’s spell. A counter-spell is based upon age old formulas written by wizard-priests and white witches, but their power is based upon many factors.”
“Gibberish!” Elijah spat angrily. “What the hell does all that mean?”
“It’s hopeless! Hopeless-hopeless-hopeless!” Irma wailed in a long plaintive meow.
“Wait a minute!” the priest protested.
“Plee-ease,” Blaze held up his hand, “let the man speak!”
“All right I’ll cut to the chase,” Mortimer Hildebrand said, spreading his fingers and shutting the laptop’s lid. “It’s too late to go over to India Crowley’s apartment tonight. Witches, as you probably know, are very powerful during this time.” “Let’s all grab a snack and get a few hours sleep. Tomorrow, bright and early, we’ll all visit Shadowbrook Arms. Fear not, I’ll be spiritually armed when I meet the witch. I’ll use one of several different formulas I have memorized to undue her spell!”
“Now that’s a good a idea, isn’t it Reverend Gray?” Blaze tried to console the preacher.
“Humph,” Elijah said, following the others into the kitchen, “we’ve wasted a lot of time!”
“Can you really help me, father?” She wanted to ask the priest, as he carried her in his arms. “…. You’re a nice man, you really are, but you’re also kind’ve goofy. India never told me about priests using God to fight spells. She never talked about using magic this way. Witches are bad, never good. India proved that to me!”
In truth, the sorcerer was beginning to doubt Mortimer Hildebrand’s qualifications as a wizard, himself. The priest was the most unorthodox cleric he had ever known. Not only did he claim to have clairvoyant and magical powers, which seemed to be in contradiction to his spiritual claims, but he was an exorcist too. How could a priest, even a defrocked priest, mix Christianity with the occult? Would God really work with such a man? This last question, regardless of his misgivings, had possibilities for Blaze O’Dare’s future and the salvation for his own soul. As they all bedded down after a snack of brownies and hot chocolate, the sorcerer heard the priest ask the cat as she curled up on a cushion beneath the couch where the preacher lie, “Do you believe in the powers of prayer, Irma Fresco?”
“Meow,” she replied.
“Have you asked the Lord to change you back?”
“Meow,” she looked up sleepily.
“You have? Good girl. Prayer is good!” the priest sounded genuinely pleased.
“There’s no denying it,” Blaze murmured to them dreamily, as he dozed in his chair, “… this puts a whole new spin on the word magic!”
Turning his attention to the preacher, the priest asked Elijah, in idle chitchat, what his Protestant denomination was. Although this seemed to be a very personal question to Blaze, Elijah, without hesitation, answered promptly “God’s Army, we don’t have denominations on skid row.”
This confession startled both Mortimer and Blaze. Irma was jerked awake when he mentioned that dreadful place.
“Skid row?” The priest probed indelicately. “How fascinating! You were assigned to that region?”
“No,” Elijah replied wryly, giving Irma a pat, “I lived in that region.”
“I’ll be damned!” She looked up groggily. “You lived in that awful place?”
“What?… What did he say?” Blaze, who had almost fallen asleep, himself, bolted upright in his chair.
“It’s a long story,” the preacher sighed, as he stoked the cat. “We should all get some sleep.”
“I’ll make you a deal,” Mortimer gazed quizzically across the room, “I’ll give you my life in a nutshell if you give me yours.” “You too,” he added quickly, looking over at Blaze. “I’ll bet you got an interesting tale.”
“I’m game,” the sorcerer shrugged.
“Very well,” Elijah sighed, staring reflectively at the ceiling, “I’ll give you my life in a nutshell…. I’ve told this to only few people. There’s really not much to tell.”
Irma hopped up on his shoulder and looked down into his drowsy face. His normally resonant voice, now somnolent, was joined by a loud, rumbling purr from Irma’s chest, that was pleasantly distracting to the preacher. He had fallen in love with the little black cat. To Irma’s great surprise, evident in her big blue eyes, Elijah had been an up and coming high school teacher. When his wife and child had been killed by a drunken driver, however, he became a drunk, himself, and wound up, after a long period of decline, on skid row. After a few years of living on the street, the Lord led him to God’s Army Mission—a broken, misbegotten soul. After a period of study at the church, he became a spiritual advisor to homeless men at the mission, while earning a modest income teaching adult education uptown.
Blaze, who seemed eager to relate his own down-and-out tale, surprised Irma almost as much as Elijah when he claimed that he, like Elijah, had once been quite successful but in business, until one day, after reflecting on his life and career, he dropped out of his unfulfilling marriage, abandoned his spoiled daughters, and, while living on a humble inheritance, devoted most of his time to the occult. Mortimer, who could find no parallel between the two dropouts, let this opportunity to needle the sorcerer pass. With surprising honesty, Blaze explained how he joined a club of would-be sorcerers but was now freelancing on his own. As his listeners fought the throes of slumber, he admitted that he had attempted sorcery, himself, but had only limited success. Finally, when it appeared as if the sorcerer was finished, Mortimer began, in his gravelly voice, to related his own life experiences, the most astounding tale of them all (had they only stayed awake!) From his early seminary days, when he realized he had special gifts, through the difficult period when he found himself crashing headlong against church dogma and law, he had spent many years as a priest and then as an excommunicated priest battling evil on behalf of Christ—if not for the Holy Roman Church.
It was the kind of story of which novels were written and movies were made, but, by the time Mortimer had finished his own nutshell account, everyone, including the little black cat, who had curled up on the preacher’s chest, had fallen into a deep, untroubled sleep.