It’s my birthday and I don’t feel like writing a post. I do have some work to do this morning, anyway.
So…. Here’s a free short story. Some of you might have read it in the first suburban fantasy book edited by Esther Friesner (that I’m blanking on the name tells you everything you need to know about how little coffee I’ve had.) OH, yeah, Witch Way to the Mall. It’s beyond silly but Jerry Pournelle loved it (and its sequels) and wanted me to write a book with these characters, so…. maybe you’ll enjoy it.
The Incident Of The Inferno Grill
Sarah A. Hoyt
© Sarah A. Hoyt 2008. All rights reserved. Reproduction prohibited except for brief excerpts for review purposes.
“What do you mean the grill is possessed?” I asked my new boss.
He shrugged. “Sometimes, things just are,” he said.
Now, while I had often had my suspicions about my computer, and wasn’t about to put hands in the fire about my tv either, I’d never gone so far as to say they were possessed. Self-willed maybe. And perhaps agents working for down-below. But possessed?
It didn’t make me feel better about driving into Oak Leaf Subdivision in the passenger side of Ken’s tenth-hand vintage early eighties Volvo, our backfires making gentlemen in chinos and white t-shirts look up from tending their already immaculate lawns and the car’s appearance making the tots playing on the sidewalks abandon their bicycles and plastic pedal cars and run screaming inside for mommy’s protection.
What the sign painted on the side of the car Nephilim Psychic Investigations might make the moms do was anybody’s guess. I certainly didn’t want to think about it.
The job wasn’t exactly something I’d set out to get, either. It’s just when you’ve gone through all the ads that relate to your training – and of course, the thing about being a classical historian is that there are hundreds of people out there just waiting to shove the big bucks at you for your knowledge of the impact of Augustus’ monopolies on Roman economy – and the ads for secretary and receptionist; when you’ve gone to more retail stores than you can count and filled out all their applications, only to be told you’re overqualified; when you have tried the Work At Home Carding Wool jobs, what is left is not the merely improbable, but the impossible.
For me the impossible had arrived in the form of a brightly colored flier stuffed into my mailbox with all the bills. Local Business Looking For Reliable Employee it said. Creativity and Love Of Adventure a Plus. Industry Standard Wages.
My first thought was that anyone who needed to put out a flyer asking for an employee during one of the tightest job markets ever to hit our city– in a college neighborhood, yet–could not be on the level.
However I took the flier inside, and looked over the pile of bills that had also been in the mailbox. Then I drank the last bit of the milk in the fridge. There was no money to buy a new gallon – or quart. Or pint, for that matter. I looked at the flier again. Perhaps the person looking for an employee just wasn’t very good at public relations. And perhaps he needed a guiding hand. Not to mention a firm but friendly employee to cure him of his sad addiction to capital LETTERs.
All of which had got me to Ken’s dingy office over the corner deli. I’d balked a little at the sign on the door. Nephilim Psychic Investigations didn’t exactly inspire confidence. Neither did his explanation that his given name was Nephilim Kentucky Jones III. Regardless of his explanation that his great grandmother had been into biblical prophecy and missed Kentucky, any family capable of perpetrating that name not once but three times probably had other genetic issues. Madness, for one.
And yet, Ken looked like a perfectly reasonable man. Black, in that indeterminate age range between thirty and fifty, with a lean physique, slightly receding hair and the oddest tone of skin I’d ever seen. He looked exactly like he’d been born to be very dark skinned but went around with a permanent pallor. He smiled, keeping his teeth hidden, and told me that he went by Ken. Ken Jones. He just thought given the nature of the job, Nephilim was a good name for the business.
Which it was. Just not for any business I would be involved with. But he gave me a hundred dollar advance, which kept me from bolting when, after he had hired me, he asked me, “So… do you think you might have any psychic abilities?”
“I don’t think I have any more psychic abilities than your average cat,” I said, calculating the distance between me and the door, which wasn’t very large considering the whole office could be crossed in a dozen steps in each direction.
“Ah well,” he said, picking up a pen and making some random notation on a notebook on his desk – I swear he wrote cat – “Cats are actually very psychic.” After which he seemed to lose interest in me, as he looked through his desk for something.
When I cleared my throat, he said, “Oh. You’re hired. Otherwise I wouldn’t have given you a cash advance.”
