Rick Kennett, The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
Publisher: Create Space
Date: October 13, 2013
Length: 213 pp.
I came to with the mother of all headaches.
A face too out of focus to recognize loomed above me. A voice too low to hear properly said something in a jocular tone like “He’ll survive” or “He’s alive,” but I didn’t feel alive enough to be sure. A spoon and glass rattled. The voice, louder now, said, “Drink this.” Someone supported my head and a glass put to my lips. Godawful whatever it was. I fell asleep again.
When I next awoke my head was clear and my brain had stopped falling away in slices. I lay on a bed in a dim room. Over to the left faint light, maybe dusk, outlined a window with curtains drawn. I reached out a hand, looking for a lamp or light switch. It hit a side table and a glass and spoon clattered to the floor.
I lay still. Had anyone heard? There were sounds from a distance, voices and movement. I waited perhaps a minute, but the sounds remained distant and muted. I groped for a light again, found a table lamp, managed not to knock it over and switched it on.
A small bedroom, a wardrobe to one side, a dresser to the other with a big mirror. I tumbled out from under the blankets and shambled across to the mirror to check my head. No pain, not even a lingering sensation of where the bone-thing had hit me. But to have knocked me down and knocked me out like it did-well, it should’ve left some lasting mark. There was nothing.
“Ernie, Ernie, Ernie,” I muttered. “What are you doing?” But the man in the mirror, the fair-haired fellow with the hunted look in his eyes, gave no answer.
There was a light film of dust on the mirror, but I didn’t wipe it down; it’d show that I’d been gawking at myself. There was dust on the dresser and my hands left clear prints on its wooden top. There was even dust on the framed photographs standing on it.
One showed a younger Henry in an army uniform. He wore an officer’s peaked cap. I wasn’t up enough with my military insignia to know what the badges on his sleeves were or what rank the pips on his shoulders signified. He stood with three other men, similarly dressed except that one wore a tall, black witch’s hat done out with white stars and crescent moons. They were laughing, snapped in the middle of enjoying a huge, private joke. The background was jeeps, tin sheds, slightly blurred jungle.
The other photo showed Henry and Raissa standing together on the verandah of this house. Once again a younger Henry, not so sallow, not so sad or so drunk, with his arm around a younger Raissa, not as plump and with better dress sense and hair styling. Henry grinned. Raissa looked at him askance, deliberately over-acting. Happier days.
Leaving the room I made my way down a hallway cluttered with chairs, the living room settee, an onyx table, a tall floor lamp, the shelves of little bottles, a long roll of carpet. In the front room, now empty of its furniture, Raissa was scrambling about on the bare wooden floor with a piece of chalk, putting the finishing touches to what looked like the sort of thing Russell had described to me yesterday as a Circle of Solomon. He and Henry were standing together watching her from just outside the Circle, Russell with an air of interest and learning, Henry squinting and pursing his lips as if in criticism.
As I entered the room Russell turned and saw me. “Here he is,” he said. “How do you feel?”
“OK,” I said. “In fact more OK than I suppose I’ve got a right to be.”
“See,” said Henry. “I told you yaks’ brains and crocodile eggs makes the perfect hangover cure.”
“You’d know,” said Raissa, chalking.
I wasn’t sure if he was kidding about the contents of the drink. I didn’t ask, just in case. I said, “What happened? The last thing I remember is that thing flying at me like a demented spider on speed.”
“It hit you square in the face,” said Russell. “You went down like a rock and out like a light. A good thing it was still daylight. They may be able to manifest in the light now, but their main strength still lies in darkness. If we’d encountered that thing after sundown I doubt whether either of us would be here now.”
“And how about you?” I asked Russell.
“I thought it was a spider when it sprung out at me from the letter box. You must’ve seen that.”
“Yes.” I remembered that clearly enough.
“And ... well, I have a bad thing about spiders.” His skinny shoulders hunched in a suppressed shudder.
“We were just saying, Ernie,” said Raissa, pushing up to a kneeling position with hands white with chalk dust, “that the avatar must’ve known this and so used it accordingly.”
“The projection of the magic in a manifest form. It’s a bad sign if whatever or whoever is behind it is getting to know us that well. You can face down a giant Hand if you know how and you have the time, but something sudden and spidery to anyone with arachnophobia like Russell is a different collection of legs entirely.”
