grimoire - Wikipedia commons
THE IRASCIBLE DEMON
At the third attempt he finally mastered the skylight. Wood splintered from the rusted latch and he raised the creaking frame. Moonlight dimly revealed the attic floor nine feet below. The room appeared to be empty: Raditz hadn't returned unexpectedly, then.
Axel Houston crouched, indecisive; then he was committed, lowering himself over the sill. His angular frame dangled a moment then he dropped the remaining three feet to the carpeted floor. A renegade board creaked under his weight. Earlier, on deciding to break in, he’d felt slightly absurd dressing entirely in black, like a fugitive from some spy movie; but now, merging into the shadows, he was thankful: the precaution seemed to give him some measure of reassurance. Breaking and entering was not new to him, but he was still affected: there was considerable pleasure in a quickened pulse and heart-beat, all senses acutely alert.
Grey eyes now accustomed to the dark, he perceived the two walls completely obscured by stacks of dust-draped books and dockets of senescent papers. A long wide table stood against the third wall, crammed with large old leather-bound tomes. A human skull - or a good replica - served as a bizarre paperweight.
Stubs of green-wax candles had overflowed two black candlesticks. Rashly, Axel lit one, almost burning his stubby fingers as the wick abruptly flared into hissing yellow-green light. The candles released a sickly sulphurous odour.
Above the table was a small recessed window, its lowered blind decorated with arcane symbols. Alongside the door set in the other wall was a grandfather clock, pendulum soundlessly swaying, mesmerising.
In the centre of the room were two chintz-covered armchairs. He stared, suddenly aware that from the skylight he’d been unable to see whether anyone had been ensconced in either. The wings of the chair-backs seemed almost predatory, malevolent. He faltered, stepped forward slowly; his whole body trembled in expectation, anticipating the worst though incapable of giving his fears form.
A movement of furniture springs sent his heart hammering.
He involuntarily jumped as a black cat hissed and leapt to the floor, its pads lightly thudding. Bright yellow eyes glared, accusing. Axel attempted to calm his pounding heart while the cat disappeared in the shadows. Both chairs were now empty.
He began to breathe more normally again and looked around. It seemed that Raditz was more than merely interested in the occult. Axel hefted a weighty tome: Ashtakhan's Grimoire. He perused the piles of books, located a row of dictionaries. ‘Grimoire: a work on black magic detailing how to utilise the services of devils...’ What utter rubbish!
Nevertheless, an uncanny tingling sensation tiptoed his spine. Suggestion, he told himself; fear of the unknown or the unexplained. Strong weapons in any sorcerer's armoury. Fear of the unknown makes people susceptible; they create horrors out of their own minds.
This Grimoire, for instance. It had opened at an obviously well thumbed section about halfway through. Beautiful illuminated script, delicately executed. If it was a spell, as he assumed, it wasn't in any language he could name; indeed, it bore no resemblance to Romance or its forebear, Latin. He tried rolling the words round his tongue. They had a distinctive, rather poetic ring, incomprehensible though they were.
He coughed on the candle-smoke, leafed through again, came across a similar arrangement of characters. He tried these. Yes, attractive; he could see why some people might learn to hold such utterances in awe. Rare poetry held similar sway. But as for simple word-permutations creating some form of life or effect - !
‘You're not impressed, then?’
Axel's heart almost decided to give up; right now he was sure it had plummeted into his shoes. He pivoted round, nerves jangling, adrenaline flooding his system. Nobody was in the room: the door hadn't opened, he was sure. He consulted grandfather - still only 11pm. Barring a change in pattern, Raditz wouldn't be back till past midnight.
Then - where'd - ?
‘Down here, you numbskull!’
The voice came from –
He looked down between his palms that rested on the Grimoire, and couldn't move an eyelid, let alone a muscle.
Against all sense or reason, a small naked man stood between his hands on the Grimoire's slightly smoke-laden pages. Measuring no more than eight inches tall, he was hairless and covered in green and rust scales. Aubergine-coloured wings were folded neatly behind his shoulder blades. A disproportionately large penis dangled, provocatively twitching as he spoke. His head seemed to sprout two small stumps - embryo horns?
‘Correct - very percipient... But enough time wasting twaddle! Why have you summoned me, tell me that?’
Unfortunately, Axel was not able to tell him anything. He was thinking that his plan to steal esoteric curios had gone wrong. What kind of power did the old doctor possess? Indeed, what would he do when he learned that his attic had been broken into, his secrets laid bare?
‘Your mind seems in a sorry state. Look, I'm growing impatient, poltroon.’ The little demon screwed up his face to look even more unprepossessing, and tapped his foot in added emphasis. ‘It's against my nature to wait, so come on now.’
Lips quivered but Axel couldn't muster any sound. He paled.
