Always Keep it Locked

Now I am going to tell you about something that happened to me a couple of years back. I won’t tell you what to make of it, because I’m not entirely sure what to make of it myself. But here goes.

Back when I was a journalism student in Stockholm, finding a place to live was a real pain in the ass. I think I only ever knew one person who actually owned their own apartment. Most of my other friends and classmates rented their homes as sublets (or illegal sublets of sublets), or lived in the spare rooms of strangers as bizarrely overpaying lodgers.

Need I tell you that the rents were always ridiculously high? Well, they were. Absurdly so. Everyone were looking for a place to live, and all apartment adds on Facebook or in the papers were flooded with replies as soon as they came out. Getting first in line for any of them was, to say the least, entirely fucking impossible.

Therefore, when I found the add about a relatively cheap attic room for rent only ten minutes away from my school I didn’t think much of it. Someone else must have taken it already, was what I thought. But I still called, and was both surprised and incredibly happy when the old lady who answered said that I could move in the very next day.

Said and done. I packed my stuff in my car and drove the two hundred kilometers or so to Saltsjö-Boo, which is located in Nacka – a suburb of Stockholm. Everything felt new and a little bit crazy. I was to leave my old life behind (for a time at least), and do something entirely new, all on my own.

It was August, and although I arrived late it was still light out. The old lady lived in a big, red two storey house down by the water of an inlet called Skurusundet. The neighboring houses were just as big, and I could only imagine what buying a home here must cost.

The old lady – I’ll leave out her surname, but her first name was Harriet – greeted me on the porch when I stepped out of the car. She was a frail figure in her late eighties, and I remember catching myself wondering how she was able to manage that big house on her own. She had told me on the phone that her husband had passed away five years back, and that it was only this summer that she had cleaned out his old stuff from the attic room that I was now to rent.

She showed me where to park and then walked ahead of me to the back of the house, where a seemingly rather new built wooden staircase led up to a separate entrance on the attic level of the building. I kind of wanted to tell her that she didn’t need to climb up there to show me the room, that I could manage on my own. But she seemed so stubborn about making it up there that I kept my mouth shut and walked a couple of steps behind her as she slowly struggled upwards.

She unlocked the door and let me into a quite large room that took up at least half of the attic area. It was neatly fitted with a bed, a table, a portable kitchenette and some empty bookshelves. There were no windows, but I didn’t mind. Finding a place like this for a price like that in this part of town more than enough compensated for that.

Apart from the entrance, three doors led away from the room. One of them led to a small, simple bathroom with toilet and shower. She told me that this had been put in only four weeks ago, in order for tenants to live up here. The second door led to a big, cluttered storage space, that she unlocked briefly just to show me what it was. I’m guessing that this was where she had tucked away all her late husband’s belongings. She told me that I could put stuff in there if I needed to, but that she didn’t recommend it since the storage room lacked proper insulation.

After she had showed me all this – a process that didn’t take very long – we stopped in front of the third door.

“This door leads down to the rest of the house”, she said. “Always keep it locked. If you need to talk to me, you go out around the house and use the front door. And remember to knock first.”

I told her that of course I would respect this, and promised her that I wouldn’t come barging down the attic stairs and disturb her privacy. To be honest, if she had asked me to always leave my shoes outside and never to bring friends over I would have been fine with that as well. As long as I had somewhere to live in this city I’d be prepared to cope with just about anything. At least that’s how I felt at the time.

We signed a contract and she gave me the keys. She was really sweet actually, and told me about stores, bus connections and things to see nearby. Before she left me to mind my own business, however, she stopped one last time in the doorway and turned back to face me. “Keep it locked”, she said flatly. Then she closed the door behind her and started struggling her way back down the stairs outside.

I remember staring at the closed door in confusion, wondering what the hell that was – and why Harriet herself hadn’t used the interior stairs to get back down to the house. Then I just shrugged it off and went down to the car to start carrying all my stuff inside.

I settled in quite nicely. My courses started and the initial couple of months went by in a flurry of seminars, new acquaintances and study visits to the editorial staffs of different newspapers. I was rarely at home except for when I was sleeping or studying for tests.

I saw very little of Harriet, except for the occasional chance encounter in the garden. She kept mostly to herself, and since I had no windows I had no idea how often she even left the house. The only reason that I even knew she was living there in the house below me was two weird habits of hers that I discovered rather early on.

Every time she got home, namely, she knocked on her own front door before unlocking it. The first few times she did it, I always thought that she was having visitors over. It was only when I came home early one day and caught her after grocery shopping that I realized that she was doing it herself. I didn’t ask her about it. It was too odd, and I was afraid that it would embarrass her if she knew that I’d seen her. But after that day I started thinking that maybe she wasn’t as clear in the head as I had initially thought.

That was Harriet’s first strange habit. I told my friends about it and they thought it was hilarious. Every time we were studying at my place we always silenced and laughed when we heard her come knocking downstairs.

Her second habit, however, was one that quickly started irritating me more and more. The old lady turned out to be a real night owl, who didn’t go to bed until well after midnight. This in itself wouldn’t have bothered me the slightest, were it not for the way I was involuntarily made aware of her sleep routines. Because before Harriet went to bed, she always checked the attic door to see that it was really locked. Every single night.

I could lie in bed sleeping, and then suddenly jump in terror at the sudden squeak as old door handle was slowly pressed down a couple of times. Or, on nights when I was awake late studying for an exam, I could hear the soft creaking of the interior attic steps as she slowly made her way upstairs. Then the door handle would invariably be pressed down two or three times, before the creaking steps retreated downstairs again. And I repeat: this happened every fucking night.

Not only did the old woman apparently not trust me to keep to her rules, which was frustrating in itself, but she also had to scare me half out of my senses every night, at that? But as I said before, I was happy just to have a place to live, and didn’t want to antagonize the old, paranoid woman. So I settled for telling my friends and just having a laugh about it instead. On days when I seemed more tired than usual in school, they always teased me about it being because my weird landlady had kept me awake that night.

For some reason it actually never crossed my mind to be afraid of her, no matter her crazy demeanor. I just thought of her as an old person who was extremely particular about her privacy, and never fell for my classmates’ attempts to frighten me with stupid stories of her one night standing above my bed with a knife in her hand.

Until one particular night in late December, that is. I had been living in the attic room for almost four months, and had made myself quite well at home there. School was about to end for the holidays the following week, and my entire class were studying like crazy for the end-of-year exams. It had been snowing like crazy for the last couple of days, and I stayed inside with my reading to the extent that I could.

Anyways, there I was, sitting at my small table in the middle of the night, preparing for tomorrow’s test, when I could suddenly hear the first creak at the bottom of the staircase. I tried to ignore it like I always did, and continued reading. The steps drew closer, like always, and then stopped outside the door. The door handle was slowly being pressed down with its, by now, familiar creak, and then everything went silent again.

I stopped reading and glanced behind me when the sound of the handle being let up again never came. When I turned around I realized that the door handle still pointed downwards; it was still being pressed down. I just stared at it for several seconds. Was it broken? Or was the old woman still standing outside the door, holding it down?

After a while I began feeling creeped out at not knowing, and at thinking that maybe she was standing on the stairs, staring at the other side of the door.

“It is locked, Harriet”, I said loud enough for her to hear me.

Another couple of seconds passed, and I had almost convinced myself that the handle actually was broken, when it suddenly slowly started rising again. Then I heard the slow, creaking steps descending the stairs, before everything became quiet once more. I realized that I had been holding my breath, and that my heart was racing. I remember thinking “what the fuck is wrong with her?” I mean, I already knew that she was odd, but what was this about now suddenly?

I didn’t manage to get back to studying that night, and when I flunked the test the following day I laughingly blamed Harriet’s strange nightly visit. It became that day’s most-told story, and I didn’t think about how creepy the experience had actually been until I got home again that evening.

I went to bed, but the thought of the night before wouldn’t leave my head. In the end I had to get out of bed again and place a chair below the door handle before I could relax enough to actually go to sleep.

I awoke some time around midnight. It was pitch black in the room – of course, since I didn’t have any windows – and I wasn’t sure what it was that had woken me up. Then I heard the sound again, and was wide awake in an instant. It was the door-handle, the one I had propped up with a leaning chair earlier that night. It was creaking at even intervals, as if someone was struggling to press it down despite the resistance. I stared into the darkness, not daring to make a sound. The intervals quickly became shorter and shorter, until the door handle was drumming intensely against the back of the chair.

I almost panicked there in the dark. Then the chair suddenly fell over with a loud crash, and I screamed. The door handle was pressed down with a decisive creak, and by the sound of it was not let back up for several seconds. Then, slowly, it creaked back into place, and the steps outside retreated down the stairs again. By that time I was almost mad with fear, and just sat there in the dark, huddling with the blankets against the corner of my bed and listening for the slightest hint of a sound. I didn’t sleep at all for the rest of the night, but I guess I don’t need to tell you that.

I called in sick the next day. I just had to sleep. Or, what I actually wanted was to call my mum and tell her to come and take me home. But there were just a couple of days left in school for the semester, and I felt I had to finish. I had to pull thorough somehow.

After sleeping for a couple of hours, I decided to go down and talk to Harriet about the whole thing. Tell her that she had to stop doing this. I thought that if she got mad at me, I would just move out. I’d live on someone’s couch for a while until I found something else. I could put up with much, but this had even crossed my line.

I thought about using the interior stairs, but decided against it. I would be the bigger person here, and just because she disrespected my integrity didn’t mean I would stoop to doing the same to her. So I used my own front door, walked around the house and up to hers. The tracks in the snow outside were almost invisible, and I understood that she had not been out for a while. Maybe something had happened? Maybe she was ill, and this was why she had needed so desperately to get a hold of me last night?

I don’t know if I even considered this as a real possibility, or if I was just grasping for manageable explanations, but these were the thoughts that went through my head as I plodded through the snow and up to her door.

I knocked, waited and knocked again, but got no reply. I picked up my phone and tried calling. I could hear the signals from inside the house, but she didn’t pick up. I knew she had to be in there, but either she didn’t want to talk to me, or she was too sick to do so. And I realized that I had to find out.

If the old woman was so ill that she hadn’t been out for days, I had to find out and help her. I tried the door-handle, but the door was locked. I understood what I must do. Sure, if all was well with her she might get angry with me for taking liberties with her rules, but so be it. It was still better than risking it being the other way around, and doing nothing.

I walked back through the snow and back up to my attic room. As I approached the door leading to downstairs I could not help but feeling like I was about to do something very wrong. But the thought of the old woman lying helpless down in the house drove me on. The key was still in the lock where it had been when I first got here, and I reached out to turn it. Before I could, however, my phone rang and the sudden noise made me jump.

I picked the phone up and looked at it, expecting Harriet’s number to be on the display. But it wasn’t – it was a number I’d never seen before. Hesitantly I turned away from the door and answered.

It was a woman on the other end. It was not Harriet however, but a younger one. And what she told me… Well, let’s say it made me start packing my bags as soon as the call was ended.

She told me that she was Harriet’s daughter, and that she was sorry that she hadn’t called earlier, but the last couple of days had been a real mess. There had been so many relatives to call and things to fix, but now she just wanted to tell me that I could of course continue renting the attic room until the contract ended, even though things had sadly taken this turn.

At first I didn’t understand anything of what she was saying, and after a while I had to interrupt her and ask her to clarify. And it was then that she apologized again, and said that she had just assumed that her sister had called me already to tell me that Harriet had died in the hospital three days ago.

I went cold all over, and to be honest I don’t remember much of the call after that. Only that I monotonously thanked her for the kindness of letting me stay, said my condolences and then hung up. While doing so, I had slowly, slowly backed away from the door that I had been seconds away from unlocking. It was like in a movie. I just shook my head, said “fuck this”, and then started packing.

The rough half hour it took me to get everything into the car and scrape the snow and ice off its windows was thirty minutes of panicked terror. I even remember leaving some of my final things behind, for the simple reason that I could not bring myself to walk into that house one more time to get them. And then I drove away.

I didn’t drive all the way home to Gävle, of course. By the time I got onto the road I had calmed down enough to think somewhat rationally again, and instead drove to one of my friends who lived at the school’s boarding house. I don’t know how coherent I was when I got there, but she kindly let me stay at her place until end of term the week after.

I went home over the holidays, and when they were over I managed to get a room at the boarding house myself, as someone else had recently moved out. The room was small as hell and expensive as shit, but I didn’t mind. As long as I didn’t have to go back to that place I was happy.

I finished my studies and moved back to my home town, where I now work as a reporter for the local newspaper. But even now, several years later, I don’t know what to think. Perhaps I dreamed those things, or maybe I was just completely stressed out about the upcoming exams. I honestly don’t know. I just felt that I had to write it all down to maybe get it off my chest.

But I do know one thing: I’ve never really been able to shake the feeling that there was something living in that house together with Harriet, and that when she told me to “always keep it locket”, it was not in a paranoid attempt to protect her own integrity – it was to protect me.

Chris Smedbakken, 2018-01-11

This story was written in response to a writing prompt,

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Two Takes

I know that there are hundreds of stories about the life of Ferdinand Baresi, and while most of them consist of idolizing exaggerations I also know some of them to be true. I also know, however, that there are in circulation just as many stories about his death, and this is the reason behind me at long last sitting myself down to write. Because whichever one of all these stories you yourself have chosen to give credit – be it the one about drugs or one of the more fanciful ones about clever, premeditated murder – I want you to know that you are wrong. Ferdinand was my closest friend, and I think that his memory deserves truth. This account is written in honor of that conviction.

Here follows thus the one true story of Ferdinand’s life and death, as far as I know it. I shall endeavor only to relate the hard facts, and refrain from speculations. There are enough of those already, even though the circumstances of my friend’s demise have confounded me as well. Let us begin.

There was no actor, dead or alive, who could compare to Ferdinand Baresi. He was simply a legend, an uncrowned king of the silver screen. His agreeable appearance, of course, did him some favors, but that was not nearly half of it. For where this trait obviously gave him an edge towards his audience, he also sported another characteristic that made directors and cameramen love him to pieces. Ferdinand, namely, had one fantastical ability: no matter how difficult the setting, he was always able to masterfully complete every scene in no more than two takes.

Ferdinand was not always this mythical movie star hero, however. When I first started knowing him, he was struggling with his beginning career. We were both in our early twenties and found ourselves enrolled to the same college literature class. By that time I was just yet developing the manners and characteristics of the dry scholar I was later to become, while Ferdinand was already the full blown, hopeless romantic that the world would soon come to know and love. Irrespective of our severe differences, however, we found one another in our common love for Oscar Wilde, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman and the three typical Williams: Wordsworth, Blake and Shakespeare.

Our daily talks about literature and poetry soon morphed into drunken late-night discussions about the mysteries of life, love and the future. I told him about my dream to become a teacher, and he told me about his passion for acting. As I nagged him about sociolinguistics and advanced grammar he shared with me the rules of the acting-trade, like how you should never look directly into the camera.

I was never one to entertain many loose acquaintances. Instead I have always preferred to keep a smaller selection of close, trusted friends – and before long I began counting Ferdinand among those. There was simply something about him and his open, honest ways that made me like and trust him.

For the sake of credibility, I feel obliged to here mention that while I am positive that Ferdinand himself never saw me as more than a dear friend, I grew to think and dream of him as something more. I strainedly endured the awkward situations when he helpfully tried to introduce me to girls he knew, and suffered secretly as he dreamily told me about the different women in his own life. This has no impact on the story, however, and I mention it only as a show of scholarly transparency. This account is not about me, after all, and there is still much to be related.

