Geoff Nelder

The April Featured Writer is Geoff Nelder

Please feel free to email Geoff at: geoffnelder@yahoo.com


by Geoff Nelder

Father Giovanni leaned over the side and stared at ripples made by the ferry, mesmerized by the fractal yet recognizable colorful reflections of other people’s homes. It would take just forty minutes to cross the Venetian lagoon to the small island of Burano, but it was only a stage to his destination. He glanced up when a waitress offered to take a drink order.

He smiled. Not with the expression of a happy person. Then she saw the purple ribbon on his dark coat identifying him as working at the Papal office. Her eyes flicked to his wide-brimmed black hat resting on the varnished seat next to him.

“Oh sorry, Father.”

“No need, child, I’ll have a whisky.” He gave her a ten euro note. “Have something yourself.”

Her eyebrows shot up but the smile she offered was more of a grimace. Ah, he envisioned what she saw. A withered skull of a head, sunken grey eyes, clean-shaven but he’d probably benefit by wearing a beard. She turned. Her full red skirt swirling, knocking his hat and making him lunge to grab it.

The girl returned with a glass. Amber liquid competed with an ice cube as it sloshed in its own miniature version of the lagoon. No doubt a cheap blend but he sniffed it anyway. His white, straggled eyebrows lifted in surprise at the smoked peaty aroma. Perhaps…ugh, he spat it out and threw the rest over the side. His hand knocked against the bulwark, so the glass went too.

The waitress shouted at him. “Hey, Monsignor, that will be five euros for the glass!”

Scowling he fidgeted in his shoulder bag for a note. “That whisky was poison.”

“Surely not, Monsignor, It was from a bottle reserved for VIPs.”

Probably been opened years ago, gone bad in the heat and contaminated. He’d have been better off with cheap wine.

He disembarked at Burano and tagged on to the rest of the crowd. How the island made room for visitors every day perplexed him. The bright red, blue and yellow buildings stood shoulder to shoulder, threatening to spill into the lagoon. The only green space was around the domed church of San Martino with its leaning campanile, competing with Pisa and settling unevenly for the same reasons. His stomach lurched as he walked to the shaky wooden pedestrian pontelongo to the next island. He leaned now and then on a handrail because his right hand dragged a wheeled overnight case and his left carried what appeared to be a battered doctor’s bag. At least his garb kept the tourists from jostling him in their blind photo instagramming haste.

On the other side of the bridge lay Mazzorbo, more sparsely populated, olive orchards and artichoke fields. Years ago he enjoyed a restful, incognito, holiday there. Ah, a nun waved at him. Did she have to?

Lord, they’re getting younger every day. Bright blue eyes though her white wimple hid her hair. She leaped in excitement towards him.

“Father Giovanni Moretti? It is, isn’t it? I’m Sister Juliana. Ju-li-an-a. Your Papal investigator’s purple ribbon too. Here to cure our Sister Rosa, yes, yes?”

“That will depend on a higher authority,” he said, letting his eyes lift heavenward.

She curtseyed, belatedly. “Of course, of course. This way, please.”

He’d not visited the nunnery before, but knew it was on the other side of the island, attached to the church. His dossier told him of twenty-four acolytes, sixteen nuns and the Mother Superior. As he recalled data, a tourist pony and trap clattered by, just squeezing between the limestone wall and a battered 2CV cleverly painted orange to disguise the rust. The trap knocked the mirror such that it swung by a piece of grey duct tape. While the nun tore the mirror completely off and threw it onto the back seat, Giovanni released a sigh, knowing this was to be his bone-shaking conveyance.

Just before his vertebrae crumbled beyond saving, the vehicle skidded in a shower of white gravel. The horn honked like a betrayed donkey.

Giovanni coughed, righted his hat, and said, “I believe this is a silent order?”

Sister Juliana struggled with levers, pushing and pulling at controls yet the engine throbbed on. “Only the Mendicant Wing. I don’t believe my car will move now, please disembark, Monsignor.”

He left the girl to drag his case, once she’d silenced the automobile, but carried his doctor’s bag and walked to what appeared to be a distant door at the other end of a long limestone cloistered walkway. He harbored a passion for such arched parades. The alternate sun and shade played with his mind as if they represented Heaven and Hell teasing and threatening in equal turns. He smelled lavender from pots in the shade. The poor things required urgent refreshment. His footsteps echoed in magnificence but were soon drowned by the squeak of wheels and the more hurried steps of the novice behind him.

The peeling black varnish of the studded door opened before he reached it. If the girl behind represented a new generation of nuns, the figure in front must have seen thousands of novices grow old. Barely half his height, her bent form was held up only by stiffeners in her white cloak. Perhaps the weight of the obsidian cross around her neck was pulling her down.