The demon sighed. ‘I've got too much to do in the infernal regions to bother about folk who don't know what they want, dullard! Plenty of souls to damn thrice-fold!’
CRACK! went his leathery wings and in an instant he was hovering in front of Axel's unmoving if sweating face. ‘I must have a death in order to dematerialise,’ he explained reasonably enough, ‘so you'll have to do.’ And he proceeded to strangle Axel with an invisible cord and there was nothing Axel could do about it but lose consciousness.
‘Feeling better, are you?’ enquired a grave voice.
Head throbbing like too many hangovers hung-over, Axel tentatively nodded and wished he hadn’t. He elbowed himself off the table.
Grandfather chimed six. In the morning? The blind was raised and sunlight beamed onto Raditz seated in his armchair, a benign, almost paternal smile creasing his lined weathered features. Flecks of grey bordered the jet-black long hair. Then Axel remembered and shuddered: ‘I - I had this terrible dream...’
‘What have you got to say about breaking into my rooms, which is more to the point, don't you think?’
Axel quietened, trying to sort out fact from dream. He studied his surroundings. There wasn't a trace of occult paraphernalia at all. And he was still in the attic, the broken skylight blatant evidence above... ‘I was curious about your rumoured hobby,’ he said. ‘Occult goods're fetching a good price these days. Wizards are popular – all to do with that Harry Potter, I reckon.’ Gingerly, he planted his feet on the floor, edged towards the door.
Raditz stood up abruptly. ‘So you know I’m a wizard?’
‘Well,’ he gestured at the room, ‘it looks like it.’
‘I was curious, that’s all…’
Raditz placed his slightly bent frame in Axel's way. ‘You know what curiosity did?’ He smiled; but there was no good humour in it.
‘Killed the cat. But I’m not a cat – or even a cat burglar.’ He laughed at his witticism but Raditz simply studied him. ‘Look, I’m a good burglar, I never trash my targets’ places. Never. Too much respect.’ He paused, fingered his chin. ‘They get insurance money and probably blow it on a holiday or cruise. I’m doing them a favour.’
‘For a thief, you're honest enough, I suppose. Let me go with you as far as the end of the street.’
‘You're not calling the police?’
Raditz shook his head; that damnable smile again! ‘You can catch a bus?’
‘How did you know I had no c- ?’ Axel swallowed, nodded, and lowered his gaze from those penetrating eyes. Suddenly, he didn't want to know anything more about Dr Raditz.
As they emerged onto the deserted street, Raditz broke the silence. ‘You realise, that wasn't a dream...’
Feet disconcertingly like lead, Axel stared. ‘The incantation - it worked?’
‘Oh, indubitably. You were lying quite dead when...’
‘Please, don't interrupt - there isn't much time... your bus will be here soon...’ They walked on. ‘When I found you dead, obviously strangled, I smelled traces of henbane and aconite and knew by the spell displayed in the open Grimoire that you'd summoned Ignatius the irascible demon... I didn't want a corpse on the premises.’ Raditz smiled, almost apologetically. ‘For obvious reasons... So I called the little devil back again.’
They stopped by the bus stop.
Axel touched his throat. It was a little tender... But - dead? He felt all right.
‘Naturally, he was most upset about being summoned. Doesn't like a recall. My demands really got his ire up. Ignatius didn't want to bring you back to life; against his religion, he said. Told me to see the other feller.’ Raditz thumbed at the dull, bruised sky. ‘I was pretty desperate. I’d settle for anything to get you out of my place - sorry, but I've my reputation to think of. Eventually, we came to an agreement. Under the circumstances, I'm happy enough.’
‘You mean - that little demon - he actually brought me back to life? Just like that?’
‘Ah, here's the bus! Yes, that's it - just like that.’
The bus pulled up; it seemed brimful with workmen, standing room only. Axel stood on the pay-as-you-enter steps, fishing out change. ‘I can hardly credit it, doctor - but, well, thanks for - for putting things right.’ He pocketed his ticket as the vehicle moved off.
Raditz called after him, ‘Trouble was, Ignatius only settled for a short while...’
A few hundred yards down the road Raditz's words finally penetrated.
Axel's fingers tightened on the hand-grip; he broke out into a cold sweat, craned his neck and saw the doctor at the roadside shrugging his shoulders: ‘Sorry,’ he seemed to be implying. Axel's hand went to his chest, it felt constricted, breathing difficult. Yellow dots spun before his eyes. Sudden massive and excruciating pain creased his features as the iron band tightened over his chest. ‘My heart!’ he cried and died.
Previously published in Peeping Tom, 1990
If you enjoyed this story, you might like Spanish Eye,
my short story collection featuring Leon Cazador, private eye in 22 cases
published by Crooked Cat Publishing.