She did not look like the sort of woman who would become possessed. Her face was plain, pretty in some aspects, ordinary in others. She was neither fat nor thin, tall nor short. She was, as with so many other accused that Anayo had interviewed over the course of his career, unremarkable. Yet – and perhaps this was something to do with the way such stories were always told – when someone was meant to be demon possessed there were expectations that ought to be met. An iridescent beauty or a young maiden struck down by such affliction lent an air of tragedy to the story; a great sinner the assurance of justice.
Here was the assurance of nothing. The young woman sat with her head cast down, her hands resting on her knees. Her hair was wound with thread in that hairstyle popular with female students, now freed from the girlhood shackles of razor and clippers. As he watched the tendrils of smoke from his okpoko wind up and tremble against the ceiling, from the corner of his eye he checked for the usual alerts of emotional disturbance, heightened blood pressure, sweaty skin, muscle spasms and the like. But no, the scanner was not picking up anything of the kind. The woman was of course nervous – who wouldn’t be? – and she looked drained as though the strangeness of her circumstances had leached the chi out of her but apart from that, there was no flash of white or red or black against the hazy lilac of the interface. Anayo would have been inclined to believe that the accusations of consorting with spirits were just the rumours of envious neighbours if not for the fact that she herself did not deny what was the primary demonstration of her illness. This woman, who had been in the upper percentile of the Quaternary Youth Assessments, predicted to achieve similarly in the and then destined to go on to Priesttown University; this very woman, known for her charity work and involvement with the local Moral Societies had murdered her cousin by smashing his head in with a water pot.
The interview over, Anayo rolled his shoulders, kneading out the tension and got up with a nod to the young woman. Blinking at the identifier, he exited the room and could hear the gas channels open as the seal rendered the room airtight. The accused slumped asleep and the Silent carried her gently away.
“I hope you’re not disappointed,” Witchfinder Ndidimaka stood in front of the doorway. She entered his office without asking permission in just that way she knew irritated him. It was not that he was a superstitious man but he couldn’t help remembering the stories his mother would tell him, of people who encountered spirits by forgetting the correct etiquette. Perhaps Ndidimaka had never been told those stories. Perhaps she didn’t care.
He took a deep breath. “Disappointed by what?” He replied, in a tone he hoped was calm. Ndidimaka smirked. “I knew the girl wasn’t going to tell us anything we didn’t already know.”
“She’s suffering from her fate,” Ndidimaka nodded.
He grunted. “I doubt she’s long for this life, somehow. Too much pride.”
They left the cell blocks and walked out into the blistering heat of the late morning sun. Ndidimaka seemed to be in a silent sort of mood which suited Anayo just fine. They walked on past other council buildings, the libraries, the public shrines, the meeting hall; past the skinny housedroids with their peeling rubber flesh and joints squeaking as they wiped down marble floors and swept red dust into neat piles. Younger school children, freshly released from their classrooms fluttered between the mounds of sand and scrap metal, chased after by nannies and elder siblings. It was a strange place to find a case of possession, if that’s what it was, but it was in such places, Anayo reminded himself, that the strange happened. For where else could the bizarre, piercing through the veil of routine and nature, be noticed.
The country was a gaudy place. Compared to the faded colours of the cities, the lived-in rusts and greys, the country was tart and green like an unripe pineapple. It made his tongue curl in on itself. The cleanest spring waters wouldn’t wash out the bitter taste. Nature seemed to convulse with fertility, greedily lapping up anything discarded by humanity and spitting it out in the form of creeping vines and fluorescent flowers. He knew what he preferred. He liked the dry cities, with their dry people and dry problems. He liked hearing all that was important to know first. Out here, it could take months to learn of anything worth knowing.
The road to the Witchfinders’ home ran all the way through the village, breaking off on the outskirts to splinter into paths that led to the homes of the upper caste families, the priests at their shrines and the hermits in swaying tree pods. The so-called Old Road would took you to the other towns under the jurisdiction of Nri. It was a good road and Anayo, who had only stayed in this small town for a night, was already very fond of it. He had walked upon it several times since dawn. With an okpoko full of tobacco smouldering in the breeze, it was an exquisite and indescribable pleasure to wander along the road at a pace too slow to do one any good (or indeed, any harm) and think without words. To be interrupted in any way was to suffer an almost unforgivable sin. Even if the perpetrator was a fellow Witchfinder.
“Sister!” Anayo managed but did not stop his steady pace.
“Anayo! Hark at our luck!” Witchfinder Lotachi laughed, with her hands on her hips. Ndidimaka laughed in reply and called out a much more enthusiastic greeting. Thus encouraged, Lotachi made her way across the road.
