A3Writer: A Funny Thing Happened One Night at the Blackthorn
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Sunday, November 2, 2008

A Funny Thing Happened One Night at the Blackthorn

     This is the short story I wrote before NaNoWriMo started. It features my, dare I say, intrepid private Investigator Matt Allen, as well as a character that will appear in my NaNoWriMo novel. The NaNoWriMo novel is actually the second featuring my PI, with this short story taking place before the first novel, so it may not do much to actually connect dots from the tiny excerpt I posted a couple of days back from the second novel. Anyway, I hope any who read this enjoy it.

A Funny Thing Happened One Night at the Blackthorn

     "I am possessed by a demon," my client said. He was in his forties, black hair with greying wings, and his full beard had similar spots of grey. Green eyes looked tired and dull, as if he was thoroughly stressed out, which, since he said he was a lawyer, I could understand.
     "Well, you've got my attention Mr. Merrick." I motioned him to continue. If he had been a kid, I probably would have dismissed him as a prank. Teenagers and college kids constantly harassed me, but a forty year old lawyer coming to my office meant something.
     "Well, Mr. Allen, it was on a trip for one of our international clients, and I remember at the time enjoying myself, but some woman took what I said offensively, and said something rather harsh at the time. My clients and I stared at her as she left, then all laughed even though our host said something about evil spirits pursuing me."
     "But there was something to it, right? You found out that it's not all superstition."
     "Y-yes. One of the locals overheard what the woman said, and gave me a cloth with this painted on it," he produced the cloth out of his pocket like a handkerchief—except its edges were unstitched, and it looked like poor, rough linen—and I could see . . . the only word I could come up with was glyph. I didn't recognize it as belonging to any language, but that didn't mean anything. There were a lot of languages out there; something about it, though, told me it was a geometric design. Maybe it was a geometric design combined with some elements of language. I didn't know. However, I did know that I had seen it before. Or at least I had seen something very much like it. I noticed something else, too. Merrick simply held the cloth up for me to look at. He didn't deposit it on the desk for me to examine, but held on to it. The rigid way he held it told me he didn't want to accidentally let it drop.
     "What's the story? This thing keep the demon from taking over?"
     He blinked, but then nodded. "Yes. I mean, no, not exactly. It keeps it from getting out. It doesn't really possess me, but lives inside me. I don't know. I don't have any experience with this. I just know that the few times I let the cloth away from me, there was a pain in me, and then something," his face reflected the horror he felt, "emerged, and began to destroy things."
     "Sounds pretty bad."
     "Please, Mr. Allen, I don't know where else to turn. I've tried to research this, but I have no experience with this sort of thing. I'll pay whatever it takes. I'm literally that desperate. I have to shower using one arm to hold this out of the water. I'm paranoid that I'll get it wet, and the design will wash away. I have to wear pajamas with a button up pocket so I make sure it doesn't fall out while I sleep. As you can imagine, I haven't been able to have, well . . . " he didn't need to go on. I could well imagine that other activities in bed had faltered, too.
     "How long since this happened?"
     "Three and a half weeks."
     "You said it was an international trip. Where did you go?"
     "India. My company opened up a new division there, and I had to make sure that they were doing things according to American laws. It's a big promotional thing so we can show people that we're going the extra mile."
     "Sure, whatever. India, huh? Well, that will make it a little easier to track it down. Only a little, though. There are a lot of demon and spirit legends from that whole region. Like I said, though, I've seen something like that design before. It may be some kind of catch-all ward against demons."
     "A ward?" he said, completely confused. I couldn't blame him. The odd conversation I had with my lawyer always left me with that same look whenever he broke out the jargon.
     "Yeah. A ward against evil spirits. You've seen the type of thing before. People crossing themselves when something bad happens, reciting a prayer, salt over the shoulder, or whatever. They do it to keep the bad away. Most of the time people are just being superstitious, but it does actually work against some things, least if it's done the right way and with the right faith."
     "I'm sorry, Mr. Allen, but I'm not much into faith. My father was a Baptist minister, but I never felt the way he did, and I haven't been into a church in over twenty years."
     "That's a shame; faith might have helped you out so you wouldn't even need my help."
     "Mr. Allen, I guess I do believe in God, but I'm not into religion. It all seems fake, especially with those televangelists. If God's up there, then He should make it clear what religion to belong to. Since He hasn't, then I really can't believe in Him."
