Tag Archives: demons

The 2nd Street Writing Syndicate


I sweep into the office a few minutes early, grab a cup of horrible coffee from the community pot, and sit down at my desk. I brush aside the unfinished manuscripts and dog-eared personal edits to have a look at the morning’s headlines: The usual mish-mash of impending deadlines, panicky calls for help with snarled projects, each message carrying behind it that familiar whiff of desperation. I’ve been in this business for so many years now, it’s all mundane enough to make me want to walk right back out the front door.

But wait — here’s something different.

Emergency. Project out of control. Please help. Then a phone number.

It’s so simple, so concise. Your typical distress call is couched in enough flowery language to choke a goat with an unreasonable appetite, the panicky flailings of a fledgling author out to prove himself while admitting he is totally out of his depth.

But this one has the sense not to waste words. It’s intriguing. I hop up from my desk, make a few rounds of the office, ask if anybody’s checking up on this case. Nobody is. Projects of their own. Ongoing calls. November’s just around the corner, so we’re all a bit on edge for the rush that’ll be coming. Nobody wants to pick up extra work, especially a call so vague it could be anything.

But it’s just that unknowable nothing that has me piqued. I pick up the phone, dial the number.

The voice on the other end is haggard, like he’s had about eighteen cups of coffee on two hours of sleep. “Hello?”

I tap a pen on my desk, prepare a notecard to jot down some vitals. “This is Ella Lucida, with 2nd Street, calling for Geoff Owens?”

A sigh of relief on the other end, and a scrambling clatter, like a bunch of cans being shoved off a desktop. “Yes. Oh, Jesus. That’s me.” A pause. “Can you help me?”

“That depends.”

#

Every once in a while, a call takes me to a nice place. Penthouse apartment, or mansion set way off away from the traffic and hurly-burly. This is not one of those calls. Geoff’s place is yet another shitty fifth-floor walk-up in a career full of shitty fifth-floor walk-ups. The building looks like if a few more windows were knocked out or a few more vagrants were sleeping in the lobby it could be condemned. But it isn’t, apparently, because the lights are on, and when I reach Geoff’s door, it’s locked, deadbolted, and safety-chained shut. It’s quiet inside, the quiet of a house with a sleeping newborn in the back room, the parents terrified to make a peep.

I knock.

There’s a scuffling of feet inside, a shuffling of papers, the sound of clicks and jangles as chains and bolts are slid back. The door cracks, and a wily eye peers out at me.

“Ella?”

The guy’s clearly been through it, judging from the bags under his eyes and the dusting of stubble under his chin. I nod.

“Come in.”

Inside looks about like you’d expect. Peeling floral-print wallpaper, revealing even worse psychedelic-striped wallpaper beneath. Piles of paper covered with notes and heavily-used paperbacks tossed all over the place. Overpowering stink of stale cigarette smoke. I’m about to ask him to crack a window when I notice they’re nailed shut.

We’ve been through it already, but I find it helps to let a client talk it out first. So I ask him to tell me again.

“My story,” he flashes his tongue across his lips, “has a demon.”

#

He spins out the tale in a rush, his hushed whispers barely stirring the ashy dust caught in the sunlight through the window. I nod and listen and purse my lips thoughtfully here and there, pausing to write down what he thinks are notes but what are actually meaningless scribbles. It’s become clear to me that there’s nothing special going on here; he’s just another neurotic writer who believes that the problems of his story have gotten out of hand because of some magic. He talks about characters acting strangely. Plot lines that he can’t resolve. Antagonists who talk too much. A shadowy figure that he didn’t write flitting through his scenes and replacing his carefully crafted text with gibberish.

“Wait a second.” He didn’t mention that on the phone. “What did you say?”

“I’m writing a simple love story. Boy meets girl — zombie apocalypse happens — girl devours boy’s brains — girl and boy unlive happily ever after.”

“I got that part.” It’s among the more terrible premises for a book that I’ve heard lately, but it’s not the worst. “Tell me about the figure.”

“So the book has zombies, sure. And werewolves. And one guy who might be a vampire or maybe he just has alopecia.” A nervous shrug. “I haven’t decided.”

“The figure,” I insist.

“When I go back and read my work, there’s this… thing. It appears in scenes out of nowhere and… look, it’s easier if I just show you.”

