Fight Off Your Demons! - Part II

They headed up a winding flight of stairs, she ahead of him, her fingers gliding over the burnished metal banister. A skylight set into the ceiling above the staircase emitted warm, pearlescent light, illuminating her blouse and hair quite pleasingly. Hank noticed a faint trace of something under the sleeve of her blouse, on her wrist. A tattoo? A bracelet? Then his bad knee twinged—though they were both bad, really—and he nearly dropped his toolbox. He steadied himself against the banister for a couple breaths, then resumed the climb.

At the top of the stairs, they turned down a sun-drenched hallway. Hank watched her small feet pad lightly on the immaculate carpeting. It looked as pristine as freshly fallen snow, a tract of undisturbed tundra far from the sullying footprints of human civilization. But a blanket of snow only covers what came before. The true character of the place would soon reveal itself.

At the end of the hallway was a plain white door. Mrs. Cole-Fournier turned, slowly.

“Abby,” was all she said at first. Then, after a moment: “She’ll be out with her boyfriend. She stays with him most nights anymore.” Another pause. “She’s seventeen,” she added.

Her fingers danced on the shiny brass doorknob, eyes fixed on the ground. 

“Please call if you need anything,” she said without looking up. “I’ll be downstairs.”

Hank said nothing as she passed him on her way to the stairs, her footfalls leaving no evidence that she had ever been there. That anyone had ever been there. He pressed a boot into the carpet just to make sure he was actually there. A slight dimple remained when he lifted his foot, but the springy fabric soon reshaped itself and returned to its unblemished state. It was like the house repressed all signs of human occupancy, of life.

He shifted those thoughts to a far-flung corner of his mind and brought the day’s job back to the forefront. He grasped the reflective doorknob and turned it. A smudgy palm print confirmed his existence. He shouldered the door open and entered the young girl’s room.

White walls, white floor, white sheets on the bed, all swathed in pure white sunshine. Hank had to shield his eyes against the glare, pulling the brim of his cap down over his face. When he looked up again, he saw a spacious room, clean and quiet. A canopied bed sat against the far wall, trimmed with frilly white fabric. Great, cumulous-like pillows were heaped about the mattress, hillocks upon which its stuffed animal denizens could frolic. A simple vanity stood next to the bed, topped with a wide mirror. Hank caught sight of himself in it, his tiny head perched atop the flabby boulder of his torso, an ungainly, greenish heap against the canvas of white, decidedly inelegant. He scratched his belly bitterly and turned away.

He set the toolbox down on the carpet at the foot of the bed, where it sat like a bulging, putrefying blight in the unspoiled expanse of the room. He swiveled his unblinking eyes, unsure of what, exactly, he was looking for. The source of the infestation in the boy’s room was obvious from the start—not so in this neat, feminine space. He scrunched his lips and scratched at the tufts of hair on his chin, glancing over the pictures pinned on the wall opposite the bed. They appeared to have been cut from art or fashion magazines, rectangular and glossy. He approached one.

An Asian woman with alpine cheekbones looked somewhere over Hank’s shoulder, her ebon eyes sorrowfully watching, perhaps, a departing lover. Stark black eyebrows plunged like knives toward sanguine lips and lower to acuminous nipples. Sex and danger intermingled in a discomfiting way. He moved on to the next one. A man with an engine block chest and piston-rod penis, an expression of mechanical dispassion fused to his face. Another: two wispy women intertwined, legs splayed pruriently, tongues flicking serpentine and seductive. And another: a man’s face in profile, fist-like jawbone almost thrusting right out of the photo, his penis swinging like a crude cudgel below his waist. There were others, many others—they tiled the wall like a war memorial, sad, ever-staring out at nothing. But what battle had been waged here, Hank could not tell.

Hunkering down in front of the bed, he delved once more into the toolbox. He removed the white-tinted lens from the flashlight and stowed it in its proper place. He ran a plump finger over a row of lenses of differing colors and thicknesses until he found the right one—a deep onyx, impervious to ordinary light. But then, Hank’s flashlight was no ordinary flashlight. He screwed the lens into place and flickered the light on and off, on and off, sending a jet black ray toward the vaulted ceiling. Demons always clung to shadow and dark places—he would have to create them where none existed in order to draw the creatures out.