     "Mr. Merrick, I don't care what you believe, I just know it would have helped you."
     I decided against telling him the rest as it wouldn't help or get through to him. Possessions were actually very easy to deal with. Most of the time I never even saw a person with possession since those types usually went to their priest or minister for help, who very quickly would perform an exorcism. End of story. The problem, of course, came with all of the atheists these days. Those who didn't believe in a higher power were susceptible to some of the dark things out there, and the dark things were all too glad to take advantage of the situation when presented the opportunity.
     "It's preposterous." Yeah, that argument always worked well. These if-I-don't-have-obvious-and-definite-proof-it-doesn't-exist types got on my nerves.
     "Mr. Merrick, you're in my office trying to get rid of demonic possession," I said flatly.
     "Yes, well . . ." he went quiet, not having an answer.
     "More than that, I guarantee that the demon is not impressed in your logic regarding God. None of that matters, though. This has happened, so I'll see what I can do to help you."
     "Thank you, Mr. Allen. If you can help me, I'll give whatever you like. No fee is too great."
     "Call me, Matt. I may know something that can help. We'll have to check it out. I know someone that has that design on something. Or at least it's close. We can go check it out."
     "Thank you, Matt. I just want to be able to take a shower in peace."
     "I read you, Mr. Merrick. We better get down to it. Before we check out this geogram I want you to tell me about this demon. What's it look like? What did it do when it got free?"
     "I don't really know how to describe it. It's big. I think maybe ten or twelve feet tall. It has claws and fangs. They're all white, but eery. They gleam, I guess."
     "Kind of an unnatural white light?"
     "Um, yeah. And its eyes were huge and golden, like a cat's eyes."
     "Same kind of pupil?"
     "I don't know. I'm not sure."
     "Was it fat, lean, or muscular?"
     "Well I guess it was muscular, but not like Arnold Schwarzenegger. I just know it was really strong. It, uh, it flipped a car over."
     "Well, for the size you said it was, I guess it would be able to do that. If you grab on to the cloth again does it go away."
     "Not right away. It takes a little while. Just like at first it couldn't come out if I just dropped the cloth. I don't know why."
     "Hmm, maybe it rests up or something. It's something to go off of, anyway. Okay, I think that's about it. If you haven't got anything going on right now, I'd like you to come with me to check out this other glyph. Having the real cloth there to compare it to might help. Who knows, if it's the real deal then you might get rid of your demon tonight." The glyph I knew about wasn't exactly the same. It was made of metal, and had a handle. It reminded me of a seal or signet, just a lot bigger. Maybe it even worked as a brand.
     "That's more than I could even hope for, Mr. Allen. Please don't tempt me with false hope like that."
     "Sure, I understand. Come on, we can take my car. I'm sure you get tense when it comes to driving.
     "You have no idea."
     We left the office, the kid Ira that I had hired a week back was at class, so I had to lock the place up. I couldn't afford a full-time person to man the desk, especially someone who actually cared about doing a good job. Ira, though, a psychology and religion student at Coleridge College, did a decent job at the reception part, but also was a fine researcher. He knew how to make the internet dance for him. I was better at sifting through older stuff and some of what he dug up, but he could locate just about anything online. Still, those skills didn't do me any good when he was at class.
     I bundled John Merrick, esquire, into the car, and drove off to the Grind. Some kind of cosmic law dictated that a detective had to go into the rough part of town to get the information he wanted. Most of the time it was a bar, but I wasn't headed to Tony's, but to Nikki's. I was always hesitant to talk to Nikki. All P.I.s worth their salt had contacts for information. Sometimes they were less than savory. Mine just happened to be a vampire. She also happened to own a night club that doubled as a blood bar. Young kids everywhere, most of them dressed all in black with hair to match if it wasn't dyed a purple or unnatural red, had a thing for the gothic and vampiric; I had no idea why, though. It worked for her, though, since she could get her fill of blood from the naive kids without resorting to killing anyone.
     She and I had an arrangement, too, but not for blood. I would give her tidbits of information in exchange for the same. So far, I had a credit built up, and it happened that before John Merrick walked in my door that I had heard something interesting that she will want to know, making my credit even bigger. I didn't know why she wanted to know something about a German museum, but it wasn't any of my affair. I kept my ear to the ground , and Ira actually had a German pen pal who frequented the museums. The news I got often was only good for a few days before it hit the web in a splash, but Nikki wanted to know ahead of that.