I told you that Ferdinand was struggling, but that choice of words was a staggering understatement. When he first told me about his aspirations as a Hollywood actor, of course, he sounded so sure of himself. His reports of recurring successes in the local field made me think that his breakthrough surely must not be far off into the future. But months turned into years and his participation in some smaller independent productions, that initially had brought him such pride and hope, began to appear sarcastically in his daily speech as proof of tragic failure.

I know that many of these cynic thoughts were pure internalization of his stoical father’s harsh words to him. The old man did not approve of his son’s career choice, and I even came to understand from Ferdinand’s frustrated descriptions of their meetings that his father strongly wished for him to be more like me. It is my deepest hope that this never caused any hatred towards me in my friend’s heart, but I was never able to find out. If this was the case, however, he never let it show.

Ferdinand idolized his father, and although he never expressed any will to follow in his footsteps he often vented a desperate wish to make him proud. He was convinced that were he only able to really succeed as an actor, his disappointed father would change his mind about him. And so he struggled on, worked part time jobs and never gave up hope about that elusive next, defining casting.

During all this time Ferdinand and I had continued studying literature and poetry in different setups. Some semesters we took spontaneous campus classes together, whilst during others we settled for reading and analyzing texts together in cafés, libraries, in my spacious flat or in his rustic attic apartment. I had managed to get an advantageous position as a history teacher at a local school and was getting along rather well in life.

On the particular night of which I am now going to tell you, I was sitting alone in my home, reading. My work was taking up much of my time, and I had to plan my days well in order to keep up with the reading for the class me and Ferdinand were taking together that year. We were reading and analyzing Faust, and I remember this so clearly only because of what happened next.

Suddenly there was a hard knock on the door, and when I opened it I found my friend standing outside in the stairway. He was soaking wet from the rain, but I could clearly see that he had also been crying. Perhaps he still was. I had never seen him in such a rueful state. I quickly ushered him inside and made sure to get him into new, warm clothes. I gave him tea and wine to drink, but he only touched the wine. It did not take me long to realize that this was not the first glass of spirits he had taken that night. After some solacing suasion on my part he finally managed to calm himself enough to tell me about the terrible thing that had happened.

Ferdinand’s father had died earlier that evening. It had not come completely unexpectedly, and Ferdinand had managed to get to the hospital in time to be there with him during his final minutes. But instead of sorrowful comfort, this final visit had only brought Ferdinand excruciating pain. Because what his father had said to him with his dying breaths was almost more than what Ferdinand could bear to recount.

In short, the dying man had accursed the cruel fate that ever endowed him with such a failure for a son. He had told Ferdinand of all the high hopes he had ever had for him, and how it pained him eternally that he had not even tried to live up to them. He had called him names and finally disowned him; Ferdinand had been written out of his father’s will, lest all the old man’s hard-earned fortune be misappropriated by a son too shiftless to use it wisely.

I tried helplessly to comfort my friend as best as I could, but it was futile. His father’s words had broken him completely. He drank more wine and fell asleep on my couch that night, and when the morning came he was gone without a word. Over the next few weeks I tried to get a hold of him in any way that I could, but it was as if the earth had swallowed him entirely – he was gone.

Of course I feared the worst. Given my friend’s emotional and impetuous nature, I was frightened that in his desperation he might have done something to hurt himself. For several weeks I lived in a constant state of rising panic that distracted me from everything else. In the end I was almost completely convinced that my friend was dead; that he had ended his own life in a desperate response to his father’s harsh, final words. My surprise and relief all the greater, then, when Ferdinand one day showed up on my doorstep again. But my surprise did not end there.

The Ferdinand that now stood outside my door was nothing like the sad creature that had last come knocking. He greeted me with a wide smile and a bottle of champagne. He told me that it had finally happened – he had been cast for a big role in an upcoming Hollywood production. As he strode past me into my living room to pour us both a glass of sparkling drink I just stood there, unable to take the whole situation in. During the course of the evening I was given all the more reason to be perplexed.

Ferdinand did not want to tell me what had happened since he left my apartment last, and masterfully avoided all my questions pertaining to the subject. Instead he told me a story about a chance bar encounter with the friend of a famous director, a successful meeting and a splendid audition leading to a fantastic contract.

“There are but two roads that lead to an important goal and to the doing of great things: strength and perseverance”, he said as he raised and downed his third or maybe fourth glass. The words rang an ominous bell within me, but it was not until much later that I was able to place their origin and realize what horrors they might actually have signified.

I was of course incredibly happy for my friend, especially since I knew that this was everything he had always been dreaming of. A part of me could not help but remain suspicious of his incredible story, however. Did he make all this up, or was it maybe symptoms of a stress induced neurosis? The healing, patterned scars across the palms of his hands would certainly support this theory, but when I hesitantly brought them up he hastily changed the subject and hid his hands under the table. I tried my best to likewise hide my own worries and disbelief, and we spent the remainder of the night celebrating. After four bottles of wine he even happened to kiss me, but I am doubtful he meant anything by it or even remembered it the next day.

So Ferdinand went to Hollywood, and even though we promised to keep in touch and visit one another often, things naturally did not happen that way. That first movie became an instant success, and suddenly Ferdinand’s face was on the cover of ever magazine and his name on everyone’s lips. He was given another contract, and then another one. From my place back at home I followed his blossoming career with a smile and a deep longing. Months became years and out letters and calls grew increasingly far apart. I never forgot him, however, and never gave up hope that he might one day return to me. But with the years that hope turned into dreams, and finally I began viewing it as little more than the silly wishes of the young man I once was.

Apart from all his skillful appearances on the silver screen, it was not until the night of my second wedding that I finally saw him again. Many years had passed by that time, and I was not a young man anymore. I had become a literature professor at the same collage as where Ferdinand and I once studied together, and already had one failed marriage behind me. My bride this time was a colleague and dear friend, and although we were both aware that this might not be love in that traditional sense, we were both happily taking this measure to preempt the loneliness that might otherwise come with old age.

He showed up at the wedding reception. It was late by then and many of the guests had already withdrawn for the night. I was standing on the porch of the house smoking that evening’s eleventh cigar when someone suddenly joined me by the banister.

“Congratulations”, he said – and I recognized his voice immediately. In shock I turned towards him, and it was as if all those twenty years spilled off me. He was just as I remembered him, and when I looked into his eyes my heart almost stopped as I realized how much I actually still loved him. I could not help but embrace him, and the relief as he returned the embrace was not of this world. I do not know which one of us suggested it, but we walked off into the night as Ferdinand told me about his life and I told him about mine. Of my new bride I entertained by the time not a singled thought.

I told Ferdinand about my work, my books and my travels, and he told me about his movies and his extravagant life. I do not know if I am to deduce something from it, but for some reason he did not tell me anything about any relationships during our entire walk. When everything else had been discoursed, we went on to talk about our shared youth and all our mutual, happy memories. We went on for hours, and I, for my own part, was in heaven. I never wanted this night to end, and had he asked me at that time to come away with him I would gladly have done so without a thought.

Ferdinand seemed happy as well, but as the hours passed I grew to increasingly scent a hidden, deep sorrow in him – something he hid masterly with his acting skills, but which as an old friend I could not help but to notice. Finally, I could not refrain from asking him about it. At this, he became silent for a long time, as if lost in mournful thought or memory.

“We have led good lives”, he said finally – and now something in his voice – in the entire atmosphere – had changed. I did not know what to say to that, so I remained silent and waited for him to continue.

He sighed, and said: “We have done fabulous things, things we only talked and dreamed of when we were young together. Now that I’m finally nearing fifty, I sometimes find myself wishing that I would have let it all stay at that; as harmless talk and dreams.” He looked absentmindedly down at his palms, and I could briefly glimpse the faded scars that still adorned them.

I asked him what he meant, but I could feel as soon as I opened my mouth that my voice broke some kind of spell. He looked up at me, smiled and dismissively shook his head.

“Never mind the ramblings of an old, drunken fool”, he said. “Let us find a place to go that is still open, and forget about all sorrow. This is a night for celebration, after all, and not for the self-induced melancholy of an old, foolish friend.”

He refused all my attempts to approach the subject again after that, and we ended up drinking our wits away in some bar that I for the life of me cannot remember the name of today. I did not go home that night – a fact that I do not regret but which I will neither ever be able to forgive myself for.

When I woke up late the next day it was in a wide, disorderly hotel bed with no clear recollection of what had happened during those drunken, diffuse hours between night and morning. Ferdinand was gone, and on the pillow next to me was an envelope with my name on it in beautiful, careful letters. With shaking hands I opened it. Neither the envelope nor the piece of paper inside were from the hotel, and I realized that he must have prepared them in advance.

The message inside was short, but I remember it by heart to this very day – especially because it was the last I ever heard from him, and because of what I later realized that it might mean.

“While Man’s desires and aspirations stir, he cannot choose but err.
I hope you will be able to forgive me for my choices,
and that you will never forget me.
Eternally yours,
Ferdinand.”

I never saw Ferdinand Baresi again. I tried to call him on his fiftieth birthday one week later, but his agent told me that he was working. He never called me back. Reading the newspaper the next day, I understood why: Ferdinand had died the night before, in the middle of shooting a scene for his next movie.

I was devastated at learning this, of course. My wife must have realized that my feelings for Ferdinand were more than just those of long-ago friendship, but she was supportive throughout and never said anything to question my grief.

I went alone to see the movie on its eventual release, more to honor my late friend than due to any personal love for the genre. The director, as you might be aware, is well known for his intricate and unconventional takes on the psychologically bizarre, and Ferdinand’s last movie was no exception. In countless interviews reporters had inquired the director about his unusual choice to include in the movie the take that shows Ferdinand dying. The man always defended himself with the claim that the decision was made in honor of Ferdinand’s memory, and that even in dying he had managed to deliver his act perfectly – in the second of two, final takes.

Before seeing the movie I was afraid of what feelings might engulf me at seeing my friend dying on the screen in front of me, but this fear was nothing compared to what reality had in store.

I cannot say that the horror movie itself instilled in me any notable dread, but that might be due to me at the time being preoccupied with thinking about Ferdinand and my grief for him. My friend, as always, had made a masterful job with his character throughout the entire movie, and I found myself smiling amidst the tears at some of his more characteristic intonations and facial expressions. But then came the ending, where both Ferdinand and his character die, and the smile drained from my face.

In the plot of the movie, Ferdinand’s character is chased by a murderer from his past. In that final scene the past finally catches up to him, and the audience can see the character staring in terror and falling to his knees as the killer approaches somewhere outside the camera angle. Then everything dramatically fades to black, and the end credits start to roll.

I have seen the movie many times since then, have tortured myself with watching those terrible, final moments of my friend’s life time and again in an effort to realize what it is that I am actually seeing. But that first time I saw it I froze and could only stare in terror, even as the audience around me burst out applauding and cheering in honor of their fallen hero’s last achievement. And here, for the first time, I will deviate from my promise to refrain from speculations.

Because in those final moments before the cut, Ferdinand looks straight into the camera, and the bottomless horror in his eyes is real. I can feel it in my body every time I see it, and I know it in my heart. My friend saw something in his dying moments that no one else on the set could see, and which frightened him beyond compare.

Make of it what you will, but I for one think often of my friend’s dear wish that suddenly came true, the scars on his hands, his ominous mention of his fiftieth birthday and the two strange things he once said and wrote to me:

“There are but two roads that lead to an important goal and to the doing of great things: strength and perseverance”, and “While Man’s desires and aspirations stir, he cannot choose but err”.

It took me a long time, and my friend’s tragic death, to recognize those lines as the quotes of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe that they actually are. But when I finally did, I felt horror engulf me once more.

I am old now, and despite all my efforts to combat loneliness, lonely is exactly what I have become. Lonely with the memory of Ferdinand Baresi, and with the insight that there are things out there that defy sane logic and explanation. Things that might listen to the desperate wishes of a young man distraught with grief after an abusive father, and grant those same wishes – at a terrible price.

And I do not know what about these insane thoughts that frightens me more; that I might be going mad, or that I failed to save my friend from exchanging his soul for the ability to, no matter how difficult the setting, always being able to masterfully complete every scene in no more than two takes.

Chris Smedbakken, 2018-01-07

This story was written as a response to a writing prompt,

Cats, Curiosity and an Interrupted Stakeout

This story is part of my ongoing dark urban fantasy series about the character Vanessa Riley. You can find the previous installments here: IIIIIIIVV, VI,VII, IIX and IX. It is also part of my #NaNoWriMo-project for this November.


“Hi! This is Boris Granger, CEO of the ‘Cats and Curiosity Group’. I can’t come to the phone right now, but leave a message after the tone and I will be sure to get back to you as soon as I can.” Beeep.

Vahri hangs up the phone. Yes, she actually, literally hangs it up. She’s standing inside a phone booth by the side of the road, surrounded by a barren sandscape and not another car as far as her eyes can see. Cats and Curiosity Group. Huh. She has never heard the name before, but it’s beginning to seem like this B.G character is a higher animal than what she had first anticipated.

She’s been on the road for several hours, almost ever since she was sure that Chino is safe and that he has gotten the help he needed from Seth Pascal. She drove past his apartment the last thing she did, putting up a magical ward around his building just to be sure. Even if the ritualists can’t scry him magically anymore, that’s still no guarantee that they won’t make a physical hit against him at any time. Neither Vahri nor Chino can afford to be careless right now, and since the djinn-boy doesn’t seem to be the careful type, Vahri will have to compensate doubly.

Because she will not be able to look after Chino personally for a couple of days. The reason for this is that she is on her way to Las Vegas in her red, stolen car. And the reason, in turn, for that is that this is where a certain man called Boris Granger keeps his quarters. Vahri has traced the phone number she found in Mikes hotel room, and knows exactly where to find him.

She leaves the secluded phone booth and steps out into the breaking dawn, yawning and stretching her arms up in the air to get the circulation going. She has been driving the entire night, and is now tired as hell. Her stopping by the road to use the old pay phone was due to equal amounts curiosity and a desperate need to find an excuse for taking a break. She didn’t expect him to pick up – did not want him to, in fact. She just needed to hear what he sounded like on his answering machine in order to get an edge on him magically when once she arrives at her destination.

Every sensory detail you have about a person makes it easier to cast magic on them from a distance. Now she knows what Boris Granger sounds like, in case she’ll be forced to make a move against him later on. The need for using a pay phone instead of her own cell should be self-explanatory – she wants to minimize the amount of information they have on her. Including, but not limited to, her phone number.

She gets back in the car just as the first rays of the sleepy sun make themselves known at the horizon to the east. Hopefully she’ll be able to get a few hours of sleep when she gets to her destination. Otherwise, the huge stash of energy drinks packed on the floor of the car’s small back seat will probably do the trick almost as well. The engine purrs to a start and she pulls back onto the empty desert road again.

***

Chino wakes up and immediately wishes that he hadn’t. His head is hurting, his stomach lurches and the entire world is spinning like mad. He’s lying on the couch, an empty Jäger bottle cramped in his right hand and another lying cramped between his neck and the armrest of the couch. He’s still only wearing the towel he wrapped himself in after the long, hot shower that still has his hair in a wet disarray.

The apartment is dark, and it is only after several minutes of lying painfully and passively awake that Chino realizes that this is because all the curtains in the apartment are drawn. The clock on his cell phone tells him that it’s well past noon and that he has been sleeping for more than five hours since Seth Pascal left.

While looking at the screen of his phone he also realizes another thing: that he has not woken by his own accord. The phone is buzzing and vibrating, and on its screen flashes his foster father’s name. Chino hastily runs through all the mental notes in his head, trying to remember if he is supposed to be doing something important today, or if there is something else he should remember when talking to his dad. He cannot think of anything in his hungover daze, and thus he answers the phone.

