What happens when you pit a landlord against a tenant that’s possessed by a demon? Find out who is the greater of two evils.
Dean eased the door open. A funk washed over him, ran down his throat, and turned his stomach. The room stunk like a raccoon carcass cooking in the bowels of an outhouse. There was a silhouette on the bed, a lump beneath the covers. He flipped the light switch. Nothing happened.
Patience waited at the door, double-fisting rosary beads, praying into her knuckles.
Reaching into the Velcro pouch between his keys and his tape measurer, Dean produced a flashlight. He clicked it against his thigh, while his free arm cradled a stack of documents.
Ignoring the bed, Dean surveyed the rest of the room. There were splinters, wood chips, and glass shards in the entryway. Fragments of light bulb led to the scattered remains of four wooden blades. There was a twinkle at the foot of the bed; the gold housing of the ceiling fan, several steps from the motor, and the chrome mounting device.
Dean shook his head. “The floor’s going to need to be refinished, and that fan was vintage.”
Patience mouthed the words. “She did that.” Her breath whistled through her teeth in ever increasing intervals.
Dean shrugged. He shined his light on the gap where the fan had been. A pair of wires dangled from it, waiting for a gust of wind to make them whole again.
“That’s a fire hazard.” He thought aloud.
A stain streaked across the ceiling tiles. It was as black as tar at its thickest point and as yellow as piss at its faintest. There was a clear splatter pattern; an arc of bile from the bed to the closet on the other side of the room.
Dean pinched his nose. “That biological hazard is gonna have to be bleached out.”
Patience motioned to the lump on the mattress.
Defiant, Dean aimed his beam at the headboard. There was a symmetrical ink blot smeared across it, a crimson butterfly with a massive wingspan. His light caught the glint of a chain running from the bed frame to beneath the covers.
“Are there any dogs over twenty-pounds that I need to know about?”
Patience shook her head. She muttered “No dogs. I had to borrow it from the…from someone in another building.” She tried to change the subject, “Have you noticed how all the clocks have stopped?”
“Are the calendars broken too? That might explain why the first just flew right past you.” Dean stepped into the room. Glass crunched beneath his work boots. He clutched the corner of the bed sheet. Burn marks littered the fabric, no doubt from cigarette cherries that flew too far south of their ashtray. Gritting his teeth, Dean tore the sheet away.
The thing on the mattress looked like a pile of mannequin parts, hunched forward, legs folded in the lotus position. Its arms were dislodged from their sockets, crossed behind its back. Grace was a contorted heap of bones. Her night gown was a color swatch of bodily fluids.
Dean scanned Grace’s inner elbows for signs of track marks, her forearms for meth bumps, and her shoulders for crank craters. She was clean. Her skin was like white marble, each vein was visible to the naked eye.
There was a tuft of jet-black hair where her face should be. It was a frizzy mess, uneven, encrusted with blood. A pile of knotted clumps lay at her knees. Black strands were coiled around her knuckles.
Dean snapped his fingers. “Hey, rise and shine, Cirque du Soleil.”
Grace leaned forward. Dragged her head along the mattress as her butt rose into the air. Sliding onto her belly, her legs stayed locked in the lotus position. Cirque du Soleil, indeed. Her knees split apart, until her hips pressed into the bedspring. She was a frog chained to a shit stained lily pad.
Her spine popped as she arched her back. Grace rose from the bed, a cobra eager to model its hood.
Dean flashed the light into her face. Her features were lost beneath her hair. Her skin was rife with ash. She looked more like a coal miner than a junky.
He checked her teeth for signs of meth mouth. Where he expected chipped yellow stumps, he found an overbite dripping with blood. Grace grinned, all too happy to open wide and say, “Ah.” The points of her smile stretched beyond her teeth, revealing a muscle deformity that cut through her dimples, and exposed her cheek bones. Her mouth ran from ear lobe to ear lobe, a jack-o-lantern made flesh.