He repeated the same search pattern as in the boy’s room, sweeping his shadow beam over every surface—shelves and closets, corners and nooks, behind the dresser and under the bed. He shone the non-light, the anti-light over the laminate cutouts on the wall, probing, waiting, hand on sword hilt, fingers tensed. But nothing came.

Then he figured it out. The only surface in the room he hadn’t yet shone the un-light over. The mirror.

The surface of the mirror roiled like a typhonic sea when the beam touched it, reflecting not outward but inward, a churning charcoal whorl suggesting unseen depths. One by one, the demons clambered out of the mirror and into the room.

They first appeared as flat and lifeless as the vacant faces on the wall, but they soon gained in substantiality, coming to life before Hank’s eyes. They were vague things, writhing torsos on stilted legs, wobbling awkwardly toward him, bleach white and formless. They staggered unevenly, two, three, a half dozen misshapen Venus de Milos. Hank retreated a step, rocked on his heels. He didn’t go for his sword, not yet. He wasn’t even sure where to attack—the things looked like blobs of clay, and he was no sculptor.

Then he pointed the beam at them. Where there were no heads or arms to Hank’s eyes, under the gaze of the non-light they became all too apparent. Great, gnashing maws jutting from porcelain necks, more mouth than head. Rows of stiletto teeth coated in silvery saliva that oozed forth out of black throats. For arms, corded, tendril-like muscles tipped with jagged talons. When he moved the beam, nothing. Harmless-looking ambulant sculptures. Yet under the black ray, vicious, flaying death, like the flashlight was a portal to a nightmare, a spotlight on Hell itself.

The demons lurched at him, mouths and claws flailing when the beam was on them, wobbling, limbless torsos when not. Hank slipped the flashlight back into his belt, unsheathed his sword at last.

He approached warily, only his blade between him and the thrashing white forms. Hank charged to meet them, coiling his wrist, arcing his arm back. He swung.

His blade slid ineffectually off the waxen bust. He slashed at another with the same result. It was as though their visible, tangible forms were some kind of ever-malleable clay, absorbing each blow and glancing it off, no damage done. Hank lunged forward once more, pain surging through his knees as the tip of his blade went in an inch, maybe two, before sliding back out with the same ineptness as a rejected ATM card. He leapt back to avoid having an arm lopped off and (presumably) devoured by the phantom jowls. A brisant curse word exploded from his lips, borne aloft by a raspy burst of air from the bottom of his lungs. He hoped Mrs. Cole-Fournier didn’t hear.

The heads, then. He stalked his way around the demonic swarm, looking for an opening. After a vaguely balletic routine of dodging both furniture and evisceration, Hank sucked in a deep breath and took a mighty swing at the nearest demon. His blade swished through the invisible head without effect, momentum carrying him around in a full circle. Hank had to use all his strength to avoid chopping the bed canopy down.

He had one more idea—the flashlight. He grabbed the toolbox and ducked around to the other side of the bed. The mounds of pillows and gauzy curtains would have to do for cover. He rifled through the glyphs and runes before pulling out something a bit less mystical—a roll of dull gray duct tape.

He dropped to the floor, back to the bed, as if bracing against mortar rounds in an earthen trench—albeit a trench decorated with thousand-count sheets and pink teddy bears instead of rimmed with barbed wire. Aligning the flashlight with the hilt of the sword, he wrapped the duct tape around both three, four, five times like a silkworm spinning industrial-strength silk. Satisfied it would hold, he turned back to the demons, ready for their onslaught.

He swept the blade-light over the tottering throng of them, jaws and tentacles flickering into sight under its shadow. Circling around to the center of the room, he leveled the sword tip at the nearest one, revealing the ghostly mandible atop its marbled torso. Hank raised the claymore high above his head and brought it back down again in his best Kirk Gibson impression (bad knees and all).