“A strange thing, I know,” said Russell, “considering what I’ve seen materialize inside magic circles since I was a wee smudge. Some of them would make a tarantula look downright cuddly.” He paused and laughed, though I could see it was to mask a more intense emotion. “The things that we summon from the Great Abyss faze me hardly at all. But spiders creep me out big time.”
I nodded and agreed that we humans were indeed funny creatures.
“You know, Ernie, for a few seconds there I thought you were dead.”
“You weren’t alone thinking that,” I said with feeling.
It wasn’t till I was bundling you into the back seat of my car,” Russell continued, “and you muttered Diesels that I knew you were still with us. You don’t know how --”
“Whoa! Select reverse cog and back up a bit. I said what?”
“Why should I say Diesels?”
Russell shrugged. “Don’t ask me. It was your concussion.”
“Well, thanks anyway for getting me out ... again.” Thinking back on my first impressions of Russell, who’d now saved my arse twice, made me inwardly cringe. Quickly changing the subject I said, “What happened to the avatar?”
“Not sure. It was only after it hit you I realized what it’d been. By that time it was gone. I didn’t see it go. It just ... went.”
“Let’s hope it stays went,” I said. Forlorn hope.
Raissa stood and stretched. “I’m getting too old for this floor chalking bizzo. If I had the time and the money and the patience I’d get one of those you-beaut in-floor etched jobs like Russell’s people has.” She regarded the concentric white rings at her feet, the symbols and Latin invocations chalked between them, the gap in the Circle yet to be completed. “But this’ll do for our needs tonight.”
Needs? What needs? I asked myself, knowing I’d find out eventually.
She left the Circle, taking care to step through the gap. Only then I noticed our packet of blood and bone sitting at its centre. I looked about for Doctor Lloyd’s metal canister and saw it in a corner of the room. The lid was half off, emitting little drifts of dry ice vapour.
“Thanks for the Johnny Walker,” said Henry, gripping my arm in friendly fashion.
“Quite all right.” Hell, I hadn’t been paying. I looked about, expecting to see the empty lying nearby.
“Haven’t touched it yet,” he said with a wink. “Well, no, that’s not strictly true. I opened it and sniffed the cap. Well, maybe I had a little nip too. I’m saving the rest for later. After all this.” He gestured significantly at the Circle. “When we’ll need it.”
Terrific. Raissa’s offensive was going to give us drinking problems-if we lived long enough to develop them.
“What’s involved with this offensive of ours?” I asked Henry with foreboding.
“We’re going to raise an ... ally.”
I didn’t like that hesitation, as if ‘ally’ was the best word he could think of, and even then it didn’t fit properly.
With even more foreboding I said, “Who?”
“A thing called Azmodiah.”
I nearly broke my neck doing a doubletake. “Azmodiah? The demon with the multiple faces and a hunger for human flesh?”
Henry nodded. “Raissa’s told me you’ve already met it.”
“I have. That’s it! I’m off!” I headed for the door.
“Ernie, trust me,” said Raissa.
“That’s what you said before we went to Betty McKenzie’s séance. ‘Trust me, Ernie. What could ever possibly go wrong?”’
“But we need four persons for the invocation Circle.”
“There must be four to hold down the cardinal points.”
“Then you don’t need me. I can’t even hold down a job.”
“Ernie, the sun has already set.”
I stopped with my hand on the front door knob. I looked out through the window at the gradually deepening dusk.
“How long do you think you’d last?” Raissa continued. “How far do you think you’d get?”
Talk about being between the devil and the deep blue sea. I turned around and confronted Henry and Raissa. “Azmodiah? Have you two quietly lost your minds? Azmo-bloody-diah?”
“Put it this way,” said Henry. “When he was criticized for allying himself with Stalin after Hitler attacked the Soviet Union, Winston Churchill said he would shake hands with the Devil himself if it helped defeat the Nazis.”
“I don’t appreciate your analogy, Henry,” I said. “It’s too damned literal.”
“We won’t be shaking hands with it,” said Raissa testily, dragging the metal canister up to the edge of the Circle. “We’d only have to count our fingers afterwards. It’s knowledge we’re after. Information. It’s our only weapon. Demons can be a good source of information if juggled just right.”
