Joel woke up to sun streaming in through the window. Damn, he’d overslept. Why hadn’t his alarm gone off?
“Sedit, what time is it?”
Nothing. So if she was dead, then everything was dead. Damnit all. He swung his legs over the bed and tested the floor with his feet. The sudden cold helped wake him. He rubbed the sleep out of his eyes and glanced at the charm on the window sill, then the one over the door. They were intact, at least. He rose and staggered to the bathroom. He gave the door a tentative shove. In the bathroom mirror his reflection looked back at him. He looked awful, but no worse than an evening with a bottle of scotch warranted. The charm on the bathroom window was also good, so he stepped into the room and performed his morning ablutions.
Showered and dressed he made his way to the kitchen, dropped a capsule into the coffee machine and switched it on. Nothing happened.
Because everything was dead, dammit. Why? The T.V.? Probably. It was on at some point in the evening. Had he left it on when he went to bed? He must have done. Dammit all to hell.
Joel opened the french windows and stepped onto the balcony. He willed himself calm with deep breaths, then commenced the Sun Salutation.
He’d lived with a girl once for a whole four weeks. He couldn’t remember her name now, but he could never forget her body. She was into yoga, and her forehead would touch her knees as she effortlessly saluted the sun. Joel’s hands barely reached half-way down his shins. Joel believed, though, it wasn’t how well you could do it, but how much effort it cost you, and he felt the tendons in the back of his knees stretch to breaking point. At least, he hoped it was true, because getting his fingers near his toes was never going to happen.
Sun Salutation complete he returned to the kitchen, poured out a small glass of cheap white wine and, returning to the balcony, he anointed the solar panels with the libation.
Joel glanced across the balcony. His next-door neighbour but one was there, smoke rising from a sacrifice on his hibachi.
“Must have left the T.V. on,” he explained.
“You should try Typhon. My heating costs are next to nothing.”
Joel smiled and nodded, switched on the panel and returned to his apartment. The guy was okay, but he would try and evangelise. Helios was good enough for solar, and some gods could be really petty if you dumped them.
He tried the coffee machine again, and sighed with relief as it kicked in.
“Sedit, what time is it?”
“Ra has lifted the sun in the east twelve degrees.”
Jesus, he needed to get a modern demon. No wonder Sedit was so cheap.
“Sedit, what hour of the day is it?”
Oh gods. Ten o’clock already. Joel collected his cup and switched on his screen. He stuffed his hand in the Perspex tank next to it and chased the mice until he grabbed one in the corner. Only two left after this. He’d have to stop off at the offering shop at some time. He placed the knife at its neck, closed his eyes and sliced. He wasn’t the gentlest of men. He’d beaten many a man in a fair fight, and even more in an unfair one, but sacrificing the mice turned his stomach. He’d heard of some vegan guy sacrificing tomatoes. How did that even work? The little offering cup filled, he dropped the ex-mouse into the bin and called Saul’s number. Saul looked surprised to see him, then made a show of looking at his watch.
“Yeah, yeah, I overslept. I’ll say a Hail Mary later. Have you got anything for me?”
Saul shook his head, like a headmaster about to tell a pupil how he’d let the school down.
“Five prayers to Jude the obscure. Two lost car keys, a brooch – “
“Anything above minimum rates?”
“Sure. I refused to give all the plum jobs to the people who logged in on time.”
“Come on, Saul, don’t give me a hard time. It won’t cover my costs looking for lost items at minimum. Haven’t you got anything?”
“Well, just one. It’s a misper, but you won’t like it.”
“A missing person? Come on, you know I’m the best you got at finding people. Well, maybe not the best, but pretty good. How much is it paying?”
“Five hundred on successful completion, plus expenses.”
“You’re a beautiful human being, Saul. Send me the details.”
“Okay, but when I say misper, it’s not exactly a person.”
Joel laughed. “A demon? How is that even possible?”
“You want it or not? Because the good stuff is here when I open, and I open at eight.”
Joel sighed. “Yeah, yeah, go on then. Send me the details.”
“And Joel? For all that’s profane, smarten yourself up before you call on the client, okay?”
Have you ever cursed your computer? Begged your car to start? Pray to a god you didn't believe in? What if every superstition, charm and god was real?
I think this is only going to be a long short story, not even a novella
Joel researched the ancient Assyrian religions. They had close to two and a half thousand gods, demi-gods, demons, principalities and occult beings, and that wasn't counting the ones local to a town, village or family. None of them had a name even remotely similar to Frank. He was damned if he was going to try and contact every single one. He tried to narrow it down to the gods of war, but even the agricultural gods were pretty bloodthirsty. Who knew there were even two and a half thousand people in Assyria in ancient times? Did they each carry a couple of gods around with them to hedge their bets?
