He was making a proper nuisance of himself, whoever he was. I could hear the screams from the street. I stepped from the car and met the officer in charge, a woman named Ballantine. I didn’t know her, but I’d seen her around—at PEA meetings, I think, back when they still thought I might make a good role model for the junior officers. She had a potential shooter upstairs but seemed more terrified at the immediate prospect of having to explain why I’d been summoned in lieu of SWAT.
“Thanks,” she said, extending a hand in greeting.
“Sure, sure.” I looked up at the building. The fire escape zigzagged down all six floors of the brick facade. Window-mounted AC units stuck out like bit tongues. “What do we got?”
“I know this isn’t really your thing, but—”
“It’s all right. Usually by the time I arrive, there’s already a stiff. Nice to get out in front of one for a change.”
“Luckily, we have him isolated. Before there are pictures of us charging in, guns blazing, on the evening news, I thought we should at least try and talk him down. Word is, you speak this guy’s language, if you know what I mean.”
The yelling resumed and she led me in silence to the door.
“And what language is that exactly?”
Ballantine led me up the stoop. “One of the patrolmen is the son of a rabbi. He said it sounded like Aramaic.”
“Do people still speak Aramaic?”
She shrugged. “This guy does.”
Another bout of shouting filled the foyer as we entered. Mailboxes were on the left. Stairs were on the right. The super’s residence was at the back. Somewhere not too far away, a baby was crying.
“Fifth floor,” Ballantine said, making it clear she wasn’t coming. The noise was louder inside, and she had to raise her voice. “The sarge is up there. Fair warning. He’s not real good with female officers.”
“And the family?”
“Taken away by ambulance. Father, mother, adult daughter.”
“No.” The sounds stopped again and her voice fell to a whisper. “Just really shaken up. The mother has some kind of illness, I gathered. Supposed to be serious. The ambulance was mostly for her. The other two went to make sure she was okay.”
“Anyone else in the unit?”
“Just the evil spirit.” Ballantine smiled in jest.
I started up the stairs, four flights to the top. The yelling came and went and got louder around each turn. Residents, who I’m sure had been directed to stay inside their homes, peered from behind cracked doors. As I passed the third floor, I felt a pulse hit the inside of my skull and leaned against the wall for a moment. I pressed my palm flat against my temple. I smelled cumin and coriander. On the fourth floor, I smelled new carpet. The scent itself was pleasant enough, but I figured it was a mixed blessing for the tenants who had to wonder, as I did, what had happened in one of the units that was serious enough to leave the landlord of that place no choice but to spend the money.
A patrolman was crouched against the wall on the final landing, just below the fifth floor. He looked to be about half my age. I removed my firearm, holster and all.
He looked at it. “You know he’s armed, right?”
“That’s what they said on the radio.” I kept the weapon extended.
He looked at it. “Your funeral.” He took it with a shrug.
“Just follow your damned orders!” The uniformed sergeant at the top of the stairs barked down in an urgent whisper.
I walked up as the screaming started again. Our guy was in 507. He was pissed about something and letting the whole world know. Language definitely sounded Semitic, like Arabic or Hebrew, with lots of soft consonants and recurrent syllables.
I stood close to the sarge and kept my voice down. “How long’s he been in there?”
The man’s name tag said Rollins, and he was as haggard as you’d expect for a man who remained a sergeant into his late 50s. His ruddy jowls had started to sag, along with his uniform, but he had hard eyes that I suspected had gotten harder every year. He used them to glance over me. Nothing sexual. Just checking me out, deciding if I was up to snuff.
“Few hours maybe,” he said. “A few of the residents mentioned they heard sounds of fighting a little after lunchtime. Walls here aren’t real thick, in case you haven’t noticed.”
I heard the baby cry again, fainter this time. “Shouldn’t we clear the building?”
“Headquarters didn’t want to cause a panic,” he said sarcastically.
I nodded. “We have an ID?”
He shook his head. “Supposed to be some kinda faith healer. Family’s from Nigeria or Ghana or some shit like that. Wife had meningitis and they brought this asshole in to take the evil spirit away. Then he went nuts or something. I don’t know.” He squinched the side of his face like it was all a bunch of hooey.