Just like in ’88, it struck true.

The ghoul’s head exploded in a geyser of putrid green ichor that splattered the walls, the curtains of the bed canopy, and Hank’s uniform in equal measure. The torso dropped to the carpet with a graceless thump. It broke in two like a papier mâché bust, sending puffs of white dust into the afternoon air, harmless as dandelion pollen in a springtime breeze. The rest would be easy.

After the last of the demons was dispatched in a final suppurous spout and flurry of bone meal, Hank took a breather on a corner of the bed, the downy comforter a welcome relief for his aching body. He now had a shoulder twinge to add to the collection—he’d probably pulled something with one of his home run swings. He would treat it with a Budweiser and an ice pack later. For now, he had a job to finish. He combed once again through the box of oddities—some made of metal, some of bone, others of material not of this earth. Signs and symbols in languages dead to all but Hank and his ilk. Exterminators, they called them now, demon control. But they had not always been called such.

He selected a new talisman and fixed it to the face of the flashlight, now unattached from the sword hilt. Turning toward the vanity mirror, which still seemed a turbid, chasmic portal to an accursed realm, he flicked the beam on. When the plain white light touched the mirror, the stormy surface convulsed, then calcified into a slate-gray field. Hank turned it toward a window to catch a midday sunbeam. The surface hissed, steamed, and blinkered back to a normal mirror, suffusing the entire room once again with California sunshine.

When Hank turned back to the bed, lying amidst the pillows and comfort creatures was a spindly young girl, her hair a wilted yellow, her face ashen and harrowed. He placed a stuffed rabbit in the crook of her arm and gathered up his tools. As he left, he took a final glance at the pictures on the wall. They looked somehow less glamorous, he thought, more grotesque, their gloss sapped away. As he closed the door behind him, one began to fall slowly to the floor, a brittle leaf from a dying tree.

Hank washed the last bite of his lunch—tuna salad on white bread—down with yet another glass of lemonade. The sun had begun its western slide, and its rays permeated the spotless kitchen, refracting from tile to metal to glass. The almost-empty carafe glistened with condensation. Hank did much the same—a fine dew of perspiration stippled his forehead, and the A/C honed in on the damp spots at his back and underarms.

He craved a cold beer, but he never drank on the job anymore. The last of the too-sweet lemonade would have to suffice.

“Are you sure I can’t get you anything?” asked Mrs. Cole-Fournier as she emptied the carafe into his glass. She had been fretting over him as he ate, offering up this and that, flitting from pantry to cupboard to fridge. “I’m sure there’s some leftover pasta somewhere. Or perhaps a slice of pie?”

“I’m fine, ma’am,” he said, crumpling the greasy paper bag that had contained his simple lunch. “Thanks anyway.”

They always tried a little too hard to be the perfect hostess, in Hank’s experience. Mrs. Cole-Fournier was no different—the lemonade, the pie, the Stepford Wife good looks and frozen smiles. The perfect All-American housewife. But it was all a guise, a put-on, a way to avoid talking about the problems that brought him into their homes. It came naturally to them, this act, even in their personal lives, he was sure—which was usually why his services were needed in the first place.

Mrs. Cole-Fournier smiled curtly, then bit her lower lip. Worry fell over her face like a funereal veil. “I thought I heard some noise upstairs earlier. I hope you didn’t have too much trouble?”

“Nothing to worry about, ma’am. Just some minor difficulties.” Hank took a kerchief out of a jumpsuit pocket and dabbled his forehead, his temples. “Nothing serious.”

“Was it worse than Spencer’s room? I must confess, I really have no idea what goes on in that girl’s room sometimes. Or in her head.” She began wringing her wrists once again, one over the other, rotating like a jittery helix—a nervous habit, or something more?

“Well, I don’t want to get too much into the technical details, but the girl’s room was probably an ME-3 infestation or so. They can be a bit tricky, but are by no means uncommon.” He replaced the kerchief in the jumpsuit pocket. “I’ve seen much, much worse.”