     Even with my credit, though, I was uneasy around her. There was something about being around a vampire that was just unnerving. Of course, it only affected me. Even those kids who thought they liked vampires really didn't know Nikki's true nature. As far as I knew, the list of those who knew was small. I couldn't even be sure any of her employees knew, but I imagined that secrets like that were best kept close. My knowing didn't alleviate me at all, but rather made me more apprehensive. Ignorance truly was bliss at times, which is why I wasn't going to tell Merrick what he was really walking into. I knew that he had enough difficulty dealing with the demon in his life without knowing just how bizarre things got through the looking glass.
     The Blackthorn Bar, despite being in the Grind, attracted a lot of people, and looked quite modern despite being in the rough part of town. I think its very nature made it more appealing to be in the rough part of town.
     "This is it?" Merrick asked when I parked across the street.
     "A nightclub?"
     "Matt, I have to say you lead a pretty strange life."
     "Yeah, I get that a lot. I tend to go for the non-exciting cases, though. Most people don't end up coming to me unless they've got something that requires what I do. Sometimes I luck into a simple cheating husband case, though."
      A line of people stood outside its door to Nikki's, which we had to join the end of. With a line of emo/punk/goth/vampires the two older guys in suits stood out a mile away. I could tell Merrick had a tough time dealing with it, too as the kids around us would toss out insults about us, but I think he was more disturbed by a group in front of us that talked about drinking blood.
     "Mr. Allen, do these kids really," he ended with an odd gesture, but I knew what he meant.
     "Yep. It's not advertised, but it goes on here."
     The minutes ticked by, and I was doing my best not to go stir crazy. Patience was a virtue, but waiting wasn't the same thing as patience. Like John, I did plenty of sighing, listening in to the conversations of the kids around us, which ranged from attending or anticipating various concerts, all from bands I couldn't readily identify. The common thread in the song titles seemed to indicate some sort of minor suffering at the hands of parents, teachers, and various other authority figures. At least one set did. The other set behind us talked about songs of a more occult nature, and, unless my hearing had gone completely, self-inflicted wounds. Apparently, dragging a razor blade across the skin felt really good. I guess the world had run completely out of drugs if kids resorted to this sort of thing.
     I wanted to check my watch, but couldn't, since I had looked at it a bare minute ago. I hated waiting, which made me lousy at going on a stakeout. Although for stakeout I would generally load an audio book up into my car, and just go with that. Plus, the company I kept was generally far better than what I dealt with now.
     Finally, I could see Steve, the guy working the rope tonight. He was one of three of Nikki's bouncers, and with his pale skin, greasy black hair, and pencil-thin goatee, he blended into the crowd of people here perfectly except for the suit he wore. That was something I had to give Nikki; she liked her people dressed up with style and class. On a guy Steve's size the suit was a tough fit, but just made him look more imposing. I palmed a Grant. With the number of people here tonight, I doubted he would let me in normally. I looked at John and sighed before putting it away and bringing out Benjamin.
     "Evening, Steve. Looks like a great night for the club. I'm sure the boss is happy about that." My handshake was spot-on, and I knew a magician would be hard-pressed to spot the hand-off.
     "Matt Allen. I don't see a woman with you, so you must be here on business. I have to warn you that she's pretty busy tonight. Everyone wants to see her. Ty is keeping them back from her. Look for the line out of the side lounge, and be prepared to wait again," he said with a smile much too cheerful for my liking as he raised the rope up for us. I sighed again, but motioned for John to follow me in. After waiting two hours in line I did not want to repeat the process. Likely Nikki was indulging her appetite with plenty of young men all volunteering. There was a chance that trying to skip by everyone would result in trouble, though. The vampire was mercurial at times. The arrangement we had was tenuous at best.
     Like any dick, I had my share of sources I could go to for information, but I didn't look to pickpockets, cops, or any kind of informant. I dealt with vampires, mystics, and librarians most of the time. Now the librarians would take money, as often as not, but the others generally didn't have a need for it. Tony and I were almost friends, and I had done him a big favor early on, so the mystic helped me out when it didn't cost him anything, and occasionally I got him the odd item he wanted. Nikki was tougher though; for her I had to get information, and only information useful to her. Fortunately for me I had already given her a piece of information, so she owed me, and I had another tidbit to pass on to her tonight; I just didn't know if I wanted to try and leverage it into getting to her more quickly.
