Sin Eater by John Schembra
The shocking murder of a professor at San Donorio State College brings the city police to investigate with Campus Police Officer Sarah Ferris acting as college liaison. Sarah’s friend, Nico Guardino, a history professor at the college, gets drawn into helping her investigate. As Nico and Sarah struggle to find the murderer, the killing continues.
Drawn inexorably deeper into the investigation, Nico begins having visions and deep feelings of dread he knows somehow connect to the murderer. He feels the connection becoming stronger, but the how and why remain frustratingly unknown even as the visions and feelings become more disturbing.
“A fascinating page-turner. Every chapter builds on the next and brings the reader to an unpredictable, satisfying climax. A great (summer) read.”
~ Thonie Hevron, award-winning author
Ebook and Print versions available exclusively from Amazon:
GENRE: Thriller: Supernatural (paranormal) ASIN: B01M0TWRHH ISBN: 978-1-925191-81-3 Word Count: 51, 115
Sin Eater; In folklore, a person who would take on the sins of a dying person through ritual means and for material gain, thus absolving the dying of their sins while taking on the burden of the same.
He clung tightly to his mother’s hand as they walked down the dimly lit hallway toward the bedroom. He could hear the soft sobbing of his aunts in the living room, punctuated once in a while by a sharp wail, frightening him even more. He reached up with his other hand and held on to his mother with both of his as they approached the door, his heart thumping so hard in his chest he thought it would burst. They stopped at the closed door and his mother knelt down facing him. Placing her hands on his shoulders, she looked into his eyes, seeing his fear.
“Not to worry, Nico.” She said, stroking his cheek gently. “It is natural that people pass on. Your granddad has been sick for a while now, and it is his time to leave. God is coming to take him to heaven soon, so we must go in and say our goodbyes.” She smoothed his hair as she talked, her voice comforting. Though still afraid, her words took some of the fear from him. He nodded to her without speaking, afraid his voice would betray him. He wanted her to think he was brave, a big boy whom she could be proud of, not a frightened little six year old.
“Now, when we go in, Honey, don’t be surprised at how Granddad looks. This disease has changed him, but know this, my son, it is still your granddad lying in that bed. Do not be afraid. He is still the same person who took you fishing. The same granddad that would play games with you, take you to the movies, help you with your homework, OK?”
He nodded again, a lump starting to form in his throat. He loved his granddad, and the time they spent together was some of his favorite time. He knew no father, as his dad left when he was just a baby. He understood what death was and knew that when his granddad died he would be gone forever, just like their cat that had died last year. He was trying his best not to cry, but he couldn’t keep the tears from clouding his vision. He rubbed his eyes with the back of his hands, wiping away the tears that threatened to spill down his cheeks.
“I know, Honey,” his mother said, gently squeezing his shoulder. “This is hard on you, but I know you want to say goodbye to him, to let him know you love him and will never forget him.” Her voice caught in her throat and she took a slow, deep breath, willing herself to not cry in front of her son. Under control once more, she asked, “Are you ready, son?”
“Yes,” he said so softly she had to lean in to hear him. She kissed him on the cheek and stood up. Taking his hand once more, she faced the door, took a deep breath, and opened it.
The room was dark, the only light coming from some candles on the nightstand next to the bed and on the dresser. It smelled musty and mediciney, almost unclean. He could see his grandmother sitting in a rocking chair next to the bed, holding the family bible on her lap. She had a shawl around her shoulders and her gray hair was pulled tightly back into a bun. Her head was resting against the back of the chair and her eyes were closed. She appeared to be asleep.
He couldn’t see his granddad on the bed, only an un-recognizable form under the covers. He could hear him breathing, could hear the breath rattling in his throat as his body fought for air. His mother led him to the side of the bed opposite his grandmother.
“I’m glad you’re here, Caroline. You too, Nico,” his grandmother said without opening her eyes or lifting her head. A fleeting thought skipped through his mind. How did she know it was us? Just as quickly it was gone, unanswered.
“He was asking for you both just a few hours ago. I’m glad you got here in time.”
“We drove on down just as soon as we could, Ma,” his mother said in hushed tones, as if she was afraid of disturbing her father, lying so thin and pale on the bed. Nico hardly recognized his grandfather, he had lost so much weight.