“Looks like mother superior needed back up.” Grace spoke with twin voices. One was an octave higher than Dean expected. The other was several octaves lower.
Dean sucked his cheek in to work the flesh around his molars. “Grace I presume? My name is Dean Gilroy. I’m here to have a discussion about your current living arrangement.”
Grace gave that a slow nod. “Are you an instrument of the lord?”
Dean reached for the papers under his arm. He slapped an eviction notice at the foot of the bed. “I’m the landlord. Your mother tells me you’re sickness,” Dean made finger quotes, “has prevented you from paying your half of the rent.”
Grace tilted her shoulder forward. Her arm popped into its socket faster than Dean could blink. Her nails dug into the eviction notice. They were black with something that wasn’t polish. Shifting her weight, Grace popped the other shoulder into place. Her arm was up to her face before Dean could feel the breeze from its momentum. Grace tapped her fingers down the paper. They were clawing into her forearm by the time Dean noticed they’d moved. Blood oozed from her flesh.
“We were just making ourselves at home.” Grace flicked her blood across the notice.
Dean bared his teeth, “You’re stigmatizing my property.”
Grace cocked her head. The veins running up her neck turned black. She dug her fingers into the bedspread. Her elbows locked, a seal sitting up on its flippers. Her back spasmed in a blur of movement. Convulsions ran through her arms, driving them deeper into the mattress. The chain rattled and the bed quaked. Grace’s jaw snapped off its hinge. It swung from her skin like a pendulum. Between her bite and her smile, Grace’s mouth was wide enough to fit a basketball.
“Grace!” Patience called out.
Grace’s seizure came to an abrupt stop. She leaned over the bed and threw up. Vomit shot out like an oil spout dumping its payload on the hardwood. Dean’s khakis turned black before he had time to step away.
Patience locked her fingers ever tighter. “Jesus, oh dear Jesus, please protect my baby.”
Dean lift his foot to find Grace’s sick streaking from his boots. “There goes your damage deposit, several times over.”
Patience beckoned Dean back into the hall. He shoed her away, contented to stand in the puddle of sludge.
Patience raised her voice, “I just wanted you to see what we were dealing with. This isn’t a matter for the courts. This is a matter for the church.”
Dean waved that thought away, “Oh Boohoo. Tell it to the tenants’ union.”
Laughter swelled up from Grace, the atonal cackles of a crowded theater, many voices forming a swarm.
Dean found Grace perched at the end of the bed, a gargoyle leering at the piddling fools beneath her. Her jaw had found its hinge. Her mouth had returned to human proportions. There was a beautiful young woman beneath that knotted veil of jet-black hair. He could just make out the glint of her eyes. Still, there was nothing but darkness where the whites should be.
Dean said, “Laugh it up chuckle head.”
Patience knocked on the archway to get Dean’s attention. “That thing on the bed is not my daughter. It wears her face, but it is not her. Don’t try to communicate with it. It speaks in riddles and half truths. We’ll need a member of the clergy to handle it.”
Dean said, “Why, does it speak Latin?” Cracking his knuckles, he turned to stare down the girl. “Do you have any idea how hard it is to rent with an eviction on your record? I don’t care what you are. Winter is coming and you do not want to be left out in the cold.”
Grace licked her lips, “Like Mary Lawrence, the tenant you kicked out before us?
Dean rubbed his hands together, “Right, just ask Ms. Lawrence.”
Patience resumed her vigil in the threshold, hyperventilating as she whispered.
Grace moved her shoulders with a hypnotizing rhythm. Her head stayed perfectly still, an owl staring down its prey. She said, “Mary died of exposure under the Huron Avenue overpass. God couldn’t hear her through the chattering of her teeth. She pissed herself to stay warm. Her face slid off when they tried to move her. Now she’s in here with us.”
Dean shrugged, “She should’ve paid up. How many others are in their that aren’t on the lease? What are we talking about, a double, triple, quadruple occupancy?”
Grace tilt her head back to address the hole in the ceiling, “We are legion.” Her words echoed.