Joel gave up. Research wasn't the answer. He switched off the screen, grabbed his coat and stepped out into the city.
If you wanted to know what was going down on the streets, you had to walk them. In particular you had to rub skin with the people who had an ear to the ground while also having an eye on people, a feat of contortionism not common. Joel made his way down Fryingpan Alley, a narrow pedestrianised street with signs hanging over doors for the punters and signs etched on bricks and doorposts for the cognoscenti.
Joel opened a door, walked past the stairs and out into a tiny back yard. An old woman sat on a filthy deckchair. Her eyes were pearl white and her skin nut brown, with wrinkles so deep they could hide secrets of their own. Next to her a small boy sat on an upturned crate, his hand gripped by the ancient woman.
"Oh, it's you, is it?" the small boy said.
"Hi." Joel hunkered down on his heels in front of the pair. "New crew?"
"Bloody social services, isn't it. Coming round here and sticking their noses into everything. Child labour, they said. Maximum two hours a day, the said. Two hours! What good's that to me? So I got to change four, five times a day. They check up, you know. Oh, they say they don't but they got scryers, don't they. Wouldn't have noticed me otherwise, would they. Bloody social. Never done a day's work in their lives."
Joel waited until the boy had finished his rant. It never paid to rush it.
"Anyway," said the boy. "You want something, otherwise you wouldn't be here. What is it?"
"I'm on a wild goose chase," said Joel. "I'm looking for a demon, possibly Assyrian, not afraid to use a bit of muscle."
"What you come to me for then? I'm not a broker, am I. I'm a seer."
"No, it's one particular demon I'm after, and that's just about all I got on him."
"Ha!" The boy shook his head. "That's not a wild goose chase, that's chasing bloody rainbows. So what do you want to come to me for?"
"You've got the sight. Not just that but all the gossip that's worth knowing. Anyone been hiring muscle lately? Say in the last two weeks?"
"No. Market's flooded, isn't it."
A girl of maybe eight came into the yard, eyes wide with nerves. She stood in front of the old woman and the boy.
"Well? What do you want?" snapped the boy.
"Mum says if I sit here for a bit I'll get a fiver."
"She does, does she? Who's she when she's at home? Maureen?"
The girl nodded.
"You been to the toilet? Because you got to sit here for a couple of hours for that money, mind."
The girl nodded again.
"Fine, fine. Sit here then, and hold my hand."
The boy rose from the crate as the old woman released him. The girl reached for the boy, but the old woman flailed with her hand until she got a grip on the girl's wrist. The girl turned and sat on the crate. She reached behind the old woman with her free hand and produced a five note. She waved it at the boy.
"Well?" said the small girl, irritation flooding her voice. "What are you waiting for? Bugger off home. I'll see you tomorrow and don't be late, you bloody toerag."
The boy snatched the money and ran.
"Where was I?" said the little girl. "Oh, yeah, loads of muscle on the street at the moment, isn't there. Used to work for the Croatian, only suddenly he don't want them anymore. Still breaking legs, from what I hear, but if you want demonic violence, you got a shed-load of the buggers to choose from."
"Is that right?" Bob pulled a ten out of his wallet and held it out towards the small girl. As she reached for it he flicked it up out of her reach.
"I don't suppose I can get a receipt for this, could I?"
"Bugger off!" said the girl, snatching it from him.
|Author Notes||Isn't it, doesn't it, etc are used not as questions but as sort of verbal punctuation by some people, and not as a question, hence the lack of question marks in the dialogue|
The Croatian. Not a name Joel wanted to hear. In a world where spirits could quite literally piss in your beer if they didn't like your tribute, the Croatian was a godless man. There were even rumours that he was a demon. Joel had had dealings with him, through various third parties and intermediaries. He suspected the demon rumour was started by the man himself. Some pillars of the community secretly ran sex rings or drug running. Some were all mouth and trousers, all bluster and bragging but possessing nothing to back it up. The Croatian was neither. His reputation matched his actions. He didn't touch kids, he didn't run drugs but every heist, robbery and major break-in in the city was his. If his crew didn't actually do it, another crew had asked his permission and paid for the privilege. And if you didn't pay in cash, you paid in favours. If you didn't honour your debts, you paid with broken bones or scars that would never heal.