“Yeah”, he says and tries his best to sound like a sober person who´s already been up for ours, doing mature stuff and earning his existence.

“Caesar, it’s me”, Ernesto says, as if they were still living in an age when technology didn’t give the caller’s identity away well before the recipient chose to pick up the phone.

“I know”, Chino says and wishes like so many times before that his father would stop calling him by his silly given name. But he doesn’t really wish it, for by now obvious reasons. “How are you?”, he adds and almost-wishes that this could be a polite, rhetorical question like it used to be before. But it isn’t, and the slight pause before his father answers is enough to tell Chino that whatever reply is to come, it is going to be a lie.

“I’m fine, Caesar. I’m feeling really good today, actually.”

Chino wants to break something, to throw something at the wall and yell at Ernesto that he’s not fine, that he is just lying to protect his son and that he really shouldn’t because it is Ernesto who needs help and protection, and not Chino. But he doesn’t do any of this. “That’s… good”, he says instead, like so many times before. Because he, too, is trapped within this charade, in this make believe that everything is going to be alright. That Ernesto isn’t going to die because his family can’t afford a transplant. Because his one son is a useless good-for-nothing failure that can’t even keep his own shit together – much less be of any use to anyone else.

He could wish Ernesto’s condition away, and knowing this is almost the worst part of it. He could do that, but the consequences would probably be terrible. Ivers – in one of his rare fits of actual usefulness – explained this part to him as one of the first lessons Chino received after becoming a djinn. He had explained that there has to be balance, and that every granted wish causes misfortune for someone else.

Chino knows that if he uses his magic to save his father’s life, someone else is going to die. And this someone might turn out to be someone he cares about as well. It’s a terrible choice, and also one he doesn’t think he has the stomach to make. He is still too human to take a life. At least he wants to think so. But the situation is growing more and more desperate, and he’s not sure that this will be his standpoint the day that Ernesto is really at his deathbed. I won’t let it come to that, Chino’s thinking as a lump of panic grows within. I have to get that money.

“And how about you, Caesar? What are you up to today?” That strained cheerful tone again. Almost unbearable.

“Nothing much. I… have been working a night shift, so right now I’m just at home, eh… cooking.” Lies. So many lies.

“Oh, I hope I’m not interrupting in the middle of something then. There’s just this one thing I´ve wanted to bring up with you. About… You remember that I told you about your brother?”

How could I forget? “Yeah, I remember something about that, yes.”

“Yes, right. Of course. Well, I was thinking that maybe… Maybe you should go visit him? I know that he might seem… I mean, I know that you might not feel like it, but at least he is family and I think that it would do you good to at least know who he is.”

Chino sighs heavily. He knows what this is. This is Ernesto making preparations for his own death. He wants Chino to latch onto someone, for example an older, wiser brother, before Ernesto himself leaves him. Chino isn’t sure if this makes him angry or unbelievably sad. Either way, he feels the tears coming and is glad this conversation is not taking place in person. “Do you even know him?”, he says.

Ernesto laughs nervously. “Well, no. I only just met him once, and that was when… When I went to take you home. He was only a boy back then, maybe seven or eight, I don’t know. He should be almost thirty by now. But I googled his name, and it seems like he has a company and that things are going pretty well for him. So I thought…”

Chino doesn’t want to hear anymore. He doesn’t want to listen to his foster father, the only father he has ever known, belittling himself and his resources in comparison to this brother-person that Chino doesn’t remember ever seeing or knowing. He just can’t take it. “Okay, I’ll go see him”, he blurts out just to interrupt Ernesto in the melancholy self-bashing that he knows is to come next. “Just give me an address and I’ll go there as soon as I’ve got the time.”

Ernesto pauses and remains silent for a moment. When he speaks again, Chino can hear the genuine and relieved smile in his voice. “That’s wonderful, Caesar! I’ll text you his address. His name is Ian Salimi. Thank you, Caesar. You cannot know how much this means to me.”

But Chino has reached the limit for how much coping he’s equipped to do right now. He loves his father, but he can’t handle the current, tragic situation for more than a few minutes at a time. “Yeah. Great, dad. Hey, say hello to mum for me, okay? I must go now. The… water is boiling over.”

And this is not even a complete lie, at least not in a metaphorical sense. Before Ernesto has time to say much more, Chino hurriedly ends the call.

So he is going to go see his estranged brother. Wonderful, just what he needs right now. But first, in order to prepare himself to do so, he needs something else entirely.

He wishes so badly for there to be more Jägermeister in the freezer – actually wishes it, this time. He then stumbles to his feet to go and get it, while somewhere in the vicinity an old lady trips on her little dog and drops her wallet down a drain.

***

The day is waning, the sky turning a warmer shade of blue that bodes hours of darkness soon to come. Lights are successively going on inside the many apartment windows on the street, and soon the lamps behind these particular curtains are turned on as well.

Mike Preston remains in his car, engine and lights turned off. He’s been sitting here almost the entire day, ever since he noticed – to his great frustration – that his seals on the djinn and his apartment have been broken somehow. That he can no longer neither see nor track the target from afar. He reckons that it must have been a quite skilled ritualist indeed who has broken them, because up until now he has never had this problem before. Ever.

And it is not the wizard girl, he is sure about that. She has put up some kind of magical ward since the seals were broken, but that’s another thing entirely and he’s seen that kind of work before. It’s the fact that another ritualist has outsmarted him that is the news here. The sudden change makes him both provoked and intrigued. He will have to track this mystery adversary down later.

Right now, however, he has other prey in sight – literally. Because suddenly the door to the apartment building he’s watching opens and a person emerges, immediately to start walking down the street in the increasing twilight. Mike doesn’t have to acknowledge the worn skateboard under his arm to know that this is the djinn – he can see it on his aura even without the broken seals.

He waits for his clueless prey to get a little further down the street before turning the ignition and slowly starting to follow at a safe distance. The silencing runes drawn in charcoal across the entire dashboard of the nondescript car should certainly help his pursuit to remain unnoticed.

At first it seems like the djinn is heading down town, but then he takes a turn and starts walking uphill, toward areas where Mike would not have put him, judging by his style of dress and seeming income. He cruises behind the djinn at a distance while outside the car the buildings and parked vehicles little by little grow more expensive and well cared for. This is a fancy part of the city, and Mike cannot imagine what kind of business the djinn can possibly have here.

Yet the target suddenly stops in front of the entrance to a tall, classy building with huge reflecting windows mirroring the rest of the equally classy street. At first Mike thinks that it must be some kind of company that the djinn is visiting, but then he realizes that this building houses apartments. He quickly finds an empty parking lot and then watches closely as his mark opens the door and disappears into the stairwell.

He shuts down the engine and leans back. He is going to wait here, and when the djinn re-emerges he is going to take him out. Drag him into the car and drive him somewhere for questioning about this Walter Isher. And this time he won’t make any stupid mistakes. If the wizard girl shows up again he shall gladly take her on as well. He owes her that after her break-in into his hotel room the other night – and for the items that she has stolen from him. When he gets his hands on her, returning his gun and his computer will be the least of her worries. And Mr. Granger will certainly not protest getting two bonus wares instead of one, apart from this mysterious Walter.

And just as Mike thinks about his employer, his phone rings. The letters B.G flash across the screen. Shit. He’s not really in the mood for talking to Boris right now, and he really does not have the time for it, either. But Boris has a great gig going, and Mike would hate to endanger his own part in it. So he answers the phone while simultaneously staring intently at the entrance to the building so as not to miss out on his opportunity.

“Yeah?”, he says and tries to keep the worst of the impatience out of his voice.

“Mike, we seem to have a situation”, Boris Granger says and it’s evident from the background noise that he is in the middle of traffic.

“Is that so? And what kind of situation is that?” He’s tired of ‘situations’. Why can’t people ever get to the point without encasing it in polished bull-crap first?

“The customer’s man called. It seems like one of their own agents have picked up on something that might interfere with our services for them. He said that we should probably look into it, before it looks into us.”

Mike cannot help but let out a reflexive laugh. “Whoa, are they threatening us now, or what is that supposed to mean?”

Boris Granger sighs. “I don’t know, Mike. I honestly don’t. Look, he said that their agent is prepared to meet with us and tell us what it’s all about. Tonight. In L.A.”

Now it’s Mike’s time to sigh. “So I’m guessing us means me this time as well?”

“Yes, I’m afraid so. I’m still in Vegas, so it will have to be you.”

“Right. And when?”

“Right away. I’ll text you the location.”

“Boris, you realize, I hope, that I’m not sitting idly here? I’m this close to catching the mini djinn right now. Why don’t you send Pete instead?” But he already knows the answer.

“Because Pete is useless, Mike. He’s just an ordinary man with guns and muscles. You, on the other hand – you know things. You can do things, see things. Start driving down town now, and let Pete take care of the djinn catching. I’m sure he’s way more fit for that task than for meeting with agents of the Club.”

“Sure”, Mike mutters and pulls out from the curb. “As you wish, Mr. Granger.”

He then ends the call and quickly sends Pete the mark’s coordinates, together with the message: “Watch the building. Grab him as he exits. For fuck sake don’t screw this up now”.

Just as he has sent the text his phone beeps. It’s the location for the meeting. The street lights go on one by one in his wake as he leaves the classy street behind, thinking that he’ll kill Pete – and Boris – with his bare hands if it turns out that he has been sitting in this car all day for nothing.

Chris Smedbakken, 2017-11-10


	

The Underground Kingdom and the Living Dead Statue

This story is part of my ongoing dark urban fantasy series about the character Vanessa Riley. You can find the previous installments here: IIIIIIIVV, VI,VII and IIX. It is also part of my #NaNoWriMo-project for this November.


He wakes up, and the whole house is eerily quiet. Devin Murdock smiles widely and lies back against the pillows again for another couple of minutes of wonderful snoozing. He has just had the first night of undisturbed sleep in a very long time – ever since he came back to L.A, in fact. The house has been silent the entire night. No mournful moanings or wailing whispers have woken him up from his well needed sleep.

That weird character Seth Pascal has definitely done their job well, Devin thinks. And this despite the fact that he or she definitely lacks even the most basic sense of humour. He shakes his head as he remembers the exorcist – or freelance priest, as Seth him- or herself was very particular about being called – walking around the house with a ball of incense and calling the ghosts out by name. How the hell did they even know what to call them? Anyways, the job has been done. No ghosts have bothered him since the priest left the house just before midnight, and no ghosts can be seen or heard now. Win.

He looks at the clock. 1:42 P.M. He’s overslept slightly, but to hell with that. He feels he needed it. As he puts his feet down on the cold floorboards he half expects icy, skeletal hands to wrap around his ankles. They don’t. As he walks across the room he is still not able to entirely shake off the paranoia that he has always felt in this house, ever since coming here. Still he stops in front of the large mirror next to the stairs and meets his own gaze in its hazily reflective surface.

Carlito had warned him last week as he gave him the keys to the house: “Don’t look into mirrors. Don’t turn on the TV. And don’t, for fuck sake, ever go into the upstairs bedroom. The old woman sleeps there.”

Devin hadn’t broken any of these rules, and still the ghosts of the house had plagued him for days up until Vahri’s sudden appearance at his gate. And he had not actually been into the upstairs bedroom until she, as well, had informed him about “the woman upstairs”. Tonight, after Seth’s departure, he had slept in the huge four poster bed for the first time – just to prove to the house (and himself) that he could. And no old, bony woman had made him company. Not that he is aware of, at least.

Fuck you, he writes across the dusty mirror with his index finger. Then he pauses for a moment and listens closely. The house creaks silently in the autumn wind, but no indignant ghosts retort with a creepy comeback. He hopes that this is not for lack of coming up with one, but that that ghosts have actually left the house. He hurries down the stairs before he can be proven wrong.

***

He sits in the kitchen with his bag turned over in front of him. Books, notes and pictures lie scrambled on top of the table with not even a real semblance of order. Devin picks up one note, page and image after another, studying them and taking notes in a worn notebook.

Visiting Teneo’s last known haunt was the first thing he had done when he had returned to Los Angeles one week earlier. Of course he had found nothing useful there, apart from lethal traps and empty potion bottles. Teneo had not been known for making things easy on his wards when he was alive, and Devin had not expected his old master to be any less difficult as a dead man.

Having ruled out that place, Devin had gone on to visiting all the previous hiding placed he knew Teneo to have frequented over the years. That had not given him much to go on either, except the knowledge that nothing was to be found there.

Now he sits here studying every bit and piece of information about his old master that he has been able to collect. Photographs of Teneo together with different unknown people, verses on rhyme found scrawled inside books Devin has stolen from the man’s old study and lists of names of people that might know something.

In his hand right now, he holds a picture of John Harpist. Devin feels his teeth clench together at the mere sight of the man he once called “brother”. John had been Teneo’s other apprentice. He was about the same age as Devin, and they had learned about the darkness and the forbidden but omnipotent Abyss together during endless nights of Teneo’s stern tuition.

Sure, there had been competition and some jealousy between the two of them concerning their master’s attention and approval, but Devin had trusted John with everything. With his secrets and with his life. All the more terrible had been the blow then, when John Harpist sold him out to the city’s coven leaders.

Devin will never forget the evening when the large, dark car had pulled up in front of his door. Out had stepped five just as darkly clad mages. They had forced his door open and dragged him with them into their vehicle. Ha had not been able to do anything to stop them.

Then there had been a trial – of sorts. The coven leaders had accused him of being in league with “dark forces”, of being a sacromancer, as it were. They knew this because someone had tipped them off. It hadn’t taken Devin very long to figure out who this someone was.

The evidence had been overwhelming. There had been no chance in hell – or the Abyss for that matter – for Devin to get himself out of the situation with a cleared name. The judges had been somewhat swayed by his tear-filled act of remorse, however – and also by his pledge that he had been tricked into it by some dangerous sacromancer mastermind. He did not name Teneo, of course, and also refrained from giving them John. He was not a snitch, after all. But he had given them the name of the poor, half mad magician living on his street, in whose basement he had some time previously hidden some highly compromising materials.

The so called trial had ended with the coven leaders condescending to sparing Devin’s life, granted one condition: that he leave the city and never return. And Devin had grudgingly honoured that exile for several years, all the while plotting his revenge on John Harpist. Teneo’s sudden death had given him the perfect excuse to return.

Sitting by the kitchen table in his until recently extremely haunted house, Devin Murdock now puts down the photo of his sworn nemesis and lights a cigarette. He never smoked indoors while the ghosts still shared the house with him, but now there is no one he needs to accommodate. He needs to think.

Who knew Teneo well enough, apart from John, to know where he might have hidden his secret stuff? Who, apart from John, might even know where Teneo has been buried? He didn’t keep many friends when he was alive – rather his closest ones had been enemies he’d been wise enough to keep close. No one he might have told about his deepest secrets.

Then Devin sits straight up when the thought suddenly strikes him. Ade. Teneo’s old servant has always been around, and the old sacromancer has probably told him everything there is to know. Because Ade can’t snitch – Ade is undead. Teneo dug him up and brought him back to life during one of his many sick necromantic experiments long before Devin and John had come into the picture. None of them knew what Ade had been in life, or if his name had really been Ade back then or if it was some sick joke of Teneo’s, but there was no uncertainties about what he had become after being brought back from his early grave: an undead serf without a will of his own. If anyone has been let in on Teneo’s last wishes and thoughts, it is probably him.

Devin gets up from his chair and hurriedly sweeps all the notes and photos back into his bag. Since he has not been able to find even a trace of Ade in any of Teneo’s old dwellings, and since Ade has done nothing to contact him with information, only two plausible possibilities remain. Either John has already found Ade and laid claim on all his knowledge about their former master, or Ade has gone into hiding.