     John and I passed through a short vestibule—apropos of where we were headed—and straight into hell. At least, it was one of my definitions of hell. The cacophony of music and lights that assaulted us ranked high on the list of epileptics' nightmares.
     "Matt, the noise, the lights, is there any way out of this? I'm not feeling too well," John said beside me.
     I hustled him off to the side of the entrance, where the noise was minutely more bearable, just as being plowed down by a Mack was more bearable to a tank. "Is this a sign the thing is going to get loose?"
     "I don't . . . maybe, I don't know. If I get weak or stressed then there's a chance, especially since it's been a long time since it's been out."
     "Hold it together. We could leave, but then we'd have to come back tomorrow. If I'm right, in less than an hour this thing will be out of your life."
     "All right. I think . . . yes, I'll be okay. I hope."
     "Right, I'll try and speed this up. Stay close."
     The reason for him to stay close was not to keep tabs on the thing that might come out of him, but to keep him from getting lost amid the jumble of bodies that pressed all around us amid the blaring colored strobes. Staying close to the wall helped, since everyone wanted to press into the center where the lit, multicolored dance floor packed them in like cattle. The analogy was hard to avoid since Nikki was the rancher in these parts. John and I got jostled around as people made their way around. I could see the bar like a lighted beacon at the other end, but John and I wanted the lounge off to the side. I could already see the line of people, which actually stretched to the bar. We skirted the booths and tables along the wall, those nooks did afford a slight haven from the noise since they were three-quarter horseshoes—all padded red leather, naturally. Nikki had a thing for red, and roses. The rose motif was a little repressed in the booths tonight—maybe she had run out—but the paintings on the wall served as an adequate reminder. The roses were almost incidental as painted, winding black stems with thick, black thorns traveled the walls as well.
     Finally, we got to the entrance of the lounge, where Ty guarded the door. Ty's muscles seemed more defined under his suit, or maybe his suit was just smaller. He had a chiseled jaw, but the rest of him looked pretty plain: brown hair, brown eyes, narrow mouth—almost nonexistent when he scowled, and an unassuming nose. I went straight up to him, which is why he put his hand out like a stop sign. I stopped out of courtesy. I couldn't dig into my pocket to get into the lounge like I did the club. He would only let people in when Nikki was ready for, well, new blood. I had to lead with my news.
     "Back of the line, Allen."
     "I need in right away, me and my associate."
     Ty looked over at John, took in how we were dressed, and, like some judge on high, made his pronouncement, "She doesn't want to handle any kind of business tonight."
     "I have news that she wants, so let me by."
     "Can't do it. If you're lying, I'm the one whose ass is on the line."
     He had a point, and with Nikki it was no joke. Still, I needed in, so I had to show him part of my hand; Nikki would do the rest, and call to see the rest of my cards. "Tell her it's about a museum in Germany. If she still won't see me, then I'll leave."
     His eyes narrowed on me, but he opened the door, and went inside, closing it behind him so none of the dozens of people lined up would try to get in. Of course, what those people had to say about John and me should have had their mothers pouring out of the woodwork armed with soap.
     A minute later Ty came back out looking unhappy, which of course made me want to smile. I didn't, of course, since I wanted to show how graceful I could be in a victory. Really I wanted to keep that cool demeanor that Spade so famously portrayed. Ty was beneath my interest and out of the way, though I couldn't really dismiss a guy with muscles like that. John and I went inside, and were welcomed by a scene almost straight out of Victorian decadence. Chairs and couches with funky, carved, arched legs, all gilded, and covered with red velvet lay about in seemingly haphazard fashion. The lounge was a decent size, and held three circles of such chairs and couches, all surrounding little coffee tables. A haze of incense smoke assaulted my nose and passed ghostly shadows throughout the room's dim illumination. Paintings on the wall hung for decoration, but with the lighting and haze I couldn't make them out, nor did I even try. Knowing what I did about Nikki, it was some kind of rose theme, anyway.
