practical demonkeeping - Page 2


3

TRAVIS

Travis O'Hearn was driving a fifteen-year-old Chevy Impala he had bought in L.A. with money the demon had taken from a pimp. The demon was standing on the passenger seat with his head out the window, panting into the rushing coastal wind with the slobbering exuberance of an Irish setter. From time to time he pulled his head inside the car, looked at Travis, and sang, "Your mother sucks cocks in he-ell, Your mother sucks cocks in he-ell," in a teasing, childlike way. Then he would spin his head around several times for effect.

They had spent the night in a cheap motel north of San Junipero, and the demon had tuned the television to a cable channel that played an uncut version of The Exorcist. It was the demon's favorite movie. At least, Travis thought, it was better than the last time, when the demon had seen The Wizard of Oz and had spent an entire day pretending to be a flying monkey, or screaming, "And that goes for your little dog, too."

"Sit still, Catch," Travis said. "I'm trying to drive."

The demon had been wired since he had eaten the hitchhiker the night before. The guy must have been on cocaine or speed. Why did drugs affect the demon when poisons did not phase him? It was a mystery.

The demon tapped Travis on the shoulder with a long reptilian claw. "I want to ride on the hood," he said. His voice was like rusty nails rattling in a can.

"Enjoy," Travis said, waving across the dashboard.

The demon climbed out the window and across the front, where he perched like a hood ornament from hell, his forked tongue flying in the wind like a storm-swept pennon, spattering the windshield with saliva. Travis turned on the wipers and was grateful to find that the Chevy was equipped with an interval delay feature.

It had taken him a full day in Los Angeles to find a pimp who looked as if he were carrying enough cash to get them a car, and another day for the demon to catch the guy in a place isolated enough to eat him. Travis insisted that the demon eat in private. When he was eating he became visible to other people. He also tripled in size.

Travis had a recurring nightmare about being asked to explain the eating habits of his traveling companion.

In the dream Travis is walking down the street when a policeman taps him on the shoulder.

"Excuse me, sir," the policeman says.

Travis does a slow-mo Sam Peckenpah turn. "Yes," he says.

The policeman says, "I don't mean to bother you  –  but that large, scaly fellow over there munching on the mayor  –  do you know him?" The policeman points toward the demon, who is biting off the head of a man in a pinstriped polyester suit.

"Why, yes, I do," Travis says. "That's Catch, he's a demon. He has to eat someone every couple of days or he gets cranky. I've known him for seventy years. I'll vouch for his lack of character."

The policeman, who has heard it all before, says, "There's a city ordinance against eating an elected official without a permit. May I see your permit, please?"

"I'm sorry," Travis says, "I don't have a permit, but I'll be glad to get one if you'll tell me where to go."

The cop sighs and begins writing on a ticket pad. "You can only get a permit from the mayor, and your friend seems to be finishing him off now. We don't like strangers eating our mayor around here. I'm afraid I'll have to cite you."

Travis protests, "But if I get another ticket, they'll cancel my insurance." He always wondered about this part of the dream; he'd never carried insurance. The cop ignores him and continues to write out the ticket. Even in a dream, he is only doing his job.

Travis thought it terribly unfair that Catch even invaded his dreams. Sleep, at least, should provide some escape from the demon, who had been with him for seventy years, and would be with him forever unless he could find a way to send him back to hell.

For a man of ninety, Travis was remarkably well preserved. In fact, he did not appear to be much over twenty, his age when he had called up the demon. Dark with dark eyes and lean, Travis had sharp features that would have seemed evil if not for the constant look of confusion he wore, as if there were one answer that would make everything in life clear to him if he could only remember the question.

He had never bargained for the endless days on the road with the demon, trying to figure out how to stop the killing. Sometimes the demon ate daily, sometimes he would go for weeks without killing. Travis had never found a reason, a connection, or a pattern to it. Sometimes he could dissuade the demon from killing, sometimes he could only steer him toward certain victims. When he could, he had the demon eat pimps or pushers, those that humanity could do without. But other times he had to choose vagrants and vagabonds, those that would not be missed.

There was a time when he had cried while sending Catch after a hobo or a bag-lady. He'd made friends among the homeless when he was riding the rails with the demon, back before there were so many automobiles. Often a bum who didn't know where his next roof or drink was coming from had shared a boxcar and a bottle with Travis. And Travis had learned that there was no evil in being poor; poverty merely opened one up to evil. But over the years he had learned to push aside the remorse, and time and again Catch dined on bums.

