practical demonkeeping - Page 11


24

AUGUSTUS BRINE

Augustus Brine was sitting in his pickup, parked a block away from Jenny's house. In the morning twilight he could just make out the outline of Jenny's Toyota and an old Chevy parked in front. The king of the Djinn sat in the passenger seat next to Brine, his rheumy blue eyes just clearing the dashboard.

Brine was sipping from a cup of his special secret roast coffee. The thermos was empty and he was savoring the last full cup. The last cup, perhaps, that he would ever drink. He tried to call up a Zen calm, but it was not forthcoming and he berated himself; trying to think about it pushed it farther from his grasp. "Like trying to bite the teeth," the Zen proverb went. "There is not only nothing to grasp, but nothing with which to grasp it." The closest he was going to get to no-mind was to go home and destroy a few million brain cells with a few bottles of wine  –  not an option.

"You are troubled, Augustus Brine." The Djinn had been silent for over an hour. At the sound of his voice Brine was startled and almost spilled his coffee.

"It's the car," Brine said. "What if the demon is in the car? There's no way to know."

"I will go look."

"Look? You said he was invisible."

"I will get in the car and feel around. I will sense him if he is that close."

"And if he's there?"

"I will come back and tell you. He cannot harm me."

"No." Brine stroked his beard. "I don't want them to know we're here until the last minute. I'll risk it."

"I hope you can move fast, Augustus Brine. If Catch sees you, he will be on you in an instant."

"I can move," Brine said with a confidence that he did not feel. He felt like a fat, old man  –  tired and a little wired from too much coffee and not enough sleep.

"The woman!" The Djinn poked Brine with a bony finger.

Jenny was coming out of the house in her waitress uniform. She made her way down the front steps and across the shallow front yard to her Toyota.

"At least she's still alive." Brine was preparing to move. With Jenny out of the house one of their problems was solved, but there would be little time to act. The demonkeeper could come out at any moment. If their trap was not set, all would be lost.

The Toyota turned over twice and died. A cloud of blue smoke coughed out of the exhaust pipe. The engine cranked, caught again, sputtered, and died; blue smoke.

"If she goes back to the house, we have to stop her," Brine said.

"You will give yourself away. The trap will not work."

"I can't let her go back in that house."

"She is only one woman, Augustus Brine. The demon Catch will kill thousands if he is not stopped."

"She's a friend of mine."

The Toyota cranked again weakly, whining like an injured animal, then fired up. Jenny revved the engine and pulled away leaving a trail of oily smoke.

"That's it," Brine said. "Let's go." Brine started the truck, pulled forward, and stopped.

"Turn off the engine," the Djinn said.

"You're out of your mind. We leave it running."

"How will you hear the demon if he comes before you are ready?"

Begrudgingly, Brine turned off the key. "Go!" he said.

Brine and the Djinn jumped out of the truck and ran around to the bed. Brine dropped the tailgate. There were twenty ten-pound bags of flour, each with a wire sticking out of the top. Brine grabbed a bag in each hand, ran to the middle of the yard, paying out wire behind him as he went. The Djinn wrestled one bag out of the truck and carried it like a babe in his arms to the far corner of the yard.

With each trip to the truck Brine could feel panic growing inside him. The demon could be anywhere. Behind him the Djinn stepped on a twig and Brine swung around clutching his chest.

"It is only me," the Djinn said. "If the demon is here, he will come after me first. You may have time to escape."

"Just get these unloaded," Brine said.

Ninety seconds after they had started, the front yard was dotted with flour bags, and a spider web of wires led back to the truck. Brine hoisted the Djinn into the bed of the truck and handed him two lead wires. The Djinn took the wires and crouched over a car battery that Brine had secured to the bed of the truck with duct tape.

"Count ten, then touch the wires to the battery," Brine said. "After they go off, start the truck."

Brine turned and ran across the yard to the front steps. The small porch was too close to the ground for Brine to crawl under, so he crouched beside it, covering his face with his arms, counting to himself, "seven, eight, nine, ten." Brine braced himself for the explosion. The seal bombs were not powerful enough to cause injury when detonated one at a time, but twenty at once might produce a considerable shock wave. "Eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, shit!" Brine stood up and tried to see into the bed of the truck.