“And if it’s not juggled right?” I asked.
“Must you always look on the black side of things? Granted, there’s a risk; and granted, the quality of the answers we get will depend on what we trade in return. But at least we’ll have more to go on. The demon will know, and when we ask it will tell us.”
“Just like that?”
“No, of course not, Ernie. It’ll have to be bribed. That’s what I meant by trade.”
“But why Azmodiah? Of all people!”
“Because it’s one of the few entities used to dealing with human beings.”
“It certainly knows what we taste like. But ... I mean, why an evil thing like that? Aren’t there any nice things out there we could talk to? Things that don’t rip you apart the moment they materialize?”
“You’re using human concepts of ‘good’ and ‘evil,’ Ernie. The ‘nice’ things I could conjure up would consider a contact like this far too trivial to concern them. They’re too cosmic to involve themselves in mere human affairs. For our needs we have to get down to street level, and that’s where Azmodiah lives.”
“Aren’t demons supposed to be liars?”
“Some are, but not this one. Azomodiah is a scavenger, a mercenary, a go-between in human affairs. As an entity it’s a trickster-devious and evasive as well as brutal and vicious. It would take great delight in disembowelling the lot of us if given half a chance. But it is honest. It will not lie. You may depend upon it. This is partly due to it needing to keep its reputation with we humans-its clients so to speak. But mostly it’s because lying is just too easy. There’s no fun in it. Its game plan is the truth in all its variations and distortions, but in particular an overkill of truth. That’s its favourite ploy. Now take up your position on the south point of the Circle, Ernie. I think we’re about ready.”
As she said this Russell brought in a cassette recorder, sat it down by the edge of the Circle and turned it on. Henry brought in eight candles, lit and placed them equally about the Circle. Raissa turned the ceiling light off, stooped and chalked in the last lines and symbols of the Circle, closing the gap.
At Raissa’s direction we arranged ourselves outside the Circle at the four cardinal points of the compass, herself at the north, Russell to the east, Henry to the west and me in the south, all of us making sure our toes were well outside the lines.
Raissa removed the lid of the Doctor Lloyd’s canister in readiness. Next, sterilizing a needle over one of the candle flames, she pricked her left index finger, letting a drop of blood splash into the space between the inner and outer circles. Needles were passed along to Russell, Henry and myself, and we did likewise: sterilizing in a candle flame, pricking the finger, squeezing a drop of blood onto the floor between the two chalked circles.
The ritual finished, Raissa pulled a latex glove onto her right hand and began to sing.
As a singer, she was a better witch. But in magic it’s the thought that counts, not the style. I caught only a few words in her flat, wavering tone: nefandum intra circulo ... signa ... Azmodiah ... canto temere ultimus ... mortuus ... Azmodiah ... accedo ... invocationem ... nigrarum ... Azmodiah ...
Our faces glowed in the candle light. Russell to my right, always thin and pale, looked at his most bloodless. Henry to my left moved his lips, but whether in time to Raissa singing or because he recalled the Johnny Walker he’d barely sniffed, I couldn’t tell.
Something began to form in the middle of the Circle.
A writhing, shifting, shapeless something. A tangle of twisted cloud cut through with vicious, little stabbing lightening bolts, gradually pushing up from the floor. For maybe a full minute it remained like this, a wedge of flickering chaos rolling within itself, undecided.
Then like a blur brought suddenly into sharp focus it solidified into a definite form. In the light of the candles, in the centre of the Circle there now stood a woman with her back turned to me. Her head was thrust up, dark brown hair falling about her shoulders. She wore a thick woollen jumper and jeans made of rectangular patches sewed together in chequer fashion. I couldn’t make out what she wore on her feet because her ankles disappeared into a haze at floor level. For all this, though, I knew who she was-my friend Sonja Vanhoeven. But Sonja, as far as I knew, was in Queensland fifteen hundred kilometres to the north.
“Where am I?” said the figure in the Circle. It had spoken in Sonja’s voice, complete with the merest hint of a Dutch accent. But I was not going to be taken in, not going to think of it as Sonja. That would be dangerous-probably the reason it had taken on this particular appearance, to get at us all through me.
“We are ready to barter for your wisdom, Azmodiah,” said Raissa. “Why do you assume that form?”