A surprisingly deep and strong voice came from her: “Monsignor Giovanni Moretti?”

“Father will do. And you?”

“Mother Superior. I will take you to Sister Rosa immediately…while we can.”

He didn’t like the sound of that, but couldn’t ask for clarification because she scampered off leaving him to hurry after her. At least it was cool even if musty inside the convent stone walls. He lost sight of her in the gloom. He stopped to listen for her sensible shoes click-clacking. Up ahead and to the right.

He increased his pace, sweating, then stopped again. What on God’s Earth was he thinking? He was the higher rank. Where was his dignity? He shouldn’t be chasing after anyone; they should be accompanying and respecting his office. Besides, he was definitely off color after that drink on the ferry. He put out a hand on the cool, smooth wall to steady himself just as the Mother Superior returned.

“Come along, Father. She’s fading in and out. Goodness, are you all right?”

How could a woman fade in and out? He shook himself and said, “Lead me to her, but not so fast.”

Around another corner, she stopped at an archway. He saw a nun wearing a white coif and otherwise in black, sat on a high-backed chair facing the window.

He stopped, put down his bag, retrieved a tissue from his pocket and wiped his nose. “I see. Somehow I didn’t expect to see her free to roam. In my mind there was a studded cell door here.”

The Mother Superior tutted. “We’re not primitives, Father.”

“Of course not, but I was informed Sister Rosa was a danger to herself and others.”

“She is.”

“Then why…ah.” Although the cell door was of ancient wood with black iron studs and a barred window, it bore a modern electric lock.

Her crooked smile parted just enough to utter, “Perhaps.” Her eyes flicked up to the ceiling where a small box with a red light had escaped his notice. “We had to restrict her movements after three of our younger novices were becoming like her. Her evil could spread. Who knows where it could stop?”

“I believe the Lord would know, and it’s why I am here, yes?”

She nodded.

“May I enter?”

“You understand, Father, that I, nor any of my nuns, will go in with you. We’ll take your phone in case she does. You may take this taser with you after I instruct—”

“That’s quite unnecessary.”

“She is dangerous. No one enters without it, even when she’s in the bathroom and locked herself in. I hate to be sacrilegious but prayer alone will not be sufficient.”

“I am experienced with a taser.”

Her white eyebrows disappeared into her headdress. “Really? Well, of course, you are in the interrogation unit of Papal Investigations. Aren’t you known as the Inqu—”

“Inquisitor? I have heard such. Even so I would like to soften my entrance. How does she take her meals? May I take in a tray?”

“She doesn’t partake. She cannot or it would negate her stated condition, which is Cotard’s syndrome. You are familiar with it, of course.”

He stood in thought for a minute. “Of course,” he lied. He’d need to check.

“The affected person holds the delusional belief that they are already dead. Some think they are putrefying or have somehow lost their blood,” she said.

“I said I know.”

She backed off. Another nun appeared and handed him a tray of food.

As he entered, he heard a buzz behind him as if the lock had caught a fly. He began with a cough. “Sister Rosa, I am Father Moretti, sent by his Holiness himself to talk with you. I bring you refreshment.”

He laid the tray on an occasional table near the window then turned to face an Arabian-looking woman, high cheek bones, thin, piercing blue eyes. She shook her head at the proffered plate, but after some hesitation took a port and sniffed it before cradling it in her lap.

Her voice was mellower than he expected but she spoke with a single b flat note. “I cannot drink it, nor anything given to me.”

Deluded. “It is not poison, Sister.”

“I am already dead, so poison doesn’t matter.”

“Sister, you clearly are not.”

Her long face angled at him. “There are many levels of dead. You know that.”

He paused for a moment to ponder this. He’d not encountered such a notion in the scriptures and credo. The four levels of mortis but not for allegedly living persons, unless she meant apparitions. Did she think she was a ghost?

He had to ask. “What makes you think I’d know about levels of dead?”

“Because you are also dead, just a different level. Can you not feel it so?”

He laughed, not because he found it funny, but out of embarrassment at hearing the assertion he was already dead. Ludicrous, yet he examined his hands as if willing his veins to display surges of blood flowing through them.

“What makes you say I am deceased, child?”

She quirked a slanted smile. “How do you know you are not?”

“I know of no dead people who can walk about and, look, sip a drink.” He did, then spat out the bloody liquid with cruor lumps back into the glass. “What foul stuff has your Mother Superior given us?”

“Not the blood of our Savior, then? You think you are still alive.” It was a sentence with a hint of a question mark.

He tore his eyes from the glass he’d banged onto the tray. “Behave, woman. We know we are alive because we are aware. We sense the hot draught from that window and a whiff of the fetid air from the lagoon. You must do too.”