Something tells Devin that if John Harpist had found the undead servant already, he would not have been able to refrain from gloating about it. Devin knows John well enough to be pretty certain about this. This makes him dare to hope that Ade has actually fled the field and bunkered up somewhere. If that is the case, there might still be time for Devin to find him. And he knows just the place to go for such intel. He rushed out the door and hopes against all hope that John has not gotten there first.

***

“The Back Shack” is a place that really lives up to its unflattering name. Located at the end of an unhospitable alley in a rather dodgy suburb, Devin cannot imagine the video rental shop gets many weekly visitors. The fact that the shopfront window still displays old, bleached VCR-tape boxes only adds to this suspicion. If Devin had not known what really drew profit to this place, he would have ruled it off as a front for some mobster money laundry operation. But he knows better.

The little bell above the door chimes as he walks into the shop. It is like entering another world – or at least another time. The shelves are lined with the boxes of old VCR-blockbusters and on the walls hang faded posters of by now faded movie stars. The place even has a not-so-discrete porno section, where the pictures on the boxes show underwear stretching so far above the hips of their victims as to remind more of wardrobe themed horror than anything else.

Behind the counter stands Roland, and he’s staring intently at Devin.

“Hello Dev. Have you come to return Highlander two?”

Devin just stares back at him for two entire seconds. Has he ever borrowed that lame ass movie? Or is this some kind of test? “No”, he says then and walks up to the counter. “I’ve come to pay you well for information.”

Roland scratches his bearded neck and seems to struggle to come up with a comeback. Devin can clearly follow the process of battle, failure and resignation on his face. “Okay, then”, Roland mutters finally. “But you’ll have to say the password.”

“For Christ’s sake, Roland. Aren’t we past this already?”

But Roland stands firm. “Password.”

Devin sighs. “Alright.” He puts his elbows on the counter and leans closer. Roland’s breath smells of old potato chips and Mountain Dew, with a tinge of alibi toothpaste. “Yippkayeh motherfucker”, Devin whispers and immediately feels like the most embarrassing idiot alive.

But Roland seems pleased. “Good”, he says while nodding annoyingly complacently. “Now follow me into the back room, and we’ll see what we can do you for.”

Devin walks behind the counter and watches as Roland starts pushing one of the IKEA shelves to the side. The big man breathes heavily as he struggles with the apparently heavy piece of furniture. When a gap forms between the shelf and the wall, Devin can see that there is a door behind it. Not until now does he remember that there has always been a door there, and that it leads to the basement. He thinks that this is a very impractical solution for someone who uses the door often.

“Nice secret door”, he says, voice oozing with sarcasm.

“Thanks”, Roland says and brushes his hands together after finishing moving the shelf. “I came up with the idea myself after watching The Cube.”

Devin has seen The Cube. This door is nothing like it. “Ah”, he says in lack of a better response.

“Come now”, Roland smirks and opens the basement door. “You’ve only seen the top of the ice berg.” And he starts walking down the stairs.

Devin sighs, shrugs and follows.

***

Anyone questioning the profitability of the video rental store called The Back Shack would be entirely correct. Even though every month or so someone actually (and for some strange reason) does come in to rent an old tape, Roland would never be able to make ends meet by running the store exclusively. But while the uninitiated might be inclined to accuse him of running some kind of criminal money laundry scam, the truth is far stranger than that.

The basement of the video store is another story entirely than its outdated ground floor. Here the shelves are new, and obviously carefully chosen to follow a strict sci-fi-modernistic look. They form something of a corridor or pathway – Devin would rather call it a labyrinth – leading this way and that until it finally drops the visitor off in front of a wide desk made of black glass.

Behind the desk, a dozen flat television screens are aglow with images from an assortment of news channels, both local and international. Just as many video recording devices are humming in the background, saving everything that happens on the screens onto their enormous hard drives.

Roland Hayes has built his own kingdom down here, beneath his derelict video rental store. Here he gathers information about everything that is reported in the global media that can, even if it sometimes takes a tremendous knack for imagination and make believe, be interpreted as traces of the supernatural. Ghosts, witches, zombies, vampires, were-people – you name it.

Here he keeps folders upon folders containing newspaper clippings about everything from strange light phenomena and haunted apartments to eerie echoes on the phone line and uncanny family relations in isolated back water towns. He records every TV broadcast from a chosen selection of the world’s major news stations and then carefully filters through them each night to decide what passages are keepers and which ones are not. Those that are chosen are then meticulously sorted into digital folders on one the many external hard drives that line the back wall.

Roland doesn’t need his downtrodden video rental store to generate any income for him; he gets all the money he needs, and plenty more at that, from selling the information he gathers down here to anyone who might be in need of it. Vampire hunters, paranormal investigators, jealous undead relatives and over informed goth kids all find their way into his store sooner or later – and as long as they have been let in on the secret password by someone who trusts them, Roland is not a picky seller. Not at all, actually.

So though he might not be the prettiest or most socially adept young man (or not so young anymore, but you get the drill) on the surface above, down here in the basement of the Back Shack Roland Hayes is the uncontested king. Devin knows this, and has used his services once or twice in the past. Now he hopes for his help in locating the undead servant Ade.

Roland walks behind the back glass desk and sits down in a high backed chair, rests his elbows on the table and puts his fingertips together in a business like fashion as copied straight from some fictional villain in a movie. The transformation away from the slightly socially lost video rental guy from upstairs is complete. Devin just stands there, feeling increasingly awkward in the middle of this nerdy display of power and status.

“Dev, Dev, Dev”, Roland muses theatrically. “What have you gotten yourself into this time?”

“What, what do you mean this time? I never told you about… Roland, are you just making lines up now to sound cool?”

Roland retrieves a cigar from a drawer in his desk and puts it at the corner of his mouth, but doesn’t light it. “Anger doesn’t become you, Dev”, he says calmly, as if he were the Godfather and Devin a young and unruly nephew. “Ease down and tell me how I can help you.”

Devin draws a deep breath and slowly counts to ten. No, fifteen. People don’t tell him to “ease down”. Not if they want to keep their faces intact, at least. But he needs Roland’s help, and so he tries his best to keep his face composed and his voice calm.

“I need to go through your files, Roland. All the weird that’s happened after October first.”

Roland raises an eyebrow. “Globally?”

“No, just L.A. I need to find someone who’s probably gone into hiding, but can’t possibly be very good at it.”

“Ah”, Roland says and rises from his chair. “I think I understand. You’re looking for Tenoe, right?”

Devin flinches. “It’s Teneo. And no. And what the hell do you know about that?”

“Chillax”, Roland says as he walks over to one of the closest shelves and starts browsing through the folders and boxes that fill it to the brim. “I just heard his name being mentioned by some customers recently, that’s all. Sounded like he was up to something… dark.”

“Something dark, alright”, Devin snorts. “He’s dead. Must’ve been that you heard.”

Roland flashes him a perplexed look. “Yeah, well…” He hesitates, then turns his attention back to the shelves. “Must have been that then, I guess”, he mutters.

But he has gotten Devin’s attention now. Can I be so lucky…? He walks up closer to Roland and leans against the shelf next to him. “But who was it that you heard talking about him? And what did they say?”

Roland just shakes his head. “Nah, didn’t say much actually. Not about anything. They talked briefly about this… Teneo guy as if in awe. Maybe a little scared, I don’t know. They weren’t here for intel about him though, of course. Must know they wouldn’t find it here anyways, he is – was – too sharp to leave traces in the news.”

“But what were they after? And when was this?”

Roland smirks and shakes his head. “Oh no, buddy. You know I don’t give out information about clients. Like, ever. If they’re not in the paper, that is. And these two certainly weren’t.”

“Ah, so there were two of them?” Now it’s Devin’s turn to smirk.

Roland bangs his palm against the side of the shelf. “Damn it, now I remember why I shouldn’t talk to you. Okay, there were two of them. But that’s all the info you’re getting on them from me. Okay?”

Devin nods. “Okay”, he says, still feeling that he has tripped upon an important piece of information here. He’ll save it for later, for when he has time to properly contemplate it. He makes a mental note to do so, and then turns to Roland again. “So anyway, how’s it going with those files?”

Roland seems enormously relieved again at the change of subject, and hastily pulls out a large file folder from the shelf in front of him. “Ah, here it is”, he exclaims and operosely carries the heavy binder over to the desk where he then lets it down with a heavy thump.

Devin follows him, and then stands there watching as Roland hums and flips through the pages until he seemingly finds what he is looking for. All the pages are filled with glued on newspaper clippings, and this one is no exception. But Roland points to a handwritten note in the corner and smiles contentedly. “Here you have it – the first of October this year. If you don’t find what you’re looking for here, I’ll fetch you the latest binder as well.”

Devin nods and then immediately sits down in Roland’s chair and starts reading.

Roland seems a little taken aback by being so hastily brushed aside, and remains hovering at the corner of Devin’s eye for another hesitant moment. Finally he clears his throat. “Do you want my help, or should I–”

“Just leave me in peace, will you, Roland?”, Davin says without looking up. He is already irrevocably engulfed in the newspaper clippings on this first page of many that he will have to go through today – every weird news report that has happened since Teneo’s death. He is hoping that Ade will have happened to revealed himself somehow and gotten the attention of mortal society.

Roland huffs a little indignantly. “As you wish, sir”, he then snaps and withdraws into the winding labyrinth of sci-fi-modernistic metal shelves that make up his uncontested underground kingdom.

***

Devin sighs. He’s been sitting crouched in this gods forsaken basement for over four hours and his back and his brain are starting to ache. The sun seems to have set behind the dark screens covering the small windows by the ceiling, and the sound from the humming drives and servers in the room is all but putting him to sleep.

He empties his eleventh cup of bad machine coffee and makes another note in his already almost full scrawled notebook. He’s found several interesting pieces of news already. Most of them he’s been able (or forced) to rule off as unrelated to his search, but he’s still saved some of the most thrilling ones for later; he might still be able to find something worthwhile by investigating them closer.

Three newspaper clippings have been able to entirely catch and sustain his attention, however. He has put them in front of himself on top of the black glass desk, symmetrically lined up as if this could help him determine if any of them is the answer to his questions.

The first of the news pieces is dated almost two weeks back, right before Devin arrived in town. It is illustrated with a rather large colour photo depicting the outside of an apartment door, closed off by police tape. The headline reads: “Mysterious Murder Confounds the Police: ‘The Doors Were Locked and the Safety Chain Was On’”. There is a small chance that the dead body is Ade, and that someone has found him by accident, mistaking him for a dead and abused body. Devin doesn’t really think so, but every clue is worth looking into at this stage.

The next piece is dated one week ago and has no picture attached to it. It is just a short text informing the reader that the police has received several calls from worried citizens, reporting that nightly screams and noises could be heard from inside an old and boarded up hotel building at the outskirts of the city. The text says that the police has looked into it, but have been unable to find anything that would explain the worrisome sounds. Devin doesn’t know what to make of this one, but since the place described in the article seems to be located close to one of Teneo’s previous laboratories it might be worth looking into it.

He gets to the third and final news piece, and when he takes a closer look at its picture he immediately knows that he has struck gold. The headline reads: “Fabulous Living Statue Impresses Locals”, and the black and white image shows what looks like a marble statue of a man standing in the middle of a small square surrounded by cheap barber shops and aesthetically questionable pizza shop windows. Lots of people in different ages are awalk in the picture, probably on their way to or from their respective shopping rounds. But some of the people have also stopped in front of the statue, taking photos and throwing coins into a hat at the statue’s feet.

But it is no statue, not a real one at least. It’s Ade Handma. Devin has no trouble recognizing Teneo’s old servant, who has aided Devin in so many of his experiments and failures in the past. The only differences from what Devin is used to are the colour of Ade’s skin and the style of his dress.

Ade the living statue is covered from head to foot in some kind of white paint or powder, that gives him the marble like appearance of an actual statue. The picture is not very good, but it is still evident what kind of clothes he is wearing. A knee long trench coat and high legged boots – and a tall top hat.

Devin shakes his head in disbelief. Of all the places and weird hobbies, you’ve really taken the prize. He collects the three newspaper clippings and stuffs them between two pages in his notebook. Then he raises from the chair and leaves the basement.

When he reaches the top of the stairs he finds the door to the shop closed and blocked. For the blink of an eye he panics, thinking that Roland has deliberately locked him in – maybe to sell him out to some of his enemies. But then he hears noises on the other side of the door, and realizes that Roland has customers – normal ones this time, judging by the sounds of it.

“No”, he hears Roland say in a muffled voice, “we don’t stock DVD:s or Blue rays. Why? Well, why don’t you have a VCR player? It’s just the way things are, dude. Life’s a pain, get used to it, as Geena Davis once said. What, you don’t know who that is? Then just leave. Get out of my sight.”

Not until he hears the doorbell chime as the customer – or customers – leave the shop does Devin knock on the inside of the door. He immediately hears something heavy being dragged outside, and soon the door opens to let in a stream of painfully bright light.

“You find anything?”, Roland says as he lets Devin out.

Devin nods and walks around to the right side of the counter, not wishing to smell Roland’s musky breath more than necessary. “Yeah”, he says when he has put a safe distance – and a piece of furniture – between himself and the other man. “I found some stuff that will probably help me. How much do I owe you?”

Roland leans against the counter and fixes Devin with a knowing and unpleasant gaze. “That depends”, he says.

“And what’s that supposed to mean?” He tries to sound unaffected, but he is actually getting worried now.

Roland sucks his own lip theatrically. “Well, I would say it depends on how much you want me to keep quiet about you having been here. I just found out that you are – how do you put it? – slightly incriminated in the eyes of your magic law system, ain’t that right?”

When Devin doesn’t say anything, Roland continues in an even more smug voice. “You know I don’t talk about my clients, but you know how it is. Sometimes I slip. It’s only human, after all. But I could try a little extra to keep your visit a secret. And what you asked me to help you with. But it will cost you.”

Devin feels his face heating. Nobody threatens him. Not if they want to stay alive, at least. One, two, three… He takes a deep breath. “I should just kill you”, he whispers.

“You certainly could”, Roland says calmly. “But you should know that I’ve recently joined the Paranormal Workers’ Union, PWU. If you touch me, I can promise you they’ll get in touch as well.”

“I don’t know who the fuck those people are.”

“Oh, trust me, you’re better off that way. So, do tell me, would five grand be a reasonable price for my silence?”

Devin quickly contemplates his options. He could kill this obnoxious mortal, but that would certainly create more problems for him than it would solve. Even counting out this weird Union, disposing of a dead body is not something he has time with right now. He sighs deeply and makes a decision.

“Alright”, he says and retrieves his wallet. He has started counting the bills when Roland clears his throat.

“And then there’s the payment for the information”, he says and produces a calculator from a drawer. “First we have the starting fee, that’s eighty k. Then you were down there for… let’s see… going on five hours. That’s fifty more. And I suspect you’ve stolen some of my material? Then that’s another seventy. So you owe me, including of course the no-snitching-fee, a total of…”— he silences as he puts the numbers into the machine – “five thousand and two hundred dollars.”

Roland looks up at Devin and smiles victoriously. Devin stares back at him, unable to entirely mask his provoked anger this time. He slams the bills down onto the counter without saying anything, and then turns around to leave.

As he puts his hand on the door handle he can hear Roland clearing his throat again.

“What?”, he says without turning around.

“I hope you realize, Dev, that this was only the first down payment.”

Four, five, six…”Fuck you”, Devin says and leaves the shop.