Mrs. Cole-Fournier stopped wringing. “I’m sorry, but… ME? And what do the numbers mean? I really don’t know too much about all this.”

“ME. Malevolent Entity. That’s what the pros call demons. And the number just tells you how serious it is. An ME-1 is little more than a minor nuisance, like ants or roaches. So an ME-2 or 3 isn’t really that bad. You get up to 7 or 8 though, you’re in trouble.”

“What kind of trouble?”

“The kind you don’t always come back from. The kind that gets a house Condemned.”


“MEs bound to the place. Some folks call it cursed, or haunted, but Condemned is the term we use. It’s fairly rare in this neighborhood,” he said, gesturing to the window and the mansions beyond, “but it happens, even up here.”

“I see,” she said. Mrs. Cole-Fournier was almost gnawing her lower lip at this point. The worry was a good sign though—it was when they stopped caring that things got really bad.

They sat in sunshiny silence for a few minutes. It might have been pleasant but for the matter of the demons, which cast a psychal shade over their conversation, like a lone storm cloud on an otherwise beautiful afternoon.

“How high does the ME scale go? To 10? Like for earthquakes?” she asked, breaking the silence.

“That’s not a bad comparison, but no one can really say for sure how high it goes. A lot of factors go into it—the source of the infestation, how long it’s been around, the position of certain stars… Do you remember Pittsburgh?”

She nodded, blinked reflexively. Of course she remembered Pittsburgh. Everybody remembered Pittsburgh.

“Well, that was an ME-27. Highest recorded in modern times. That thing was growing underneath the city for centuries. The whole city, Condemned. I hope we never see another day like it.

“But,” he said, suddenly rising, “you’ve got nothing to worry about. Your son’s and daughter’s demon problems are very typical. Nothing to be alarmed about.”

“Oh, that’s a relief,” she said. She seemed lost in thought, as if a synapse had misfired. She clutched her hands to her chest, one hand over the other wrist. The kitchen was still bright, but all the light had faded from her eyes.

Hank pushed the empty lemonade glass across the counter. Noisily.

“Now, I believe there was one more room you wanted me to take a look at?”

“Yes,” she said, a slight spark of life shining in her eyes once again. “Yes, of course. Right this way.”

She led him not upward or downward, but inward, through a dim hallway, deeper into the interior of the house than he had yet been. Her steps were deliberate, her posture rigid. There was no sway in her step now, no sheen to her hair. At the end of the hall, they stopped at an unremarkable door, which she unlocked with a simple cylinder key she produced from the pocket of her slacks. Hank had almost been expecting a skeleton key.

Beyond the door was a short, narrow stairway ending in another door. They descended the dozen or so steps one at a time, silent except for the clanging of Hank’s toolbox. The second door was an altogether different kind. Gray metal, cold and imposing. There was no handle, no lock; rather, a numerical keypad was set into the wall beside it. Mrs. Cole-Fournier entered the passcode into the keypad, not even bothering to hide it: 2049.

“That would have been the year of our 50th wedding anniversary,” she said as the door hissed open a few inches. “Will be, I mean.”

That’s when Hank noticed her forearms and the deep violet bruises there, wine-colored gouges that encircled her willowy wrists, marks of possession, of subjugation. She followed his gaze to the abrasions but didn’t try to hide them, just offered a wan smile instead. In the confined space of the stairway, he caught a faint whiff of her perfume. It struck him as more antiseptic than alluring, and her flawless features now seemed carapacic, a shell to hide behind. But from what?

Hank figured he was about to find out. They always confessed, eventually.

“A few years ago,” she began, “it became apparent to me that Russell was seeing other women.” She began to wring her wrists again, but this time it was a violent motion, her whole torso seeming to writhe, to twist. “Same old sob story. Nothing you haven’t heard hundreds of times in your line of work.

“I was no longer satisfying him. I tried simple things at first—new clothes, minor charms. Then came the surgeries, the transfigurations. It was his money, and I wanted to save my marriage. I thought if I looked like them, like the others, that it would be enough. But it wasn’t.”