     A grunt from and a thick finger from Ty pointed out Nikki, not that I could miss her. She reclined on the couch, well, not exactly. She reclined on a guy who sat on the couch, her legs stretched out to prop up on the legs of another guy. She wore a gown of black satin that reminded me of some great black-and-white movies, like Gilda. It was long and shimmered in the hazy light. The satin was loose until it reached her hips, then went in tight from there up the rest of her body. A small oval cut out in the center revealed some cleavage. It was simple and elegant. She looked like what everyone pictured a female vampire to be from that inviting body to those penetrating blue eyes and long auburn hair that could have belonged to Rita Hayworth—Since Gilda was in my mind—especially when Nikki smiled and laughed like she did now.
     "Is that her? She looks like a movie star"
     "This ain't the movies, Merrick. Nikki is as close to a real femme fatale as they come, so remember we're here on business."
     "Get moving. You got in, but that doesn't mean you can waste time looking at the girls."
     "We were just looking to see if we could set you up with someone, Ty. The girl over there has been eyeing you something fierce," I jerked my head to the right. "No, don't look," I didn't check to see if he was looking, just knew that he would try, " you don't want to tip her off. You have to play it cool. Once we're over with Nikki you can do the bodyguard thing and survey the room casual-like." Hopefully that would focus his concentration away from Merrick and me.
     I walked over to Nikki's circle where the guy she lay on pleaded with her, offering his wrist to her mouth. "Perhaps later, Jeremy. I seem to have guests, important guests at that," she said smoothly. Her voice was a cross of Kathleen Turner and Angelina Jolie, and if it wasn't for the fact that she sucked blood, I would have been a puddle at her feet. Most of the people in here, though, would have called that a reason to throw themselves at her. Ignorance truly was bliss at times. The myth of the romanticized vampire was far preferable to the reality.
     "I think you want to do this privately."
     "Oh, you dislike my admirers, Matthew?"
     "I just thought you wanted to keep your business yours."
     "Oh, very well. Everyone, I need some time alone with these two . . . gentlemen," she smiled, and the dig was apparent, but it didn't bother me. I wasn't out to be a gentleman; I couldn't afford it, and I refused to eat at a place where a dinner the size of a Happy Meal cost me at least a Jackson.
     I watched as most of the people morosely made their way to other circles, except for Jeremy and the footstool, who complained that they couldn't bear to be away from her.
     "Oh, very well, the two of you may remain as long as you stay quiet." She also got up off of Jeremy, and had him sit properly so she could as well, though she still lounged in the couch with her legs crossed and one foot bouncing slowly as she kicked it. "Now, Matthew, sit, and tell me what I want to know."
     "I'm not just here for that, my friend Mr. Merrick here is in need of a favor that you can provide."
     "I'm pleased to—" John started, but Nikki cut him off.
     "If your information is good, I shall indulge you."
     "Right, then. One John, Johann, I guess, Werner Strauss has opened up an art exhibit that will tour first Germany, then Europe. The focus of the exhibit are the treasures of the Rhine river, feature paintings of the Rhine, sculptures of the surrounding landscape—often made from materials taken from the river, and items forged from metal taken from the river, including a ring a la Wagner's masterpiece. Most of these items are of a contemporary nature, but there are a few paintings that are more historic in origin such as the little known 'Washing in the Rhein,' painted circa 1878 and featuring a woman bathing and washing her clothes in the river."
     I pulled out and unfolded a fax from a friend of mine who had let me in on the exhibit. I didn't know exactly why Nikki wanted to know about it, but I knew I would score big points and major favors from her just by doing so, and it didn't cost me anything.
     Jeremy leaned forwarded and reached out with a hazy, lazy grace that made me think he had been drained of some much needed hemo, or he was doing some other kind of drug.
     "Matthew, you are remarkable," she said with a dazzling smile on her face, "however did you find this."
     "You know that whole thing about keeping sources and never revealing tricks?"
     "Oh, don't give me that old saw, Matthew."
     "I wasn't, I was just going to say I know a guy in Germany is all. I told him I'd send him a care package of real American food, and he couldn't resist."
     "Clever. Yes, this is what I was looking for. You have no idea how pleased I am."
     "Enough to help out my client, here." It wasn't a question.
     "Yes, I suppose I am in your debt somewhat and need to make recompense. There are so very many ways I can do so, too. Which would you prefer, Mr. Merrick," she purred seductively.
     "I, um, wow you're beautiful."
