Fight Off Your Demons! - Part I




Hank listened intently as the woman on the other end of the line prattled on. The phone was pinned between his meaty neck and one cumbrous shoulder, by now coated in a film of sweat, its screen grimy and befogged. He’d been on the call for ten minutes and had only been able to add the occasional “Yes, ma’am” or “No, ma’am” amid the stream of pleasantries and idle chatter. Above his desk, stretching wall-to-wall, hung a large yellow banner. In blocky black letters, it read GAUSSER DEMON CONTROL: FIGHTING DEMONS IN THE CITY OF ANGELS SINCE 1998.

This kind of call was nothing out of the ordinary—no one wanted to come out right away and admit they had a demon problem. But before the woman could continue her rambling, Hank cracked one rigid knuckle after another, producing a series of adamantine snaps that caused the woman on the phone to stop mid-babble and ask if everything was all right. Hank assured her that it was.

“Now,” he said, plucking the phone from its sudoric perch and swiveling in his chair, “what seems to be the exact nature of your problem, ma’am?”

Hank Gausser, proprietor and sole employee of Gausser Demon Control, pushed his chair across the low-pile carpet of his office toward the series of towering filing cabinets that dominated one wall. While the woman explained her problem, he opened a drawer and parsed through it with two stubby fingers. Finding the folder he was after, he pushed his feet off the cabinet and rolled back to his desk, slapping the folder down in front of the blank computer monitor. He rarely turned the thing on anymore.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “Nothing I shouldn’t be able to handle.”

Gausser Demon Control operated out of a compact, cubic office building off Wilshire, near Miracle Mile. Hank had done well for himself over the years, having started out working for a branch of a national chain before going into business for himself. The early years were hard. He had leased space in a humble building off Pico, driving his personal car from job to job—apartments, mostly, the occasional single-family dwelling. But he worked hard, saved money, and built up a good client base, eventually purchasing the van and upgrading to the new office space. Nowadays, his clientele was pretty exclusive—he rarely worked south of Melrose. Some corporate stuff, some industry stuff, but mainly residential. Homes. Big ones, up in the Hills. This new client was sounding like another one of the same.

Uh-huh,” Hank said, back at his deck. “That shouldn’t be a problem. And the other rooms?”

Switching the phone to the other shoulder, he opened the folder, shuffled a few pages around. Inside was a mess of charts and tables filled with Hank’s terse, boxy handwriting. Not all of it in the Roman alphabet. As the woman yammered on, he ran his finger down each crinkled page, stopping occasionally and nodding to himself.

“Got it,” he said during another pause. “It sounds like you might have an ME-2, maybe an ME-3. You’re looking at an all-day job…Uh-huh…I’m a one-man operation, ma’am…Let me check my schedule.”

Hank opened the topmost drawer of his desk and pulled out a well-worn spiral-bound appointment book. Licking his finger, he leafed through a few pages. “Ma’am,” he said after a moment, “I’m booked solid the rest of the week. I can get you in…” He paused, turning a page. “…next Tuesday is the earliest I’ve got…I understand…I don’t work weekends, ma’am…That’s very generous of you.”

Sighing, Hank leaned back in his chair and stared at the dusty, stuccoed ceiling. He’d been planning on taking it easy over the weekend, maybe catch a Dodgers game with some guys from his old crew, drink a few beers. He ran a hand through his lank, thinning hair. He hadn’t gotten to where he was—arguably the premiere demon exterminator in Southern California, if not the whole state—by taking it easy. Exhaling, he hunched back over his appointment book, writing the pertinent details under SATURDAY: time, address, ME level, rate.

“Saturday it is, ma’am. I’m gonna have to bump the rate up, but I’ll get the job done right…Uh-huh…Thank you…See you then.”

Hank hung up the phone. He looked at his appointments for the rest of the week, including the newest one on Saturday. It was going to be a long week. He’d make up for it though, maybe take a week off next month. Take the Ford out to Arizona, spend a few days fishing and golfing with his brother, Barry. Yeah, that sounded good.

When he stood up, the pneumatic chair hissed with gusto, as if protesting the twenty minutes of slow suffocation it had just endured. Hank’s back also protested, albeit with a creak instead of a hiss, accompanied by a flare of agony in his lower back not unlike the tip of a dagger—or a talon—prodding his spine. And Hank would know. Twenty years of demon exterminating had not been kind to his body. He had become a haggard, mountainous man, with a constant weary achiness rumbling avalanche-like down his body from his sunken eyes all the way to his sore, gnarled feet. After pushing his chair in, Hank cracked his back, flexed his toes in their steel-tipped casings. Then he zipped up his jumpsuit, olive green with HANK embroidered above the right breast pocket, took his sword down from the wall rack, and slid it into the scabbard he wore over his shoulder. He cracked his back one last time. Yes, it was going to be a long week.