She punched the passcode into the keypad again. This time the door opened all the way and locked into place. Beyond was nothing but blackness.

“When we moved into this house, I had them build this room special. For Russell. For me. For us. I had to do things they wouldn’t. Things they never would have thought to do. Things that weren’t fathomable in the light of day, things I tried to lock away inside this house, inside myself.” She looked away from Hank now, turned her gaze over his shoulder and up the stairway, where traces of the late afternoon sun could still be seen on the topmost steps. “I learned how to please him. I even convinced myself that I liked it. And it worked… for a while, at least. But then… Russell changed. Became violent. Crazed. Then he became something else.

“I never should have let it get so out of hand,” she said, snapping her gaze back to Hank. “I thought I was saving my home, my family. I’m sorry.”

With that, she walked past him, ascended the stairs, and disappeared down the hallway. She didn’t look back once. Hank listened to the now-familiar clack of her heels until it faded out entirely. Then he turned toward the door.

Hank put one hand on the doorframe and peered inside. Or at least tried to—the interior was an impenetrable satiny black plane. He stood at the gateway to oblivion, blinked a few times, tightened his grip on his toolbox. Then, not realizing he’d been holding his breath, he exhaled slowly and crossed the threshold into the abyssal vault.

The interior of the room was as frigid as it looked. Still unable to see anything, he felt along the surface of the wall for a light switch. Finding a knob instead, he turned it with thumb and forefinger. Blood red light radiated from a crystalline sphere hanging in the center of the room. The light was dense, almost viscous, illuminating what Hank could see only as a den of torture if not for the massive, luxurious bed underneath the chandelier. Swaddled in lustrous red silken sheets, the bed looked like an engorged vulva, slick and, under normal circumstances, inviting.

But these were not normal circumstances.

The room was enormous, circular, and bitterly dark—the crimson glow could not penetrate the entirety of the blackness. But from what he could see, Hank had walked straight into the back pages of an S&M magazine or risqué romance novel. The walls were lined with all manner of sexual accoutrements: leather whips coiled like sleeping cobras, glimmering silver handcuffs, strings of rubber beads of varying shapes and sizes, thick black blindfolds, all pinned to the plush red walls with twinkling silver pins. Benches and bars and harnesses and all things metal and leather, sinister under the swampy red light. He put his toolbox down on a heart-shaped ottoman and tried to set his mind to the task at hand, pushing away all thoughts of Mrs. Cole-Fournier and her wrists and what other wounds she was hiding beneath her clothes.

Still pondering that last thought, Hank had barely turned his flashlight on when he heard the breathing. He aimed the beam toward the source of the guttural wheezing, but a sinewy black arm struck at him from the darkness, slamming into his wrist. Hank heard the flashlight shatter on the concrete floor as he leapt to avoid… it, whatever it was.

Managing an awkward somersault, he came up next to the bed, sword drawn even before his feet were set, two hands on the haft and the point angled toward the ottoman. Blocking out the light from the doorway was a colossal demon, the largest Hank had seen in years, since… since the Sievewrights, perhaps. An ME-6 at least, snarling and hulking under the hot red light, with coriaceous skin stretched over bulbous musculature like bowling balls stuffed in a body bag. It leered at him with screaming red eyes perched above an elongated face with sickle-like fangs, ears that curved like scythes, every feature suggesting pain, torment. Turning toward him, its manacled wrists and ankles dragged heavy iron chains; attached to nothing, they clanked menacingly in the black. It faced him in full now, immense phallus protruding toward him like a gruesome war pike.

The demon’s lips contorted into a hellish gash, a devil-smile of primeval depravity, of ouroboric anguish, of excruciating bliss. Then it lunged.

Hank ducked as a lariat of chain whipped over his head, crashing into the wall and dislodging an array of sex toys. A floppy, black artificial penis clobbered him in the back of the head—but better that than chain, he thought. Or claw. Raising his sword, he deflected the next barrage of chain with his sword, trying to create distance between himself and the creature.