It’s dangerous work diving into an unknown author’s work. You never know what to expect. So as he boots up the laptop, I unpack my kit, laying the tools of my trade on the desktop. Spell-correcting goggles, because the average new author has the spelling ability of an ADD sixth-grader. A high-diffusion plot-detangler, which can sniff out and eliminate an extraneous development before you can explain that it’s necessary for character development. A de-purpling prosometer, which cleans all the adverbs and adjectives right out of a paragraph. And finally, my correct-all quill. I haven’t used it in years — not since the great Wikipedia overflowing of 2012, where an overly ambitious author cleverly began rewriting entries in iambic pentameter and couldn’t stop. It took seven agents to subdue him, and I fancy I can still see bits of the de-versed Shakespearean entries about penguin mating habits swimming in the beads of ink at its tip. I won’t use it, but any author worth his salt recognizes a powerful instrument when he sees it.

Geoff’s eyes linger on the quill. Not all authors know about the syndicate, and fewer still know all the tools we carry, but somehow, he does. “Is that thing for real?” He asks.

I nod. “Wanna touch it?”

Fear replaces wonder in a heartbeat. His eyes get wide and he stammers uselessly for a moment before declining. His manuscript has opened on the laptop. He steps back and I begin to read.

It’s as idiotic as I expected. Another zombie outbreak story, ho-hum. But as I’m reading, I get this weird impression of a figure all in black lurking at the edges of each scene. I re-read, but there’s nothing there. Strange.

Then, at the end of the third chapter, suddenly there’s a blank page before the fourth. “Did you leave this gap here?”

“What? No, I — Oh god, he’s eating whole pages now!”

I return to the manuscript. The seventh chapter has been replaced with a copy of Green Eggs and Ham, complete with illustrations. Chapter ten is nothing but ones and zeroes. Chapter thirteen is ASCII art of a donkey’s privates.

“It’s getting worse,” Geoff moans.

That much is clear. I reach for the prosometer and aim it squarely at the screen. The ASCII art rearranges itself into a fist with a defiantly extended middle finger.

“What the –”

Then I see it.

I didn’t even think those things existed, but there it is, just to the side of the blinking cursor, hiding behind it as it winks in and out of existence underneath the pile of rudely arranged punctuation. A GrammaDemon.

It’s rumored that GrammaDemons are single-handedly responsible for the loss of all the greatest literature the world has ever known. The missing counterparts of the Rosetta Stone. Cardenio. And now there’s a GrammaDemon lurking in a godawful zombie story written by a nobody in the middle of nowhere.

The demon winks at me — it actually winks — and begins filling the next page with arcane scribblings in symbols I can’t even hope to read. It’s trying to come through, I realize.

I don the spell-fixing goggles and begin to type. The only hope is to contain the monster before it can escape the page and wreak hell in the literaverse. I conjure a hero with a flaming sword to attack the demon — the demon washes the hero aside in an effortless wave of capital A’s. Sweat breaking out on my brow, I try another tack — into the setting I write a bottomless pit for the demon to fall into, but the little bastard is too fast for me; out of the pit fly a thousand unicorns that buoy him, cackling, up and around the page. The demonic symbols have spilled over from the word processor and are covering the desktop now; there isn’t much time.

I aim the prosometer at the page and fire; the symbols scatter from the blast, but they don’t disappear — instead, they begin to leak out of the side of the screen and congeal on the desktop. I raise the de-tangler and level it at the pool of inky blackness, but a hand congeals out of the babble and slaps the device across the room. It hits Geoff between the eyes and he drops like a sackful of query letters.

With horror, I back away from the desk. The hand has become an arm and a shoulder, steeped in inky ichor, rasping in a voice like the turning of a thousand pages and smelling like rotted parchment.

My eye falls on the quill. If ever there were a time, it’s now.

I hurl myself at the desk, ducking under the swiping arm of the GrammaDemon. My fingers close around the shank. Its ink runs thick and viscous over my hand, like the blood of a ravenous beast. I snarl and swing my arm around just as the demon kicks me across the room with a foot made entirely of the word “the”. I crack my head on the rim of the trashcan by the door. My vision goes blurry. The last thing I see is the quill, embedded in the GrammaDemon’s chest. Then there’s a loud crack, and everything goes black.

#

It feels like I’ve lost consciousness, but I haven’t. I feel Geoff tugging at my arm and realize that I’m wide awake, I just can’t see. I wipe my eyes — they’re covered with ink, just like everything else in the room. The laptop, the desk, Geoff, the windows — all are dripping with ink and congealed random letters: the lifeblood of the slain GrammaDemon.