* * *

Saturday was sunny and bright in Los Angeles, the erstwhile City of Angels. Pulling a Gausser Demon Control cap down close over his eyes, Hank wended the van north on Doheny, away from the office on Wilshire, and headed toward the Hollywood sign. The van was the faded, splotchy yellow of bad teeth. It fit in perfectly with the concrete-and-asphalt topography of the city, where he could be anything—plumber, electrician, alchemist. He could pilot the van into any neighborhood in the city without a second look from its residents, from the industrial jungles east of downtown to the bungalows of the west side to the hill-ensconced mansions in the Hollywood Hills. It was in one of the latter that a Mrs. Deanna Cole-Fournier awaited his arrival this morning.

The LA streets were lined with young couples and weekend shoppers, along with the usual smattering of proselytizing fanatics with cardboard signs decreeing the end times held aloft or draped over shoulders. They were all over the city these days, these zealots, but they congregated the most in affluent commercial neighborhoods—other neighborhoods were either too dangerous or beyond redemption in their eyes. Hank had little use for their kind—at least those in Hank’s profession tried to do something about the demon problem. He cast craggy, baleful grimaces at the fanatics at stoplight after stoplight until, finally, he made it up to and past Sunset. He left behind the gridded urban streets in favor of the twisted and forked residential roads of the Hills. Familiar territory for Hank and his van.

Oriole and Thrush and Blue Jay—the snake’s-tongue roads were all named for birds. As the incline of the roads increased, the van began to cough and sputter, but it kept chugging along the Audi- and BMW-lined streets. Tires grating against asphalt and emitting a bitter, rubbery smell, the van at last turned onto Nightingale Drive. Hank found the right house and put the van in idle, setting the emergency brake and turning the wheels against the steep slope of the tree-framed curb. Above and around him, the palatial façades looked down on him like a pantheon of divine figures. Hank ignored them, save for the one he had parked in front of.

The driveway was blocked by a heavy metal gate set into a hedge fence. But where the hedges on the rest of the street were well trimmed, this one was shaggy and overgrown, almost seeming to shamble toward him like something from Tolkien. Beyond the gate was a short, steep driveway leading to an imposing two-story, postmodern structure, boxy and angular like a haphazard stack of children’s blocks. Only a single window was visible from the street, cycloptic and somehow threatening, and the trees visible over the gate were all dead or dying, knurled and knotted. Something dark and malignant enveloped the house, emanated from it, some sort of psychic kudzu, ruining everything it touched. The house seemed to call to Hank, an icy whisper begging him to open the gate and come up the driveway, a summons both sirenic and unsettling.

The name on the mailbox read SIEVEWRIGHT. One of the few Condemned houses in this part of the city. Hank knew it well. He shook off the chilly feeling that had begun to spread from the flared nerves at the bottom of his spine, put the van in gear, and continued on toward the Cole-Fournier residence.

* * *

Slumping against the sweat-soaked seat of his van, Hank checked his watch: a quarter to ten. Early enough. He rested for a moment longer, giving his body a quick respite from the previous week’s pains. He took in the Cole-Fournier home: ungated, three stories, plenty of windows. Somewhat unremarkable, for this neighborhood at least. Then, with a grunt, he dislodged himself from the van, gathering his sword and toolbox before trundling up the driveway.

Hank rang the bell with a stumpy, crooked finger. The sun beat down on the back of his neck as he waited on the stoop, a bead of sweat trickling from his temple and into the roughage that covered his cheeks. After a moment, he heard movement on the other side of the door. It opened inward.

Deanna Cole-Fournier was typical of Hank’s clientele these days—middle-aged, affluent, and female. The harried matriarchs of the upper class. She was blond, petite, and dressed in a simple long-sleeve cotton blouse and black slacks. Her hair was pulled back, with a few summery wisps tumbling off her prominent cheekbones. She smiled brightly as they exchanged pleasantries. Still, she had that vague look of hopelessness—furtive, askance glances and skittish half-smiles—that one gets when assailed by things one has no control over. Hank had seen it often.

“But listen to me go on,” she said, composing herself and stepping aside. Her heels clacked sharply on the wood panels of the foyer. “Please, come in. You’ll be wanting to get started, I’m sure.” She looked meek, crossing her arms, clearly distressed.