"The wires, Gian Hen Gian!"

"It is done!" Came the answer.

Before Brine could say anything else the explosions began  –  not a single blast, but a series of blasts like a huge string of firecrackers. For a moment the world turned white with flour. Then storms of flame swirled around the front of the house and mushroomed into the sky as the airborne flour was ignited by successive explosions. The lower branches of the pines were seared and pine needles crackled as they burned.

At the sight of the fire storms, Brine dove to the ground and covered his head. When the explosion subsided, he stood and tried to see through the fog of flour, smoke, and soot that hung in the air. Behind him he heard the front door open. He turned and reached up into the doorway, felt his hand close around the front of a man's shirt, and yanked back, hoping he was not pulling a demon down off the steps.

"Catch!" the man screamed. "Catch!"

Unable to see though the gritty air, Brine punched blindly at the squirming man. His meaty fist connected with something hard and the man went limp in his arms. Brine heard the truck start. He dragged the unconscious man across the yard toward the sound of the running engine. In the distance a siren began to wail.

He bumped into the truck before he saw it. He opened the door and threw the man onto the front seat, knocking Gian Hen Gian against the opposite door. Brine jumped into the truck, put it into gear, and sped out of the doughy conflagration into the light of morning.

"You did not tell me there would be fire," the Djinn said.

"I didn't know." Brine coughed and wiped flour out of his eyes. "I thought all the charges would go off at once. I forgot that the fuses would burn at different rates. I didn't know that flour would catch fire  –  it was just supposed to cover everything so we could see the demon coming."

"The demon Catch was not there."

Brine was on the verge of losing control. Covered in flour and soot, he looked like an enraged abominable snowman. "How do you know that? If we didn't have the cover of the flour, I might be dead now. You didn't know where he was before. How can you know he wasn't there? Huh? How do you know?"

"The demonkeeper has lost control of Catch. Otherwise you would not have been able to harm him."

"Why didn't you tell me that before? Why don't you tell me these things in advance?"

"I forgot."

"I might have been killed."

"To die in the service of the great Gian Hen Gian  –  what an honor. I envy you, Augustus Brine." The Djinn removed his stocking cap, shook off the flour, and held it to his chest in salute. His bald head was the only part of him that was not covered in flour.

Augustus Brine began to laugh.

"What is funny?" The Djinn asked.

"You look like a worn brown crayon." Brine was snorting with laughter. "King of the Djinn. Give me a break."

"What's so funny?" Travis said, groggily.

Keeping his left hand on the wheel, Augustus Brine snapped out his right fist and coldcocked the demonkeeper.

25

AMANDA

Amanda Elliot told her daughter that she wanted to leave early to beat the Monterey traffic, but the truth was that she didn't sleep well away from home. The idea of spending another morning in Estelle's guest room trying to be quiet while waiting for the house to awaken was more than she could stand. She was up at five, dressed and on the road before five-thirty. Estelle stood in the driveway in her nightgown waving as her mother drove away.

Over the last few years Amanda's visits had been tearful and miserable. Estelle could not resist pointing out that each moment she spent with her mother might be the last. Amanda responded, at first, by comforting her daughter and assuring her that she would be around for many more years to come. But as time passed, Estelle refused to let the subject lie, and Amanda answered her concern with pointed comparisons between her own energy level and that of Estelle's layabout husband, Herb. "If it weren't for his finger moving on the remote control you'd never know he was alive at all."

As much as Amanda was irritated by Effrom marauding around the house like an old tomcat, she needed only to think of Herb, permanently affixed to Estelle's couch, to put her own husband in a favorable light. Compared to Herb, Effrom was Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks rolled into one: a connubial hero. Amanda missed him.

She drove five miles per hour over the speed limit, changing lanes aggressively, and checking her mirrors for highway patrol cars. She was an old woman, but she refused to drive like one.

