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