“I’ve finished interviewing the last of the girls,” she shrugged. “You know I was just on my way to you. I thought you would be staying in the office but here you are heading back home, I take it?”
Ndidimaka nodded. “We need to review some of the evidence.”
“Let me come with you,” Lotachi said. “It will be good for us to eat together.”
Anayo had always found it fascinating the trivialities women could discuss in lieu of what truly occupied their thoughts. Listening to his wife converse with Lotachi about market prices and inefficient housedroids, one could imagine that these were two quite ordinary women with large households and irritable mother in laws, rather than women charged with the duty of bringing the accused to justice. There was always a certain type of male Witchfinder who was convinced that his women colleagues were the most apt to to lose information by gossip, when the reality – as far as Anayo could see – was often that the women were the most able to hide said information by gossip. A housewife bemoaning the prices of oil and garri was easily dismissed and suspicious silences could be deftly put to rest by sudden and unnecessarily considerate chatter on dressmaking techniques.
A sudden sharp pain in his head forced him to stop for a few moments. He rubbed his forehead and sighed. Water was what he needed but he’d only drank tea for the past day or so. It was the only way to keep awake with the number of files he’d had to read. Neither he nor Ndidimaka had had that long to get up to speed with the case and just thinking about the way Chief Constable Akuma had ordered them out to the hinterlands with no warning still irked Anayo. They had even resorted to reading the reports on the shuttle, right in public where anyone could have seen them.
At least Lotachi had been welcoming. She’d spent most of their first night apologising and wasted no time in getting to business once she realised that they had entered the case almost entirely blind.
“When I first read the report over,” Ndidimaka had said, “I almost thought we’d find ourselves in some heathen village, but this is a most civilised place. I cannot believe these accusations were made in earnest. There is some sort of envy, malice at work here.”
Lotachi had laughed and confessed that she had felt much the same upon first arriving here, even though she knew it was wrong. This was her home town after all. She knew these people. She understood the superstitions that the Nri had been unable to stamp out; she knew the different cults, their beliefs and politics, their rituals and members. She knew everything there was to know about the people of her home town and she knew that they were not the sort to start accusations of the worst type of witchcraft unless for good reason.
“After all,” she’d added, “they aren’t hungry – the yam crop has been more than abundant for the past two years; they can send both their sons and daughters to Universities and they always return with droids and Tech. This is a successful town. There is no cause for any of that provincial nonsense here.”
“So you believe they’re speaking truly? You really think you have a case of possession on your hands?” Ndidimaka had asked and Lotachi had smiled that enigmatic smile of hers. It was only after taking a sip of palm wine that she spoke again.
“It is an option.”
“Everything is an option,” Anayo said, repeating aloud the same response he had said then but this time he had to catch his okopoko as it fell from between his teeth. He stumbled over a tree root.
“Are you alright, brother?” Lotachi called from behind. Anayo waved her away.
The next place to investigate was the river where the women and small children collected water, Anayo thought to himself. That was where the villagers said the demon must have come from as it was where all the accused had been before they had attacked. Apparently it was a well known spot for sacrifices to the forest in ancient times, as a rather more skeptical sort of scholar had informed him earlier that day. Why, a few yards away an old burial complex had been found by a team of local archaeologists but that had been many years ago. He had spent much too long gathering the research paper from the library. The hard copy was still on his desk but he had barely had time to go through it. Besides, he doubted it would have much relevance.
The three Witchfinders trudged along the left-hand path, split from the Old Road. Up the hill they went and then down across the artificial ditch that marked the ancient boundaries of the town. It was here outside the purified boundaries that all those who dealt with taboos by trade – the butchers, mercenaries, the Witchfinders and so on – were left to build their homes. According to Lotachi, the moat would usually be dry at this time of year but it was still full enough for white crabs to be seen scuttling beneath grey-green rocks. She was right. It had been a good year for this town. What was it his grandmother used to say? A new years flood heralds a new years drought. But that had been much further south. Perhaps the climate was different here.
He puffed on his pipe and frowned. A murder – ah, he corrected himself, a manslaughter though the girl would have to pay the same price – was easy enough to solve in a town like this. The problem was all this talk amongst the townsfolk.
“Solving the murder wasn’t the problem,” Lotachi had explained that first night. By then enough palm wine had flowed that no one would flinch at a bit of plain speaking. “That was easy as anything. The girl confessed. She confessed with the blood on her dress and the boy at her feet with a bit of clay stuck into his skull. The only problem I had was keeping her relatives off her.