“You been inside?” I motioned toward the half-open door just down the hall.
He nodded in the affirmative.
“Yeah,” I said. “You know, reflective glass. Shows you what you look like.”
He scowled. “Didn’t notice. I was too worried about the raving asshole with the gun. And getting the family to safety.”
“What about a TV?”
He thought for a second. “Yeah. Flat screen in the living area. Why?”
I took off my sport coat and tossed it over the balustrade. It would only constrict me if there was a tussle. I unwound the chain on my wrist, the one dangling the little silver talisman, and fastened it around my neck like an ordinary necklace. The chain was visible but not the carved silver disc, inlaid with a drop of polished obsidian, which hung below the line of my dress shirt.
“You sure you’re gonna be okay in there? Patrolman Meyers is an ass,” the sergeant said, motioning to the kid holding my gun, “but he’s not wrong. Guy’s got a gun.”
I nodded as I rolled up my sleeves. “Just keep everyone back. No matter what you hear. No matter how crazy it sounds. Alright? Keep the trigger fingers out until you hear from me. You’ll only make things worse.”
“Whatever you say, Detective.”
He was being sarcastic again, but I didn’t care. Sgt. Rollins had the demeanor of a man who knew how to keep control of his men, which is all that mattered. I trusted him—in a way. I trusted that after two and a half decades on the force, he would do everything he could to make it the last few years to retirement. He wasn’t going to play hero.
I stepped lightly to the door and peered in. The guy must have caught sight of me, because he started screaming again in that unusual tongue. Now it was the same phrase over and over, like he wanted me to do something—get back, maybe. Or let him out. He was on the floor in the living room kneeling near the inside edge of a large, heavy salt ring. He definitely had a gun, but judging from how he held it—by the barrel—may or may not have known what it was for. I pushed the door open slowly, my body turned in profile to make myself less of a target—just in case. I took a step and waited for a reaction. There was a closet door to my right and a small enclosed kitchen to my left, where a light was flickering randomly. There was a couch and a tall potted plant across from the worn Ikea bookcase next to the TV. There was a slider door at the back, bolted shut. And no balcony.
Only one way out.
The room had bright, colorful African decor. A zigzag-patterned rug had been rolled up and put out of the way, probably to make room for the salt. An open thirty-pound sack of the stuff sat next to the TV stand, topped with an inverted steel funnel. The ceiling glistened slightly as if covered in a thin layer of sweat. A few drops ran down the walls.
The guy inside the ring was clearly African. He wore a white kufi cap on his head and matching gown. There were dots of white pigment across his cheeks and brow. His right hand gripped a Smith & Wesson .38 revolver. He was white-knuckling it. His left hand held a wooden figurine.
He yelled again and shifted his grip on the gun. It went up, properly this time.
There went that theory.
I opened my hands and arms wide. “I’m not armed.”
He uttered what I’m sure was an insult—terse and angry. His voice didn’t quite match his body. Too deep. And there was a slight lag between the sound and his lips, like a soundtrack just a bit out of sync with the film.
I pulled my eyes from the gun barrel pointed at my chest and stole a quick glance at the earth-stained figurine in his other hand. It was about a foot tall and shaped like a fat peg or stake. He gripped it by the tapered end, which wasn’t needle-sharp but definitely wasn’t dull either. The top and center of the piece had been carved to resemble a head and body. The face had a simple, snarling visage. There was a thin, angular chain wrapped five or six times around the torso. It was the color of cast iron and looked hand-made. No two links were the same size or shape. Dangling from one of them was an open padlock, also cast iron. I guessed it was a spirit totem of some kind. I hadn’t seen one like it, but the symbolism of lock and chain are darn-near universal.
“Who’m I talking to?” I asked as I shut the door behind me. I reached back and locked it without taking my eyes off the man.
He laughed desperately. His dark skin had the kind of crosshatched wrinkles you get after a life in the sun, especially at the corners of his mouth and eyes, which were crazy bloodshot. But under that, he looked like someone’s thin, aged grandpa.