His trick was to use demons as his enforcers. Plenty of people did that, but there were defences you could use. There were charms for fire demons, sigils against supernatural diseases, incantations against most of what the underworld could throw at you. But they were expensive, and the Croatian's turnover meant he could spend a lot more money on demons than those foolish enough to stand up to him could spend on protection. When he wanted you hurt he went in mob-handed. Not much you can do when a fire demon and a water sprite went for you at the same time.
And now, according to the old woman, he had suddenly got rid of them. Why? Could that be why Frank was missing? Had he needed to go away in order to get more work? It didn't seem likely. Some spirits were tied to a particular spot, but Ms. Anderton's neighbourhood didn't seem the sort where heavies visited violence on a regular basis. Still, it was worth a punt. If Frank hadn't worked for the Croatian regularly, the Croatian would have at least heard of him.
London is a weird city. Buildings are scattered in a haphazard arrangement, as though someone had dropped a sheet of glass and decided to make the gaps in the mess streets. Alleys twisted and turned into dead ends, or tunnelled through modern buildings to spill out onto a street just as it had since 1666. Ancient houses sheltered under modern glass and marble towers. Pubs that had existed from before the Great Fire nestled in side streets, with lino on the floor that appeared to be as old as the building itself.
Woodins Shades was one such pub. The spit-and-sawdust decor of the public bar was there to attract the yuppies who wanted to walk on the wild side and for foreign tourists who wanted to see the 'real' London. Upstairs were private function rooms and dining rooms with much better dÃ©cor, or at least more hygienic. Joel poked his head in the door. He ignored the lunchtime crowd; he was more interested in who was upstairs. A lone heavy stood by the door to the stairs, a pint glass in his hand, very much not guarding the door. Joel wasn't sure if he was glad or disappointed. He walked through the normal punters towards the stairs.
The heavy clocked him before he'd taken more than a couple of steps into the bar. As Joel approached the heavy shifted position. To a casual observer he looked like a man having a quiet pint, but Joel saw the way his body was angled away from Joel, making a smaller target, and the glass was held at chest level. It was the heavy dimpled type of glass with a handle, or as Joel thought of it, a glass knuckleduster with alcohol for the wounds built in.
"Private function, mate," the heavy explained.
"Any chance of seeing the Croatian?" asked Joel.
"You got two hopes, sunshine. Bob Hope and no hope." He grinned. "And Bob Hope's dead."
"It won't take long."
"It won't take no time at all, 'cos you're not seeing him. Now piss off."
Joel glanced at the door. A tiny muslin sachet hung from the door lintel and part of a scrawl was visible on the jamb. So the heavy was mostly there for show, to open a gap in the enchantments to allow a visitor through. Joel wasn't going to be able to force or trick his way through.
"Okay, but I need to talk to him sometime. Here." Joel fished into his jacket and produced a card. "It's about a demon. I'm not interested in your boss or what he's doing, I just want to find someone. He can reach me here."
The heavy made no move to take the card. Joel carefully extended his arm and tucked it into the breast pocket of the heavy's jacket.
"Bob Hope. Funny. I bet you're a scream at parties."
As Joel turned he muttered under his breath, "Or at least, I bet someone ends up screaming."
For the next couple of days Joel put the search for Frank on the back burner. He gave generous libations to Helios, made sure Sedit was well fed, woke up half an hour early in order to facetime Saul bright and bushy-tailed and pursued errant missing objects and people. It wouldn't make him rich, but scrying for better-than-minimum lost causes paid the rent.
On Thursday morning Sedit chimed halfway through Joel's third coffee. "A voice from the setting sun speaks to he who would hear."
Joel sighed. Having a spirit with voice recognition that would interface with much of the electronics in his apartment had seemed such a cool thing in the marketing literature. He should have got a more modern one.
"Sedit, do you mean there's a phone call?"
"A voice from the west --"
"Sedit, put it through."
"Command not recognised."
"Sedit, um, let me speak with the voice... Sedit?"
"Mr. Joel Carpenter?" The voice was male and had the sort of accent you only got with a private education.
"Who is this?"
"My name is Henry Cavill, of Godloves, Barebones and Smith. I represent Mr. Marco Vidavic."
"You're a lawyer?"
"I am a senior partner, yes."
"Representing who?" The solicitor's accent made Joel want to say whom, but his public education had been lax on the finer points of grammatical rules.
"I suspect you know my client better by the sobriquet 'The Croatian'?"
"Oh, right, sure. You're his brief?"
"Our firm represents him in certain matters, yes. I understand you have some questions for him."