“Shall we pray together, Ma?” his mother asked, kneeling at the bedside. She tugged on his coat and he, too, kneeled next to the bed. He was so small, he couldn’t see over the mattress. As his mother and grandmother began to pray, he folded his hands together and bowed his head, not knowing the words but knowing they were important. When they were done, his mother got to her feet. Nico stood up and looked up at her, seeing the tears in her eyes. He saw her take his granddad’s hand, pressing it to her cheek. She kissed it and said, “Goodbye, Pop. I love you.” The tears were running freely down her cheeks now. He looked at his grandfather lying there so still and pale. He reached up and took his grandfather’s hand from his mother, kissed it, too, and said, “Goodbye, granddad.”
A soft knock on the doorjamb interrupted them. It was his great aunt Helen. “He’s just arrived, Josie,” she said to his grandmother. “Shall I have him come in?”
“Yes, Helen. I fear there is not much time left.” His grandmother got up from the chair, placing the bible on the seat. She pulled the covers down to his grandfather’s waist and folded them over. Nico could see his granddad was dressed in his best suit. His grandmother took a small plate from on top of the dresser and placed it on his chest. A small piece of bread was on the plate. He watched as she opened the top drawer of the dresser and took out a small cloth bag. Opening the bag, she took out two small gold coins and placed them on his granddads closed eyelids. Turning to her sister, she said, softly, “Bring him in, Helen.”
His mother turned to her and said, “You really didn’t call one, did you Ma?”
“Yes, Caroline, I did.” She sighed and continued, “I know you don’t believe in it, but I do, and so does your father. It is important to us. He asked for him, and I will honor his wishes.”
“It’s just an old superstition, Ma. It does no good, and I don’t want some stranger coming in here and desecrating my father with this archaic ritual.”
“You don’t have any say in the matter, Caroline. It’s what your father wanted. If you don’t like it, don’t want to see it, then wait in the parlor, but he is coming in.”
“But Ma, a Sin Eater?”
“This conversation is over, Caroline,” his grandmother said, folding her arms over her chest.
His mother sighed and shook her head. Taking his hand she said, “Come on, sweetheart. Let’s go back to the living room.”
As they turned to go, Nico saw a large figure blocking the doorway. He was wearing a black suit with a white dress shirt, a black tie and a black top hat. He carried a small, worn leather satchel in one hand and a cane in the other.
He had the most piercing eyes Nico had ever seen. They appeared to burn with a reddish color and seemed to look through him into his soul. Nico’s gaze locked on the man’s, and when the man smiled, a mirthless, humorless smile, Nico could see his teeth were coated and yellowish. There were gaps where missing teeth had rotted out.
Nico suddenly felt dizzy. Shadows began to creep in from the edges of his vision, and he staggered slightly. He felt as if someone was pulling him into a dark place, a place of death and disease, a place that terrified him. He could feel a connection with the dark man, almost read his thoughts, and he shivered from the feeling of pure evil and degradation that came from him. His vision narrowed even more, and he felt the strength flowing from his body. It was getting harder and harder to move his arms or legs. It became difficult to breath and he felt as if he was drowning.
He felt someone shaking him, saying something, but it sounded like they were talking to him from far away. He was shaken harder, and recognized his mother’s voice asking if he was all right. He broke eye contact with the man in black. The room came back into focus and his hearing cleared. He looked at his mother and blinked rapidly, then shook his head yes. His heart had begun to beat rapidly again, and he felt a fear so strong it was almost overwhelming. He felt sweat trickling down the back of his neck, and his body shook involuntarily. His mother, alarmed by his behavior, bent over and picked him up, carrying him rapidly past the man in black and out of the bedroom. He had his face buried in her shoulder so he couldn’t see the man as they passed him. As his mother hurried down the hallway, he looked up and saw the man in black slowly closing the door. Just before the door closed, the man looked directly at him and winked.