Dean slapped the rest of his papers on the bed. “Your lease agreement specifically states, ‘NO PARTIES.’”
Grace giggled, “It’s not a party. It’s an orgy in my mouth and everyone is coming. Why even your father is eager to get in on the action. As we speak a bull-faced incubus is stuffing his face full of–”
“Ask him what he did with the money.” Dean cut her off. “Tell him we had another look at the books and there were substantial earnings he wasn’t reporting. Ask him where he hid the nest egg. Is it in the Caymans or should we be digging up the backyard?”
Grace didn’t know what to say, she leaned over Dean’s shoulder to fix her sights on Patience, bobbing up and down, wielding a crucifix above her head
Grace said, “Fellate your invisible savior all you like, but your daughter’s soul is ours.”
Dean snapped his fingers in Grace’s face. “With all your back rent, you’re so deep in my pocket that I own you. Unless you can cough it up in the next fifteen days, I get to claim anything in the unit. If you’re still here, guess who all those souls belong to?”
Grace spoke with discord in her voices, “What tribunal dares to claim dominion over the currency of hell?”
Dean performed a drum roll across his papers, “The Hennepin County District Court. They claimed it when you failed to show. Who needs a higher power when a default judgment does the trick?”
Grace squint. Dean tried to lean out of her gaze, but she mirrored his movements. The lights in her eyes followed his pupils.
Grace spat at the papers. Her spittle sizzled through the pages. “Your mortal trickery does not amuse us.”
Dean felt something drip down the back of his neck. He turned to find Patience dipping her fingers into a pitcher shaped like a dove. She flicked water at Grace.
Patience shouted, “The power of Christ compels you! The power of Christ compels you!”
“Compel this.” Grace grunt with the deep resonance of portly old man. She hiked up her gown to reveal the red welts that lined her legs.
Dean turned to Patience, repeating her mantra.
He shushed her, “Cut that shit out. The last thing we need is another noise complaint.”
Patience did as she was told, only to dip her hand into the pitcher to flick one last burst at her demon seed. Most of it landed in Dean’s eyes.
Doubling over, he tried to blink it out. “Did that come from the tap? Was it white when you poured it? The pipes are up to code. It’s just, that better not have come from the tap.”
The chain rattled. Metal scraped metal. The bed creaked and the floorboards moaned.
Dean opened his eyes to find Patience with her head tilt back, pouring her pitcher into the hardwood. Her hand quivered over her mouth. Backing away, her breath turned to smoke.
A breeze passed through Dean’s jacket. It felt like it was made of cheesecloth. The hair on his wrists rose to reveal the goosebumps underneath.
Dean turned to find Grace had floated to the ceiling. Her limbs had gone slack, a marionette dangling from its strings. Wind cascaded through her gown. The choke chain tightened around her ankle, tethering her to the bed. Her foot turned purple as the rug rollers came up off the floor. The headboard rose until the mattress slid off, followed closely by the box spring.
Grace balled her fingers into fists. Blood trickled through them. When she opened her grasp, it had extended. She’d found extra columns in her palms. There were stiletto points where her nails had been, thin black talons as long as the hands themselves.
She shook, struck by some unseen lightning. The surge shot through her, revealing the full breadth of her arm span. With the blood dripping from her palms, Grace was a crucifix in zero gravity.
Patience returned with a bible. She flipped to a page at random and read, “And Solomon begat Roboam; and Roboam begat Abia; and Abia begat Asa; and Asa begat Josaphat; and Josaphat begat–”
“Skip ahead.” Dean shouted.
Patience flipped several pages and read, “And Eliud begat Eleazar; and Eleazar begat Matthan; and Matthan–”
Dean threw his hands up. “Seriously, give me that.” He dug his fingers into the new testament and read, “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
Dean slammed the bible shut. “This must be the class warfare edition.” Flinging it aside, he ambled back into the room. “Now here’s how this thing is gonna go down.” His breath spiraled as he spoke.