He wondered what went through the minds of Catch's victims just before they died. He had seen them wave their hands before their eyes as if the monster looming before them was an illusion, a trick of the light. He wondered what would happen now, if oncoming drivers could see Catch perched on the front of the Chevy waving like a parade queen from the Black Lagoon.

They would panic, swerve off the narrow road and over the ocean-side bank. Windshields would shatter, and gasoline would explode, and people would die. Death and the demon were never separated for long. Coming soon to a town near you, Travis thought. But perhaps this is the last one.

As a seagull cry dopplered off to Travis's left, he turned to look out the window over the ocean. The morning sun was reflecting off the face of the waves, illuminating a sparkling halo of spray. For a moment he forgot about Catch and drank in the beauty of the scene, but when he turned to look at the road again, there was the demon, standing on the bumper, reminding him of his responsibility.

Travis pushed the accelerator to the floor and the Impala's engine hesitated, then roared as the automatic transmission dropped into passing gear. When the speedometer hit sixty he locked up the brakes.

Catch hit the roadway face first and skidded headlong, throwing up sparks where his scales scraped the asphalt. He bounced off a signpost and into a ditch, where he lay for a moment trying to gather his thoughts. The Impala fishtailed and came to a stop sideways in the road.

Travis slammed the Chevy into reverse, righted the car, then threw it into drive and screeched toward the demon, keeping the wheels out of the ditch until the moment of impact. The Impala's headlights shattered against Catch's chest. The corner of the bumper caught him in the waist and drove him deep into the mud of the ditch. The engine sputtered to a stop and the damaged radiator hissed a rusty cloud of steam into Catch's face.

The driver's side door was jammed against the ditch, so Travis crawled out the window and ran around the car to see what damage he had done. Catch was lying in the ditch with the bumper against his chest.

"Nice driving, A.J.," Catch said. "You going to try for Indy next year?"

Travis was disappointed. He hadn't really expected to hurt Catch, he knew from experience that the demon was virtually indestructible, but he had hoped at least to piss him off. "Just trying to keep you on your toes," he said. "A little test to see how you hold up under stress."

Catch lifted the car, crawled out, and stood next to Travis in the ditch. "What's the verdict? Did I pass?"

"Are you dead?"

"Nope, I feel great."

"Then you have failed miserably. I'm sorry but I'll have to run you over again."

"Not with this car," the demon said, shaking his head.

Travis surveyed the steam rising from the radiator and wondered whether he might not have been a little hasty in giving way to his anger. "Can you get it out of the ditch?"

"Piece of cake." The demon hoisted the front of the car and began to walk it up onto the berm. "But you're not going to get far without a new radiator."

"Oh, you're all of a sudden an expert mechanic. Mr. help-me-I-can't-change-the-channel-while-the-magic-fingers-is-on all of a sudden has a degree in automotive diagnostics?"

"Well, what do you think?"

"I think there's a town just ahead where we can get it fixed. Didn't you read that sign you bounced off of?" It was a dig. Travis knew the demon couldn't read; in fact, he often watched subtitled movies with the sound off just to irritate Catch.

"What's it say?"

"It says, 'Pine Cove, five miles.' That's where we're going. I think we can limp the car five miles with a bad radiator. If not, you can push."

"You run over me and wreck the car and I get to push?"

"Correct," Travis said, crawling back through the car window.

"At your command, master," Catch said sarcastically.

Travis tried the ignition. The car whined and died. "It won't start. Get behind and push."

"Okay," Catch said. He went around to the back of the car, put his shoulder to the bumper, and began pushing it the rest of the way out of the ditch. "But pushing cars is very hungry work."

4

ROBERT

Robert Masterson had drunk a gallon of red wine, most of a five-liter Coors minikeg, and a half-pint of tequila, and still the dream came.