Nico frantically searched through the papers on his desk for the blank final exam. Damn, he thought, where did I put it? In his haste, several sheets fell to the floor. He bent over to pick them up and saw the exam he was looking for laying on top of the pile. I have GOT to get more organized. His office was no more than a cubicle. It was eight feet wide and ten feet deep and in that space Nico had crammed a large antique wooden desk and desk chair, a small table placed next to the desk for his computer monitor and printer, and a folding chair on each side of the door. Any empty space was cluttered with boxes full of papers and notes, including rough drafts of lectures and research papers. The two folding chairs were piled high with books. The walls had been painted yellow, and the ceiling gray. There was no air conditioning and a small electric fan perched on top of the pile of books on the chair closest to the desk whirred softly, moving the hot air around the room. Though the room was cluttered and untidy, it was dust free and clean.
He grabbed his jacket, and with the American History exam in hand, rushed out from his office, heading for the college’s media center to have copies made for his class in the morning.
Nico Guardino was well thought of at the university where, at age twenty-seven, he was the youngest tenured professor. He spent the greater part of every day at the university, often arriving by six-thirty in the morning and not leaving before seven or eight in the evening. He would use the quiet morning time to prepare for that day’s lectures, and in the evening, after everyone else was gone, it was his time to relax in his office, turn the radio on low and work on the articles he wrote for the history department’s weekly newsletter or do his research for his lessons.
He spent little time at his small one bedroom apartment five blocks from the campus. To him, it was only the place where he kept his clothes, slept, and showered. He almost always ate at the campus cafeteria, unless one of his colleagues invited him over for dinner. His apartment was just as cluttered as his office, with books and boxes of papers scattered everywhere. His clean clothes covered the small couch in the living room, and a small television sat on one of his end tables placed against the opposite wall. He watched little T.V., preferring to read or work on his notes and papers. He had very few dates, being totally wrapped up in his career.
That was not to say that he was not attracted to the fairer sex, and they to him. At five foot eleven and a hundred ninety pounds, with his curly black hair and blue eyes he would turn their heads when he walked by. He exuded a boyish charm, though his naivety was apparent during casual conversations. He dressed for comfort more than style, preferring jeans to slacks, and casual shirts, un-buttoned over colored t-shirts, to dress shirts and ties. The look fit him and only made him more attractive, though casual probably wasn’t the proper term for his dress. “Rumpled” fit better.
He had no steady girlfriend, and hadn’t for a number of years. When he did go on a date, he always seemed to steer the conversation to his job, which was the reason he rarely had a second date with the same woman. The women he dated would always stay friends with him after they stopped seeing each other, as he was handsome and charming, and seemed so innocent and naïve.
His American History class was one of the most popular classes at the university, and always had a waiting list filled with hopeful students. His passion was history and it showed in his presentations. His enthusiasm was infectious.
His lectures were liberally sprinkled with folklore. He would often start the lecture with an example of a folklore tradition and its effect on history, usually how often the course of history was guided or changed because of it. He was very well versed in American and old English folklore, and often spent hours in the library researching more to use as topics for his classes.
Nico had grown up in central California, near the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, raised by his mother. He had no brothers or sisters. His father had walked out on them shortly after he was born and his mother had had to go to work. Babysitting duties fell to his two aunts and his grandparents, and as a result he maintained close ties with his extended family. His mother would drive the hour to the city and drop Nico at her parents’ place, or at school when he was old enough, then on to work. She used the time after work, during the drive home to teach him many things, using the time to his advantage. She taught him to be respectful to others, and to be honest and courteous. She still lived in the house in which he grew up, a hundred and fifty year old farmhouse she had remodeled, sitting on ten acres of land. She lived comfortably on her pension from working thirty-two years at the phone company and the interest from some very shrewd investments she made during the technology boom in the 1980’s. To say she was rich was overstating her situation. A more accurate assessment was that she was very comfortable.
He would make the hour drive home to visit her every couple of weeks, and talked to her on the phone almost every day. The days he spent with her were the only times he would get a real home-cooked meal. Those days were restful and relaxing, almost like going on an R and R. He could rest and forget his cares. He felt secure and comfortable at his mother’s house, spending his time reading or walking in the woods and fields on the ten acres surrounding the house. He loved the golden hills, covered with black oaks, dogwood trees and Manzanita and loved hiking them. When he left to return to the city, he felt refreshed and re-charged.