***

It’s the middle of the night now, and the small square is almost empty. Some drunk teenagers occupy a collection of benches at its far corner and an old lady is playing the accordion outside one of the pizza restaurants. Other than that, the scene rests in silence and solitude.

At the middle of the square stands the statue, dead still in the cold autumn air. The trench coat flutters a little in the wind, but other than that nothing gives away the fact that this is no statue at all but a living being. Or at least something that used to be one.

Devin approaches silently, walking slowly across the darkening square as the first drops of a gentle autumn rain starts falling from the cloudy skies. Ade has not spotted him yet, as he has his back turned. Devin watches his coat move in the wind and the white paint run slightly in the places where it is hit by tiny raindrops. He looks so lonely. So… sad. I guess that’s what you get when you are brought back from the dead, abused for years and then left suddenly on your own without purpose.

Not until he is right behind him does Devin address his old friend – if you might call it that.

“Hello, Ade”, he says and drives his hands deeper into his pockets. The weather and the temperature are really making themselves difficult.

Ade reflexively breaks character at the mention of his name and quickly turns around, a frightened look on his face under the thick layers of white paint. Then he seems to recognize Devin, and the fear in his eyes turns into horror, then panic. “No”, he screams and starts running, his coat waving behind him like a flag and his tall hat falling off his head.

Devin is not late to pick up the hunt. The few people still populating the area turn their heads to look in fascination as the famous, white painted living statue is chased from his usual spot by a stranger all dressed in black. Devin realizes this must be quite the sight for them, but right now he doesn’t care – he’ll deal with potentially dangerous witnesses later. What is important at the moment is catching this overdue corpse and find out what he knows about Teneo’s legacy.

Ade is fast, despite his undead state, and they are well off the square before Devin catches up to him at the mouth of a dark alley. Ade has just rounded the corner when Devin reaches out and grabs hold of the collar of his coat. The sudden stop makes Ade lose his balance and fall backwards. The pull of the fall in turn makes Devin lose his grip on the by wet paint slippery collar. With nothing to break or block his fall, Ade falls onto his back amongst the trash and rubble with a painful thud.

“Please, please don’t kill me. Please don’t…” Ade lies on his back in the midst of broken bottles and suspiciously smelling plastic bags and protectively raises his hands in front of his face. As if Devin was out to hurt him – and as if that useless gesture would help him if that had been the case.

Dev steps around a box of broken lightbulbs and is now standing over the terrified Ade, hands now back in his pockets to conceal the fact that one of them is now irritatingly covered in smudges of white paint.

“Please….”, Ade whimpers again.

Devin studies his tragic form for a heartbeat. Although Ade’s entire body is covered in paint, he can clearly tell that the man has not aged a day since he saw him last. Not surprising, of course – the dead don’t age. He still looks to be a tall and slim male in his early forties, short and tidy haircut and intense grey eyes. Now, of course, panic has his face transformed into something less impressive than what used to be the case when he was the respected head servant of the notorious sacromancer Teneo. Pathetic… “Do you really think that I’m here to kill you?”, Devin says.

Ade pauses and stares at him, seemingly taken off guard. “You aren’t?”

“No. Although I guess I should. It’s not your place to run away just because your master is dead. Those like you are part of the inheritance, you know. I could count this as stealing from me and… John.” The last word comes with a bitter aftertaste. He’d really like to get his hands on that bastard as well. All in due time…

Ade crawls into a sitting position with his back against the wall. Devin is certain that were it not for that wall, this desperate defunct would be up and running away from him again in no time. “I’m so, so sorry, master Devin. I–” Devin slaps him across the face.

“No True Names, remember? Jesus, I should just kill you. You’re a walking liability. It’s Dev, you know that.”

Ade nods eagerly, fearfully. “I’m sorry, master… Dev. It will not happen again, I swear. And… And I am truly sorry for running away as well. Or, in fact, I was not really running, although I can see how it might have seemed like that. I was just–”

“Looking after our best interests, I’m sure. Listen, Ade. Cut the crap already. Your little vacation is over. We’ll get you into something more suitable, and then we’re going to talk. And you’re going to tell me everything you know about Teneo’s death.”

And the one called Ade Handma only continues nodding in fear as Devin reaches down and carelessly pulls him back onto his feet. “And no funny business this time”, Devin says as he leads him out of the alley. “Teneo’s not the only mage ever to learn Arcana Excessum, death magic. I could turn you back into a rotting pile of meat before you’ve had time to blink. You’d do well to remember that.”

Ade’s shoulders drop even lower. “That’s just what master John told me”, he sighs heavily.

Devin freezes and roughly turns Ade by the shoulders to face him. “What, John came to you?”

Ade stares at him, panic growing in his eyes again. “Yes, yes he did. I thought you knew. Right after Master passed away. He… Well, this was before I left the mansion. I wasn’t going to, see. I didn’t plan to. It was John who told me to leave. Master Teneo had ordered me to stay where I was and wait for the two of you, to direct you to his grave. And master John was the first of you to come.”

What the actual… Anger and frustration are bubbling through Devin’s blood stream now. “So John came? You mean, John has already found and taken all Teneo’s books and artefacts? You showed him right to them? You fucking undead fuck!” He’s almost screaming, and shakes Ade by the shoulders so hard that the servant’s head is bobbing back and forth.

“Please, master Devin, please, you–”

“It’s Dev, you idiot. Dev!” For his inner eye, Devin sees himself choking the sorry creature before him with his bare hands. He sees himself tearing him limb from limb until nothing remains but twitching shreds of what was once a resurrected man.

“No, I beg you”, Ade whimpers. “Please, I only did what–”

“Why wasn’t I informed, huh? Why was it only John who got the news of Teneo’s death, and not I? Why did I have to hear about it from him, of all people? Can you answer me that, huh?”

“Because” – Ade’s body is being shaken so hard that every syllable sounds like seven – “Because you were not. In. Town. Because you were hi–hiding. Not easy to… to find.”

Devin pauses for a moment. This is actually true, he realizes. Ade finding him where he had been holed up during his exile would have actually surprised him in the extreme. “Okay”, he says hastily. “But you still gave everything to John, didn’t you? All the stuff that was my legacy to claim as much as his. Mine even more, I´d say. John is a fucking snitch and traitor, everybody knows that. You know what he did to me, right?”

“Yes, yes of course I know about that”, Ade says hurriedly. “And I am extremely sorry that you have had to live through all that, young master. I truly am. But, young master, I have given nothing to master John except for information about where to find the grave. Just as the Master instructed me before his death. I swear.”

Devin stops shaking him entirely now. “Wait, you didn’t give him anything?”

Relief growing in his eyes, Ade shakes his head vigorously. “No, nothing. As the Master lay dying he instructed me on what to do after his death. He told me to bury his body in the old mausoleum and then send for the two of you, for you and master John. Then I was to stay put in the mansion and wait for one of you to show up. He didn’t tell me anything about any books or artefacts, he only wanted me to tell you where he was buried. So you could go pay your respects, I reckoned.”

“And then John showed up?”

“Yes, he did”, Ade replies. “He came, and I did as I had been instructed. He, too, asked me about the books and the other things, but I told him the truth – that I didn’t know where Teneo had hidden them. I instead told him where to find the grave, and that I had of course sent for you as well. I suggested that he wait for you, and that you go there together. I was thinking that the Master would probably have liked that, for the two of you to make peace finally.”

“But he didn’t wait”, Devin says coldly.

“No, he didn’t”, Ade says and suddenly looks away – seemingly afraid to continue meeting Devin’s gaze. “And before he went to find the grave… Well, he told me – no, ordered me – to go into hiding. To leave the mansion, find a place to hide and to wait for him there. He said that he would come and get me as soon as he had claimed Teneo’s heritage. I would serve him just as I served Master before he died. And I was also to… He told me not to contact you, or tell you anything – even about the grave. He said that he would kill me if I did.”

“I’m sure he would”, Devin mutters. “But he didn’t come back, did he?”

“No”, Ade says gloomily. “I hid completely for several days, in the woods and completely off the radar. But then the rain – and the animals… Master Dev, I simply had to get a roof over my head. But I had no money and I knew nobody, so–”

“Thus the marble act, I get it. I hope you realize that you’re not very good at keeping ‘off the radar’, Ade”, Devin says and produces the statue newspaper clipping from his pocket. “This is how I found you.”

Ade stares at the black and white picture and the headline and swallows hard. “Oh. Fuck”, he whispers.

“That’s right”, Devin says sternly. “A walking liability, that’s what you are.” He puts away the piece of paper again. “But it could have been worse. You should be happy that it was I who found you, and not a paranormal investigator or some stupid witch hunters.”

“Yes, of course I am grateful for that”, Ade says in a voice that’s hardly convincing at all.

Devin, however, doesn’t care about Ade’s questionable gratitude. “Come now”, he says and starts dragging Ade along again. “This alley – and you – are stinking. And you have a grave to show me before I decide what to do with you next.”

And the two of them leave the alley and walk into the waxing city night, both entirely unaware of the pair of piercing, amber eyes that have been watching their entire exchange from the shadows.

Chris Smedbakken 2017-11-09


You can find the next part here.

Unexpectedly Getting Naked With a Freelance Priest

This story is part of my ongoing dark urban fantasy series about the character Vanessa Riley. You can find the previous installments here: IIIIIIIVV, VI and VII. It is also part of my #NaNoWriMo-project for this November.


It’s late. He should be sleeping, but he isn’t. Instead he is doing his best to clean up the chaos left behind in his apartment when he was abducted by crazy cultists the other night.

How did things come to this? Chino remembers a time, not so long ago actually, when things had been simple. Or rather, compared to this mess they had certainly been. Back then he would probably have laughed right in the face of anyone who dared to suggest he was leading an easy life.

Always short on money, a deathly sick foster-father and a crashed relationship with the woman he had been so sure he would spend the rest of his life with, but who turned out to have been cheating on him and consequently broke his heart. Then recently he also found out that he has a brother. A real, biological brother who even lives in the same city, but who has never felt inclined to make himself known to Chino. So much for blood ties.

All those things had been hard to cope with, but then everything had suddenly taken a turn for the worse. Much worse.

He picks up a fallen chair and tries to put it back on its legs – only to discover that one of the legs has been broken. He sighs and adds it to the pile of other broken items that is already growing by the wall.

Things had started to go downhill when he messed up at work a couple of weeks ago. He had been introduced to a new guy at the delivery service where he was working. A guy called Kamran, who was to accompany Chino on one of his delivery runs to learn the drill. But the night had ended with a package missing, and the new guy was never heard from again. Presumably it was he who had stolen the missing box, but the deficit was still cut from Chino’s own, already substandard, salary.

Thinking about what happened next, Chino has to open the window and light a cigarette in order to collect himself. He sucks his lungs full of polluted smoke and stares into the night as he remembers. Already the day after the botched delivery there had been a knock on his door. When he had opened it he had been surprised to stand eye to eye with his reclusive and slightly intimidating  next door neighbour – the old man Chino and his friends jokingly referred to as “The Hitman”, but on whose door was written the name W. Isher.

“Hello Caesar”, Mr. Isher had said.

“Ehm, hi?”, had been Chino’s perplexed response.

“I’m sorry to bother you, I know we have not spoken before”, the neighbour said and continued: “But there is a favour I need to ask of you. I know you’re the right person for the task, since I can tell you are a responsible young man. And of course I will pay you for your troubles.”

And with that Mr. Isher had produced from his pocket a bulging envelope. “This here contains two thousand dollars. I’m sure you can find some use for them.”

And Chino could, of course he could. His foster-father was suffering from kidney failure and he desperately needed the money for his surgery. That he had been robbed of his salary the night before had not helped the situation, and then and there Mr. Isher’s envelope had been almost impossible to resist. Well, at closer thought: cut the “almost”.

“What is it you need me to do?”, Chino had said.

And at that Mr. W. Isher had smiled a little too widely and said: “I need you to watch my cat for me.”

Turned out Mr. Isher was planning to go away for a couple of days, and needed someone to feed his cat Ivers and “take care of his other household chores” while he was gone. When Chino had asked what those “chores” consisted of, the neighbour had waved the question off with a vague innuendo that it was all about watering plants and sorting through his mail. A typical case of house watching, as it were.

Of course Chino had accepted the offer. What’s not to like about getting paid two thousand dollars to feed a cat for a few days, after all? When Mr. Isher had been very particular about them shaking hands on the deal, and on Chino word for word repeating the promise of the undertaking back to him as they did so, Chino had only thought of it as a final piece of evidence that the neighbour was senile or insane. Now he knows better.

The next day the irises of his eyes had turned red. Yes, an actual sharp, scarlet red. He had also discovered, to his great horror of course, that his left foot was now a right foot. Apart from this being a highly compromising factor when skateboarding, it was of course also utterly and entirely fucked up and frightening. Suffice to say, Chino had panicked.

He had gone over to the next door apartment, more in shock and irrational trance than anything else. And there he had met Ivers, the cat that would turn out not to be a cat at all. As soon as Chino had entered the apartment, the fluffy, sour looking thing had spoken to him.

“Oh, I see that Walter has fooled you as well. Wonderful. Just don’t forget to clean out my litter box. It’s bad enough I have to do it in sand, I don’t need it to be filthy as well. It’s below me.” And with that the cat had walked into the living room and curled up on top the couch backrest.
Chino had walked after it. Him. Whatever. “Wait a moment. You’re a cat, and you… speak?”

“How perceptive of you. Makes me wonder why you haven’t noticed yet how stupid that haircut makes you look. But no, and yes. I’m not a cat, but I do talk. How does that make you feel?”

And Chino had only stood there in the door to the living room and wondered if he was, in fact, finally going crazy from all the stress heaped upon him over the last few days. The cat must have seen the look on his face, because his sarcastic voice spoke up again.

“Oh, come now. Don’t cry. I guess there are a few things I should explain to you.”

And that is just what he had done.

That afternoon Chino was let in on so many messed up secrets about a reality he had grown pretty accustomed to thinking he probably knew the most about, that when dusk fell outside he was both dizzy and terrified.

The neighbour called W. Isher was no hitman at all, neither a senile pensioner. He was a djinn in hiding, who had been living in this apartment for countless years in order to melt in with the humans of the city. The cat Ivers was a djinn as well, but one who had been tricked by Walter into taking feline form and then never managed to break the spell. From his story Chino suspected that the catformation had had something to do with Ivers not respecting the rules and laws of the djinn society – even though Ivers himself passionately denied this.

Now, anyways, Mr. Isher – or Walter Isher, which was the name he went by – had gotten tired of the djinn-life and had decided to take a vacation. Where he had gone away to even Ivers didn’t know, but what he did know was that Walter had needed someone to take care of his djinnly duties while he was away. The choice had fallen upon Chino, who had subsequently been tricked into accepting the role as a substitute djinn – taking care of the “household chores”, so to speak.

Even now, as he stands in the window smoking his do-it-yourself cigarette, Chino can feel the frustration, anger and fear that had gripped him when he had realized that he had walked into some kind of perverted fairy tale trap. And the frightened confusion he is still feeling about all the new powers – powers to grant the wishes of both others and himself – that have been bestowed upon him after making the deal with Walter.

Chino can hear other people’s inner wishes now, if only he listens carefully enough. And he can choose to make those wishes come true with some kind of magic. The problem is, every time he does something equally bad happens to somebody else. “There has to be balance”, Ivers had said. A good thing cannot happen to one person without something bad happening to another.

To make matters even worse, Ivers had tricked him as well. He had fooled Chino into helping him escape his feline form and re-emerge as an insolently good-looking man with an obnoxious attitude and an aptitude for causing trouble. And this guy had been the only person Chino could possibly talk to about his new… anatomical abnormalities. It’s easy to see how this new turn of events had not helped Chino’s already strained life situation in the least.