A desert. A big, bright, sandy bastard. The Sahara. He is naked, tied to a chair with barbed wire. Before him is a great canopied bed covered in black satin. Under the cool shade of the canopy his wife, Jennifer, is making love to a stranger  –  a young, muscular, dark-haired man. Tears run down Robert's cheeks and crystallize into salt. He cannot close his eyes or turn away. He tries to scream, but every time he opens his mouth a squat, lizardlike monster, the size of a chimpanzee, shoves a saltine cracker into his mouth. The heat and the pain in his chest are agonizing. The lovers are oblivious to his pain. The little reptile man tightens the barbed wire around his chest by twisting a stick. Every time he sobs, the wire cuts deeper. The lovers turn to him in slow motion, maintaining their embrace. They wave to him, a big home-movie wave, postcard smiles. Greetings from the heart of anguish.

Awake, the dream-pain in his chest replaced by a real pain in his head. Light is the enemy. It's out there waiting for you to open your eyes. No. No way.

Thirst  –  brave the light to slake the thirst  –  it must be done.

He opened his eyes to a dim, forgiving light. Must be cloudy out. He looked around. Pillows, full ashtrays, empty wine bottles, a chair, a calendar from the wrong year with a picture of a surfer riding a huge swell, pizza boxes. This wasn't home. He didn't live like this. Humans don't live like this.

He was on someone's couch. Where?

He sat up and waited in vertigo until his brain snapped back into his head, which it did with a vengeful impact. Ah, yes, he knew where he was. This was Hangover  –  Hangover, California. Pine Cove, where he was thrown out of the house by his wife. Heartbreak, California.

Jenny, call Jenny. Tell her that humans don't live this way. No one lives this way. Except The Breeze. He was in The Breeze's trailer.

He looked around for water. There was the kitchen, fourteen miles away, over there at the end of the couch. Water was in the kitchen.

He crawled naked off the couch, across the floor of the kitchen to the sink, and pulled himself up. The faucet was gone, or at least buried under a stack of dirty dishes. He reached into an opening, cautiously searching for the faucet like a diver reaching into an underwater crevice for a moray eel. Plates skidded down the pile and crashed on the floor. He looked at the china shards scattered around his knees and spotted the mirage of a Coors minikeg. He managed a controlled fall toward the mirage and his hand struck the nozzle. It was real. Salvation: hair of the dog in a handy, five-liter disposable package.

He started to drink from the nozzle and instantly filled his mouth, throat, sinuses, aural cavity, and chest hair with foam.

"Use a glass," Jenny would say. "What are you, an animal?" He must call Jenny and apologize as soon as the thirst was gone.

First, a glass. Dirty dishes were strewn across every horizontal surface in the kitchen: the counter, stove, table, breakfast bar, and the top of the refrigerator. The oven was filled with dirty dishes.

Nobody lives like this. He spotted a glass among the miasma. The Holy Grail. He grabbed it and filled it with beer. Mold floated on the settling foam. He threw the glass into the oven and slammed the door before an avalanche could gain momentum.

A clean glass, perhaps. He checked the cupboard where the dishes had once been kept. A single cereal bowl stared out at him. From the bottom of the bowl Fred Flintstone congratulated him, "Good kid! You're a clean-plater!" Robert filled the bowl and sat cross-legged on the floor amid the broken dishes while he drank.

Fred Flintstone congratulated him three times before his thirst abated. Good old Fred. The man's a saint. Saint Fred of Bedrock.

"Fred, how could she do this to me? Nobody can live like this."

"Good kid! You're a clean-plater!" Fred said.

"Call Jenny," Robert said, reminding himself. He stood and staggered through the offal toward the phone. Nausea swept over him and he bounced back through the trailer's narrow hallway and fell into the bathroom, where he retched into the toilet until he passed out. The Breeze called it "talking to Ralph on the Big White Phone." This one was a toll call.

Five minutes later he came to and found the phone. It seemed a superhuman effort to hit the right buttons. Why did they have to keep moving? At last he connected and someone answered on the first ring. "Jenny, honey, I'm sorry. Can I-"

"Thank you for calling Pizza on Wheels. We will open at eleven A.M. and deliveries begin at four P.M. Why cook when-"

Robert hung up. He'd dialed the number written on the phone's emergency numbers sticker instead of his home. Again he chased down the buttons and pegged them one by one. It was like shooting skeet, you had to lead them a little.

"Hello." Jenny sounded sleepy.

"Honey, I'm sorry. I'll never do it again. Can I come home?"

"Robert? What time is it?"

He thought for a moment then guessed, "Noon?"