On the weekends he did not spend at his mother’s he liked to go on long hikes in the hills just outside of town. He would spend hours hiking through the countryside. When the weather was not right for hiking, he would spend the day reading in his apartment or at the local Barnes and Noble bookstore. He would be so engrossed in what he was reading that he often forgot to eat until the hunger pangs intruded on his concentration.
He arrived at the media center three minutes before closing. The clerk at the front counter groaned when she saw it was him.
“Let me guess, Nico. You need something copied before I go home, right?”
“And, of course, you need about a zillion and a half copies, which will take me at least an hour to do”. She leaned her elbows on the counter and grasped her hands together in a praying position. “Geez, Nico, I gotta date tonight. Gimme a break, will ya? I’ve been trying to hook up with this guy for three months, and when finally he asks me out, you come waltzing in here with your cute little face and puppy-dog eyes asking for a favor.” She leaned over the counter and said, “If you weren’t so damn cute, I’d throw you out of here myself.” She sighed, looking at him standing there with a shy smile on his face. “Alright, what is it you want?”
“You know I wouldn’t ask, Angie, unless it was really important. All I need is fifty copies of this,” he said, handing her the four-page exam. “Won’t take long. I owe you,” he said, grinning at her.
“You already owe me a half-dozen dinners, Nico. I’m still waiting to collect. All right, I’ll do it, but I’m holding you to your promise. I want dinner at Martini’s next Wednesday, and don’t give me any of your excuses! I happen to know you are free on Wednesdays, so you better meet me there!”
“But nothing. Be there, Nico, or else no more copies, ever!”
“OK, OK, I’ll be there. Seven OK?”
“Seven’s perfect. Now, how many copies did you need?”
The next morning, Nico was standing at the small desk in his classroom arranging the tests as the class filtered in. Once they all were seated, he walked around the front of the desk and said, “On my desk is your final exam. There are eight essay questions, from which you must select six you wish to answer. Each answer must be backed up by historical facts, either quotes from historical figures, dates, or events to show you know what you are talking about. I know the semester ends in two days, so before we get going, are there any questions?”
No one spoke up so Nico picked up the stack of exams and began passing them out. “Remember, your name, the date and the class number must be printed, legibly please, in the upper right corner of all pages of your blue books. Number the pages sequentially, too. You have three hours to complete it. You can begin as soon as you get the test. When you are done, place the exam on my desk, and have a nice vacation.”
When he finished passing out the exams, he returned to his desk and sat down. He took one of his reference books from a drawer and opened it to the section on Cornish legends. He retrieved a pad of paper and a pencil and wrote across the top, “Giants, Mermaids, and Lost Lands: The Legends of Cornwall.” Nico turned to the book and found the section he needed with the information for the talk he was preparing. He was the keynote speaker at the local history club’s annual conference and he wanted to be well prepared. He had attended the conference over the last five years, and was a presenter at the last two. He was honored and thrilled that he had been asked to speak at the main banquet. He smiled to himself as he wrote on the pad, “Jack the Giant Killer” followed by “A farmer’s son who lived near Land’s End in the days of King Arthur.” He began to make detailed notes from the book, losing all track of time and his surroundings. After a while, Nico looked up from his work and saw the entire class was busily writing their answers to the test questions. The only sounds in the room were the rustling of papers and the scratching of the student’s pens and pencils as they wrote. Nico turned back to his book and continued to make notes, filling several pages in the three hours of the exam.
The beeping of his watch timer broke his concentration. Putting his pencil down, he closed the book and turned off the watch alarm. He stood up, stretched, and announced, “You have ten minutes left.” He sat down again and leaned back in his chair, watching the class finish up their exams. One by one, they approached his desk and placed their exam on it. Wishing him a good summer, they left with the reminder that their exam results would be available by two p.m. the next day, and he would be happy to e-mail them their score, along with their final grade if they sent him an e-mail request.
Once all the exams had been turned in and everyone had left, Nico stood up and began gathering them and putting them in his old leather briefcase. He closed the briefcase, grabbed his jacket off the back of the chair and a folder of research notes from the desk and walked to the classroom door. Looking around once more, he sighed, knowing that another term had come and gone. He felt a bit depressed that he would not be lecturing and holding classes for the next three months, but was excited at the same time, realizing that he would have much more time to pursue his research and studies into folklore. He smiled to himself as he shut off the lights and closed the door.