"Yes, yes." Joel had written the Croatian off. "Can I meet him?"
"Sadly, his commitments do not allow time for an interview at this juncture. However, if you would forward me your questions, I will forward them onto him."
"Oh, right." Joel could feel the panic rising. Exactly what questions did he want asked? It was different in a face-to-face interview. You could bounce the next question off the interviewee's last answer. You could look for tell-tale signs of lying or evasion. You could improvise as you went along.
Not so when all you have is a phone call with his brief.
"The thing is, Mr. um..."
"Mr. Cavill, the thing is, I'm not after The, um, your client. I don't want to know his business. I'm not pursuing him for unpaid bills, absolutely nothing like that. The thing is, I'm looking for a demon. A particular Assyrian demon who probably is in the business of, how shall I put it, persuading people with a minimum of words and a maximum of action? He's Assyrian, and he may have an alias of Frank."
"And Mr. Vidavic's connection?"
"Oh, I'm not saying there is any. It's just, I understand he summons demons like that from time to time, probably for perfectly lawful reasons. I also know he let a load of them go a few weeks back. So I'm wondering if one of them was my guy. Even a list of names would be helpful."
"Frank..." said the solicitor. "Violent... Assyrian."
In his mind's eye Joel imagined him carefully making notes with a fancy fountain pen that cost a year of Joel's income.
"I will certainly inform Mr. Vidavic of your concern. However, I am at liberty to tell you that Mr. Vidavic does not summon demons. Any supernatural business he conducts is purely legal and he has no truck with violence of any kind. And Mr. Carpenter?"
"On a purely personal note, outside of my role as legal counsel for Mr. Vidavic, can I just suggest, no demon has ever been called Frank. Have a nice day."
The line went dead.
"Can I just suggest you stuff it up your arse?" snarled Joel at the wall. Well, that was a dead end, with a door firmly slammed in his face. He wasn't going to be able to get anything out of The Croatian now. He wasn't the sort of person you buttonholed and interrogated, not without a warrant and a small army. And that was the last of his clues. He was now, quite literally, clueless. He'd have to let the client know.
The phone offering cup was empty. He reached into the mouse tank, but that was also empty. He'd need to get some more. At least that would get him out of his apartment and put off calling Ms. Anderton for half an hour. He grabbed his coat and made for the door.
Joel got his supplies from a stall in Leadenhall Market. The stallholder gave him a nod of recognition as he arrived.
"Yeah. Wait, no. You got anything else?"
"Well, we got pigeons. Bit more expensive 'cos we got to trap 'em. Breed the mice, you see. But you get more chi from a pigeon, on account of their size. I can get you a goat, but you got to order them. What's it power?
The stallholder shook his head. "Nah, overkill for a phone, a pigeon is. Mice are your best bet. Why change?"
Joel shrugged. "I don't know. Just a bit squeamish, I guess." He felt embarrassed to admit he shut his eyes when he needed to do it. This was the twenty-first century, for gods' sake. "I heard about a vegan. Uses a tomato. Could that work?"
"Ha. Been hearing that one for years. Tomato's a first though. Usually it's an apple or pear. Heard someone suggest blackberries once, 'cos of the colour of the juice." He started shovelling mice into a corrugated plastic box. "Nah, it's a fairy-tale, mate, one of them, whajamacallits. Urban myths. If you could sacrifice fruit and veg I'd be up in New Covent Garden. Mice is what you want. Half a dozen suit you?"
The stallholder chuckled. "Tomato. That's a new one. Tell you what, have seven, but I'll only charge you for six, because you made me laugh. Lucky for some, eh?"
Joel had cast his I Ching sticks earlier that week. His lucky number turned out to be pi. Given that you could never achieve pi, that seemed somehow apt for him at the moment.
He handed over the money, pocketed the change and picked up the box. "Thanks," he said. The stallholder grinned. Joel just knew that as soon as he was out of earshot, the stallholder would be nudging his neighbour and saying, "Here, you'll never guess what a punter just asked me."
He returned to his apartment. Opening the door, he noticed an odd smell. Not unpleasant, just unusual. He tried to place it and failed. Was a neighbour offering a fragrant sacrifice to a god on the balcony. The French windows were closed. He strode over to the windows and made sure anyway.
Sedit made no reply.
"Sedit!" he said louder, in case he was deaf, sleeping or in the bathroom, if spirits ever needed to do that.