Dean tugged on Grace’s nightgown. She gave him no sign that she’d noticed.
He shouted, “You are now squatting on private property. You can either leave of your own volition or I can have the sheriff escort you.” He rubbed his chin muttering, “Provided you don’t float into a power line.”
The puppeteer tilt Grace back and forth. The bed frame slammed against the wall. The first hit chipped the paneling. The second broke through the sheetrock. The third broke the bed frame. Dean shielded his eyes from the bolts ricocheting off the wall. The support rails fell apart like a birdhouse made of twigs. Washers rolled across the floor. The choke chain dangled from Grace’s ankle, more of an accessory than an anchor.
Dean rubbed his arms, “You better pray that wall isn’t adjacent to another unit.”
There was a clicking, like a tow line struggling with a heavy load. Grace’s bangs traded places with her pony tail. Her head spun had around. Dean flashed his beam in the creature’s eyes.
Grace winced. The light did her pupils no favors. She hissed, “Your building is but a gateway, an ancient border waiting to be crossed.”
“There’s no law against renting to illegals, so long as they pay the rent on time.” Dean reached for the choke chain.
Heading up the rear, Patience gripped his shoulder. “Don’t, there’s no telling what she’ll do.”
Dean wrapped the chain around his fingers, “Don’t fret. This is not my first rodeo.”
Grace drove her talons into the ceiling tiles. “The cries of the damned will echo through every hall, every parlor, through every chamber of this estate.”
“As long as there’s no subwoofers.” Dean tugged with all of his weight.
Grace ripped a tile from the ceiling. She flung it at his feet. It burst into a puff of chalk. Dean put his sleeve over his mouth. Grace reached into the gap to restore her hold. Her hand fell out with another tile skewered through its claws. This one proved harder for her to cast off.
Grace howled. Her voices had become a pack of wild beasts, barking and snarling. The party in her mouth had turned into a rager.
Patience peaked through the space left by the tile to find a drop ceiling. It had an even denser mosaic of tiles. Through the hole in the second ceiling, she spotted a third. Its tiles were checkered. She shift her glare from the holes to Dean, cupping his mouth in the fabric of his windbreaker.
He shrugged, “Lower ceilings mean lower heat bills. That’s savings I passed on to you.”
Patience squint, “Why are you covering your mouth?”
Casting his light at the buffet of biohazards, Dean said, “It might have something to do with the unsanitary conditions of the unit.”
Patience surveyed the floor, “But why all of a sudden?”
Grace growled with a fury that shook the room.
Grabbing Dean’s wrist, Patience shift his beam to the tile at his feet. Fibers protruded from the cracks. The words FIRE-RATED were printed across it.
Tugging her sleeve, Patience cupped it over her mouth. “Is that asbestos?”
Dean yanked his hand free. “That material has rendered this building flame resistant for the better half of a century.”
Patience backed away from the fragments like they were charges wired to explode. “That is. Isn’t it? This whole building is riddled with asbestos.”
The demon chorus ceased. There was a sound like pick axes freeing themselves from a rock face.
Grace said, “Well, we’re out.”
She landed in a heap on the floor. The chain unraveled from Dean’s grip. Shinning his light, he found her head had twist back around. The color had returned to her skin. Her mouth had shrunk back to the dimensions governed by her face. Her needlepoint talons had retracted.
Patience covered her daughter’s mouth with her second sleeve.
Dean inched toward the door, hoping the reunion would afford him a clean getaway. The bible slipped out from under him. He fell on his ass. Patience’s attention turned to the sound. Grace’s eyes fluttered open. The whites had returned to them. Turned out, her eyes were blue.
Quick to return his sleeve to his mouth, Dean said, “You’re welcome.”
Patience shook her head, “You’re putting us up in a hotel or we’re pressing charges.”
Though the fallout from this event would cost him his rental empire, Dean would always look upon it as the successful eviction of a problem tenant. A small victory, but a victory nevertheless.