She made the hundred miles to Pine Cove in just over an hour and a half. Effrom would be in his workshop now, working on his wood carvings and smoking cigarettes. She wasn't supposed to know about the cigarettes any more than she was supposed to know that Effrom spent every morning watching the women's exercise show. Men have to have their secret lives and forbidden pleasures, real or perceived. Cookies snitched from the jar are always sweeter than those served on a plate, and nothing evokes the prurient like puritanism. Amanda played her role for Effrom, staying on his tail, keeping him alert to the possibility of discovery, but never quite catching him in the act.

Today she would pull in the driveway and rev the engine, take a long time getting into the house to make sure that Effrom heard her coming so he could take a shot of breath spray to cover the smell of tobacco on his breath. Didn't it occur to the old fart that she was the one who bought the breath spray and brought it home with the groceries each week? Silly old man.

When Amanda entered the house, she noticed an acrid, burnt smell in the air. She had never smelled cordite, so she assumed that Effrom had been cooking. She went to the kitchen expecting to see the ruined remains of one of her frying pans, but the kitchen, except for a few cracker crumbs on the counter, was clean. Maybe the smell was coming from the workshop.

Amanda usually avoided going near Effrom's workshop when he was working, mainly to avoid the sound of the high-speed drills he used for carving, which reminded her of the unpleasantness of the dentist's office. Today there was no sound coming from the workshop.

She knocked on the door, gently, so as not to startle him. "Effrom, I'm home." He had to be able to hear her. A chill ran through her. She had imagined finding Effrom cold and stiff a thousand times, but always she was able to push the thought out of her mind.

"Effrom, open this door!" She had never entered the workshop. Except for a few toys that Effrom dragged out at Christmastime to donate to local charities, Amanda never even saw any of the carvings he produced. The workshop was Effrom's sacred domain.

Amanda paused, her hand on the doorknob. Maybe she should call someone. Maybe she should call her granddaughter, Jennifer, and have her come over. If Effrom were dead she didn't want to face it alone. But what if he was just hurt, lying there on the floor waiting for help. She opened the door. Effrom was not there. She breathed a sigh of relief, then her anxiety returned. Where was he?

The workshop's shelves were filled with carved wooden figures, some only a few inches high, some several feet long. Every one of them was a figure of a nude woman. Hundreds of nude women. She studied each figure, fascinated with this new aspect of her husband's secret life. The figures were running, reclining, crouching, and dancing. Except for a few figures on the workbench that were still in the rough stage, each of the carvings was polished and oiled and incredibly detailed. And they all had something in common: they were studies of Amanda.

Most were of her when she was younger, but they were unmistakably her. Amanda standing, Amanda reclining, Amanda dancing, as if Effrom were trying to preserve her. She felt a scream rising in her chest and tears filling her eyes. She turned away from the carvings and left the workshop. "Effrom! Where are you, you old fart?"

She went from room to room, looking in every corner and closet; no Effrom. Effrom didn't go for walks. And even if he'd had a car, he didn't drive anymore. If he had gone somewhere with a friend, he would have left a note. Besides, all his friends were dead: the Pine Cove Poker Club had lost its members, one by one, until solitaire was the only game in town.

She went to the kitchen and stood by the phone. Call who? The police? The hospital? What would they say when she told them she had been home almost five minutes and couldn't find her husband? They would tell her to wait. They wouldn't understand that Effrom had to be here. He couldn't be anywhere else.

She would call her granddaughter. Jenny would know what to do. She would understand.

Amanda took a deep breath and dialed the number. A machine answered the phone. She stood there waiting for the beep. When it came, she tried to keep her voice controlled, "Jenny, honey, this is Grandma, call me. I can't find your grandfather." Then she hung up and began sobbing.

The phone rang and Amanda jumped back. She picked it up before the second ring.

"Hello?"

"Oh, good, you're home." It was a woman's voice. "Mrs. Elliot, you've probably seen the bullet hole in your bedroom door. Don't be frightened. If you listen carefully and follow my instructions, everything will be fine."