Joel whirled round. Between him and the front door stood a demon. 'Stood' was an understatement. It was planted there, filling half the room. Joel couldn't help noticing the yellow fangs, paws bigger than his head with claws the size of rhino horns and a muscled body that suggested arm wrestling would be a waste of time.
While fear slammed him in his stomach hard enough to make him want to vomit, Joel's mind wondered how such a beast could have entered the room so silently. Indeed, how could it have fitted through the door? Materialisation?
"You're Joel Carpenter." Its voice didn't fit its body. It was far too cultured. Close your eyes and you might have thought you were talking to a man, albeit a bass tenor. Joel wasn't sure he could close his eyes, or even breathe. Paralysed with fear, said a voice in his head. That's what the phrase means. It means being so shit-scared you literally can't blink.
"I have a message from The Croatian." It flexed its claws and Joel heard the knuckles crack.
"Just a minute," he heard a voice say, then realised it was his own voice. What to say, what to say? "You don't happen to know a demon called Frank, do you?"
For a moment the creature just stood there, then with a roar it ran forward. The paralysis left Joel just enough for him to close his eyes and whimper. His arms were slammed into his sides and he felt himself lifted from the ground. The creature whirled him round and smacked him into a wall. He felt it's breath on his cheek and wished he's lived a better life. Or at least a more interesting one.
"Where did you hear that name?" the creature demanded.
"That name. Where did you hear it?"
Joel had no breath in him. "Ms. Anderton," he managed to wheeze. He felt his hands going numb from the pressure on his arms, and his ribs felt as though they were digging into internal organs.
"Ms. Anderton? Is she all right?"
"She can't breathe?"
"No, me." Spots danced behind his eyelids and he could feel consciousness slipping away from him. Would he know when he died? Would it be better to be unconscious when he was ripped to shreds?
"Is she all right?" roared the creature, shaking Joel as he sank into darkness.
Joel lay on the floor. He opened his eyes. Immediately before him Frank stared back. Joel screamed and tried to crawl backwards, but excruciating pain shot through his side.
“Is she all right?” The creature was shaking.
“Ms. Anderton. Is she all right?” The voice had a pleading note, quite at odds to the huge bulk of the speaker.
“Yeah, yeah, she’s all right. She’s fine. Wish I was. Can I get up?”
Frank leaned back. Joel tried to lift himself up, but the pain in his side suggested that was a bad idea.
“On second thoughts, I’ll just lie here for a moment.” A cracked rib for sure. Maybe two. And his arms felt bruised. Was any contract worth this? Behind Frank, the protection gewgaw still hung from the lintel. “How did you get in past the spells?”
“I’m not a demon. How do you know her?” Frank asked.
“Ms. Anderton? She hired me.”
“To find you, what else do you think?”
“She wants to find me? Why?”
“Why do you think? She misses you. She wants more chats about art and crap.”
Frank sat back on his haunches. “I miss her too. I’ve never conversed with someone the way we can converse.”
Joel couldn’t marry the voice with the body. It was really irritating him. A creature with so much brawn, with more teeth and claws than any creature had a right to, should be grunting in monosyllables. No trace of an Assyrian accent, either, whatever an Assyrian accent sounded like.
“Yeah? So go talk to her. Phone her at least, for Christ’s sake.”
Frank shook his head. “I can’t.”
“Yeah, guys always say that, but if you really miss her, you can swallow your pride.”
“No. I mean I can’t. I’m in servitude. I am bound to his will. I cannot disobey nor leave him without his command.”
Frank nodded, staring at the ground.
“Tough break, Frank.”
“No!” roared Frank, shoving a talon millimetres from Joel’s face. “You don’t call me that. Only she calls me that.”
“Okay, okay.” Joel raised his hands. “No offence. That’s the only name I got for you.” His brain finally caught up with his ears. “Wait! You’re not a demon? Seriously? You want to borrow a mirror?”
“I am Ashur, Slayer of Tiamat, Creator of order from chaos, Father of Mankind!”
“Okay, okay, Ashur. Now I know.” The name seemed familiar. Joel tried to recall his cursory study of Assyrian mythology from a few days ago. “Hang on. Ashur. Ashur? The god, Ashur? King of all the other gods? That Ashur?”
Ashur (aka Frank) drew himself up. “There is no other.”
“Oh, okay.” It wasn’t erudite, but he’d never addressed a god before. Well, at least, never in person. “And the Croatian, he’s put a spell on you?”
Ashur gave Joel a withering look. “Spell? I am a god. Spells have no effect on me. You think I serve mankind and your ointments and mutterings?”
“You said the Croatian bound you though.”