“Ma’am,” Hank said, tipping his cap as he entered. He was greeted by swaths of empty space and bright light. Southern California sunlight cascaded into the house through the large bay window opposite the foyer, unimpeded by the kind of ostentatious artwork or cumbersome furniture that typically adorned the living rooms of the affluent. Instead, the décor seemed to favor blank space and sleekness, the living room looking distinctly unlived-in. Whether this was a design choice or the product of family dynamic, Hank was unsure. He squinted uneasily into the glare, pulled the bill of his cap back down over his eyes.

“The kitchen is this way,” Mrs. Cole-Fournier said after closing the door behind Hank. She gestured with an open hand, then clacked off ahead, a pleasant sway in her step. Hank followed. Heretofore unseen hallways arced off Escher-esque to either side as he walked.

“Russell is away on business, and the children are…out,” she explained on the way. The empty house amplified her voice, ricocheting it off the vaulted ceilings, sending echoes bouncing around hallways.

The kitchen was all burnished metal and black tile. It gleamed like in a picture in a catalogue. Hank put his rusted, jangling toolbox down on an empty counter and pulled out a stool from the bar. Mrs. Cole-Fournier crossed the kitchen and made to open the refrigerator, but stopped with one hand on the handle, a distracted look in her eyes. They stayed like that for a long moment, Hank leaning against the counter, Mrs. Cole-Fournier against the refrigerator, neither saying anything. A chilly wordlessness settled in the void between them like a too-cold blast of air conditioning on a warm day.

“Ma’am?” Hank said. “Everything all right?”

“You’ll have to excuse me,” she said, a shy, diagonal grin forming on her thin lips. One pale hand—her left, a glittery wedding band wrapped around the ring finger—still rested on the refrigerator handle. “Would you like some coffee or juice, Mr.…? I’m sorry, what was it again?”

“Gausser,” Hank replied. “Just call me Hank. And thank you, but no, ma’am. I’d just as soon get started, if that’s okay with you. Got a long day ahead of me.”

“Of course,” she said. “I must thank you again for coming in on a Saturday. I don’t know if I could have handled even one more day like this.”

“It’s really no problem, ma’am. I know demon problems can be stressful. I’m happy to do what I can to help.” He picked up his toolbox and craned his neck to look down one then another jagged hall. “Now, I believe you mentioned something about a boy’s room…?”

* * *

“This is our Spencer’s room. He’s fifteen,” Mrs. Cole-Fournier said as they entered the cave-like chamber at the end of a hallway. She stepped into the dark room, picking up objects at a motherly whim, distaste faintly visible on her features like a coat of unflattering makeup. “He’s not in at the moment—out with some friend or another, I’m sure—so you should be free to do your…work.”

Hank regarded the dim, musty room from the doorway. Bed sheets were tacked over the windows, allowing only a muted hint of light through. Mrs. Cole-Fournier was a pallid silhouette as she canvassed her son’s room, a misplaced sculpture in a derelict museum wing. Hank cleared his throat as she ran her hand over a dresser, snapping her out of her daze.

“Forgive me,” she said. “It’s just that he’s been associating with a…rough crowd lately. I don’t know what has gotten into him. You never really know what kids are up to these days, don’t you think?” She sat down on the bed, face vacant and pale like cold marble.

“I couldn’t say, ma’am,” Hank said, entering the room. He placed the toolbox down on the bed with a rough clank. “Not my area of expertise. Now, you mentioned a possible infestation in here?”

“Yes,” she said, suddenly rising from the bed, smoothing her slacks. “It must be something he brought home.”

“I rarely find that to be the case, ma’am,” he said, scanning the room. “No, demon infestations usually start in the home. Now, they can be intensified by outside influences, but rarely are those influences the cause of an infestation themselves.”

“I see,” was all she said. Then: “I’ll be in the kitchen if you need anything.” She made to leave the room, but paused in the doorway, turned back around. “They’re not…dangerous, are they?”

“Demons?” Hank said. “Not usually, ma’am. Demons are only dangerous if you let them get out of control.” He gave her his winningest smile—which wasn’t saying much—and hoped it looked reassuring. It must’ve worked well enough, for Mrs. Cole-Fournier cracked a half-smile and headed down the hall, heels clacking in her wake once again.

Alone, Hank let his eyes adjust to the dark. Demons wouldn’t come out in the light, of course. The room was the typical den of a slovenly teenager—myriad electronic devices buried beneath mounds of shed clothing, an indistinct, unclean odor wafting from floor to ceiling, and glossy posters lining the walls. He examined the nearest one. Some sort of music group, he figured—black-dyed hair be-spiked and askew, shiny piercings dotting their faces. Ripped jeans and snarling lips. Hank shrugged and opened the toolbox on the bed, removing the bulky metal flashlight, as long as his forearm and half as heavy as his sword. Sifting through the assorted bulbs and talismans in one of the drawers, he found the white-tinted lens he was after. He affixed it to the flashlight’s head with a satisfying click. Shoving it into a loop on his belt, he cracked his knuckles, adjusted his cap, and set to it. This room wouldn’t take long.