And then – Chino doesn’t even want to think about it – the hunters had come after him. He had awoken two nights ago with a gun against his face and a stranger broken into his apartment. They had fought – hence the chaotic mess in the apartment – but in the end the invader had forced Chino out the door at gunpoint. The armed man and his friend had demanded Chino tell them where Walter is, but he doesn’t know anything about that. He suspects they would probably have killed him if Vahri – the wizard girl he had spoken to only briefly at the club that same night – had not somehow showed up and saved him at the last-minute. Turns out she’d had some kind of vision of what had happened to him, and rushed to the rescue. How convenient.

He knows that she told him to leave the apartment for a while, to only pack the most necessary things and lie low somewhere else until things have blown over. And he actually did that – for a night. He slept in a hotel the night after the abduction, all curtains drawn and a heavy chair in front of the door. But hotel rooms are expensive and Chino needs to save what money he can for his father’s surgery, so after that first night he had decided to go back home and hold the fort as far as possible. He knows the thought is probably stupid and dangerous, but he really can’t afford to live anywhere else when he can barely afford to pay his rent.

Thus he’s now cleaning his apartment in the middle of the night, trying to remove all the traces of the break in and the traumatic events that have since followed. He’s convinced Vahri will not be happy about it, but what can he do?

And just as the thought of Vahri crosses his mind, his phone rings. It’s her.

Shit. “Eh, hello?”

“Chino, listen.” She’s obviously calling from the car, judging by the sounds of engine and traffic in the background. There’s a stressed tone in her voice, but also something else. Fear?

“Vahri, there’s a thing that–”

“Not now. I’ve just found out that the ritualists are tracking you, and –”

“But didn’t we know that already?” She’s really confusing him.

“Well, yeah. But not that they’re really tracking you. Like, have put some kind of ritualistic bullshit on you so they can follow every step you take at a distance, and see you in mirrors and shit. That we didn’t know.”

“Wait, what, you’re saying that they can see me in mirrors?”

She sighs impatiently. “Mirrors, silver plates, chromed bumpers, does it matter? Thing is, they probably know where you are right now and can follow everything you do. They’ve probably put some shit on your apartment as well. I’m sending someone there right now to cleanse it, and then they’ll come and do the same to you. I need to know where you are. Now.”

He swallows, realizes how big a mistake he’s actually made by coming home again. “I’m… home”, he says and closes his eyes in preparation for the scolding that’s probably to come. But it doesn´t.

Instead he hears her draw a long breath. “Okay”, she says at last. “I’ve already sent the exorcist to your place, should be there any moment now. I guess we can kill two birds with one rock. Don’t go anywhere and do exactly as the exorcist instructs you. I’ll be in touch.” And with that she hangs up the phone.

Chino just stands there, silent phone in hand, and tries his best to process what he has just been told.  “They can follow every step you take at a distance, and see you in mirrors…” When the thought finally sinks in he quickly slams the window shut and backs away from it. For the first time in years he wishes that he actually had real curtains to draw. Not that it would help, probably – but it would certainly make him feel a lot better.

He is standing in the middle of his living room, irresolutely staring this way and that for somewhere to get away from all the blank surfaces lining the room. Picture frames, table tops, cupboard doors – all share one trait and that is being more or less reflective. A dozens versions of Chino’s own face stare back at him from those surfaces, and he realizes that if the ritualists are able to watch him through those, he’s literally screwed. Vahri has called an exorcist, whatever that means, but–

And then the doorbell rings.

Chino freezes and stares at the door. When the signal doesn’t come again he slowly edges closer, hoping against hope that whoever is on the other side of the door will go away if he doesn’t answer it. The little hall in front of the entrance lies in darkness, and Chino hopes that he’ll get away with looking out through the peephole without his shadow revealing that he is there. He hesitates for a second, but then the not knowing becomes unbearable. He leans closer to the door and chances it.

There’s a person standing out there, and Chino flinches. It’s no one he has ever seen before. He’s sure of that, because he knows he would not be able to forget it if he had. The stranger outside the door is dressed in an assortment of clothes in layers upon layers, with a hood pulled up and several amulets in long chains and leather bands dangling from around their neck. Their, because Chino can’t for the life of him tell if this person is a man or a woman.

Then the stranger raises their head and looks straight into Chino’s eyes, right through the obscuring lens of the peephole and all. Their eyes lock for a heartbeat and Chino suddenly feels like he’s been hit in the brain with an eternity. She was singing when they found her… He doesn’t know where the words come from, but what he does know is that this is no man or woman. It might not even be a person.

“Open the door”, the stranger says. And out of sheer shock and confusion, and completely against all logic and reason, that’s just what Chino does.

As he edges the door open, the stranger tilts their head to one side and watches him closely.

“I’ve never met a djinn before”, they say matter-of-factly and then step past him into the apartment.

“Uh, okay. Or, I mean, who are you? Did Vahri send you? And how did you know that I–”

“Your eyes”, the stranger says tonelessly while soberly taking a self-invited tour of Chino’s living room and kitchen space.

The words confuse Chino for a moment, before he realizes that he’s taken off his sunglasses. Of course, my eyes are red. Fuck. “Eh, right”, he replies while cursing his own carelessness in opening the door without the concealing glasses on – especially with murderous ritualists on his trail.

He slowly and warily follow the stranger into the living room. “But you didn’t answer my other questions”, he says, trying to get the stranger’s attention. “Who are you?”

Chino’s unknown visitor has just taken a photo frame down from the wall and has started studying its backside, but now finally looks at Chino again. The eyes are all pitch dark and make him think briefly of the untamed and unnamed spaces between and beyond stars. “I’m Seth”, the stranger says. “Seth Pascal. I was sent by Vahri, yes. And you’re Chino. Nice to meet you.” And with that, they continue taking photos and posters down from the walls, studying them and then putting them down on the floor.

“Yeah, well, I guess… But hey, what are you doing?”

Seth Pascal now seems to be finished with the wall decorations and has moved on to examining the underside of Chino´s furniture. “I’m looking for signs”, they say in a muffled voice from under the low couch table.

“Ah, right… Signs of what?”

Seth sits up straight and looks strangely at him. “No, not signs of something. Just signs. Runes. Symbols. Don’t you djinns know anything?”

Chino indignantly scratches his chin. “Other djinns might, but I don’t. And I’m actually not really a djinn, either. I’m… just a substitute.”

“Okay, whatever”, Seth says. They get to their feet and brushes off some dust from their loose pants. “Vahri tells me you need some help in getting rid of all the ritualistic surveillance enchantments cast upon your home and your person. Is that correct?”

“Oh, so you are the exorcist?”

“No, I’m a freelancing priest. I can do exorcisms, yes. Both Christian, Hindu, Islamic, Jewish, Buddhist and Taoist. But that’s not what you’re in need of here. Not mainly, at least. I’ll perform a cleansing of your apartment, and then of you. This place will be protected from all except those who you choose to invite in, and you’ll no longer be a glowing beacon to the one who put the magick on you. If that’s what you want, of course.”

“I definitely want that”, Chino says without hesitating even for a moment.

“Good”, Seth says. “I’ll need a bowl of boiling water, three drops of your blood and the strongest alcoholic substance you have at home.”

And as Chino still stands there processing the unusual request, Seth gets to work carefully placing and lighting small, coloured and scented candles all over his apartment.

***

“So… where are you from?” Chino is standing behind Seth as the latter is sitting crouched on the floor, carefully drawing strange patterns on the floorboards with a scarlet crayon. Just a minute ago Chino had watched as the freelance priest walked around the apartment with a cup of burning incense, spreading a heavy, sweet smoke in its every nook and cranny while chanting words in a strange language.

The requested water is heating up on the stove and he has retrieved a fresh bottle of Jägermeister from the freezer. It now stands on the kitchen sink, awaiting whatever arcane practices the freelancing priest is going to put it to use in.

“New Orleans”, Seth says without looking up.

“That sounds… nice”, Chino says, quickly adding: “I’ve never been there, but I’d love to someday. I mean, as a vacation. Or something.” Shit, I really suck at making small talk, he thinks to himself.

“You shouldn’t”, Seth replies, still working on the symbols on the floor. “It wouldn’t be good for you.

Chino frowns in indignant surprise. “What, why?”

“Because I can see it wouldn’t. You’d be hurt somehow.”

“Why, is this some kind of fortune telling you’re doing here?” Chino laughs nervously, hoping Seth will laugh as well.

But Seth doesn’t laugh. “I guess you could call it that. I won’t charge extra for it, though. I just don’t want you to do something you’ll regret later, that’s all.”

Chino contemplates this for a moment, not certain that asking any more questions would get him anywhere. Instead he sighs. “I don’t know if staying here would do me any more good either, though”, he says and sits down on the floor with his back against the side of the couch.

“And why is that?” Seth’s voice is absent and preoccupied.

Chino suddenly feels like that obnoxious apartment owner who just won’t leave the contracted plumber alone to do their work on his bathroom. “You know what, never mind”, he says.

“You do as you wish, but I’m actually interested in hearing your story. As I said, it’s the first time I meet a djinn… or a substitute djinn, if that makes you feel better.” Seth still doesn’t look up from their work and the voice is still as toneless as it was before.

Yet something still tells Chino that there is genuine interest and not sarcasm behind those words. And, surprising himself even, he starts talking. He tells Seth Pascal about his unfortunate deal with Walter and the discovery that he wasn’t really human anymore. About the wishes and voices he hears in his head every time he looks at a person for too long, and about the irritating cat-turned-man, Ivers, who seems to be doing his best to turn Chino’s life into a living circus. When he gets to the part where he is abducted by the ritualists he hastily skips over the parts that are hardest to tell; those that still make him nauseous even to think about.

Seth hears him without comment, and even though they fail to even try following the conversational contract of nods and micro responses, Chino somehow still feels that he is being listened to. So much so, in fact, that he finds himself telling this stranger about his foster father’s life threatening illness, his own broken heart and the thing that happened the other night when one of the boxes was stolen from his nightly delivery round.

When he is finally done telling the short version of his life’s story, Seth Pascal has stopped drawing symbols on the floor. They are looking deeply, intently at Chino with those void dark eyes.

“Thank you”, they say. There is real sincerity in the voice this time. “Thank you for telling me your thoughts and hardships. It honours me.”

Chino starts feeling a bit embarrassed in the line of those intense eyes, but before he can stammer something in reply Seth continues speaking.

“People often tell me things, but not more than what I need to know in order to help them with their plights. You have told me much more than so, and you have given me trust. I appreciate that.”

“Eh”, Chino begins, fumbling after words. “Nothing to worry about. I guess. I’m just glad you wanted to listen. Maybe I just needed to talk to someone about these things, I don’t know.”

Seth nods slowly, as if Chino had just said something really wise and profound. Had he? Chino doesn’t really know anymore. There’s something about talking to this Seth Pascal that makes him think about whispering secrets to the stars outside his window as a child. And he had done that often, he remembers now.

“I know what it’s like to be more and less than what people see”, Seth says, waking Chino from his musings. He is feeling drunk, but not in a drunken way – if that makes any sense at all. He guesses it doesn’t. Seth continues: “And I know what it’s like to see more and less than what people do. I can feel you, Caesar Lino Salinas. I really do.”

“How did you–”

“Because I can see it, just like I told you. Just like so many other things.”

Seth then rises, startling Chino out of his dreamy state. “It’s finished”, they say.

“What… what’s finished?” Chino unsteadily climbs to his feet.

“The cleansing of the apartment. I’ve drawn the counter signs and said the proper words. You’ll be safe here now, as long as you don’t invite your enemies inside.”

“So… they can’t see me anymore? Or find me?”

For the first time, Seth now shows something that resembles a normal, human reaction or emotion. Embarrassment. “Well, no. Or, there is one more thing that needs to be done first.”

“Okay… And what is that?”

Seth looks at everything except him now. “Uhm, we’ll have to get you cleansed as well.”

Chino frowns. “Alright then. And… what’s the problem with that?”

Seth sighs. “Not a problem maybe, but…”

“But?”

“You’ll have to get naked for that.”

“…really?”

“Yup.” Seth hastily walks past him and into the kitchen alcove, taking the boiling water off the stove and putting it on top of the sink next to the frosty bottle of whiskey. Chino is handed a small, simple knife. “Here, I’m going to need your blood in here”, Seth says and gestures toward the steaming kettle.

Chino doesn’t like where this is going, but has a hard time concentrating on any thought right now except for the memory of those words. You’ll have to get naked. Before he knows it, he has cut a thin line across his palm and started dropping blood into the hot water.
“That’s enough”, Seth says and takes the knife back. Before Chino’s eyes it vanishes quickly into one of the many folds in Seth’s layered clothing. In its stead Seth just as quickly produces a small bottle from a pocket and skilfully unseals it. They then proceed to slowly pour the bottle’s content into the steaming water-and-blood mix, all the while stirring the liquid with a spoon found in the dish rack.

Chino stares in fascination as the water in the kettle turns first pink, then red, then a deep, blood coloured nuance. Then it starts to thicken, and finally transforms into something that resembles a distasteful, lumpy jelly more than anything else. He really hopes he will not be forced to eat that.

“It’s done”, Seth says, picks up the kettle and starts walking towards the bathroom.

“But… wait. Why the bathroom? And what about the whiskey?”

“We’d better do it in here because it can get messy. And the whiskey is for me. Bring it.”

***

“Please raise your arm.”

This is by far the most humiliating and awkward moment in Chino’s life so far. He’s standing stark naked in his own bathroom together with a really strange stranger who is inch by inch covering his body in a transparent, reddish goo while muttering weird incantations and now and then taking a sip from the bottle of Jäger.

Chino is staring straight ahead and raises his left arm. Seth smears his armpit with the decoction. Chino almost wishes he could sink through the floor, but catches himself at the last moment. Making figurative wishes as a djinn could turn into a dangerous affair. Chino had learned this the hard way.

Seth’s chanting grows more intense, and Chino is beginning to feel the substance on his skin getting warmer. He almost panics as it starts to burn in places as the air in the room begins to vibrate with something other than the ever-present humming of the fluorescent lamp in the ceiling. And suddenly he feels them – as if whatever Seth Pascal is doing is uncloaking them and revealing them to him. Hundreds and hundreds of eyes upon him, watching, studying, knowing.

How did I not feel or see this before?

And he knows without a doubt now that Vahri and Seth were right – someone is watching him. And those eyes are everywhere now, unblinking gazes fixed upon him, mercilessly piercing his soul and integrity. Eyes upon eyes upon eyes, until Chino can’t see anything else around him. Wild panic finally grips him, and he screams.

***

When he comes to, he is lying on the bathroom floor, wrapped in a towel and hurting all over.

“I’m sorry for that”, Seth says. “I should have warned you that you might see them.”

Chino is trembling as he sits up. “What… what the hell was that?”

Seth sighs and dries their hands on another, smaller towel. “It was the eyes the ritualist had bound to you. But they’re gone now.”

Then Seth actually blushes, and looks away from him. “You might want to get a shower.”

And Chino’s relief at being rid of the ritual eyes is suddenly interrupted when he realizes that he is still naked under the towel, and that he is still covered in the red goo – even the parts of him that he’d rather keep very, very private. “Eh, yeah”, he stammers and feels himself blushing as well. “I guess I… should.”

“I’ll show myself out”, says Seth and starts leaving the room.

“Wait”, Chino says and arduously climbs to his feet. Seth pauses on the threshold and turns around. Chino’s head hurts and he realizes that he must have fainted and fallen to the floor earlier. He steadies himself against the wash basin and makes sure to hold the towel firmly around his waist. He tries his best to collect himself and gather his thoughts.