“So what do I call you?”
He laughed again, longer and louder. He wasn’t stupid enough to tell me his real name, which is the easiest way to bind an entity. That’s why all the old medieval texts had three or four names for every “demon.” It was a ruse on their part to evade capture. Most of them weren’t true demons, of course, just plain ol’ malignant spirits, like this one—opportunists, for the most part, no different than a vulture or a coyote, and just as skittish, easily frightened by guardian statues and sacred objects. Most tend to hunt at night, when the pickings are easier. As long as you had the right tools, they’d usually flee and take their chances on an easier target. But this one hadn’t. Best guess, the witch doctor had managed to get the bastard out of the sick wife but something went wrong and he couldn’t lock the chain in time. Maybe his hands shook. Maybe the lock was stuck. Who knew?
“What do you want?” I asked.
His bloodshot eyes glanced to the salt ring.
“Well, see, that’s a problem.” I took another step forward.
He cocked the revolver calmly and deliberately. I heard the click in the now-quiet room. I had the sense that everyone in the building was holding their breath, trying to hear our words, which I’m sure rumbled through the thin walls as an undecipherable baritone.
I looked at the gun barrel. I was very aware that at that range, there wasn’t much chance he’d miss and that any hit had a decent shot of being fatal—or at least making sure I had to shit into a bag for the rest of my life. At least the old shaman had made a good-sized salt ring—not just wide but thick as well. That, plus the protective dots under his eyes, suggested experience. Pouring a ring like that takes a lot of salt and a lot of time and is a bitch to clean up after. Folks who don’t know any better read the instructions in a book and think any old ring will do. They use half a box of Morton’s, make a thin circle barely big enough to move in, and call it a day. But all it takes is one misstep to scuff a ring like that, and then it doesn’t matter how good you are. It’s game over.
This guy had played it safe. He knew not to take chances. But then, he also hadn’t been too worried. He’d used a salt ring rather than something durable, like a painted conjuring circle with binding runes. That said to me he’d probably done simple exorcisms all the time back home, wherever that was, and hadn’t expected this one to be any big trouble.
It was a mistake—one I wasn’t going to repeat. I needed to know what I was up against.
I kept my arms open and nonthreatening. “You can shoot me if you want. I can’t stop you. But if you do, my friends are gonna shoot back.” I nodded toward the hall. “I’ll be dead, and so will that man you’re in, which means this whole place will turn into a crime scene and no one will touch anything until the forensics guys get here, which could take a while, especially since we’re coming up on rush hour.”
I nodded to the round plastic clock on the wall, just over the TV. I didn’t need to. I knew what time it was. It was just an excuse to glance down at the blank screen and confirm, up close, my suspicion that the two of us were alone and that the man’s reflection matched his appearance. Which it did. That ruled a few things out.
Easier things, unfortunately.
I took another careful step forward. I wasn’t more than ten feet from the ring by then.
“You’ll be trapped in that circle,” I said “for hours, unbound and without a host. How long can hold your breath?”
His hand clenched the gun in anger. He was sweating. The walls and ceiling were sweating with him. I tried to swallow the lump in my throat nonchalantly, but it was as stubborn as the ghoul.
Here’s the thing. Exorcism is tricky. It’s not a fight as much as a hostage negotiation. And a process of elimination. You start by ruling things out. It was always possible I was facing a witch possessing the old man from afar. But then, any human probably wouldn’t be speaking Aramaic—or whatever it was. More than that, a salt ring doesn’t have any effect on the living, except to annoy whoever has to clean it up. So if it was a witch or warlock, he or she could’ve gotten up and walked out hours ago.
I was pretty sure it wasn’t demonic either. True demons are powerful entities that aren’t readily trapped by salt rings and the like. You need a ring of living wills, priests and paladins untainted by sin and strong enough to stand against a demon and so to trap it. And anyway, the saints locked up all the demons ages ago.