The obvious starting point was the closet. He parted a row of black shirts, peering into the gloom. Old school books, taped-up boxes. He ran a hand over the topmost shelf but came back with nothing but a handful of dust. There were some old framed photos and scrawled-upon notebooks, but no demons. He was about to turn away when he caught a glimpse of movement behind an old guitar, a skittering shadow, fast as the eye-twitch of the dreaming. Bingo.

Hank drew his flashlight with a flick of his wrist, rotated the head to turn it on. A beam of white—not quite light, but a beam of almost solid energy—jetted forth into a dusky corner of the closet. A low, dry moan swirled up out of the black, more vibration than actual sound.

There were three of them, desiccated, bony things shambling forth out into the room, emaciated and skeletal. Sallow, yellow-gray flesh pulled taut over sharp bones. Something clinked almost musically as they moved, heads dipping low. An acrid, russet smoke billowed out of empty eye sockets and gaping mouths. They clustered together, an osseous phalanx of limbs, and advanced toward Hank.

He unsheathed his sword from the scabbard on his back—a great two-handed claymore. Its smooth, metallic-blue blade shimmered even in the murk of the teenager’s room. Hank held it aloft before him, legs akimbo in battle stance. He leveled the blade at the encroaching demons.

They moved in unison, like some kind of terrible charnel spider. The foul smoke burned Hank’s eyes, but he stood his ground. The low moan lingered in the air like a fading hymn, trying to burrow its way into Hank’s skull like a carrion worm. Slowly, as the demons clambered over the teenage refuse toward him, he stepped forward to meet them, his blade’s tip inching ever closer to fiendish flesh.

They met in the middle of the room. Adrenaline coursing through his battered body, Hank raised his sword and spun to the side, lashing out at the nearest demon, severing a scrawny arm from a knobby shoulder. A brown, ashy dust erupted from the wound, accompanied by another undulating moan. Hank spun again, sword gliding through the air like the scorching dawn sweeping across a dark horizon. He raised it over his head and brought it down again and again, cracking through decrepit limbs and brittle skulls. The smoke hung in the air now like a grim fog, but the demons had been reduced to nothing more than a pile of rickety splinters and decaying flesh.

Hank wiped his brow, but did not linger. There would be more of them.

A scraping sound came from the dresser. He crept toward it, opening one drawer after another, shining his flashlight over the contents of each. At last, from the bottom drawer, he heard the moan again. He stepped back as a withered hand rose up and gripped the drawer’s edge. Another demon pulled itself up and out, skeletal fingers clicking on the wooden surface. Hank drove the tip of his blade into the base of the demon’s neck as it struggled to its feet, and again into its spine as the headless body wriggled on the floor. Coughing at the outpouring of smoke that announced the creature’s demise, Hank cracked his neck. Almost done.

He sent the beam of light sprawling into every corner of the room, behind the bookcase and the desk, all the places demons had been known to hide—but found nothing. The column of light shone under piles of clothes, inside desk drawers, into the coils of electronic cables. After a few fruitless minutes, it dawned on him. Under the bed. Of course. It had been a long week.

The demon skirred away from the beam and wedged itself in the deepest shadows, where the bed was nestled in a corner. Buoyed by his success thus far and annoyed at the demon’s cowardice, Hank simply bent down and, back protesting, reached under the bed and grabbed the hellion by a leg. Yanking it out from the shadows, he tossed it onto the pile of its vanquished cohorts—a stinking heap of appendages and cinder. He brought his sword down on the whole mess, hewing the one in half and scattering errant bone fragments of the rest around the room.

Seeing no further movement, Hank let out a satisfied sigh and collapsed backwards onto the bed, letting his sword clatter at his feet. He sat there a moment, elbows on knees, catching his breath. Sweat blotted up and down his back and at his temples. He removed his cap and slicked back his sodden hair, feeling acutely the spots where it was beginning to thin. He then picked up his sword and hefted it up over his shoulder and back into its scabbard. Not done quite yet.

Rummaging again through his toolbox, he found the talisman he was looking for: an intricate metal design, an ancient letter in a dead language, intended to be worn on a chain as protection. Hank had a different use for it, however. He went to the closet and knelt down by the old guitar. Affixing the talisman to the head of the flashlight, Hank shone the beam against the wall, near where the demons had been brooding. With a smoky hiss, the beam burned the design of the talisman directly into the wall, leaving a blackened imprint of the sacred letter as a ward against future infernal incursions.