Chino clears his throat. “Well, so… Where are you going now? What are you going to do?”

Seth hesitates. “I’ll go back to New Orleans”, they say finally. “There’s a plane that leaves in an hour. I’ll probably be able to catch it.”

Chino nods, not sure of what to say next. What do you say to someone who has just smeared you all over with bloody jelly and then watched you faint on the floor?

“Thank you”, he simply says finally. “I don’t really know what you did, but I felt it working. I saw those eyes, but I think they’re gone now.”

Seth nods. “They are. And you’re welcome, Caesar Lino Salinas.”

And with that Seth Pascal leaves him standing there in the bathroom, surrounded by a sticky mess and with very strange mixed feelings inside.

Chino looks at his own red-eyed reflection in the mirror, shakes his head and takes a deep draught from the now half empty whiskey bottle left behind on the wash basin.

And then his morning alarm sounds. It’s morning.

How the fuck did his life come to this?

Chris Smedbakken 2017-11-03


You can find the next part here.

The (not so) Graceful Act of Robbing a Ritualist

This story is part of my ongoing dark urban fantasy series about the character Vanessa Riley. You can find the previous installments here: IIIIIIIVV, VI. It is also the start of my #NaNoWriMo-project for this November.


Magic, madness, heaven, sin…

She is sitting in her car, the stereo blaring Taylor Swift at its loudest and outside the windshield night has brought with it a heavy downpour. The rain is beating furiously against the roof of the car and though the radio is maxed up she can barely hear the music.

In her hands she holds a gun.

It’s not any gun, mind you. It’s the one she took from the ritualist called Mike on the night she rescued Chino from him and his less intelligently endowed friend Pete. The same night, incidentally, as she first found out that maybe, just maybe, the notorious Enjoyment Club is not just midwife’s tales at all – but terrible reality. And after her recent talk with Devin Murdock she’s finally beginning to understand just how terrible, and just how real.

The gun is heavy and big, and it glows like silver in the sparse light allowed through the windshield’s cascading water from the streetlamps above. She turns it over, just as she has done so many times already. The signs and symbols engraved upon its smooth surface are many and delicately executed; a true master must have etched them there. The thought doesn’t calm her in the least, as the meaning of these symbols – at least the ones she is able to decipher – do not bode well for the enemies of the gunman in question. He doesn’t have the gun anymore, sure, but it is she who has stolen it from him, and she is quite convinced that this in itself adds her to his list of prioritized enemies.

She knows that Mike, the gun’s owner, works for the Club – maybe as a hired bounty hunter. They were taking Chino to them before Vahri intervened, and she harbours no illusions that they wouldn’t throw her into the bargain as well if they ever got the chance. Therefore what she is about to do next might seem like a really stupid thing – she’s well aware of that. But right now it’s the only option she has if she’s going to stay one step ahead and hopefully alive as well.

She’s going to use the gun to find this Mike.

Oh, she’s not going to kill him, mind you. Not just because it’s really not her style – she’s just only killed one person previously and didn’t particularly enjoy it – but also because he is only the most immediate incarnation of the threat that is the Club. If he is removed, they will simply send others, she’s sure of that. He might be a dangerously skilled ritualist, but he’s not unique. She’ll definitely have more use for him as a source of information than as an unpleasantly smelling corpse and a blotch on her conscience.

She closes her eyes and concentrates, all the while tracing the gun’s intricate patterns with her fingers. The weapon carries a deep, spiritual imprint of the person called Mike. She can feel traces of his essence just by touching it. Using her inherited magical ability of scrying with the gun as a sympathetic anchor it doesn’t take her very long to locate him.

She can feel the warding rituals he has cast upon himself as another might perceive a mesh across the eyes. They don’t stop her from seeing him, but still pose a slight, annoying hindrance. She can definitely see how his wards would pose a real obstacle for a less skilled magician – but he obviously hasn’t counted on being scried by someone of her aptitude.

He’s walking back and forth in an anonymous hotel room, gesturing with his free hand as he talks to someone on the phone. She’s not able to hear him through her mind’s window, but he is clearly upset about something. Suits you well, honey, she thinks to herself as she watches him aggressively stuff an assortment of items into a bag, phone still firmly pressed against his ear.

Then he throws the heavy bag over his shoulder, opens the door and leaves the room without turning off the lights. She knows that she can follow him outside, see where he goes, but she chooses not to. Because she has seen something else. Right before Mike left the room an object fell out of his overstuffed shoulder bag and onto the distastefully carpeted floor. It is a book, and she needs to know what’s inside it before Mike returns to the room.

Vahri opens her eyes, suddenly back inside the rain drenched Ferrari with the decorated gun in her hands. She has not just been able to see Mike inside his room; she also knows exactly where to find it.

She starts the car and turns back onto the road. Hopefully she will be able to find out parts of his secrets without even having to meet him tonight.

***

The hotel is not fancy. Not in the least, actually. If this says something about the ritualist called Mike it is either that he’s the kind of guy who goes out of his way to stay incognito, or that ritualists simply do not make that much money. Either way the low standard of the place makes it easy for Vahri to slip past the reception and up the stairs. The institution does not even come with an elevator.

She reaches the fifth floor without running into a single soul on the way up. Or, well, not counting the unremarkable apparition of a previous suicide victim hovering solemnly on the third landing, that is. It stubbornly ignores Vahri as she passes by, and she willingly returns the favour.

Getting into the room turns out to be a bit more tricky, but nothing she cannot handle. Apart from the mundane hotel door lock (which she picks easily enough using a couple of just as mundane tools) the ritualist has also cast some kind of arcane mumbo jumbo upon it. It takes Vahri a while to figure it out, but finally the door swings open before her. As she rises to her feet again she can’t help but feeling a spell of vain pride come over her. This ritualist might be dangerous, but his wards at least are no match to her.

She stands at the threshold and looks into the room. It is just as anonymous as she registered while scrying it, and the carpet is just as distastefully pink. And there lies the book, just as she knew it would. A part of her knows very well that this might definitely be an elaborate trap to lure her in – that the lock might have been easy on purpose and that the ritualist’s wards against scrying and finding might have been meant to fail all along. But as necessity knows no law, and as being careful is not really her game anyways, Vahri still steps into the room, picks up the book and quickly closes the door behind her.

It turns out to be a notebook bound in leather, the covers much more nondescript than what she would have expected from a guy whose everyday handgun looks like something drawn by a bored gothic monk on speed. But opening the book to its first pages she finds something else entirely.

Page after page is packed with scrawled notes, verses and illustrations, all done by hand in black and scarlet ink. The lets her eyes wander over the lines of the first few pages, but realizes almost at once that she will have to study the book more carefully and in peace before she’ll be able to make anything useful of it. She’s not a ritualist, after all, and many of the things that this Mike might find commonplace and self-evident she will have to decipher to understand.

She puts the notebook in her bag and starts investigating the room. The clean and impersonal state of it definitely lends credibility to the idea of a person who wants to stay under the radar, able to move on at the blink of an eye without leaving any trace. He has not left the room indefinitely just yet, however. She finds a laptop on the low table in front of the 90’s television set, and a small trunk of clothes and personal items next to the worn couch.

She opens up the lid of the computer and is surprised to see the screen immediately come to life. The computer has not been turned off by its owner before he left the room, but still requires a password to be unlocked. Not daring to sit down on the couch in fear of leaving traces of her visit, Vahri crouches beside the table and opens the screen all the way up. A yellow sticky note detaches from the slick surface where it has been sitting and falls onto the floor. Vahri quickly picks it up.

Boris Granger, the note says – and then a Nevada coded phone number.

She shrugs and puts the note inside the book in her bag, eager to get to work on the computer. The login screen has the picture of a dog in the background. Not your average stock photo, but what looks like a personal photography in slightly bad resolution. The dog is sitting on a porch and seems to be waiting for the photographer to throw it something. So Mike is a dog person, huh? Wouldn’t have guessed. She searchingly tries a couple of dog related passwords, but to no avail. This, however, comes as no surprise. This guy is not stupid. It will take more than that.

Instead she summons up the arcane forces to help her. She has done similar things before, magically “hacking” into Facebook accounts of high school enemies and internet haters, but she realizes at once that the ritualist has used more than secure passwords to protect his digital content. Just like the door, the computer is surrounded by some kind of magical ward that she cannot simply dispel using her own kind of magic. The powers practiced by ritualists are something else entirely from the forces used by mages, just as the powers of a Djinn are essentially different from those of a vampire. She’s going to need time to crack this protective spell – either that, or an exorcist.

Then, suddenly, she hears keys in the door. Someone is coming, be it Mike or somebody else. Either way it would be disaster for her to be found here. She flies onto her feet, reflexively grabbing the computer as she does. The door handle is pressed down halfway, then stops. Vahri doesn’t wait around to find out why. Instead she darts toward the window while thrusting the stolen laptop into her bag, together with the just as stolen notebook.

She pulls at the window handle, but it’s stuck. Vahri panics and forgets entirely about carefulness and magical principles stealth. She reflexively calls the magic to her fingertips as she bends the window to her will and forces it to yield. Just then she hears the door behind her start to creak open, and pulls at the window once more. This time, subdued by arcane forces, it swings up easily enough. She jumps out onto the rain coated metal landing of the emergency stairs and starts running downward.

The metal stairs rattle and shake at every step and the rain makes the stairs slippery. She hits her knee on a sharp edge but continues without pause. High above her she can hear a voice calling, but does not turn around. When she reaches the ground she continues running with unabated speed, the heavy bag thumping impractically against the back of her left leg all the while.

She does not know if anyone follows her, doesn’t dare to turn around and look. She also doesn’t dare steer directly towards her car, in case anyone actually does. Instead she takes a long and laborious detour, passing through several blocks before finally doubling back and returning to the obscured alley where she parked earlier.

Once she has thrown herself into the car and locked all the doors she hurriedly uses her magic to set up an obscuring shield around it. Anyone passing by the alley now will see nothing but crates and dumpster, and definitely not a burning red Ferrari with a terrified magician inside.

Shit, shit, shit.

She’s breathing heavily and her pulse just won’t slow down. Just thinking about what could have happened if the ritualist had caught her in his hotel room makes her want to throw up. Out on the field where she had beaten them and saved Chino, Mike and his companion had been on neutral ground. She had also had the element of surprise to her advantage there. She dares not think of the assortment of traps and advantages that could have been prepared in advance on their own home ground. Images from Devin’s horrible tale flashes before her, images of people like her being tortured, raped and eaten alive by the ritualist’s taskmasters. Images of those same things happening to her. She feels sick and has to sit there in the car for several minutes before the acute felling subsides.

She then starts the car and drives far away from the hotel. She doesn’t stop until she reaches a quiet suburb where she parks behind a closed down pizza restaurant. Not until now does she open up her bag to look at the items she’s retrieved from the hotel room.

She knows that all of the objects, but especially the computer, might be traced – if not by mundane means, then with the help of the arcane. Therefore the first thing she does is to secure and isolate them using the same magic techniques as those she has previously used on the stolen gun. The forces weave themselves around the items, one by one, and effectively shields them from scrying and tracking. Vahri hopes that this will prove to be enough.

Knowing that she will probably not be able to crack the computer tonight, she then picks up the notebook. The sticky note falls out, and she sticks it to the panel of the car for the time being. She’ll have a closer look at it later.

The notebook is, as she has already concluded, full of hand written notes, verses and messages – all to do, of course, with strange and complicated rituals. Vahri recognizes some of them, knows at least a couple of them to be warding and binding rites to be used upon the undead. On vampires, for example. She herself would not be able to use these rituals – not without long and extensive training, at least. Just like a fiddler will not be able to simply switch over to playing the cello – at least not Vahri, and she actually tried once – a magician, however talented, cannot just switch over to conducting the rituals of mortals. It just doesn’t work like that. Thus she is beginning to think that she won’t have much use for this notebook after all.

Well, I guess I could sell it back to him and earn some well needed cash, she mused sarcastically.

But then, turning through the pages at random, the suddenly comes upon a name she recognizes. Walter. There is a page in the notebook seemingly entirely dedicated to notes about someone who goes by that name – or Walter Isher, to be more precise. Stuck to the page with a paperclip is a black and white photo of a middle aged man dressed in coat and hat. It must be an old photo, she thinks. And when she turns it over she actually finds the numbers “1923” written in a faded, elaborate hand.

There is also a list on this page where every row is a piece of information about this man. “Grey hair, 7ft 20 tall, sharp nose, red eyes…”  Wait a second. Red eyes? Vahri realizes suddenly that this Walter must be a djinn, just like Chino. And she remembers now exactly where she has heard the name before, as well. The ritualist was pressing Chino for information about this man right before Vahri had rescued him. It must be the same guy.

So these people are really after an even bigger and badder djinn, and Chino and I just came in the way?

She relaxes slightly, daring for a moment to hope that this shitstorm just might pass above their heads if they’re really lucky. If the bounty hunters are after someone else, maybe they’ll leave once they find him. A disloyal thought, sure, but the Club really scares the shit out of her.

Beneath the list there is a short note, written hastily with another pen. “As soon as we have anything to report on this man, or if we manage to locate him, call B.G.” Then a drawing of a symbol that Vahri knows all too well by now – the symbol of the Club. Vahri’s eyes instantly go to the sticky note on the car’s panel. B.G. Boris Granger. So Boris works for the Club – or might he even be a member? Anyway he definitely seems to be the one who has hired these ritualist bounty hunters and sent them here.

An opening, finally. She has a name and a number to a person who is probably part of the Club in some capacity. This might be her way forward in her quest to find out more about this organization and hopefully outwit them before anyone she cares about comes to harm.

As she puts the book down in her lap and lets go of it to look at the sticky note, the pages fall open upon what seems to be the last entry up until now. Vahri reflexively looks down, and instantly freezes.

The entry is dated earlier this very day, and details a ritual with text and illustrations. But not just any ritual.

“We used the hair found in the djinn’s apartment. We mixed it with the blood of an early bird and murky waters from a restless sea. Then we said the secret words and drew the hidden symbols and uttered the djinn’s True name: Caesar Lino Salinas. It has been done. I will now be able to see and find him wherever he hides.”

Vahri starts trembling and the book falls back into her lap. The ritualist called Mike has performed a ritual directed at Chino in order to spy on him – not unlike the magic she used earlier to locate Mike himself. This is bad, really bad. Chino might lead the hunters to his friend Ivers, who will certainly in turn lead them to Neferthali and then straight back to Vahri herself. And her family. And in any case it’s just a question of time before Chino himself is attacked again. And this time the hunters will be prepared.

I have to do something. The ritual must be undone. Now.

And Vahri realizes that the only person she knows who might be versed enough in ritualist magic to actually undo it is in fact not that far away right now.

Gods bless you, Devin Murdock and your fucking ghosts, Vanessa thinks to herself as for the second time that day she dials the number to Seth Pascal.

Chris Smedbakken, 2017-11-01


You can find the next part here.

Secrets, Blood Pacts and a House Full of Dead People  

This story is part of my ongoing dark urban fantasy series about the character Vanessa Riley. You can find the previous installments here: I, II, III, IV, V.


“The Enjoyment Club. What do you know about them?”

“Is that what this is about? Some glorified ghost story?”

“Don’t you go there, Devin Murdock. You know just as well as I do that there’s more to them than that. Or have I overestimated you?”

“Chill, Nessa, I just–”

“Vahri.”

“Well, okay, Vahri. I was just hoping you’d be here to see me, not to ask about some stupid deathtrap knowledge I’d rather not have in the first place.”

“Well, sorry to disappoint you then.”