His shoulder throbbed, his knee flared, his back ached—now was not the time for a career’s worth of chronic pain to catch up to him. Setting his feet, the long-dormant muscles beneath layers of Dodger Dog–induced flab began to stir, rumbling like undersea volcanoes in deep oceanic trenches, ready to erupt to the surface. Hank grabbed his cap by the bill, threw it down, and faced the demon, eye to hideous eye.

A wretched shriek exploded from the demon’s maw as it slashed at him with a great, hooked claw, chains flying in its wake. He scampered backward but wasn’t so quick this time—the claw sliced through the embroidered “HANK” on the right side of his chest and grazed the skin beneath, superficial wounds almost immediately cauterized by the sulfurous heat that emanated from every inch of the hellspawn’s being. The smell of singed flesh hit his nostrils at the same time the chain walloped him in the side, sending him stumbling toward the bed. The air in his lungs was expelled like a blown-out tire, and a static-y white light flooded his vision. He held his sword aloft, trying to locate the demon in the black-and-red haze.

When the claw came again, Hank, trapped by the bed at his back, had no choice but to surge forward, ducking beneath the claw once more and thrusting his blade into the creature’s abdomen. The blow made barely a scrape in its coarse hide, but before he could lament his failure, the chain whipped around and caught him across the back, pitching him across the room—but thankfully away from the demon. The chains had almost certainly broken a rib or two, and he’d have a nasty welt across his back tomorrow (that is, if he even survived the day), but they had given him an idea.

The next time the chain swung at him, Hank swatted at it with his sword like a game of nightmarish tetherball, flinging the chain back toward the demon. The demon screamed as the metal links wrapped themselves around its cabled neck, pinning one arm to its body. Half caught in its former bindings, it snatched at him with its free claw. Hank dodged the sharp bit and let the chain spiral around his sword. If he could just get the other arm…

Bad idea. Even with one arm, the demon was much stronger than him. It jerked its arm, yanking the sword out of Hank’s hands, sending it clattering across the room. Empty-handed and with sword and toolbox both out of reach, he grabbed the only weapon he could: a long, braided whip hanging from the wall.

For reasons he could surmise but didn’t want to think about, the whip had much greater effect than his sword. Each lash left a bright red tear in the demon’s hide, kisses of agony on its chest, lusty fingernail scratches down its back. Hank darted around the room, stinging the demon like a gnat harrying a rhinoceros. With each new lesion, it thrashed out with an arm or leg, throwing chains around the room, smashing into walls, apparatuses, the demon’s own flesh. Eventually, it was pinned, chains meshed together across its chest and arms like a straightjacket, around its legs like a rodeo lasso. The beast toppled over, squirming and flailing on the cold concrete floor. Hank picked his sword up from the foot of the bed and pressed it to the demon’s throat.

Chest heaving, it gave a few paroxysmal spasms, realizing it was caught. With the tip of his sword, Hank carved an ancient symbol into its chest, above its heart, pressing down insistently on the final stroke. With a strangled cry, somehow both terrifying and piteous, the demon shuddered and its leathery hide fell away like a pathetic husk, revealing a shivering man, nude and flushed. Bloody rivulets trickled down his chest toward his meager, flaccid member.

Hank flopped onto the ottoman, side splitting and lungs burning. His breath came ragged and gravelly, but he would live. He looked about the room at his handiwork—scattered marital aids, blood-soaked whip, sobbing naked man. Far from his typical Saturday. It wasn’t pretty, but Hank took pride in knowing he still had it in him. An ME-6 was usually a two-man job—hell, maybe even three—but he had taken it down by himself. He smiled, even as he prodded his tender rib-cage, ran a finger along the lacerations on his chest—new pains, new scars to add to his collection. No matter though. It had been a long week, but it was finally over.

* * *

The sun had nearly finished its western descent, and its fading light cast long, thin shadows, turning palm trees to tendrils of shade, the house into a dark obelisk that stretched eastward, toward downtown. Soon, all would be devoured by the vast penumbra of night, shadow and caster both. The same fate would befall the whole world eventually—but not as long as people like Hank were around.