It could’ve been a ghost, the free-floating spirit of a dead person, but they generally can’t possess the living—at least, not unless the host is a medium or other sensitive. But ghosts aren’t rational. They don’t realize they’re dead, which is why they’re stuck here reliving the trauma of their lives. That’s why a ghost is always dangerous, by the way. Even the friendly ones can turn violent without warning, like a wild animal. And because they’re reliving old trauma, their actions are detached from their surroundings, which is creepy as fuck when you see it. They speak in strange non sequiturs and move through walls where once there were doors. They don’t do things like calmly point guns and ask to be set loose.
Given the mirror test, and Ballantine’s report that the wife was seriously ill, I was 99% sure this old scratch was a “carrion ghoul,” for lack of a common name. They’re pretty much everywhere—opportunistic spirits that prey on the sick and sinful. In the Philippines, they’re called aswang, and it’s said that in daytime, they appear as the living, but with a nervous tic and bloodshot eyes—like this guy. At night, they become incorporeal and waft through the streets in search of the sick and dying so they can slurp their intestines. Those kinds of details are usually exaggerated, but relevant. In the old days, for example, intestinal disease is how most people got sick and died, so it would’ve been the spirit’s key point of entry.
In the old days, people all over the world, from Peru to Siberia, consulted a witch doctor when a family member fell victim to a sudden, strange, undiagnosable illness. In Greenland, tupiluq is the name of both the ghoul and the ivory totem the local shaman will carve to imprison it—or use to send it to your enemies. For an extra fee, of course.
If I was right, that meant neither vinegar nor raw iron nor running water would have any effect, a fact confirmed by the totem he was clutching in his hand, whose chain had enough iron to throw off anything susceptible, like a jinn. Just one more reason why carrion ghouls are just about the worst kind of infectious spirit. Because their hosts are sick, they can burrow deep and get a tight grip. You can’t just scare them out with talismans and holy water. It takes violence. You have to pry them away. From the inside. Like pulling a tick.
That meant, first, I had to know where the sickness was. That’s usually not a problem for a witch doctor, who has the help of the family to share all the relevant details. I had fuck-all.
Second, I absolutely, positively could not be wrong. If you go stabbing things into the wrong body part, or if it’s not a carrion ghoul after all, well . . .
The good news, if you could call it that, is that there’s a foolproof diagnosis, or so our ancestors have taught us. If you can get close enough to see it, the reflection of the world in the glisten of the eyes is always upside down.
I looked at the heavy salt ring. I didn’t have a choice. I was gonna have to get inside with it. My adversary seemed to understand my thoughts, because he smiled an awful, knowing smile and lowered the gun.
“Alright,” I whispered. “You wanna fight, let’s fight.”
I had exactly one advantage. It takes a lot out of a spirit to worm its way into a new host, especially a witch doctor, who would know how to resist. On top of that, this one had been yelling, on and off, for an hour or two at least. Already his breath was long and irregular. He looked tired. Thirsty, too. I just needed a distraction.
I showed him my empty hands, like a stage magician before a trick. He watched them intently with those horribly bloodshot eyes as I reached into the pocket of my slacks and pulled out my keys. A small pocket knife dangled. I showed it to him, as if to say “See? Nothing to worry about.” I opened the inch-long blade. It was sharp. It slit the skin of my forearm with no trouble. I clenched my teeth and hissed. It stung. It wasn’t a big cut, but it was enough to draw blood.
The old witch doctor licked his lips as I slipped my keys back into my pocket and stepped toward the circle, arm bared. He stood and stepped back from the edge, making room for me, but his eyes didn’t move from the deep red liquid slowly growing into a fat drop on my skin.
I lifted my foot to step inside the ring when he shouted and shoved the .38 in my face. I was close enough that I could hear the metal jostle with the motion and I froze. He sniffed the air once. Then twice. He was still clutching the totem in his left hand—no doubt to keep it away from me—and he lifted it and tapped his chest.
I knew what he meant. He could smell the silver.
I scowled as I unhooked the talisman. But since my arm was still bleeding, the drop ran as soon as I moved. He watched it jump from my elbow and hit the floor in a tiny splatter.
It was only a moment. But it was enough.