Ashur looked down at his feet. “He knows my name.”
“So? I mean, I know your name now too. Does that make me the boss of you?”
Ashur growled and Joel reminded himself that the god in front of him had given him a couple of cracked ribs without thinking.
“Not that name. The other name.”
“Sorry? What, Fr – I mean, the name she calls you?”
“No.” Ashur waved the suggestion away as though it were a fly. “We have two names. There is the name you know us by. Sometimes it changes. If we wish, we can hear you when you call on us, but it has no power. I’m talking about my real name. The name in here.” Ashur thumped his chest so hard Joel felt the repercussion through the floorboards. “My real name. The name of my soul.”
“And the Croatian has that?”
“So what if – wait one. Let me get up. Can’t think lying down.”
Wincing, Joel levered himself up onto his elbows. Ashur grabbed him by an arm and lifted him to his feet. Joel screamed as loud as his ribs allowed him, then hobbled over to the couch. He let himself down gingerly.
“So, what if someone else had your name. Say, Ms. Anderton. Would you be bound to her will as well?”
“Not as well. I can only be bound to one person.”
Joel spread his arms. “There’s your answer then. We’ll get her to bind you and job done.”
Ashur shook his head. “No. The Croatian would know straight away. We are bound to each other. All he would need to do is bind me to him again. At best it would be a tug of war between them.”
“What if he met with an accident?”
“I am bound to him. I must protect him.”
“Okay, okay, but there’s a plan there somewhere. Let me work on it. In the meantime, how about letting me know your Secret Squirrel name, so I can give it to Ms. Anderton?”
Ashur sighed, as though explaining such simple things to an idiot was taxing. “I cannot reveal my true name. You must discover it.”
“And how do I do that?”
Ashur shook his head. “In five thousand years, no human has discovered it.”
“Except the Croatian. How did he find it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, who else knows it?”
“Help me out here, guy. Someone must have known.”
“No one, only myself and –”
“No, she would not.”
“And she is?”
“Oh, you don’t know married women very well, do you. And now you’re bound to The Croatian, she gets the house and car.”
“Never mind. Does she have this secret name thing as well?”
“If I could get you and Ms. Anderton back to your book club meetings, would you trust me with your wife’s real name?”
Ashur stared through Joel, his lips moving silently. Finally, he nodded. He gave Joel a name that hurt Joel’s throat as he repeated it.
“Okay, leave it with me, big boy. Give me a day or two, and I’ll see if I can’t get the pair of you back together again. Okay?”
“Okay.” Ashur nodded, then stepped towards Joel, towering over him. “Now I must obey my master.”
“What do you mean?”
“He bound me to deliver a message.” He pushed his face close to Joel’s. Joel tried to sink back into the couch. “Leave him alone.” Ashur stood up straight again.
Relief flooded Joel’s system. “That’s it? Okay, cool. Message received.”
“And he told me to break a leg.”
Ashur stepped past Joel, picked up a chair and stood in front of the terrified man. “Sorry. I am bound to obey him. Break a leg were his exact words.” He shrugged an apology. “It’s exactly what he said. He didn’t say which leg.” He lifted the chair and snapped a chair leg in two as though it were a twig. “Nor which chair.”
And then suddenly he wasn’t there.
Joel waited until the shaking stopped and the tears dried up. Then he had things he had to do. He reached for the phone, then remembered the empty offering cup. He looked down at the floor. The carry box that had the mice in lay on its side. There were no mice to be seen.
Joel stared at the outline on the floor. He’d summoned minor demons, of course. Spirits were easy to call. Gods, though, that was a different kettle of fish. He kept glancing from the picture on the screen to the chalk outline on the floorboards. Cuneiform was a nightmare to copy.
“Sedit, compare the…” And then he remembered Sedit was gone. Whatever Ashur had done, it had scared the spirit enough for him to permanently vacate Joel’s apartment. Much as he complained about Sedit, having no voice recognition was a pain. He’d got used to him, in the way you got used to a persistent pimple. Still, if this all worked, maybe he could get an upgrade.
He realised he was prevaricating. There was nothing else he could do. It was now or never. He read the incantation silently, his lips moving to practice it yet again. He didn’t want to stumble over a word and find himself metaphorically holding the tail of a tiger. He really wanted a drink, but for the same reason he couldn’t afford to be anything short of cold sober. He closed his eyes, prayed a little prayer to anyone who might be listening, and then read the incantation for real, inserting Mullisu’s secret name.