He stood on the front stoop of the mansion, tired and swollen, trusty toolbox in hand, sword slung over his shoulder. Mrs. Deanna Cole-Fournier stood just inside the foyer, not quite looking at Hank, squinting into the setting sun. The dark aura of worry she had worn all day—and countless days before that, maybe her whole adult life—had not quite been eradicated, but it was starting to fade.

“Will they be back?” she asked, at last looking at him.

“Tough to say,” he said. “Each case is different, each home. I will say this though—if they do come back, it won’t be anytime soon. And I offer a one-year guarantee on my work, just in case.”

“That’s a relief.” There was warmth in her smile now. “Thank you so much, Mr. Gausser. You really are a lifesaver. I hate to think what would have happened if you hadn’t come when you did. We could have ended up like the Sievewrights.”

Her words hit Hank harder than any demonic blow. He should never have returned to that house. Even now, the hairs on the back of his neck began to quiver as he felt the spectral gaze of its cyclopean window and the unspeakable doom that lay behind it.

“That was a great tragedy, ma’am,” was all he could muster.

“Oh, I didn’t realize you knew about the Sievewright House.”

“Everyone in my line of work knows about the Sievewright House, ma’am.”

“Yes,” she said, “I suppose they would.” She finally stepped out of her doorway and into the nascent twilight. “Well, thank you again, Mr. Gausser.”

She offered her hand. It seemed cold and fragile to Hank’s touch, but it might’ve just seemed that way because he couldn’t stop thinking of handcuffs, of locks clicking shut, of skeleton keys and dungeons.

 “Hank, please,” he replied, letting go of her hand. “And it really is no problem. Just doing my job.”

“I couldn’t imagine doing what you do every day, Mr. Gauss— Hank, I mean. What an occupation!”

“Used to be,” Hank said, “people would fight off their own demons.”

“Now that’s something I really couldn’t imagine!” She laughed genuinely, the kind of laughter Hank wished he could distill and plug into his flashlight, a celestial glow to combat the ever-encroaching black. “I don’t know what the world would do without people like you.”

“What a world it would be,” he muttered to himself as he trudged down the driveway, adjusting his belt, a slight limp in his step.

The sky was a jaundiced orange-black as Hank guided the van north on Alvarado Street, through what was left of working-class Los Angeles. He passed under broken streetlights, the sidewalks lined with vehicles on cinder blocks, the businesses all shuttered up. Entire city blocks were Condemned, demons running amok through apartment buildings and side streets. The main thoroughfares were mostly safe though. Mostly. To the southeast, the manmade lights of downtown did their best to permeate nature’s black gauze of night, while billowing smog bled through it all, giving the skyline a hazy look, uncertain. The gleaming towers had thus far resisted demonic encroachment. In their shadow, Skid Row wasn’t so lucky.

Dodger Stadium sat atop Chavez Ravine, dim and dormant, its patrons having departed hours ago. They never played night games in Los Angeles anymore.

Hank’s house was tucked into the side of a lonely hill in Echo Park, one of the last remaining non-Condemned buildings on the block, and the only one that was still occupied—by the living, anyway. His neighbors had all long since moved out or succumbed to their demons, leaving windows boarded up or broken, wild, unkempt lawns, and a brumous shroud of dread. There were no people up here, no families, not even sign-wielding madmen. Just a lone demon exterminator amidst row after row of derelict, Condemned homes. But his neighbors’ demons couldn’t bother him in his own abode, and Hank liked the quiet. He could cleanse the homes, sure, but at what cost? And, more importantly, who would pay him?

These thoughts swirled in his head like they always did as he allowed the van—and himself—to idle in the driveway for a spell after his latest bout with infernal forces. Eyes closed, he breathed deeply as he tried to put the day, the week, the last twenty years behind him before killing the engine. The van door creaked like his knee when he closed it, a hapless whinnying in the still night air. Hank ignored both creaks as he shuffled up the driveway to his unlit stoop, fumbling for his house key among the many pockets of his jumpsuit.