I ripped the talisman from my blouse and thrust it forward. It spun in the air, glimmering, and he flinched and turned with a growl. I sprang forward and the gun discharged the very second I knocked it away. The bullet hit the wall as I tackled my adversary to the floor.
See, kids? This is why you always, always, always supersize your salt rings. His head landed right next to the far edge. If that circle had been any smaller, my tackle would’ve forced him across the seal, and then who knew?
I had all my weight on him as I dangled the talisman in front of his eyes. I was sure I’d got the better of him then. But I was wrong. Fucker was strong. I could feel it immediately. That was why the old man had had so much trouble. In an instant, I knew I’d never be able to hold him. I leaned down quickly and caught my reflection in the glisten of his bloodshot eyes.
Definitely upside down.
He lifted me. Like I was nothing. He couldn’t approach the talisman, so he let go of the totem, which bounced on the floor, and lifted the whole of me with hardly any effort. That kind of strength was unusual. It meant he was old—damned old—which made sense, I suppose, given his language of choice. I should have paid more attention to that.
Only now I was in real trouble. I sacrificed the talisman by throwing it in his face, which caused him to flinch and swat it away. He had to let one hand go for that and I fell on my ass. The action pulled me free of his other hand, and I scrambled to the fallen gun and threw it outside the ring. It landed hard on the bathroom tile just as I felt my adversary bite into my calf. In the scramble, my nice department-store slacks had worked up my leg, revealing my skin. I felt teeth puncture my flesh. To the muscle. He hadn’t bit me the way an angry child bites you, to inflict pain. He bit me the way you bite into a tough steak, the way you bite something you intend to tear loose with your canines and swallow. He was eating me, and I screamed. It hurt. It hurt so bad my hands started shaking involuntarily and it took every last ounce of self-control not to turn around and push and kick and fight him off, which is every creature’s natural response to being eaten alive. Instead, I whelped and whimpered as I used my flat palms to drag my torso in an arc across the hardwood. My quivering fingertips brushed against the wooden figurine, but they only managed to knock it farther away.
That’s when he pulled with his head and tore a flap of blood-wet skin from my leg.
It’s the weirdest thing, let me tell ya. It hurts like a motherfucker, of course, but it’s the raw sensation that gets you. Your dermis lifting. Air on your muscles.
I screamed again. And I meant it this time, every last unintelligible syllable. It was primal—a completely irrational, uncontrollable wail. And with it came panic. There had already been a gunshot. If my scream was enough to convince my colleagues to burst through the door, if they saw us like that, they would’ve opened fire. No questions asked. Not only would the old witch doctor be dead before he hit the floor, I would be fucked. Because now I was seriously wounded, which meant if his host died, the carrion ghoul would rush out of him and into me, which I’m pretty sure was the whole point of the attack. He had seen that I was some kind of authority figure. Once he was inside me, someone was sure to let him out of the circle by rushing me to the hospital—an entire building of sick people for him to feed on.
There was no way I was going to let something that powerful get loose. In my body.
I kicked the old man with a heeled boot, right in the mouth. Once. Twice. Three times. But all I did was loosen some teeth and bloody the guy’s lip. Not that I’m weak or out of shape or anything. I was quite the kickboxer there for a while. This ghoul simply didn’t care. I went to kick again and he knocked my leg out of the way and lunged for my face. I got the old man’s dirty, sweat-salty, nicotine-stained fingers in my mouth and up my nose and I gagged. The ghoul forced my head back and down the floor. Hard. He opened the witch doctor’s mouth over me, like he was going breathe himself out. It stank like cigarette ash.
That was it.
“Thanks,” I said.
I head-butted the guy. It didn’t do much, but it was enough for me to lunge for the totem. The ghoul’s powerful hands grabbed me immediately and pulled me back. But I didn’t fight. I let him take me. I turned and rammed the wooden point right into the old guy’s chest, into his lungs.
The room dropped underneath me—as if the entire building, the entire city, had suddenly sunk four feet in space. I fell hard, along with everything else. The TV toppled and smashed on the hardwood. Books and pictures scattered. Water burst from the toilet. The lock in my hand clicked shut from the force, and that was it. I collapsed, panting hard and in hella pain.