     I elbowed him once, and he sheepishly looked back at me, then went puppy-dog eyes on her again, but didn't say anything, at least.
     "He's got a problem that I think you can solve, and not by showing him a good time. Seems he picked up a curse in India awhile back, and he needs something you've got."
     "And what would that be?" Nikki said as if she didn't care at all, her eyes on the fax.
     "A seal. I saw it displayed behind some glass in the main club among some other niceties you have collected."
     "What does this seal look like?"
     "Show her," I nudged John again.
     He pulled out the cloth with the glyph on it, and displayed it to Nikki, who didn't see it from looking at the fax still.
     Jeremy, though, saw it and leaned forward, and grabbed it to give to Nikki.
     "Hey! Let go!" John said in a panic. I leaned forward to try and grab Jeremy's hand to get him to let go.
     "What—" Nikki began, but it was too late. Jeremy yanked and the cloth tore, ruining the glyph. My eyes went wide, but that was nothing compared to the look of sheer horror on John's face.
     "Oh God, it's going to get loose now! Matt, you have to help me. Please! What am I going to do? It's going to get out and it won't stop, now."
     "What is he talking about, Matthew? What is going to get loose?"
     "It wouldn't have been anything except for your boy there, but John's cursed, like I said. He's possessed by a demon."
     "A demon? You brought someone possessed by a demon into my establishment?"
     "It's not like I wanted to, but you have the seal!"
     John yelled, clutching at his chest. "It's coming! Help me!" It was a funny thing with magic and occult phenomenon. In the movies, they had special effects that showed portals and vortices or demons clawing their way out of chest cavities in gruesome fashion a la Alien complete with thunderous sound and a stirring musical interlude. The reality wasn't nearly as interesting. A fine orange cloud streamed out of John's chest, and then coalesced into a shape.
     No one was prepared to see the mist coalesce into a ten foot tall demon with large, white fangs visible when it roared that had their own kind of pale glow. Its eyes were too large for its head, but not in that friendly cartoon way. Its nose was more like a snout from how it protruded from its head. The overall impression of the facial features was feline, especially with its orangish skin and black tufts of fur that criss-crossed it kind of like stripes. The claws tipping each of its fingers also aided the feline impression.
     Feeling no shame, I jumped behind the couch Nikki was on, looking for any kind of cover. I had no weapons on me. I thought this was going to be an easy case with no complications, so I didn't want to irritate Nikki by bringing weapons into her place. I wouldn't do that again. John collapsed where he stood, sinking into the floor and apparently beneath the creature's notice. The screaming people, on the other hand, did get its notice, and it began flailing its arms, cutting into them with its claws and tossing them into walls, furniture, and each other.
     "What have you done!?" Nikki screamed at me, her hand clamping down on my shoulder. At least she didn't grab my throat. For some reason people who asked questions always had a habit of clamping down on the throat, which of course made talking difficult, but that didn't seem to be a deterrent to those who did it. Unfortunately, I didn't have an answer for her as I was too busy trying to figure out if the demon saw us. It seemed occupied with throwing these kids around before it smashed through the door to the lounge, sending people and debris everywhere. "Matthew , answer me!"
     "I didn't do it, Nikki! Your blood donor did this when he grabbed the geogram. It's what held the demon back, and if we have the seal, maybe we can banish it permanently."
     "You brought him into my place!"
     "Yeah, I get it, but you can blame me later. Look!"
     I pointed to where the demon happily stormed the dance floor, driving the kids from it as they shouted and screamed. Of course, there was a small group who thought that what they were seeing was either some sort of show or they were hopped up on something since they pointed and laughed at it instead of doing the sensible thing and running.
     "If we can't get the seal then that thing is going to destroy the whole place if not the city."
     "If my bar is destroyed, then you shall be destroyed as well," the steel in her voice was unmistakable, as were the display of her fangs.
     This was too much for me, and all I could do is nod dumbly to her as I contemplated death by dismemberment at the hands of the demon or desanguination, most likely slow, at Nikki's hands.
     "On your feet!" she hauled me up with no effort as the demon smashed into the DJ's console.
     "The seal is in the case close to the bar," she said and pushed me ahead of her.