“Who are you people? What are you talking about?” said the demon. It turned about slowly and looked at us all in a vague, unfocused way. “Is this some sort of weird dream? I knew I shouldn’t have had that herring sandwich before going to bed.”
“Herring sandwich?” said Russell.
“Very Dutch,” I said. “It’s impersonating my friend Sonja. She came from Holland as a youngster.”
“Then be careful, Ernie. It knows you’re not an adept and considers you the weak link. It will try to work our destruction through you.”
“Ernie?” said the demon that looked like Sonja. “Was that your voice I heard?”
“Yes. I’m here,” I said.
“I can’t see you. All I can see is mist.” The demon that looked like Sonja moved its head left and right as if searching, putting hands out like a blind person as it made a couple of faltering steps towards me. “Where are you? Take my hand ... please. I’m lost.”
I closed my eyes and turned my face away. When I looked back again a moment later the Sonja-demon stood frozen before me, arms outstretched and looking straight at me with eyes open wide.
It grinned slyly, knowing it’s opening gambit had failed. Its human form dissolving, it swept back to the centre of the Circle in a graceful spiral slide, once more a soft blur of shifting chaos. It remained this way for perhaps a minute, then sharply defined faces pushed slowly out of it, shifting through its swirl of colour a moment and vanishing again. Some stared out at us with various expressions-anger, sadness, delight, recognition, puzzlement-and some, in profile, simply turned right to left with blank expressions as they moved across the demon’s body. Some were faces of people I recognized or thought I recognized-was that my mother, my father, people I had known now dead? Though most were strangers, and some were hardly human at all.
The lips of one of these hardly-human faces moved as it emerged. A voice, thin and cracked, said, “Who calls Azmodiah?”
“It is I who calls Azmodiah,” said Raissa. “Who I may be is of no importance.”
“That is true,” said another face as it emerged out of the chaos. “You are of no importance.” The demon slid across to the packet of blood and bone left inside the Circle. The packet imploded with a toothy crunch and showered cellophane confetti onto the floor. “Tasty,” said yet another mouth. It licked its lips. “But an insult if this is all you offer for the fruits of eternity.”
“We have something here more to your liking,” said Raissa. With her gloved right hand she indicated the canister by her side.
“Raissa ... you should let me do that,” said Henry.
“No, Henry, his is my summoning!”
“No, Henry, his is her summoning!” said a face in the chaos.
“This is my summoning,” Raissa repeated, “and I’ll deal with it. The rest of you are holding down the cardinal points and must not move. Is that clear?”
We all nodded and said, “Yes.” The demon, manifesting thick lips, muttered, “Yes.”
Raissa reached into the canister. She closed her eyes and screwed up her face in disgust as she felt around inside. She brought out an amputated human foot, mottled with gangrene and dripping half-congealed liquids, greyish yellow with streaks of black. She flung it into the Circle.
The demon bulged towards it. The foot passed into its swirling chaos with a soggy sound and was gone.
“Better,” said a face a lot like my own as it swivelled from right to left and belched. “But far from enough. More shall be required for the answer to the question you wish to ask.”
“Do you know what I wish to ask?” said Raissa.
“Is that your question?” asked the demon.
“It concerns big magic.”
Two smiling profiles slid across the chaos in opposite directions. “Pitiful,” they said. “Small and pitiful.”
“Who’s small and pitiful?” said Raissa.
“Is that your question?” asked the demon again.
“I think it was referring to your mention of big magic,” said Henry. “To something like Azmodiah, human attempts at such things would indeed be small and pitiful.”
The demon cackled. It cackled from many tiny mouths appearing and disappearing all over its body like brief ulcers.
“How could you know such a word as ‘pitiful’?” said Raissa. “What do you know of pity?”
“I’ve been around,” said the demon.
“Raissa,” Henry whispered. “You know it’s dangerous to enter into discussion with such entities. Ask it only what we need to know.”
The witch nodded, then addressed the demon. “Magic was performed in the early days of a great human conflict many, many years ago. I wish to know who performed it and why.”
“Is that all?” said the demon with what seemed like genuine surprise. “You wish me to reveal to you the who and why of a few moments of inconsequential human foolishness? One instance amongst a human trillion-trillion, when I could give you the secrets of the stars?”
“Think of it as another few moments of inconsequential human foolishness.”