“Are you all right?” Geoff asks. I put a hand to my head — it comes away soaked in ink, rather than blood. I nod.

“Your manuscript,” I say.

He runs to his desk, wipes the sheen of ink off the screen. Gone are the demonic symbols, the ASCII art, the ones and zeroes, the eggs, the ham. All that’s left is his horrible story.

“You did it,” he says, and before I can stop him, he’s hugging me. Ink is on his shoulders and in my hair and squishing out between our shoulders.

I pack up my things, cleaning off as much of the ink as I can. The quill is ruined: the shaft shattered, the plumules scattered around the room, sticking up at haphazard angles out of the ink. I don’t pity Geoff the cleaning bill he’ll have, but then again, the black is an improvement over the wallpaper. I leave him hunched over his laptop, finishing his manuscript, giddy — or maybe just lightheaded — on the fumes of the slain GrammaDemon.

As I hit the street, my cell chimes. There’s an APB out on somebody rewriting the lower third of the news broadcast in Gaelic. I check my watch. Not lunchtime yet.

I wipe a smudge of ink from my eyebrow and hail a cab. It’s gonna be a long day.

**************

Chuck’s challenge this week was to take a title created by another author and spin it into a story. I picked, obviously, “The 2nd Street Writing Syndicate,” offered by one David Marks. I had more fun writing this than I care to admit. It probably needs some work, but writing it was a creative and cathartic burst that I needed this week. Hope you enjoy!

This story was influenced more than a little by Jasper Fforde’s works about literary detective, Thursday Next.

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Some Stories You Should Read, 2nd Ed.


Over the past month, I’ve been taking part in a round-robin writing challenge over at TerribleMinds. Week 1, we all started open-ended stories, and every week thereafter, each participant was tasked with continuing a different story.

I’m happy to say that most of the stories I had my hands on managed to complete an entire story arc, and saw finished versions. It’s a funny thing… as the weeks went on, there were fewer and fewer participants, and a lot of the stories just kind of trailed off into the void.

I’ve done my best to track down all of them, and when possible, to provide links to the websites of the other authors whose hands touched these stories. It’s been an enlightening experience.

1: Cold Blood. Contributing authors: Catastrophe Jones, Helen Espinosa, Lauren Greene.

2: Bart Luther, Freelance Exorcist. Contributing authors: Josh Loomis, Paul Willett, Henry White.

3: Wasteland. (Unfinished as of now, sadly. My chapter was the last.) Contributing authors: WildBilbo, Angela Cavanaugh.

4: Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening. Contributing authors: Peter MacDonald, J M Beal, Liz Askew.

In short, if you’re on this site reading my fiction, you owe it to yourself to check out some of the links posted above. There’s something of a common thread binding all of us together, and this writing exercise has made those threads a little more visible.

Thanks to everybody who picked up pieces that I worked on, and for laying the groundwork for the stories I continued. This was a lot of fun!


Bart Luther, Freelance Exorcist


Chuck’s challenge this week: The Four Part Story, part two. It’s a round-robin storytelling exercise, and this week I’m extending the story started last week by Josh Loomis: Bart Luther, Freelance Exorcist. The story started off at 980 words. I added about 1005.

Josh’s bit begins the story. My bit begins after the asterisks. If you enjoy it, click back to Josh’s blog and let him know, too!

 

Bart Luther, Freelance Exorcist

I can’t imagine to understand everything that occurs in my life. I can’t account for everything I’ve seen. At least in terms of science. But those aren’t the circles I’ve traveled in, even after I left the church.

Not that me leaving keeps the church out of my life.

The balding priest sitting across my desk from me kept looking down at his hat, his fingers on the brim, perhaps because instructions were embroidered on it in really tiny letters. I rested my elbows on the desk’s blotter and interlaced my fingers in front of my chin. The clock on my wall ticked away seconds quietly. Finally, he took a deep breath and looked up at me.

“Forgive me, Mister Luther. This is not the sort of thing I am used to discussing.”

I shook my head. “It’s okay, Father O’Donnell. This isn’t the normal thing your parishioners deal with.”

“Ah… yes.” His brow furrowed. “I would appreciate it if you did not mention I brought this to you.”