     I took the hint and moved, but I didn't run for all I was worth. I tried to stay close to the wall and unobtrusive since the big guy seemed attracted to the loudest screaming and the fastest moving. Of course, this didn't keep me from feeling any fear. My stomach was an ice cream churn with all thirty-one flavors going at once, and I didn't know if I'd be able to keep it down, though Nikki solved that with cold fingers on my neck. They weren't the tickling, playful fingertips on the neck that one would hope from a lover, but forceful fingers like a bodybuilder with long fingernails threatening to crush a soda can.
     "How could you be so stupid," she delivered in a low growl, and she clearly did not want a response. "Do you know how hard I try and maintain my anonymity here? Very few know what I truly am. These kids believe in the fantasy of what I am, but only one or two truly fathom what I am, and now you have painted a large target on me. I should rip your heart out and offer it up to this beast to get it to leave except that would deny me the pleasure of draining your lifeblood over the course of several months for this effrontery."
     That did it. I couldn't hold it back any more. My stomach heaved and I turned and bent over, bringing up the contents of my stomach onto the wall. Nikki made a disgusted sound, as opposed to my disgusting sound, and released me with, "I will do it myself since you're worthless."
     I couldn't argue since I heaved again, but after a few quick breaths, I mustered, wiping my mouth with a handkerchief and leaving it there, and walked after her somewhat less fearful, or maybe I had become too scared to no longer know anything else. Nikki, though, had obviously beaten me to it, and smashed open the case with bladed fingers straight out of a Jackie Chan movie. I wondered if she'd follow it up with some of that Crouching Tiger stuff, but she simply took quick steps in high heels—how in God's name did she do that?—over to the demon.
     She pressed the metal seal onto the demon's back, and it howled briefly before turning and slamming his arm into her, sending her flying toward the wall. The move evidently caught even her by surprise because even with vampiric strength she couldn't prevent herself from slamming hard into the brick wall.
     Satisfied that the threat had been dealt with, the demon went back to his rampage, though targets had become few as they gathered around the exits in a mad rush, so that's where it lurched off too. I did my own lurch, heading off toward Nikki. I knew she wasn't dead, but she would be mad, and I was worried she would turn that anger towards me since the seal had not worked. I had an idea about that, though, so I needed to get the seal from her.
     She lay in a heap, and from the right angles that her right arm and leg were at I figured she had broken bones, and was in a little bit of pain. I felt my stomach quiver again as I watched her use her left arm to jerk and align her right arm with the sickening sound of bone moving. I knew she would heal quickly from the wounds, but that was something straight out of some horror flick. Her face had contorted in pain, but that didn't stop her from aligning her right leg with her thigh.
     "This thing is as worthless as you are. It had no effect. Find a way to stop that thing, Allen, or you will have a very long time to die."
     I didn't say anything, just grabbed the metal seal, it looked like a meat tenderizer, but instead of the diamond pattern on the bottom was the geogram. I ran, but not towards the demon. I went over to John who still lay on the floor, but groaned in a daze. I slapped him on the cheeks a couple of times.
     "John, wake up. I have the seal, and the demon's loose."
     "Use it on him, get rid of it!" he said groggily.
     "It doesn't work. I think it has to be used on you, like the cloth was." I set the seal down on the floor and ripped open his shirt revealing a white cotton undershirt. Since time was of the essence with the screams going on, there was no time for him to take it off so I pulled open my keychain knife. The blade was all of an inch long, but it might do to cut through the shirt. It was useless as any kind of weapon, though.
     "What are you doing?"
     "It's got to be put on your skin. I don't know what this thing is going to do exactly, so just prepare for the worst," I said getting enough of a slit that I could rip the rest of it open by hand. I didn't wait for him to respond or even get ready. I hefted the seal again and pressed it to his bare chest. The movies almost always have it wrong. Magic isn't about spectacular special effects. In fact, most of the time there were no special effects, the thing just happened with no fanfare. In the movies the seal would have glowed, sizzled, sounded a gong, sent out sparks, or anything else that the techs could dream up. Instead, there was nothing to see and nothing to hear except for the scream that was ripped from John Merrick's throat and his convulsion of pain as his hands tried to claw the seal, and consequently my hand, away. I kept pressing it down on him, hoping I wasn't killing him. I cast a glance over my shoulder to see the monster dissolving into mist again. The mist just seemed to dissipate, and only then did I release the seal from John's chest. On his chest was the brand of the geogram, though it didn't look burned. John and I both looked at it, and the man tentatively put a finger to it then pressed again with more force when it didn't hurt. If it had been a real brand the skin should have been raised up in ridges around it where it had been burned, but this was flush.