It chuckled to itself from a number of different grins. “Wouldn’t you rather discover what became of those aboard the Marie Celeste?”
“That’s the Mary Celeste,” I said, “and we already figured it out.”
“Yes, I know. I was listening,” said yet another rotating face. “I’m such a tease. Very well then, what about the identity of Jack the Ripper? Or the assassins of President Kennedy? Or the truth of any other unsolved murder, historical or recent? No? Perhaps this is too broad, too gigantic for your emaciated imagination. Perhaps something closer to home might be easier for you to digest.” The face sunk into the body of the demon, at once replaced by another, a young man, probably late twenties. It was a face I had a recollection of having seen recently. He said, “Hello, Henry. Have you ever wondered what happened to me?”
Henry gasped and in a broken voice said, “John Arkright!”
The face disappeared.
Henry wavered where he stood, seeming to be about to stumble over the chalked line. The demon’s body swirled with colour and shadow. It leaned and bulged eagerly in his direction.
“Henry!” Raissa and Russell shouted together.
I felt I teetered on the edge of an abyss. If Henry fell so would we all. The demon would break through his unguarded cardinal point, and death would follow quickly-if we were lucky.
Henry didn’t fall. He regained his composure and his balance. “John Arkright,” he whispered.
The demon resumed its former position, its chaotic swirl growing less frantic. A sense of disappointment washed up at me.
Henry gazed about the Circle. “Sorry,” he mumbled. “John Arkright went missing toward the end of the war in Vietnam. To this day no one knows how or where.”
Vietnam. Now I remembered where I’d seen that face. John Arkright had been one of Henry’s laughing companions in that jungle photo. He’d been the one wearing the tall, black witch’s hat done out with white stars and crescent moons.
“I know what happened, I know where he is,” the demon said. “But you will never know if you never ask.”
A score of tiny faces opened up like flowers and laughed. They laughed at Henry.
But Henry straightened up and said, “Be damned if I’ll waste our question on the fate of a dead man.”
The Arkright face appeared again. “Henry! Aren’t we still mates?” It vanished.
But Henry took a shuddering breath. “Be damned! You’re a trick and a very shallow trick at that.” His face and hands were trembling with barely controlled emotion. “Be damned!”
“My original question stands,” said Raissa. “Who committed an act of big magic against Tom Roach and Gavin Thorpe in 1914, and what has become of them?”
“Do you not wish to know the fate of Edward Maddock as well?” said the demon through a little girl’s angelic smile. “Or Leonard Peel? Or Fred Forester? Or William Blacknell? I could go on.”
“Who are these people?” Russell asked.
“Perhaps others who were involved,” I answered, guessing.
“It’s playing its old game of overkill,” said Henry.
“Am I?” said the demon. “Maybe I’m just being nice for once in my unspeakably evil existence and giving you free information. There is so much to learn when you are a human and so little little little little time to learn it.” A chorus of tinny, telephone voices went, “ Hoo! Hoo! Hoo! Hee! Hee! Hee! Ha! Ha! Ha!”
“Just tell us about Roach and Thorpe,” said Raissa.
“Their birthdays?” said a frowning clown face. “Their childhoods? Their sex lives? Their most intimate thoughts?”
“Their fates,” said Raissa with an edge of exasperation. “Tell me what happened to them and who did it.”
Now I knew why asking demons for help was not a common magical practice. If they didn’t rip you to pieces they’d drive you crazy with their studied stupidity.
“Tom Roach and Gavin Thorpe?” it said.
“Yes,” said Raissa.
“Not the others?”
“What others ... no, let’s not start that again.”
“If there were others with Roach and Thorpe,” I said, “why not -”
“We’ll find them later,” Raissa interrupted. “If we can find Roach and Thorpe we’ll find whoever else is with them. Right now asking after them as well would only confuse the issue, and this thing here doesn’t need much encouragement to do that.”
A great big smile across the moving colours said, “Not the others?”
“No. Just Roach and Thorpe.”
“The things I could tell you about the rest,” said the demon with a sigh.
“No doubt, but whether they’d be relevant to our needs would be another thing entirely.”
“Ah!” said the demon like a Frenchman.
“Just Roach and Thorpe.”
“Some act of hostile magic?” it said with a barely repressed sneer.
“Pigeons!” said the demon.