“Right. Because the church would not want to admit that things like this actually exist.”

O’Donnell shifted uncomfortably in the chair. I kept myself from shaking my head or making a retching noise. Instead, I took a deep breath.

“Why don’t you tell me about the problem?”

“The problem is Samantha. She’s the daughter of one of our parishioners. She’s sixteen years old.”

I lowered my hands to reach for my notebook and a pen. “Possessed?”

“I’m not sure.”

I stopped writing. “You’re… not sure? Is it possible she just has a fever or something?”

O’Donnell shook his head. “She is speaking in tongues. Being… abrasive with her parents, when she never has before. She refers to things she could not possibly know. We cannot think of another way to explain it.”

“And how are you keeping the family from telling everybody in the neighborhood their daughter is possessed by a demon?”

“Her father told me of the trouble in confession. I reminded him that what he told me there remained between us, and that his wife and household were also bound by that stricture.”

I chuckled. “No wonder the girl was open to possession. It’s clear her old man isn’t very bright.”

O’Donnell glared at me. “I don’t think I appreciate your tone, Mister Luther.”

“Not the first time I’ve heard that.”

“We don’t have time for this.”

I looked up from my notes. “If you don’t like how I do things, Father, the door is behind you. Best of luck finding another freelance exorcist in the phone book.”

“But you are not listed in the phone book, Mister Luther. The church office has your card on file.”

Some priests, like most nuns, have no sense of humor. “My point is, I am your only option, unless you want to dust off your older texts, launder a fresh collar, and do this yourself.”

“I have no experience with such things. You have a great deal. Which is why you charge such exorbitant amounts of money for your… freelance exorcism services.”

“I also ghost-write inspirational books for churches like yours to sell in their gift shops!” I gave Father O’Donnell my best, cheesiest smile. He glared at me.

“Please. Mister Luther.” He paused. “Bartholomew. She needs your help.”

I sighed. “You don’t have to use the girl to get me to help you, Mike. I’m going to do it.”

“You had your reasons for leaving the church, I know, and…”

“Mike, come on, it’s okay. I’m sorry I was so hard on you. You can relax.”

The priest clutched his hat and let out a long breath. “It has been a hard time for me. I christened Samantha. Her confirmation is in two weeks. Or, at least, it should be.”

That got a smile. “Do you know I still have my confirmation bible?”

The priest started smiling, too. “Still sentimental after all these years, my son? That’s a promising sign.”

“You know I’m not coming back to the church, right?”

“I’m not sure why you left the priesthood in the first place…”

“I didn’t like the view from the inside.” I picked up my valise, opening it to check the inventory. “I still pray every day, Mike, and I do what I can to do right by Christ and my neighbors. But between bilking innocent, gullible people for cash and all of the shady crap the Vatican’s been responsible for over the years…”

Father O’Donnell held up his hands in surrender. “I do not agree with your reasoning, Bartholomew. But I’m heartened to know you’re still serving the Lord.”

I shook my head. “However you see it. Now, what else can you tell me about Samantha?”

Father O’Donnell told me where Samantha and her family lived, the sort of things she’d been saying, and I wrote all of it down. I made a fresh batch of coffee, poured some into a paper cup for Mike with a lid, and handed it to the priest before he left. I returned to my desk and sat.

An actual exorcism. From everything Mike had told me, Samantha was now renting out her head to one of the more nasty denizens of Dis. I dug out one of my source journals and looked through my notes. I had it narrowed down to a few possibilities, but I would need more information before I knew for sure. I closed up my journals and notebook, dropping them in the valise on top of the vials of holy water and my blessed crucifix.

I needed to get myself to Samantha’s family’s house to try and save her. But I also needed to make sure I had all the help I could manage. If I was right, I wasn’t the only one in danger.

So, taking a deep breath, I reached for my phone and started to dial her number.

*******

When I pulled up to the house, Nora was already there; arms crossed, leaning back on her beat-up old Volkswagen in a sweater two sizes too big for her. Her mom’s. She watched, unmoving, as I parked my dented Chevy and got out.

It’s an old and practiced way between us, the way we stand apart, waiting. I won’t hug her unless she invites it, but she won’t. Not after our last parting. With an inward chuckle, I counted my blessings that she even came. Truth be told, I didn’t expect her even to take my call.

“Dad.” Her eyes dropped to the gravel drive. She ground a few stones under her heel.