     "Like a tattoo," John said curiously.
     "Guess so. Listen, John, can you walk? We need to get out of here."
     "I think so, yeah, I'm okay."
     "Good, let's move."
     People still filed out of the place even though the carnage had ended. Some few tried to pretend everything was okay—notably that group that was either stoned or thought it all a show—but most wanted out of this place, me included. I wasn't afraid of the demon, though, but of Nikki. Sure I had managed to get rid of the demon, potentially saving her life, but her bar was a shambles, and I knew she would be steamed for awhile.
     We got past Nikki, who was being attended by Syd and Ty—more like trying to get rid of them from the sound of it.
     "Enough! I will be fine. Start assessing the damage and get my insurance on the phone, and make sure Steve is out front to deal with the police when they show up." I wondered just what she was going to tell the cops about what happened. Being a vampire, she could fuzz their heads and make them believe whatever she wanted. Hopefully she would not send them after me.
      I didn't see any sign of Steve as we ducked out the front door, but I wagered he would be in the direction of the oncoming police cars. Their lights were on, but not their sirens, so evidently they didn't think it too great an emergency. I imagine they believed it to be a prank when several kids called in to claim a ten foot tall demon was trashing the place, but with enough reports they had to respond to the call.
     John and I managed to get away more by luck and our dress than any clever plan, and I took us straight back to my office where I poured him a full glass of scotch. Of course, being in the state he was, he downed it with barely a gasp, so I filled it again.
     "Oh God, it's gone. It's really gone!" Sure, now he found religion. It would have helped if he had some sort of faith before he had been cursed to host an Indian demon.
     "At least I hope so. I'm not an expert on these things."
     "What do you mean?"
     "I mean that the thing may just be sealed up inside you, or it could be sealed up in the seal, or even sent back to wherever it came from. Either way it's a win for you, but there's no way to know for sure if it's permanent. I just wouldn't recommend trying to get that mark removed somehow, or even alter it in any way."
     "It could come back?"
     "Maybe. Only way to know is to live and see if it happens again."
     "What if it does? Well, in that case you'd either have to go to India and find a solution there or embrace religion."
     "What? What does religion have to do with it?"
     "I told you before that religion and faith would have helped you. Listen, you've heard the stories, probably seen Exorcism, and I certainly hope you remember that Christ cast out demons. Flat out, the easiest way to deal with a demon is to have it exorcized. Something to think about.
     "Well, I don't know about that."
     "No reason you should. Like I said, this might work. You can always make up a story about it like it's a cool tattoo. I hear some women are really into tattoos."
     "Yeah, I guess you're right. At least I have the option now, right?"
     "That's right. Time to get your life back."
     "Thank you, Matt. Really, I mean I don't know what I would have done if I had to carry that cloth around much longer." He reached inside his pants and pulled out his checkbook. This saved me the awkward task of having to ask him to pay my fee. "What do I owe you."
     "Well, as to that, I remember you saying you'd pay just about anything. Now, hold on, " I said raising hand to forestall him, "I actually just want an hour's fee and to recoup what I palmed to get us inside, but I would really appreciate it if you'd consider making a donation to help rebuild Nikki's place. I'm sure she's going to want to rake me over the coals for what happened to her place, and I'd prefer not to have her murderously mad at me."
     He nodded, then whipped out a check for my fee, which would be enough to get me groceries for a couple of weeks. Then he wrote out another check for an amount I desperately wished was made out to me, but instead had "Blackthorn Bar" written in the blank. I gave a small sigh of regret, then thanked him for his generosity in saving my hide.
     "I had to return the favor. You saved my life."
     "Just don't go ticking off people of another culture."
     "No doubt. Goodbye, Matt, and thanks again."
     He left the office with a spring in his step while I contemplated that check. I set it down then scribbled off a short note to Nikki conveying my apologies for the damages done, and making note of my client's generous donation towards her place's restoration as well as clearly establishing that I would do my part to repay her with some information as soon as I got it—I hoped she would go for that deal, especially considering she had been in my debt up until the demon got loose. I sealed it up addressing it to Nikki, and tucked it in the outgoing box on my desk on my way out, pausing to grab my hat and leather jacket before locking the place up.

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