“Memories, Monsignor. Expectations. You’d better sit before you fall. Your next level of death is arriving.”

He snorted in derision, but wait, he’d not been himself since that ferry ride. The whisky that tasted vile. Was that a poison or a symptom? He headed for a full armchair whose green velvet had lost its welcome decades ago. Threadbare where arms have rested since one of the world wars. It creaked threateningly when he collapsed into it, and sent up a small cloud of motes lit by the crepuscular rays of sunlight.

“Sister, this isn’t Godly. Nor is your damned Cotard’s. You are as alive as anyone here and you must cease spreading this… nonsense.”

As he settled more into the chair, she stood, appearing to be taller than she should, silhouetted against the window.

He shouldn’t be lower than the she-devil. He put effort into his arms but he’d lost what little strength he had. Something was wrong with him. He felt that he was in a precarious state. In desperation, his right arm flopped over the side of the chair and his hand groped for the catch on his doctor’s bag. Got it. He reached in, fingers wriggling, searching. There. Metallic.

Immediately, the tips of his fingers tingled. He wrapped his hand around the bag and drew it slowly, out of her sight. She’d been looking back out of the window, yet he had the feeling she was keeping him under observation.

Summoning all his strength, he brought his hand up, half standing, and brandished his treasured crucifix before him, more like a gun than a shield. Embedded emeralds in the black metal cross vibrated, but that always happened when he used it for exorcisms.

He expected her to reel back in shock like other adversaries, but she didn’t. Part of him knew she wouldn’t. Her crooked smile was so disrespectful, sacrilegious, annoying. She pointed her arm back at the crucifix.

From the side it would have looked like an obscene rendition of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. Except. The masterpiece depicts a moment of glorious magnificence in touching while this is an intangible allongé.

The crucifix was becoming too hot to hold. It surely wouldn’t melt. His bag held two more chances. Another resided in his memory.

The cross became too hot in pulses matching her insane bouts of laugher in a monotone b flat. He fell back into the chair, shivering in fear and icy blood coursing in his veins. In desperation, he pulled at one of the chains around his neck. It was a vial of holy water blessed by the pope himself.

He opened and dabbed it on his right forefinger. His grin, he knew, was awful, and he used it as a weapon. An egregious, contradictory opening of lips revealing near green teeth—damn his condition of excess bilirubin in his blood, but in the past he found the rotting it caused in his teeth to be useful to scare subjects. She wasn’t scared at all. His finger dampened with the holy water described a pentacle in the air.

She laughed again but more uncertainly.

He upped his near-numinous rare ritual by uttering an uncommon Latin incantation to ward off evil: Crux sacra sit mihi lux! Nunquamdraco sit mihi dux…what is it now? Vade retro Satana! Nunquamsuade mihi vana! Sunt mala quaelibas. Ipse venenabibas!

Sister Rosa stopped to listen to each phrase as if passing it on or digesting it, worse, maybe nullifying word by word. Her monotone laugh returned and she took a step forward.

Giovanni’s hand sizzled, blistered, forcing him to drop the crucifix, which now curled into a shapeless mess.

He reached into his robes and pulled out the taser.

Finally Sister Rosa found a higher note in her derision. Maybe he shouldn’t use it.

“Your pathetic invocations. I’d have expected better. What I love about Cotard’s is that we can die and yet be alive, again. Get ready, Father, to be with me and my acolytes in our Cotard state.”

He slumped in the old armchair; all pretence of superiority thrashed out of him. Why had nothing worked on her?

“You don’t get it, do you? It’s not me you should be questioning but all the Church.”

He got it. He grabbed the phial again, half full, and splattered it, but this time on the correct person.

Deus est mecum. Discedite a me satanas.” Incantations to exorcise himself.

She staggered back and collapsed on her chair. Her face distorted, angrily rather than in concern.

With his strength returning, he grabbed the taser. He aimed it with less than the normal lethal setting. She twitched off the chair and onto the floor, the two leads attached to her neck, the only exposed skin he could see. Unconsciousness, allowing him to step closer.

He retrieved the taser leads noting the two punctures looking for all the world as if Dracula had visited. Was she alive? She twitched.

What level of death, now?

There were unanswered questions. His Holy Eminence would be most upset with him if he left the situation like this. His doctor’s bag harbored more inquisitors’ devices, such as cable ties.

Lying on the floor, Sister Rosa trembled all over. In a blue haze, the taser discharged an electrical charge via Giovanni’s wrist all by itself. He fell to the floor, helpless.

Her voice back to b flat but rasping. “I will tell you what is unfinished, but it won’t be for long.”

He passed out.