"It's five in the morning, Robert. I've been asleep about an hour, Robert. There were dogs barking in the neighborhood all night long, Robert. I'm not ready for this. Good-bye, Robert."

"But Jenny, how could you do it? You don't even like the desert. And you know how I hate saltines."

"You're drunk, Robert."

"Who is this guy, Jenny? What does he have that I don't have?"

"There is no other guy. I told you yesterday, I just can't live with you anymore. I don't think I love you anymore."

"Who do you love? Who is he?"

"Myself, Robert. I'm doing it for myself. Now I'm hanging up for myself. Say good-bye so I don't feel like I'm hanging up on you."

"But, Jenny-"

"It's over. Get on with your life, Robert. I'm hanging up now. Good-bye."

"But-" She hung up. "Nobody lives like this," Robert said to the dial tone.

Get on with your life. Okay, that's a plan. He would clean up this place and clean up his life. Never drink again. Things were going to change. Soon she would remember what a great guy he was. But first he had to go to the bathroom to answer an emergency call from Ralph.

The smoke alarm was screaming like a tortured lamb. Robert, now back on the couch, pulled a cushion over his head and wondered why the Breeze didn't have a sleeper button on his smoke alarm. Then the pounding started. It was a door buzzer, not the smoke alarm.

"Breeze, answer the door!" Robert shouted into the cushion. The pounding continued. He crawled off the couch and waded through the litter to the door.

"Hold on a minute, man. I'm coming." He threw the door open and caught the man outside with his fist poised for another pounding. He was a sharp-faced Hispanic in a raw silk suit. His hair was slicked back and tied in a ponytail with a black silk ribbon. Robert could see a flagship model BMW parked in the driveway.

"Shit. Jehovah's Witnesses must make a lot of money," Robert said.

The Hispanic was not amused. "I need to talk to The Breeze."

At that point Robert realized that he was naked and picked an empty, gallon wine bottle from the floor to cover his privates.

"Come in," Robert said, backing away from the door. "I'll see if he's awake."

The Hispanic stepped in. Robert stumbled down the narrow hall to The Breeze's room. He knocked on the door. "Breeze, there's some big money here to see you." No answer. He opened the door and went in and searched through the piles of blankets, sheets, pillows, beer cans, and wine bottles, but found no Breeze.

On the way back to the living room Robert grabbed a mildewed towel from the bathroom and wrapped it around his hips. The Hispanic was standing in the middle of a small clearing, peering around the trailer with concentrated disgust. It looked to Robert as if he were trying to levitate to avoid having his Italian shoes contact the filth on the floor.

"He's not here," Robert said.

"How do you live like this?" the Hispanic said. He had no discernible accent. "This is subhuman, man."

"Did my mother send you?"

The Hispanic ignored the question. "Where is The Breeze? We had a meeting this morning." He put an extra emphasis on the word meeting. Robert got the message. The Breeze had been hinting that he had some big deal going down. The guy must be the buyer. Silk suits and BMWs were not the usual accouterments of The Breeze's clientele.

"He left last night. I don't know where he went. You could check down at the Slug."

"The Slug?"

"Head of the Slug Saloon, on Cypress. He hangs out there sometimes."

The Hispanic tiptoed through the garbage to the door, then paused on the step. "Tell him I'm looking for him. He should call me. Tell him I do not do business this way."

Robert didn't like the commanding tone in the Hispanic's voice. He affected the obsequious tone of an English butler, "And whom shall I say has called, sir?"

"Don't fuck with me, cabron. This is business."

Robert took a deep breath, then sighed. "Look, Pancho. I'm hung over, my wife just threw me out, and my life is not worth shit. So if you want me to take messages, you can damn well tell me who the fuck you are. Or should I tell The Breeze to look for a Mexican with a Gucci loafer shoved up his ass? Comprende, Pachuco?"

The Hispanic turned on the step and started to reach into his suit coat. Robert felt adrenaline shoot through his body, and he tightened his grip on the towel. Oh, yeah, he thought, pull a gun and I'll snap your eyes out with this towel. He suddenly felt extremely helpless.

The Hispanic kept his hand in his coat. "Who are you?"

"I'm The Breeze's decorator. We're redoing the whole place in an abstract expressionist motif." Robert wondered if he wasn't really trying to get shot.