I almost choked up. Years had passed since she called me that. “Sweetie.”

She jerked her head toward the house, the last rays of the setting sun glinting off her hipster sunglasses. “You speak to the family yet?”

I’d gotten my valise out of the backseat to check its contents again. Not that I needed to, but old habits die hard. “Thought I’d let myself be surprised. You?”

“Just poked around out here a little bit.”

“Getting anything?”

“Fear. Confusion. Flashes of anger and hurt.” She cast a resentful eye at me. “The usual family stuff.”

I let her barb pass; she could say a lot worse, and I’d deserve it. I popped my bible into my pocket, snapped the valise shut, and moved toward the front door, stretching my arm out to her. She shoved her hands into her pockets and walked in front of me.

The steps to the front door creaked soothingly underfoot, like an old rocking chair Nora’s granddad used to sit and spin tales in. I thought of him and then I think of how he died, all hooked up to tubes and howling in pain. It’s not a memory any of us cherish, and I hadn’t thought of him in years. The memory just jumped to the surface like a fish in a calm pond. I glanced at Nora, but she was laser-focused on the door.

“Ready?” I asked.

Wordlessly, she rang the bell.

A heavy clatter of rushed footsteps, and the door opened just a crack. Darkness inside, and one wild eye peering out at us in the knife of dusky light. “Are you the priest?”

No. “Yes.”

A thunder of stampeding feet came from the second floor, and the man winced away from the noise like a frightened dog. “I wish you hadn’t rung the bell.” His voice was hushed, the whisper of a hunted child afraid for its life.

“Samantha?”

The stomping stopped, and the man’s face grew pale. “Don’t say her name.”

“Mister Gallod?” Nora’s voice was level and warm, and entirely unlike the voice she uses with me. “May we come in?”

Ed Gallod thought for a moment and then shuffles aside. We’d barely cleared the door when he eased it closed behind us, muffling its clicks as best he could. The only light came from dim, smoky candles. Piles of open books were strewn around the couch, the floor. Unwashed dishes crowded the sink. The disarray made it feel like a squatter’d been living there. Ed trudged a well-worn path through the mess and sat amidst a pile of books. He cleared a space for Nora to sit, and offered to do the same for me, but I declined. I was too nervous to sit still. My eyes watered at the candle smoke, but something else burned behind it. Sulphur. That awful eggy stink burrowed right up into my nose and nested there. Funny, I hadn’t smelled it at all outside. Nora either didn’t smell it or didn’t show it.

“Sorry about the mess,” Ed whispered. He looked like he might crawl right out of his skin. “I’d turn on the lights, but … they just go off. TV’s nothing but static or … voices.” He licked his lips and passed a grimy hand over his face. “Or screaming.” Tears welled in his eyes.

“Father O’Donnell told us. You don’t have to go through it again.” The stairway at the dark end of the hallway gaped like a maw and disappeared halfway up its length. I wished there was light. Light helps.

Nora reached across and lay her delicate fingers across the back of his hand, and a veil lifted. His eyes went clear and he looked at her, and at me, as if seeing us for the first time. His voice, still hushed, came out stronger, resolute. “What do you need?”

“Do you have something of hers? Something personal.”

With a trembling finger, he pointed to the armchair next to Nora. A ratty little stuffed elephant perched there, missing an eye, but cheerful and pink in the half-light. “Her mother was holding onto it… I don’t know, to remind herself of what S–” he stopped and cast his eyes at the ceiling. “Of what she was like. Before she left.”

O’Donnell had told me. Samantha’s mother couldn’t take it. Left town. Went to stay with her sister, and left poor Ed to deal with their possessed daughter all by his lonesome. Poor sap.

Nora took the little elephant and crossed to me, turning it over and over in her hands, her eyes closed. She shuddered a little and then looked at me. I raised my eyebrows at her. She nodded. I turned to Ed.

“Let’s go meet your daughter.”

With heavy steps, candle in hand, he led us up the stairs. The air on the second floor stifled, like a sauna on a summer day. The sulphur smell grew stronger as Ed stopped at the door that could only be Samantha’s. My gut turned to ice. At the floor, under my feet, I saw fingernail scratches in the wood, like somebody had been dragged into the room. I tried to control my breathing, but I couldn’t: it wasn’t me breathing. The sound of angry, quick, snorted breaths filled the hall. The door loomed. My fingers found my bible in my pocket.


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