He came to consciousness. His wrists and ankles were bound by the ties to the chair. It was so tight that his fingers went numb and blue with the lack of circulation. Yet his carotid artery throbbed alarmingly in his neck.

“You are passing through the second level of death, Father Moretti. As will millions very shortly as my acolytes spread abroad. You would still like to know why it was you I asked for?”

What? He’d assumed the Vatican appointed him for his skills, not connections.

As if she read his mind, she said, “A small matter near Via Belsiana, but by the time you connect your Papal dots it will be too late…for someone close to you.”

His fading mind whirled. He knew the address of Via Belsiana. Wasn’t it off Rome’s Via deiCondotti? His wrists were still tied down, but aching fingers tried to drum the tattered arm of the chair while his brain thrummed itself into a headache. His aunt lived off that road. She moved there last year after his office resolved a tenancy issue with a fam—

“You…”He wanted to call her a termagant, a necromancer but decided on, “What is your surname?”

She stared at him as if penetrating his mind. She opened her mouth but he remembered and spoke first. “Benandanti.” Recognition of the legendary bandit name stirred a semblance of energy in him. “You were evicted. Your family fell behind with the rent?”

“You do not remember enough, Father. My family was evicted by your office to house your aunt, so your foray into my Cotard is of your own making.”

He lapsed into a sad tiredness again. He’d have liked to have laughed her off but his mind rebelled with: I’ve killed myself. He’d like to think only weak-minded novices were influenced, their minds invaded perhaps with the assistance of potions, but that couldn’t be the case because he knew he was affected too.

He opened his eyes sufficient to glare at her silhouette against the window. To his astonishment, she slowly collapsed to the floor. What was this? Had his incantation worked? A time lag perhaps. She lay prone but he couldn’t tell if she breathed. He tried to move his arms, but like his legs the plastic ties he’d brought, held him to the chair.

Giovanni called out, “Mother Superior—anyone! I need help in here.”

He waited, ears straining to detect footsteps, but none approached. Of all times to be incapacitated. He twisted his body as much as he could to see the doorway, and saw a black, sensible shoe. Someone was lying on the floor in the corridor. Lord, what trickery was this?

He turned back, expecting the witch, Rosa, to be upright wearing a sneer but she remained in a heap.

He called out again. Nothing except a poor echo.

Giovanni examined his right wrist. The plastic tie had been pushed through the torn fabric of the armchair. A stain of red accompanied the soreness where the sharp edge had cut into his flesh.

The only movement open to him, besides his head, was the possible jumping of the chair. It would require a supreme effort on his part and he was ancient. Nevertheless, he drew his muscles in then released in a huge effort to make the chair lift and turn. A loud clatter accompanied a millimeter upwards and perhaps a centimeter turn. Perhaps someone would hear.

He tried again and again. After maybe the twelfth attempt he faced the doorway, but was exhausted. It would take all night to reach the corridor.

Two hours of rocking, and staggering the chair, hoping yet worrying it would fall apart, he reached the doorway. He looked through the door’s window into the hallway. His heart sank when he saw a nun on the floor. Were they all unconscious, or worse?

“Hello! Can anyone hear me?”

His ears strained to hear an answer, then to hear any noise at all. A scratching, probably a rat, or a church mouse. They don’t get Cotard’s, presumably.

He had no phone, no means of disengaging the field, no one to hear his cries for help. All he’d left was supplication to God. Perhaps one of his bank of exorcism incantations would disable the force field. He started on “Crux sacra— what?”

The chair was dragged backwards then toppled. He cried out when the back of his head pummeled the floor.

Moments later, blue electricity and a stink of ozone made him jolt his eyes open. The door was open. The taser had been jammed into the door lock. Another nun stood in the corridor gazing at him with empty, dulled eyes. It was Sister Juliana, the effervescent greeter at the dock.

Now with Cotard’s? One of many. He wriggled as if that would free his hands. He needed to wipe his running nose and eyes. He’d been sent to prevent a malady spreading its grim contagion from this island. He’d failed. Worse, he’d been infected.

From behind, Rosa laughed at him. She was suddenly in front of him, up and moving “Thank you for my escape, Monsignor. Your work here is done. Mine is just starting.”

She grinned like Death.

Geoff Nelder lives in Chester, with his physicist wife, within easy cycle rides of the Welsh mountains. He is a former teacher, now an editor, writer and fiction competition judge.

His novels include Scifi: Exit, Pursued by Bee; The ARIA trilogy; The Chaos of Mokii; The Flying Crooked series with book one, Suppose We released 2019 followed by Falling Up.

Thrillers: Escaping Reality, Hot Air. His collection is titled Incremental, which contains twenty-five surreal tales more mental than incremental.