If he was expecting a small explosion and a puff of smoke, he was disappointed. A creature, not unlike Ashur, silently appeared in the design on the floor. For some reason Joel had expected her to be smaller than Ashur, so her arms looked pinned to her sides by the chalk circle. Perhaps he should have made it larger. Perhaps not. She swung her head from side to side, sweeping the room, then fixed Joel with a stare so ferocious it could have ignited wet wood.
“Let me go!” she screamed.
“Yeah, that’s not going to happen,” said Joel.
She screamed again, and thrashed like a fish in a net.
“I will kill you!” she screamed. “I will fill your bones with fire! I will scrape your skin from your flesh!” She thrashed again, then stood still. “You are dead, sunshine,” she said, her voice quiet, and all the more menacing for it.
Joel held up his hand, forming a puppeteer’s mouth with his fingers and thumb. “Keep your mouth closed,” he said, snapping his hand shut.
Mullisu snapped her jaws shut in imitation. Behind sealed lips she mumbled oaths and threats.
“That’s better. I’ve summoned you using your real name, so you know what that means. You are bound to – “
Someone knocked on his door. Joel held up a finger to mark his place in the conversation and went to the door. He slipped the mugger chain on the door and opened it a crack. It was his next-door neighbour but one. “Yes?”
“I heard screaming,” said his neighbour, craning to look over his shoulder. “Is everything okay?”
“New demon. Just breaking it in. You know how it is.” Joel stepped back a step, allowing his neighbour a glimpse of Mullisu.
“Wow. That’s a scary looking one.”
“No, she’s a kitten. And she won’t be here for more than a few minutes. Promise. Just upgrading my T.V. package.”
Joel smiled and gently closed the door on his neighbour’s concerned face.
He returned to the goddess. “Where was I? Oh yes, real name, bound to my will, my slave, yada, yada, yada. So give me the secret name of Ashur. Speak.”
“You moron,” she spat. “You know nothing.”
“Secret name. Now.”
Joel felt a pang of fear. Had he screwed up the symbols? “No? But you’re bound to my will. You have to.”
“In everything else. Not in that. That is sacred and cannot be commanded.”
“Silence.” He snapped his hand closed again. “Seriously? Who makes all these stupid rules?” He indicated the sigils on the floor with a sweep of his hand. “I mean, Assyrian script, holy circle. Do you know how much it cost to get candles made of, well, never mind what they’re made of, but they cost a packet, I can tell you. No? Fine. Then welcome to an eternity of being my slave. I can make you lick my bathroom clean. I got to warn you though, I have a very unhealthy diet. Do you like that idea? No? You’re very quiet. Oh, right.” He reproduced his puppet mouth, fingers and thumb closed. “You may speak,” he said, opening his hand.
“I will kill you slowly. You will know pain no other mortal has ever suffered, I will –”
Joel snapped his puppet hand closed again. “Quiet. I command you never to kill me. I command you never to hurt me, nor let any injury to befall me.” He smiled. “Now, based on your reaction, I’m guessing you don’t want to be my slave. That being the case, then we can deal with each other. I have a problem. You fix it for me, and I will release you from my will. To be honest, you’re not really my type anyway. Are you interested?”
Mullisu stared at him for a moment, then gave a cautious nod.
“Excellent. Now your old man is giving me a bit of grief. He knocked me about, he threatened me. He even wrecked my furniture. I can’t be having that. Now, I understand I can’t command you to give me his name, but I hear he’s been playing the field. Is that right? Prefers a bit of human tail rather than his wife? I mean, even a god is going to get a bit bored after a few thousand years, right, but with a human? It’s almost like he wants to insult you. Oh, wait. That’s why you gave his name to The Croatian. Right?
“His boss, now, I’m not his favourite person. I can deal with him, but not your husband. So if you want to voluntarily give me his name, then I swear I will release you. Not from the no-killing-me clause, but otherwise we need never see each other. You gave The Croatian his name. Letting me be his boss is no different. I mean we’re all the same to you, right? But you have to make up your mind now, because –” Joel pulled a face and rubbed his stomach. “I shouldn’t have had that biryani last night. Oh, you can speak.”
“How can I trust you?”
“I will make the most sacred oath known to man.” Joel held up two fingers. “I swear I will release you from my will if you give me Ashur’s real name. Scout’s Honour. Dib dib dib, dob dob dob.”
Mulissu let out a stream of guttural invectives in what Joel could only imagine was ancient Assyrian.
“Do I take it that means it’s a deal?”
Mulissu snarled, then nodded. Then she told him Ashur’s real name.