"Well, smart ass, when The Breeze shows up, you tell him to call Rivera. And you tell him that when the business is done, his decorator is mine. You understand?"

Robert nodded weakly.

"Adios, dogmeat." Rivera turned and walked toward the BMW.

Robert closed the door and leaned against it, trying to catch his breath. The Breeze was going to be pissed when he heard about this. Robert's fear was replaced by self-loathing. Maybe Jenny was right. Maybe he had no idea how to maintain a relationship with anybody. He was worthless and weak  –  and dehydrated.

He looked around for something to drink and vaguely remembered having done this before. D��j�� vu?

"Nobody lives like this." It was going to change, goddammit. As soon as he found his clothes, he was going to change it.

RIVERA

Detective Sergeant Alphonso Rivera of the San Junipero County Sheriff's Department sat in the rented BMW and cursed. "Fuck, fuck, and double fuck." Then he remembered the transmitter taped to his chest. "Okay, cowboys, he's not here. I should have known. The van's been gone for a week. Call it off."

In the distance he could hear cars starting. Two beige Plymouths drove by a few seconds later, the drivers conspicuously not looking at the BMW as they passed.

What could have gone wrong? Three months setting it all up. He'd gone out on a limb with the captain to convince him that Charles L. Belew, a.k.a. The Breeze, was their ticket into the Big Sur growers' business.

"He's gone down twice for cocaine. If we pop him for dealing, he'll give us everything but his favorite recipe to stay out of Soledad."

"He's small time," the captain had said.

"Yeah, but he knows everybody, and he's hungry. Best of all, he knows he's small time, so he thinks we wouldn't bother with him."

Finally the captain had relented and it had been set up. Rivera could hear him now. "Rivera, if you got made by a drugged-out loser like Belew, maybe we should put you back in uniform, where your high visibility will be an asset. Maybe we can put you in P.R. or recruitment."

Rivera's ass was hanging out worse than that drunken jerk in the trailer. Who was he, anyway? As far as anyone knew, The Breeze lived alone. But this guy seemed to know something. Why else would he give Rivera such a hard time? Maybe he could pull this off with the drunk. Desperate thinking. A long shot.

Rivera memorized the license number of the old Ford truck parked outside The Breeze's trailer. He would run it through the computer when he got back to the station. Maybe he could convince the captain that he still had something. Maybe he did. And then again, maybe he could just climb a stream of angel piss to heaven.

Rivera sat in the file room of the sheriff's office drinking coffee and watching a videotape. After running the license number through the computer, Rivera found that the pickup belonged to a Robert Masterson, age twenty-nine. Born in Ohio, married to Jennifer Masterson, also twenty-nine. His only prior was a drunk-driving conviction two years ago.

The video was a record of Masterson's breathalyzer test. Several years ago the department had begun taping all breathalyzer tests to avoid legal-defense strategies based on procedural mistakes made by arresting officers during testing.

On the television screen a very drunk Robert W. Masterson (6 ft., 180 lbs., eyes green, hair brown) was spouting nonsense to two uniformed deputies.

"We work for a common purpose. You serve the state with your minds and bodies. I serve the state by opposing it. Drinking is an act of civil disobedience. I drink to end world hunger. I drink to protest the United States' involvement in Central America. I drink to protest nuclear power. I drink…"

A sense of doom descended on Rivera as he watched. Unless The Breeze reappeared, his career was in the hands of this tightly wound, loosely wrapped, drunken idiot. He wondered what life might be like as a bank security guard.

On the screen the two officers looked away from their prisoner to the door of the testing room. The camera was mounted in the corner and fitted with a wide-angle lens to cover anything that happened without having to be adjusted. A little Arab man in a red stocking cap had come through the door, and the deputies were telling him that he had the wrong room and to please leave.

"Could I trouble you for a small quantity of salt?" the little man asked. Then he blinked off the screen as if the tape had been stopped and he had been edited out.

Rivera rewound the tape and ran it again. The second time, Masterson performed the test without interruption. The door did not open and there was no little man. Rivera ran it back again: no little man.

He must have dozed off while the tape was running. His subconscious had continued the tape while he slept, inserting the little man's entrance. That was the only viable explanation.

"I don't need this shit," he said. Then he ejected the tape and drained his coffee, his tenth cup of the day.