Nico spent the next five hours in his office grading the exams, only stopping long enough to walk to the student cafeteria to grab a hamburger and fries for dinner. It was after ten p.m. when he finished, and he spent another half-hour entering the results on his laptop, expecting that most everyone in the class would be requesting their score and grade the next day. He yawned mightily and stretched the kinks out of his arms and legs. Locking the graded exams in his desk, he gathered his things and left his office, locking the door behind him. He walked outside, stopping at the bottom of the stairs. Raising his face to the sky he drank in the cool night air, taking several deep breaths. He turned and started walking toward the faculty parking lot where his six-year-old Volvo was parked.
As he passed the science hall, his attention was drawn to a dark figure standing in the shadows by the front door at the top of the stairs. He slowed as he passed the person, who appeared to be standing still and quiet. Uneasiness began to build in his stomach when he realized the figure was dressed all in black. Nico thought the figure had a wide flat-brimmed hat on his head and possibly had a black cape draped over his shoulders. A thin sheen of perspiration formed on his upper lip in spite of the cool night air and the uneasiness in his stomach changed to nausea. He squeezed his eyes shut and wiped the sweat from his face with his sleeve. He looked back to where the figure had been standing, but he was gone. Am I seeing things? He thought. He stopped walking and turned, trying to see into the deep shadows, even taking a step toward the stairs. C’mon, Nico, he thought, there’s nothing there. He stood looking at the shadows for a long moment, then shook his head and walked away, the nausea quickly dissipating. He unlocked the car and climbed in. Starting the engine, he backed the car out of the parking space, put it in drive and began to slowly drive out of the parking lot. As he turned onto the street toward home, he looked one more time at the science building, seeing only shadows.
He watched from deep in the shadows as Nico drove away, waiting quietly for another ten minutes. He saw no one else, the campus appearing to be deserted. His attention was drawn to the sound of the door to the science building opening. As a figure stepped out he moved into his path from the darkness, blocking him. Startled, the figure stopped and gasped in surprise. Once the initial shock passed, he recognized the man blocking him and breathed a sigh of relief.
“Oh, it’s you!” he exclaimed. “You startled me. What are you doing here at this time of night, and why are you dressed like that?”
“Good evening, professor. Just wanted to see how you are doing. Are you feeling well?”
“As well as can be expected, thanks for asking.”
“Glad to hear that. I know your time is short, Professor, and I am here to help.”
“Help? How can you help when the doctors tell me there is nothing more they can do?”
“I cannot help cure you, but I can help prepare your path to the hereafter. I would like to cleanse you of your sins before your time arrives.”
“What is this nonsense you are talking about? Please, you know I don’t believe in that and don’t want anything to do with that stuff. So if you don’t mind, I’ll be on my way,” the professor said as he turned away and started to walk toward the stairs.
He had only taken three steps when the twisted cloth was thrown around his neck and pulled tight. He was pulled back into the man behind him, held off-balance, and the cloth was pulled even tighter, cutting off his air. He grabbed at the cloth and struggled to pull it loose but was not strong enough. He tried to scream for help but the garrote prevented from him making any noise. The professor continued to struggle, growing weaker with each second. After less than a minute, he was almost unconscious and his struggles had nearly stopped. His assailant pulled him down to the ground, laying him gently on his back, keeping the pressure on his throat. He began mumbling what seemed to be a chant or a prayer as he took one hand off the cloth and removed a small piece of bread from his pocket. The professor’s struggles had stopped and he was able to place the bread on his chest. Reaching back into his pocket, he removed two coins and placed them on the professor’s eyes, then re-gripped the cloth and pulled it tighter.
He held the cloth for another three minutes, until he was sure the professor was dead, all the while reciting the prayers, finishing the recital by saying, “I give easement and rest now to thee, dear man. Come not down the lanes or in our meadows. And for thy peace, I pawn my own soul.” Removing the cloth, he folded it and placed it in his coat pocket, took the bread and ate it, then removed the two coins. Holding them with the thumbs and forefingers of his hands, he raised them toward the sky, mumbling another short prayer, then placing them in his pocket. Without another look at the professor’s body, he got to his feet and slowly walked away.
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