“Are you sure this is going to work?” asked Ms Anderton.
Joel shrugged. “It worked for the Croatian. I don’t see why it shouldn’t work for us.” Fortunately, the weather had remained dry. Ms Anderton had insisted that Joel could not use chalk on her parquet, so he’d recreated the god trap on her patio. This time he’d made sure it could comfortably accommodate the bulk of Ashur.
“But you don’t know?”
Joel looked to and fro between the diagram on his screen and the complex design on the flagstones.
“Hmm? Know? No, but nothing in this life is certain, right?”
The candles were guttering in the breeze in Ms. Anderton’s back garden. What would happen if one blew out at the crucial moment? Nothing, Joel hoped. Stupid woman and her house-proud rules.
“It won’t hurt him, will it?”
Everything was perfect, as far as Joel could tell. “Hurt him? Ashur? I mean, Frank? Madam, I can’t think of anything in this world or his that could hurt him. Well, his wife, maybe, but isn’t that the truth the world over!”
“And you think this will work?”
Joel sighed and turned from the design on the ground. “Ms. Anderton, this is the best plan I could think of. I’m using the Croatian’s tactics against him. I’ve lined up all the ducks. The very worst that can happen is that Frank will return to the Croatian. The best is that he can return to you and discuss impressionism and its influence on the cubist movement.”
“Look,” said Joel, stopping her before she could explain to Joel the two -isms had nothing to do with each other. “I think this will work. If it does, you win. If it doesn’t, we’re back where we started. You agreed to let me try this and I’ve invested a lot of effort and money, your money, into getting this set up. So if you pardon my French, piss or get off the pot. It’s now before the candles burn out, or you find another phantom voice.”
Ms. Anderton stared at him, her lips pursed and her jaw muscles standing out in her cheeks. Finally she gave a curt nod.
“Okay.” He flipped windows on his screen. “You guys ready? Wait, where’s Barong?”
“He got decorporealized ,” said a demon in one of the windows. “Tried to take on a Shaman in Bermondsey.”
“Dammit. But the rest of you are up for this, right?”
There was a chorus of assents.
“Right, stand by.” He turned to Ms. Anderton. “And, action!”
Ms. Anderton cleared her throat and held the sheet of paper at arm’s length, trying to focus through her reading glasses. She started reading, the infernal language enunciated in a cut-glass English accent. Joel repeated his own powerful mantra in his head, which went. ‘Please let it work. Please let it work.’
She came to the end. They both looked at the magic circle. Joel realised he was holding his breath. Then suddenly, Ashur appeared. Ms Anderton screamed, and Joel wondered if he should have warned her about the way Frank looked. He turned to the screen.
“Now!” he shouted. The figures on the screen disappeared.
Ms Anderton was staring at Ashur, her eyes wide, a hand frozen halfway to her open mouth. Ashur, for his part, stood in the circle, dazed and confused. For a seven-foot monster, he looked frightened and vulnerable. He stepped towards Ms. Anderton, an arm out, and fetched up against the circle as though it were a brick wall. He turned towards Joel.
“What have you done?” he bellowed. “I didn’t want her to see me. Not like this. And I told you, he’s just going to call me back.” He turned back to the woman and dropped to his knees. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m so sorry.”
“What are you talking about?” Ms Anderton stepped forward. Joel leapt forward before she could cross the chalk markings.
“Stay outside the circle,” he said.
Ms. Anderton looked down, as if noticing the chalk on her patio for the first time. Then she looked at Ashur’s face. “Frank?” she asked. “Is that you?”
Frank nodded, staring at the ground.
“Oh my God,” she said. You – you – you’re beautiful.”
“Yeah, maybe I – sorry?” Joel shook his head. A dictionary of adjectives sprung to mind when he looked at Ashur. Beautiful wasn’t one of them.
Joel turned to the screen. “Yes?”
A demon stared back, a grin on his face. “Job done, boss.”
“You want to see him? Well, bits of him?”
“No, no. Good job. Thanks.”
He switched off the screen. Ms. Anderton and Ashur were staring at each other.
“Well, The Croatian has been dealt with.” Joel splashed some holy water on the circle, washing away an arc. “So when you’re ready, you can just release him, yeah? Ms Anderton?”
Ms Anderton waved her acknowledgement, not sparing him a glance.
“So I mailed you the ritual to release him, okay? Okay. Well, best of luck. Um, I’ll come back later with the invoice, yes? Yes. Okay then. Um, have fun.”
Joel gave up talking to himself and let himself out through the house.
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