“But it was later I heard the talk. They were saying it was only to be expected; they should have seen it coming. It just one of several violent attacks, only this one had ended with a boy lying dead on the floor. All involving young women, all involving young men and all involving closely related young women and young men. Suspicious, I thought. Alarming, with the talk of demon possession.” She’d taken another swig of the wine and then paused, a mischievous glint in her eye as she added, “irritating knowing I’d have to get the Brethren involved.”
“You’ll be thanking us later,” Ndidimaka laughed. Anayo felt the smile reach his lips too slow and knew it was unconvincing when the impulse eventually made contact. He never did react well to blasphemy, close minded as it was. But he had been brought up in the heathenlands and had long learned to at least feign amusement at the predictable banter.
“Well,” Lotachi shrugged, “We all know what happened in Aba. I didn’t want to risk it, especially now it’s me on my own here until I get the apprentices I’ve been nagging for.”
“You’re not bitter, are you Lotachi?” Ndidimaka smirked. Anayo tried not to let the shock show on his face. His wife had a way of joking about things that shouldn’t be joked about. For all they were getting on, they hadn’t known Lotachi long enough for such banter to be appropriate, but Ndidimaka never seemed to heed such proprieties. Lotachi was technically still in mourning for her husband. Personally Anayo thought that if custom deemed it too early to be remarried, then it was too early to jest about it.
To Anayo’s surprise, the younger woman replied, “of course. He wasn’t that old. Who would have expected a death like that? Now I am left here alone dealing with a town that thinks it has a demon problem.” She cleared her throat. “That might have a demon problem.”
Anayo thought he could hear the pain in her voice. He tried to imagine such a grief at the loss of a spouse and very quickly decided against it. It was better for melancholics like he to avoid that kind of speculation. It was the sort of thought that would make him reach for Ndidimaka’s hand in the dark, as though if he held tight onto her dry palms, he could stop her spirit leaving through the cracks between their fingers.
“We are here to serve,” Anayo interjected before a word could leave Ndidimaka’s mouth. He could tell she was about to add something cutting. “Because of your foresight, you now have all the resources the Brethren could offer you. We won’t cause any trouble. We don’t intend to.”
By now they had reached the Witchfinders’ compound. The slight scent of ozone as he passed through the purification gate was as comfortingly familiar as it was in the city. At this time of the day, he could just make out the filmy shimmers of shadow against the ground as the sun’s rays passed through the dome protecting the compound from the worst of the radiation. The shadows swirled lazily in and out of each other before sometimes fizzing out of existence or darkening upon impact with some atmospheric impurity. If they’d had such Tech in times gone by, the mystics and witchdoctors would have tried to read the future in such patterns, interpreting fortune into eddies and tragedy from the whorls. Now they were to find demons, disentangling the corporeal from the incorporeal if this case was to have any resolution. Hopefully the data that the junior staff had collected would help with regard to the former and he hoped – which was a sure sign it was a vain hope – that that would be all there was to it. He was getting tired of the country.
Entering the house was like stepping against a slab of ice. It was a delicious feeling after the delirium inducing heat of the noon Sun and Anayo had to stop himself from rising to the balls of his feet and grinning like a lunatic.
“Where are they?” Lotachi called out in greeting. “Children, where are you?”
Wincing at the sharp squeak that heralded the opening of the comm channel, Anayo rubbed his ear as a junior staff member told them they were on their way down.
“Could you bring all the slides,” she said.
“Of course madam,” the apprentice replied and the line was cut.
“You need to get that channel repaired,” Ndidimaka began. “It shouldn’t squeak like that. Like a dying mouse.” Lotachi sneered at her.
“Yes?” She replied. “Then give me the million Cs I’ve been asking for.”
The trio took their seats around one of the larger tables. From the centre rose a translucent cylinder with coloured nodes revolving at varying speeds around the central axis. A HoloTrunk version 7.3. It was really quite old-fashioned, so much so that Anayo had almost forgotten how to use it. He thought it best not to say anything lest he triggered another litany about denied funding requests. He gestured for a purple node and the file contents spilled out and stood before him like a series of upright dominoes.
Anayo didn’t realise he hadn’t said a word until Ndidimaka pointedly cleared her throat.
“So it’s demons incorporeal,” she nodded.
“Yes,” he pushed away the files and gestured for a red node. It led him further into the archive, forcing him to be buffeted by flowing streams of information that accelerated as he delved toward the centre. Perhaps he had simply focused too hard, because the next thing he knew he had hit something bright and hot and then ricocheted back into the outer recess of the archive. Somehow he had kept hold of the path leading from the node but only just. He could almost see it, painfully stretched and sizzling where it had touched the heat of the archive’s centre. Back towards the path he went, allowing himself to drift a little on the slower currents as he released his frustration.