After repeating the same process on the bottom dresser drawer and on the floor under the bed, Hank made his way to the window, where the bed sheets still blocked out all but the most tenacious rays of the sun. He took one last look at the heap of mangled demonic detritus in the center of the room before ripping the sheet down from the wall, sending thumbtacks flying.

When the sunlight hit the heap, the remains of the demons disintegrated instantly, turning into tiny specks of dust that danced for a moment in the sunlight before disappearing forever. Hank grunted his approval. Then he looked down at the bed.

Lying atop the sheets was a gaunt, sickly boy of fifteen years. His eyes were closed, his cheeks were drawn, and he reeked of the same miasmic dankness as the demons. Hank flickered the flashlight over the boy’s face—he shivered and recoiled, but did not wake. He would not return to the waking world—the corporeal world—for some time.

Hank gathered up his tools and, before returning to the kitchen, draped the sun-warmed bed sheet over the boy’s still form. One room down.

* * *

Hank sat atop a stool back in the kitchen. Elbows on the bar counter, he drank a tall, cool glass of instant lemonade. The tartness nipped at the sides of his tongue while granules of sugar washed over his teeth. He ground them in his molars between sips. It was pushing midday and the sun was somewhere over the house, lighting it by proxy. There was less glare from the windows, but the house seemed even more empty, more sterile, this way.

Mrs. Cole-Fournier sat opposite Hank, hands clasped neatly in front of her, slender fingers forming a loose arch with her wedding band glinting at the apex. The corners of her lips were upturned in a seemingly semi-permanent smile, but the lack of creases in her cheeks gave her a rather ersatz complexion. She had not yet asked about the boy’s room.

“Would you like another glass?” she asked instead. The lemonade carafe was placed between them, a half-dozen plastic, lemon-shaped ice balls floating in it like buoys in a tiny citrine sea.

Hank nodded in response, pushing his glass over the smooth counter toward her. She refilled it from the carafe. One of the ice lemons dropped into the glass, landing with a soft splash.

“Nice touch,” Hank said.

“Oh,” she said, as if surprised by Hank’s observation. “Thank you. It’s nothing, really. Just something I saw on the internet.”

Hank pondered the meaning of fake lemons in fake lemonade in the ensuing silence. Fake smiles on fake lips.

“I’m glad you didn’t have any trouble finding the house,” Mrs. Cole-Fournier offered when he had drunk half the glass. “The soothsayer usually has such trouble.”

“This isn’t my first rodeo, ma’am,” he said, taking another sip of the lemonade. The sugar was beginning to cloy at his taste buds, thicken his saliva.

“Do you do a lot of work in this neighborhood?” she asked. The corners of her lips trembled just so, giving Hank the impression of a bad ventriloquist act, if somehow she could be both puppet and puppeteer.

“I don’t discuss other clients, ma’am. My work is strictly confidential. I’m sure you can appreciate that.” He wiped his wet upper lip with the back of his hand, dried it on his pants.

“Yes, of course,” she said, smile fixed back in place. “I don’t mean to pry. I certainly value your commitment to privacy.” She glanced out a window, wringing her wrists absentmindedly. Then: “I hope Spencer’s room wasn’t too troublesome?”

“Not at all, ma’am. Just your typical ME-2 infestation, nothing out of the ordinary. I barely broke a sweat.” Still, he hadn’t accepted her offer of lemonade out of politeness alone.

“I’m glad. I’d hoped you wouldn’t find the house in too bad a shape. We’ve never had a problem like this before, so I was a little nervous.” She tilted her head just so, and a stray blond twirl swayed across her face, its looseness the only blemish in her veneer of composure.

“The key is to catch it early.” Hank often resorted to the banal commonplaces of his profession when confronted with chatty clients. “Even a relatively harmless ME-2 can become a big problem if you ignore it for too long.”

“What happens then? I’ve heard stories…” She looked genuinely worried now. Partly for show, Hank surmised. But just partly.

He finished the last of the lemonade and set the glass on the bar top, the ice lemon rattling dully.

“You don’t have to worry about that, ma’am. Not with me here,” he said, standing up and pushing the stool back under the bar. “Now, I should probably get back to it before too much more of this fine Saturday is gone. Where to?”

Mrs. Cole-Fournier looked like she was going to say something more, but didn’t. She smiled, tucked the blond curl back over her ear, and led Hank out of the kitchen.

End of Part I. 

Fight off your Demon concludes in Part II.