“Jeez, you’re different. What happen to us, Ness… Vahri?”

“You being a fucking idiot, that’s what happened. I didn’t even fucking know what sacromancy was when they came to interrogate me about you. But I’ve understood a couple of things since then, and I’ve gotta give it to you straight: you’re not sane. Can’t be. Nobody in their right mind would want anything to do with that sick stuff. I wouldn’t even be here right now if you weren’t the only one I’m able to think of that’d know anything useful about the Club. And that’s not a compliment.”

“Wow, that was quite the telling off. But okay Vahri, or whatever you call yourself nowadays. What makes you think I’d be willing to tell you anything about that shit? It’s not like we’re close anymore, and last I checked I don’t owe you anything.”

“Sure, that’s true. But you know what’s true as well? I’ll tell you. You don’t want people to know you’re here. I apparently know you’re here, and I have a mouth. Do the equation.”

“Oh, you wouldn’t.”

“Try me.”

“I could kill you, you know. Or do something about this mouth problem of yours. It wouldn’t be difficult.”

“I guess it wouldn’t. But I also guess you’d not be very keen on tasting the wrath of my pet djinn afterwards. I’m under the impression you’ve got quite enough on your hands already, what with the coven inquisition having put a price on your head and all that. Am I wrong?”

A moment of silence. “Okay, you win. I guess it can’t hurt. Well, not me, at least. If you want to know about the Club, I’ll tell you about the Club. But don’t come running back to me when you get your fingers burned, okay?”

“Drop the drama and just tell me already.”

“Sure, I will. But on one condition.”

“And what is that?”

“You have to do something for me in return.”

“Dev, if this is some kind of–”

“Hell, nothing like that. Shit, Vahri, is that what you think of me? No, I want you to help me with two things. They’re kind of related but not in an obvious way. First, I want you to do something about a ghost problem I have…”

 

Vahri sighs as she ascends the creaking stairs leading up to the second floor. Is this what things have come to? Her doing ghost busting favors for her psycho ex-boyfriend in return for information about stupid ghost stories turned reality overnight?

She has already tried asking Neferthali about The Club, but her vampire godmother either doesn’t know or doesn’t want to tell. “It’s just stories and myths, child. Terrible stories, but stories nevertheless. Stay clear of them and they can’t hurt you. If someone is after that djinn boy, just make sure not to get involved”, was all she had to say before trying to convince Vahri to lock herself inside a secret panic flat together with her. Just stories my ass.

Suffice to say, Vahri did not accept the bunker invitation. Instead here she is, on the second floor of the haunted villa where Devin has decided to hole up for some reason. He hasn’t told her yet what the other service required of her is going to be, but this first task in itself already feels like a handful.

She wipes dust from an old standing mirror with her hand. “Anybody here? Ghosts?” She speaks right at her own reflection, hoping for some kind of reaction. When nothing happens and she still only sees herself in the old pane of silvered glass she turns away and continues down the hall.

Grains of dust hover in the air, glittering in the shafts of sunlight falling through the cracks in the boarded up windows. The floorboards creak under her weight and everything carries a faint smell of dried up mold.

She opens a door to her right and stops dead on the threshold. She’s found one of the bedrooms. A four-poster bed occupies the center of the room, and on top of the covers lies a dead woman. She must have been dead for a long time, judging by the putrid smell that makes breathing almost unbearable in here.

“Devin, have you killed someone up here?”, Vahri yells down the stairs. But before she’s gotten an answer from below, the corpse on the bed starts rising up into a sitting position. Vahri watches the old woman slowly, slowly straightening up, until the worn pink night-gown slides off her bony shoulders to reveal more wrinkled skin than Vahri is prepared to take in.

“Fuck this”, she says and slams the door shut. She then hurries down the stairs, almost knocking Devin over on her way down.

“What’s going on?”, he says as he grabs her by the shoulders.

She frees herself, not wanting him to see how shaken she is. “There’s a dead woman upstairs”, she says. “At first I thought she was one of your unfortunate acquaintances, but then she moved so I figure she’s rather one of your unfortunate ghosts.

He stares at her and swallows hard. “There’s a… dead woman upstairs?”

“No, it’s a paper duck. Didn’t I just tell you? This house has big problems, I can feel it just by breathing the air in here. Do you really want to stay here?”

“I don’t have much of a choice, as I see it.”

“Well, then I recommend you get an exorcist.”

“I tried that already, but he wouldn’t come.”

“Who wouldn’t come?”

“Carlos Batista. He got me this house and–”

“Carlos is a wussy nowadays, ever since he met Cornelia. I can see why he wouldn’t wanna get involved with someone like you. I’m surprised he even helped you with the house. No, I mean a real exorcist. Or a priest. I know one we could call.”

“And who might that be?”, he says. She can tell he’s starting to crank up; he’s doing that thing with his eyebrows that he always does when something is irritating him.

“Relax, Dev. Let’s go into the kitchen again. The spirits seemed to be quieter in there.” She walks before him through the doorway as she continues talking. “There’s this freelance priest from New Orleans called Seth Pasco or something like that. Found her on Craig’s List a couple of years ago when I needed to get rid of a curse some stupid bitch cast on me for sleeping with her ex. I think I still have her number.”

“The ex?”

“No, the exorcist of course. Please tell me you’re just faking stupidity now.”

She sits down at the table and starts looking through her contacts. He remains standing, hovering in the doorway like yet another restless ghost. “And why is it I have never heard of this miracle priest?”

“Honey, please. Just accept that you don’t know everything. Besides, she’s pretty young. Ah, here she is!”, Vahri says triumphantly as she finds the right number in her loaded contact list. “It’s Seth Pascal, actually.

“Pascal? Like the philosopher?”

“Stop trying to collect intellectual points, Devin. I’m calling her, and then you’re telling me what you know about the Club, okay?”

“But there’s this other thing I need your help with too, remember?”

She sighs. “I help you get in contact with Seth, and then you tell me what I need to know. Then I’ll come back and help you with your mystery quest, I promise.”

“A promise is not good enough.”

“What do you want then?”

“An oath. A real one, with blood.”

“Dev, don’t be child–”

“It’s either that, or the whole deal is off. You choose.”

Another sigh, deeper this time. “Okay, sure, fine. We’ll do it your way. Let’s not waste any more time.” She retrieves a small knife from her pocket and draws a sharp, red line across the palm of her right hand. Small drops of blood begin to emerge as soon as her body starts realizing it has been cut.

He stares at her in disbelief for several heartbeats, before catching himself and stepping up to the table where she’s sitting. “That was… I mean, I didn’t necessarily mean we had to–”

“It’s dripping on your floor, Devin. Get to it already.” She hands him the knife while catching stray drops of blood with her free hand.

Devin grabs the knife and repeats her gesture. His movements are trained, as if he’s done this a million times before. She definitely does not doubt this is actually the case. He extends his injured hand towards her, and she takes it in hers.

“Now swear”, he says in such a cold and matter-of-fact way as to make her almost shiver. Was he always this… dark?

She looks into his deep, black eyes and suddenly wonders for the first time what she is really getting herself into. A blood pact with someone like him could very well warrant harsh punishment if somebody found out. Very harsh punishment indeed. He’s a sacromancer, which means he meddles with black magic. That’s what he was exiled for all those years ago, and back when it happened it was only her own youth, ignorance and innocence that saved her from being suspected of the same crime. But that was a long time ago, and she is neither ignorant nor innocent anymore. Especially not after this.

His grip is firm and she can feel warm blood pulsing between their palms. The morbid intimacy of the moment is strengthened by the intense hold of his dark gaze. She could not break neither eye contact nor grip even if she had wanted to. But she is determined to go through with this, if that is what it takes.

“I, Vahri, swear –“

“True names here”, he says sternly.

She catches herself, a little embarrassed for not knowing this already. Hastily she corrects herself. “Ehm. I, Vanessa Heike Riley, swear to uphold my part of the bargain and thus to the best of my ability assist Devin Murdock in his mystery quest, after he tells me all he knows about the Enjoyment Club.”

Devin nods solemnly, still not breaking eye contact. “And I, Devin Benjamin Murdock, in return swear to tell Vanessa Heike Riley all I know about the Enjoyment Club. And to take her out on a date once all this is done and over with.”

He flashes her a crooked smile, and before she has time to protest or react she can feel him sealing the blood pact. The air starts shimmering with static and the restless creaking and moaning from the house’s old residents grows entirely silent for a moment. Vahri feels the blood between their palms burning like acid. It is burning its way back through the wound in her hand and straight up through her veins. For a heartbeat her entire cardiovascular system is burning with arcane fire, and still she cannot break eye contact with him. She stares helplessly into his dark eyes as the pact etches itself into her very being, her very soul.

It is all over in the blink of an eye, but when the intense, searing pain is suddenly gone she still finds herself sitting there, gasping for air, grasping his hand and staring into his eyes. He smiles, and she hastily catches herself. She lets go of his hand and wipes the blood off her hand and onto her black jeans.

’Nothing like this’ my ass”, she snarls and pushes past him, out into the hallway.

He takes up position in the doorway behind her again, leaning against the door frame in a casual way that she deems has to have been rehearsed beforehand. “Come on, Nessa. Don’t be like that. I’m just having some fun. You should try that too, some time.”

“I didn’t swear to go with you on any fucking date”, she snaps. “I’m here for information, nothing else.”

He sighs. “Alright, then. I’m sorry for that. If you won’t go out with me later I guess the penalty of breaking the pact is on me. No harm done to you, right?”

“Right”, she says, arms crossed. “So before you pull any more of your immature pranks, I guess I’d better call this Pascal girl and get things moving. And then comes the part where you tell me what you know.” She turns her back on him and walks into the living room, already dialing Seth Pascal’s number.

As she listens to the dialing tones she can hear Devin teasingly mutter behind her.

“You might still change your mind before this is over, though”, he says. But she chooses to ignore him.

***

He is sitting on the porch, smoking a tellingly asymmetrical cigarette, when she joins him again. He seems to be trying hard not to question her about the phone call right away. He waits until she is seated on the stairs next to him before eagerly turning to her.

“So?”, he says.

She takes the cigarette from his hand without being offered, and draws a deep breath from its sweet fumes. “She’ll come”, she says without looking at him. Instead she lets her eyes sweep the garden in front of the house. It must have once been beautiful, but tear and neglect has rather turned it into something that could have been commissioned for October 31:th.

“She will?”, he says when she does not elaborate. “When? And how will this be done?”

Vahri flicks away the cigarette and rises from the cold step. “She said she would catch the first plane here from New Orleans. And I gave her your number, so you two can work out the details. Now it’s your turn. Come.”

She walks down the remaining steps and onto the crusty grass. She doesn’t wait for him, but starts walking through the garden. Old dried leaves rustle beneath her feet as she passes in between overgrown bushes and apple trees gone wild. She can hear quick steps from behind as he hurries to catch up with her.

“Wait, how do you even have my number?”, he says.

“The dead girl in the living room told me”, she says. “Anyways, this is where you tell me what you know. So shoot.”

There’s a large fountain hidden amidst the tall cypress trees in the garden and it smells of decades of mold. It is filled with brown rain water and old rotten leaves. She sits down on the rock frame encircling it and pats on the mossy stone next to her. “Sit.”

He does as he is told and throws a fascinated glance around the place where they have ended up. She gets the feeling that he has not been in this part of the garden before. Maybe he hasn’t even left the house at all since coming here.

“Well”, he says hesitantly. “I don’t know how much you know already, but–”

“Pretend I know nothing”, she interrupts and tries to seem like this is not uncomfortably close to the truth.

“Okay then”, he says after a moment of silence. “The Club is nasty business and I actually wish I never heard about them. But a promise it a promise, so here goes.”

***

And he starts talking. Starts telling her about an organization so old and so ruthless that it has slowly rotted from the inside. He tells her about mad men and women with endless resources and one goal in life and one goal only: to attain pleasure at the expense of others, and often at the expense of people like her and him; creatures above and beyond the ordinary. Supernatural creatures.

He tells her about mages, vampires, werewolves and changelings falling victim to these madmen’s singular tastes, to their novel sexual urges and their sadistic needs for knowledge and domination. He gives her horrific accounts of wolf-bloods being cooked and eaten alive, of vampire kindred being locked up and used as toys, of magicians being tortured and mutilated for fun and later murdered, cremated and turned into powder subsequently used as expensive cocktail components.

***

The day is warm but Vahri can’t help shivering as she sits there, listening to Dev’s morbid horror story that alas is not a story at all but a report of true and terrible events. By the time he is finished she feels sick, and the putrid stench from the murky water behind her suddenly summons entirely different images to her mind than it did before he began talking.

She takes a deep breath and lets it out. “Fuck”, she says quietly and he only nods. They sit there in silence for a while, Devin seeming almost as pale and nauseous as she is feeling, even though he has been the one telling the story.

He clears his throat. “So… What’s your business with the Club?”

She suddenly has a desperate urge to say ‘nothing’ and actually mean it. She wants nothing to do with this lot, Neferthali was right. But she can’t say that, because it is not true. She has business with these people. She has provoked them through their lackeys, and they have seen her. They know what she is, which makes her a target just as much as that djinn guy, Chino, is. She has to act before they do. Has to find out more and learn how she can avoid them, hide from them or fight them off.

“That’s none of your business”, she says instead. This, at least, is entirely true. She starts to rise to walk away from him.

“Well”, he say, and now that sly tone is back in his voice like it was never gone in the first place. “It is my business insofar as your keeping of that pact of ours is. I’m starting to get used to having dead people around, but I don’t think you’ll be of much help to me if you are dead. Or a trophy on someone’s parlor wall.”

She stops and turns around to face him. She had almost forgotten about that part of the deal. Suddenly she doesn’t feel especially confident about their pact at all anymore. He is a sacromancer after all. What will he have me do? She swallows hard and tries to keep the insecurity out of her voice. “And what is that shit really about then, Dev?”

He smiles, must have seen the nervous look on her face after all. “I have recently lost someone dear to me”, he says. “Someone really important. I’m in town to find and claim his… well, his heritage. Books, alchemical potions, enchanted artifacts, you know the drill. And I have to do it before my, well, let’s call him my brother, does.”

“And you need my help with this estate distribution because…?”

“Well, this dearly departed person lived a rather reclusive life. Hidden away, if you will. And I don’t exactly know where the estate to be distributed has been… ensconced quite yet.”

“So you need me to help you find it, is that it? It’s a geocaching quest?” She is not in the least excited by the prospect of going with Devin Murdock on a treasure hunt that could potentially take several days. But she also knows the potential consequences of breaking a blood pact. She has read about them, and they are not pretty.

“Yep”, he says.

She shakes her head and starts walking away again, but immediately turns back to face him. “And who is this important person who has passed away, really?”

He gives her a tantalizing flash of teeth. “Do you remember Teneo?”, he says and waits for her reaction.

She blinks. Once. Twice. She knows who Teneo is – or was. And suddenly she also understands who this brother of Devin’s must be. The one who now seems to be their rival to the loot. Fuck.

“I fucking hate you”, she says, turns and walks away through the garden.

***

Devin Murdock remains seated at the fountain, laughing silently to himself as he watches her go. He had forgotten how much he used to enjoy her company back then, their constant battles and their passionate fights that more often than not ended in passionate other things. And now she is back in his life. It is not something he has planned for, but now that she has found him he is going to make the most of it. And it is going to be fun, oh yes.

Maybe being back in Los Angeles isn’t going to be just struggle and drab after all, he thinks.

And then his phone rings. Unknown number.

Usually he would never answer such a call, but today is not an ordinary day.

He hopes for a priest and answers.

 Chris Smedbakken, 2017-10-22 


You can find the next part here.