The data collected by the riverbank had included samples taken from every single living organism within a fifty mile radius and in spite of that no new pathogens had been discovered. There was nothing in the area that could suggest a case of corporeal possession. It would be crude to say it aloud but Anayo had genuinely hoped that they’d simply uncovered a new virus or some parasite and that would have been the end of it. He’d heard of cases in the lands of the oyibo where they were partial to these sort of demons. Demon worms would render a person melancholic and force them into the hungry jaws of blizzards, wild animals and high speed trains. Every now and again, substantial quantities of mutated tree pollen would lead to mass suicides and he’d hoped – terrible as that sounded – that this might be a similar problem. There were some differences: young women attacking their brothers and male cousins upon returning from the riverside rather than committing suicide but the essential detail – random violence stirred by some external factor – was the same.
“It is probably some issue to do with young women,” one of the younger officers had said. “I don’t know but women are very good at keeping grudges. And in this heat…”
Anayo almost wanted to slap the man. He had had enough of that kind of humour.
“Tell the priests to get ready to perform the rites,” he caught Ndidimaka saying. “Tell them to anticipate purification for the entire district. Might as well be prepared.” There was an affirmative glow from a blue communication node.
“Now what about those interviews of yours.” Between her thumb and forefinger, Ndidimaka held a red node that glinted the way her eyes did when she was teasing him. Lotachi was plucking at the path that led from the node pinched between her fingers and Anayo could feel her shrug.
Lotachi seemed suddenly shy and hesitant. “They were no more informative.”
“What do you mean by that?” Ndidimaka asked.
“That they gave no more information,” Anayo cut in but she was focussing on Lotachi.
“That they didn’t say anything. That is what I meant.”
“They didn’t say anything?”
Anayo almost laughed when Ndidimaka insisted that they go through the interviews for themselves but that was all he did. He would have done the same thing. But then he began to wonder why it was that even a well known and mostly liked woman of the town would be unable to prise anything from the mouths of locals.
“Yes alright,” he replied to the request he knew had been aimed at him but hadn’t been heard and drew three of the tracks into his earstream. He didn’t particularly want to listen to more interviews like the one he himself had carried out that morning. He trusted Lotachi and doubted that even if they could have done, they would have uncovered anything new from doing these. It was not her fault, he mused. Her earlier enthusiasm had been commendable.
It was strange how one could be suddenly reminded that these were not the Holy Cities. The citizens of the hinterlands, a vast region just touching the barbaric forests of the heathenlands, were capable of a mulishness unsurpassed even by the least cooperative of City thugs who tended to adopt a misplaced obsequiousness in their dealings with Inquisitors. He didn’t doubt that the village girls had chosen to go silent on them. In many ways, he was surprised their investigation had got as far as it had.
Anayo thought on this as they finished examining the rest of the evidence – Lotachi had been right in that the girls said nothing though one or two might play dumb, trying to be clever – and as he and Ndidimaka retired to their chamber, prayed and readied themselves for bed. “You will have to go to the village tomorrow,” she suddenly spoke aloud, though it sounded more as though she were talking to herself. “People like you.”
“I know,” he nodded. “I will.”
The truth was that the Inquisitors did not want another scene of mob justice. Since the bloody, confused terror of the Aba Trials, the Inquisitors of Nri, most Holy of Cities, had responded swiftly to any reports concerning possession and witchcraft in the hinterlands, no matter how speculative. Anayo, who considered himself a man rarely victim to unseemly concern for earthly matters, would still flinch as he remembered first hearing the newsdrums, grisly images of botched executions flashing across his minds’ eye in synthetic sympathy with the beat of the great Grandfather drums.
Even in times of fat, it may not take much for the old ways to take force again, the rational benevolence so carefully inculcated by generations of Witchfinders and Holy City emissaries blown away like a puff of spores. Witch hunting was a cruel business by the heathen ways, the more so for it brought no healing, only death. Lingering, unnecessarily painful deaths they were too. Anayo would often read about the barbaric methods used to extract demons and punish supposed witches, which suggested far more about the sadism of the perpetrators than the success of the exorcism. Children impaled with swords of iron and bronze, elderly men drowned by inches, organs cut out whilst the victim was still alive. The cruelty of man was a fearsome thing to behold. The cruelty of frightened man even more so.
Was this the work of some new cult? Perhaps the murders – if that’s what they were – served as twisted initiation rites for entrance into some prestigious new heretical Order. There was no shortage of those, bizarre manglings of misguided philosophies that were so popular. But they tended to thrive in the urban centres. In the hinterlands, the problem that the Inquisitors of Nri found was a tendency to slide back into old ways, rather than a hankering for newer rites.