Face stark crazed, she hurried him inside.
Fingers dug into his arms. Behind him, the door slammed; a rush of damp air scurried across his neck. Standing in the cramped foyer, he listened as she manhandled the security chains of the door. She squeezed past, breathless.
“Autumn employs a particularly nasty bite this evening, does it not?” He spoke softly, removing the knit cap from his head, the trench coat from his wiry frame.
Window to window she bounded, balling drapes into shaking fists, drawing them shut. He noted her white, swollen knuckles. Candlelight flickered from atop a mantle, yet a state of melancholic gloom smothered the parlor. “Excuse me. Your appearance is other than what one might expect.”
“I am a mere man, nothing more. For some, perhaps, much less,” he draped the coat over his arm.
“You are a Sin Eater.”
He hoped his client would find relief in the plastic twist of his lips. “I am at that. May I?”
“Of course,” she nodded an invitation into the parlor.
The house frowned upon his presence; bare floorboards protested each of his steps. From the fireplace, a draft moaned. “Forgive my nerves,” her lips twitched. “We require our privacy. If the Church were to ever—”
“If this were the nineteenth century then surely we would have need to conceal our identities. Execution would no doubt be favored if my practice was to be learned and as for you…things would be difficult indeed. Be thankful the Church no longer functions in such barbaric fashion.”
“Yet privacy must still be maintained.” Her posture remained stiff. Orange light remolded her face.
He bowed slightly. “Privacy? Or secrecy? I said the Church no longer functions in such a way. Their belief, however, is another matter entirely. Per our contract, your identity shall remain guarded. As will mine.”
Murmurs drifted through the house. She followed the shift of his intense though starry gaze. “The deceased is in the bedroom.”
She led him down a hallway; leering faces stared out from faded, crooked photographs. Dust littered the floor. A sour pungency wafted under his nose; death’s perfume, so unmistakable. She paused before an open door. Nodding politely, he stepped through.
Surrounding the bed, three men lifted their gazes as one, faces waxed yellow beneath an uncovered bulb. He ignored them, attention focused upon the deceased. Lips parted in a last, eternal gasp, the corpse waited. Clots of sheets remained within its stiffened fingers. “He suffered until the very end,” the Sin Eater said matter-of-factly.
“What difference does it make?” Across the bed leaned a man with a bulbous skull; his jowls quivered as he spoke: “My brother didn’t suffer enough.”
The Sin Eater looked upon him. “Are you responsible for contacting me?”
“Yes,” again spoke Bulbous Skull.
“So who are the others?”
“Also my brothers.”
“You said you would be alone in your house, save your wife.”
“Listen, they all stay. And shame on you if you think this hell hole is my house. Remember the money I’m paying you!”
The Sin Eater turned away, mindful his eyes churned a stormier grey when agitated. “As you wish.”
“Hurry it up. I need to call the coroner when you’re done.”
He touched a blue tinged arm. Practiced fingers slid upward, stroking the corpse’s neck, then face, like an affectionate lover. The Sin Eater froze. “You lied to me.”
Bulbous Skull stole a nervous glance at his brothers. “I don’t know what—”
“You told me he raped four women, and still you and your family harbored him from the law. Yet more remains untold. You will tell me the truth.” The brothers saw his eyes now, witnessed their wrathful leadenness.
Sweat beaded across Bulbous Skull’s brow, appearing like droplets of piss under the light. “Three. Three kids…” his voice faded.
The Sin Eater understood the implication at once. He straightened himself beside the corpse. “Extra sins…extra compensation.”
“Extra sins, extra compensation. It is quite simple. You have breached our agreement, not the other way around.”
“Ten thousand. If you argue, I walk away. Be mindful that your brother’s sins will never be absolved from you then. Nor your families. You all have children of your own, do you not?”
Bulbous Skull’s mouth opened in argument; eventually his lips sealed. His shoulders slumped. “Ten thousand.”
“Excellent. A new agreement. A better understanding,” the Sin Eater smiled. “I have done this long enough to realize my clients will never admit all sins the first time around. Likewise, if you are in position to afford my services, then surely you will be in position to hold an abundance of cash.”
From under the deceased’s bed, Bulbous Skull pulled a briefcase and popped it open. He promptly passed two wrapped bundles of hundred dollar bills. “You’re a prick.”
“Yes. I know.” The Sin Eater took the bundle, nestled it into the folds of his trench coat. Then placed it atop an empty chair in the corner of the room, his hat as well. “Shall I begin?”
Bulbous Skull called to his wife. She appeared in the doorway, chipped platter in hands. Trembling, she stared intently upon its holdings—a heaping of salt, loaf of thickly crusted bread. A smudged pint of ale. Once the Sin Eater retrieved her burden, she fled back down the hall.
He placed the platter atop the floor, knelt beside the bed. Immediately, he pinched the salt, sprinkled it liberally across the corpse’s chest. “Thy burden, I offer thee salt.” He bowed his head in supplication. Retrieved the loaf from the floor, placed it atop the salt. Several minutes ticked away.
The Sin Eater rose, loomed over the corpse. “Thy burden, I devour thee.” He snatched the loaf like some bird of prey, delivered it to his lips, but the crusted bread seemed impossibly large to accept. Eyes rolling, the Sin Eater opened his mouth.
The brothers jerked in their chairs; the Sin Eater’s jaw dropped to an unnatural depth, skin along his cheek yielding like some thin sheet of cellophane. Lower and lower—saliva breached his lips, lids fluttering atop the whites of his eyes. Lower and lower—the jaw hung slack, swaying like a pendulum. Into that black yawning cavern, the Sin Eater pushed the loaf, upper teeth digging into the crust while his lower mandible shifted side to side. Inch by inch—the loaf disappeared, throat, neck bulging grotesquely, laden with its pardoned meal. Finally, the jaw retracted; his skin drew back to form. With a single finger, the Sin Eater flicked the loaf’s last crumb from his lip. He bent, took his ale, gulped until only froth clung to the bottom of the glass.
“Lord fucking Christ,” Bulbous Skull gasped. “You can’t be human.”
The Sin Eater smirked. “Our business is done.” He returned the pint alongside the platter, retrieved his trench and hat.
He strode back down the listless hallway, into the pool of trembling light. He found his client’s wife waiting in the foyer, door ajar. “God gave him his cancer,” she spat. “We were right to shelter him, no matter his sins. We knew God would provide the balance, sooner or later. And He did.”
“I am not your confessional booth, dear lady.” He dressed in silence, felt the bulge of cash against his ribs. Then in the shimmering candlelight, he took her into his arms, his sudden kiss upon her lips a long but gentle one. She yielded in surprise. When bits of bread clotted her mouth, however, her knees buckled and she shoved him away.
“For your peace, I pawn my own soul,” the Sin Eater grinned from the corner of his mouth. Eventually, this family would contact him again. Extra sins, extra compensation. He slipped out the door, back into the angry gnash of autumn’s bite.
~ Joseph A. Pinto
© Copyright 2014 Joseph A. Pinto. All Rights Reserved.