I heard banging on the front door. The handle jiggled and there were loud calls for a battering ram.
I didn’t have long.
I struggled to my feet, where I discovered immediately that my right leg could no longer support my weight. Blood trickled down my skin into my shoe. I grabbed the unconscious old man by the arms and dragged him, limping, through the scattered salt to the bathroom. I pulled a heavy bath towel from the rack, wet it in the still-churning toilet, and wiped the blood off his mouth. I checked the hole in his gown from where I’d plunged the sharp end of the figurine. The skin underneath was clean and bare. And he was breathing.
The first swing of the battering ram cracked the frame but didn’t completely dislodge the bolt. I hobbled back to the living room and snatched the totem. When the door gave way and the patrolmen ran in, I was sitting on the toilet seat next to the moaning witch doctor. I had the rolled towel pressed to the back of my bloody calf.
“What took you so long?” I asked. I showed them the blood on the towel. “I’m gonna need a stretcher.”
My colleagues swarmed around, Ballantine and Rollins and everyone, trying to make sense of the scene—the scattered salt, the shattered television, the fallen books and pictures, the wet walls, the blood on the hardwood. They tried to carry me out of the apartment, but I absolutely refused to move from my porcelain throne until the paramedics came. Once I was on the stretcher, one of the EMTs tried to take the towel but I pointed across the room instead and demanded my necklace. I used some nasty cuss words to make everyone feel awkward and forget about the towel.
Ballantine took my statement at the hospital while a young male resident stabbed my leg with a series of fat needles. I got a local anesthetic, a bunch of precautionary vaccines, and a shit-ton of stitches. He didn’t say that he knew I’d been bitten, but he knew I’d been bitten. I said the old man was basically harmless but that he might’ve had dementia or something and that I’d tripped and fell over the TV, which was why it was broken, and that was how I’d gotten cut.
“What about the gunshot?” she asked.
“He didn’t understand why the cops were there. He was scared. He was sweating. His hands were shaking. I convinced him he wasn’t in danger, and when he went to lower the weapon, it slipped and discharged.”
She didn’t believe me. At all. But she didn’t ask too many questions. Since no one had died and I wasn’t pressing charges, there was no real incentive to make a big deal out of anything. That would’ve done nothing but piss off a colleague and elicit more paperwork. So she gave me a look to let me know she wasn’t an idiot and called it a day.
That night, I treated myself to a Cuban from my secret stash. I sat on my balcony in my underwear with my bandaged leg on the railing and smoked that cigar to a nub while pulling swigs from a bottle of fancy champagne. Just me and my drinking buddy: a foot-long wooden figurine, wrapped in a tarnished chain and locked tight. I snuck it out swaddled in the towel like the little baby Jesus. We had a nice chat that night. Pretty sure all he did was curse me in Aramaic. Something about a book.
The next day, I left the pain pills at home and walked with a pronounced limp into the office. I sat at my desk. I unlocked the bottom drawer of my filing cabinet and pulled it open with a grunt. It was getting heavy. And full. There was a painted mask, a goblet, a small collection of carved votive candles, a handful of polished stone bezoars, feathers, false talismans, a pygmy head, ampules of holy water, the teeth of a saint laid into a tarnished silver Coptic cross, a broken wand, a rabbit’s foot, the taxidermied claw of a giant extinct salamander, wood-framed eyeglasses with crystal lenses, and more. I tossed the wooden figurine onto the pile, rolled the drawer shut, and locked it.
I looked around the office. “The Killing Field” was stuffed. A few of my colleagues were chatting. Lieutenant Miller was getting herself a coffee at the fancy new grind-and-brew vending machine. I turned on my computer and typed my password and a pleasant ding welcomed me back. I wondered how many different chimes the software company had tested before they settled on that specific one.
I sat back and looked at the screen.
I couldn’t prove it, but it sure seemed like there was a helluva lot more shit happening lately. And of the serious kind, too.