“Pardon?” said Raissa, startled.
An old man peered out of the demon’s body. “A common bird of the columbidae order,” he said in a clipped British accent and disappeared. It was only a glimpse, but I could’ve sworn it’d been David Attenborough, a presenter of television nature documentaries. The angelic little girl reappeared and said, “Pigeons!” She winked at us and withdrew into chaos.
“What has --” Raissa began.
“The cat is among the pigeons.” This from a face adorned with dark glasses and a goatee beard. Then an image of myself appeared, shouted, “Diesels!” and disappeared.
“We’re getting nowhere,” said Russell.
“No.” Raissa shook her head. “We’re getting information all right. We just have to interpret it.”
Right, I thought. We’re going to work out that Roach and Thorpe were carried off by diesel-driven pigeons. Makes sense to me.
“I vas expecting something else,” said the demon with an accent similar to that which warned us off at the second séance. “But you’ll do.” The face saying this was a void, like the no-face of the guy I’d seen outside the photographer’s shop. “You’ll do,” the demon repeated.
“I’ll do for what?” asked Raissa, worried.
“For what I had planned for what I expected.”
“And what were you expecting?”
“Something else, something oooohhhh, bigger, bigger, bigger. But you’ll do.”
“It doesn’t mean you personally, Raissa,” said Henry. “It’s answering in circles.”
“Of course I am!” said the demon in offended tones. “What do you expect when you offer me off-cuts for the wisdom of the ages! But for your petty morality you would have the answers you seek. For warm, singing blood I would give you the name, rank and serial number details of all you wish to know. Then this project of yours to rescue these poor souls and interfere in matters best left alone could continue its merry way into sorrow and disaster.”
Warm, singing blood. I couldn’t help mulling that phrase over. And as I did so several faces pushed out, stared at me a moment and sank again so that others could take their place. Unlike the others the demon produced, these didn’t move and didn’t talk. They had no expression. They simply watched me for their few moments of existence. With one or two exceptions, they were all men. Their ages ranged from what looked like early twenties to one old guy who might’ve been ninety or more. They were on my side of the demon, and as they didn’t travel around its body, were unseen by Raissa, Russell and Henry. This was just surmise, but I had the feeling I it was showing me either those who practiced human sacrifice or those who were sacrificed. Either way it made me shiver, and as I did so the faces smiled at me all at once and sank out of sight.
“Go shopping for the epicentre!” yelled the demon. “Go shopping for the epicentre!”
“Give us a straight answer!” Raissa shouted back.
“What was the question again?” the demon responded quietly.
“The question,” Raissa said, “is what happened to Tom Roach and Gavin Thorpe in 1914?”
The demon fell silent and remained that way for a full minute. We waited, watching each other, watching the demon. A few mute faces drifted across its body. Most of them seemed to be frowning in concentration.
Then all at once the body blistered with wide open mouths yelling, “The sea is as smooth as green as glass is smooth and as green and as smooth and as ...” Their voices bubbled and gurgled away as the faces blended back into the demon.
Another long silence followed. Then Raissa said, “Is that it?”
“I have given you more than enough for what you have to give me,” said the demon. “Ah, this generosity of mine is a curse!”
Raissa reached a hand into the canister at her feet, only to withdraw it again. Grabbing it by its handle she flung it toward the demon.
A metallic crash, a shower of sparks.
We hit the floor.
Something blurred and whined through the air, smashing into the wall behind me. A great gust of wind blowing hot into the Circle whistled above my prone body and sucked the flame from the eight candles.
When I dared to raise my eyes above floorboard level a few seconds later the room was in darkness. The thought of being in the dark filled me with panic. I jumped to my feet, ready to run who-cares-where.
Then Raissa turned on the lights.
The Circle was empty. The demon had gone, and under the bright electric glare I felt ashamed of my cowardice-until I saw the mangled canister embedded in the wall behind me. What I could see of it sticking out of the plaster reminded me of a peeled fruit.
It took us a good half hour to dislodge it, Russell and me, taking care not to cut ourselves on the torn metal. It’d been made of heavy gauge stuff, this canister, yet it was torn like so much tin foil. It was also empty. Its shiny insides, down to its jagged edges, had the appearance of having been licked clean.
Copyright © 2021 by Rick Kennett