WE’LL FIGHT OFF YOUR DEMONS! read the stenciled letters on the side of the van. Not that the advertising did much good in this part of the city.

Later, after the sweat-soaked jumper was peeled off his body like an unwanted second skin, he treated himself to a simple dinner of pork chops and beans. He watched the pork simmer in half a can of Budweiser, idly sipping the rest from the can while he stirred the bubbling pot of canned beans. When the food finished cooking, he cracked another Budweiser and turned on the local news. He tuned out the anchorman’s eager inflections, the tawdry stories of celebrity demons, the latest landmarks to become Condemned—today it was the entire top floor of the Chateau Marmont—while he waited for Dodgers highlights.

He realized the inherent ridiculousness of watching men swing wooden bats and run 90 feet from base to base, but he always found the game, its rhythms and subtle strategies, calming. Such diversions were just as essential to society as his own services, if not more so. Outlets for the weary mind, anyway, a means of transference of one’s own problems to something else, if only for a short while. You could never get rid of them completely. Hank knew that better than most.

The boys in blue won 3–2 on a late sacrifice fly. Los Angeles needed all the victories it could get these days. Hank finished the second Budweiser and turned the TV off.

On his way to bed, he stopped, as he always did, at the door halfway down the hall. It was an ordinary door, unadorned, with a simple aluminum doorknob that didn’t even lock. But he never touched the knob. Instead, he put his palm on the door itself, felt the malignity beyond, the years of personal trauma bound therein, the scar on his soul substantiated into tortuous, corrupting existence. It beckoned to him, just like it did at the Sievewright House, yearned for him to open the door, to unlock the empty chamber of his heart and let the evil inside. But he wouldn’t. He dropped his hand and headed to bed.

A Condemned room in a demon exterminator’s own home. Sometimes he laughed at the irony. But not tonight.

The Condemnation of a house, of a life, of a soul, always started with a room. His order had always known that. It could be bedroom, maybe, or a basement. Sometimes a tragedy had occurred there, some horrible event that fractured the psychical essence of the place, allowed a demonic infestation to take root; sometimes it was the accrual of years of sorrow or pain, or the manifestation of dark, cruel thoughts. But it was always a single room. Even Pittsburgh had started with a single room, a craggy chamber buried miles beneath the city, the site of some primordial cataclysm, perhaps.

The infestation would spread eventually, Hank knew, from room to room until it overtook the entire house and the last demon exterminator of Echo Park was no more, consumed by a demon of his own creation. Unless he did something about it. But he couldn’t bring himself to go in there, not even after all these years, nor could he bear to let anyone else in, especially not a fellow professional. Besides, Hank wouldn’t know whom to call even if he wanted to. Anyone he could trust with his own problem was long since dead.

He liked having the room there though, right next to his bedroom, just like he did before it was Condemned. It reminded him why he did what he did. In spite of the dark energy radiating out of the room next to his, Hank slept a little easier knowing that the city was a safer place because of him. He’d more than earned his day off tomorrow, that week in Arizona next month. The city could survive without the services of Hank Gausser for that short a time. At least he hoped it could.

Ignoring the twinges in his back, his knee, and the new one in his ribs, he lay down and let the soft mattress give what therapy it could. It was all he had until he could see a healer next week. He knew a good white mage in Century City, not far from the office. Yeah, that would be good. Maybe Monday, after his last appointment. He had a full day booked, like always. The demon control business was booming in the City of Angels. It was going to be another long week. No rest for the wicked, he thought, allowing himself a soft chuckle despite the tears as sleep began to overtake him at last.


John W. Buckley

Fight Off Your Demons! - Part II, fiction, Issue 38, March 15, 2017

John W. Buckley can’t seem to stop writing about California despite having not lived there almost ten years. He can currently be found one state over in his native Arizona, where he teaches composition and literature to community college students and edits technical documents at his “day job.” His work has previously appeared in the Menda City Review, the Los Angeles Review of Los AngelesSpark, and Bartleby Snopes. Visit him at

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