Which he had, for which I was grateful. But all the same, I thought I needed to know some minor things. Like, “Uh… when do I start? What do I do?”
“Oh. I’ll call you,” he said. “When we have a case.” He looked over my resume. “I do have your cell number so just keep that on.”
And I had. But I hadn’t expected to be called in less than two hours. Nor had I expected to be picked up in a Volvo that backfired constantly. Much less did I expect to be driving through the burbs with that ridiculous business name on the car door.
Which was just as well, because Ken pulled into a cul-de-sac, and up the driveway of the last house. This house could have fit my two bedroom apartment in it at least ten times, not that it would, since it was much better kept than any place I’d ever lived. In fact, it looked like painters had just finished touching up the exterior, and making sure the picket fence going around the spacious yard was as immaculate as possible.
Ken opened the car door with an audible shriek, and got out. I got out on my side, cringing at the sound of unoiled metal. As we approached the broad porch with its unsat-upon-by-human-behinds wicker chairs, I swear I saw a hand twitch the lace curtains in the window next to the door. So I fully expected no answer to the doorbell. She had seen that car. What sane suburban matron would answer the door to someone who arrived in that car?
Only, of course, there was an answer. A woman in a white dress opened the door and smiled at us. “Yes?”
She didn’t at all look like an inmate from a lunatic asylum, so I had to assume that whoever had called Ken and complained of a possessed grill had been playing a prank on her. Or on us.
But when Ken said, “Good afternoon, Ma’am. We’re here about the–”
She blushed slightly and said, “Of course.” And stepped back, opening the door wide.
We crossed a hallway and a kitchen, and though she said “Forgive the mess” I didn’t see anything even out of place other than a Barbie doll on the counter.
Outback, there was a little brick patio and a neat lawn strewn with kids’ toys. And just as I thought the woman was about to say that she wanted an estimate for aerating the lawn or the like, she gestured helplessly towards the grill.
The grill took up the entire side of the brick patio, perpendicular to the house and it looked more complex than some upper model cars. It was one of those deals which could accommodate five full racks of ribs side by side, and cook the sauce on the side, on a little gas burner. Grills like that always made me feel inadequate since I couldn’t even imagine having the sort of social life that required that sort of cooking implement. This one was all polished black and chrome and gave me a strange feeling that I should fall on my knees and worship.
For some reason, Ken reached over and grabbed my elbow. “Steady now,” he said, in an undertone, before turning to the homeowner.
“So, Ma’am,” he said, as he pulled a notebook from his back pocket. “What were the first signs of trouble?”
She hesitated, then sighed. “Well…” she said, and stepped aside reaching for a plant stake that was leaning against the house, beside the patio door. She stepped a distance and used the stake to raise the grill cover.
A column of flame shot up, to the second floor window level.
I jumped back and attempted to take cover behind a child’s bike. The homeowner lifted the stake, clearly with the idea of closing the grill again, but Ken held her wrist. “No, no,” he said. “Leave it open.” He looked up and down the blue and red flames, which gave off a distinct smell of sulphur. “I imagine that must have been disturbing.”
The woman wrung her hands. “It ruined the brisket,” she said, with a sort of sob in her voice. “It was the best brisket, too, and we were going to have a cookout. We had invited all our friends.”
Ken nodded sagely. The blue and red flame acquired purple highlights.
“And when did you realize that you were in true trouble?”
“That…” She looked thoughtful. “That would be when it demanded human sacrifice.”
“I see,” Ken said. Behind him, the purple flames were forming faces, with huge, gaping mouths. “And did you give it that?”
The woman’s mouth dropped open and her eyes opened wide. “What? No!”
“Good,” Ken said, flipping a page in his notebook, and making some cryptic note. “Human sacrifice always complicates things.”
The woman’s mouth opened and closed, like that of a fish recently removed from water. I was probably doing the same. I was also still cowering behind the little kids’ bike. It had pink streamers on the handlebars and a plastic basket with plastic flowers glued on in the front. [The flames had now grown and shaped into beckoning fingers. I hoped the plastic flowers were sturdier than their looked..
“So, do you have any idea what might have brought this about?” Ken asked, calmly.
From the grill, a voice was hissing, in what would be enticing tones, if there were not the stench of evil in every syllable. “We know you. Come to us. Come to us…”
The homeowner was looking at the grill. “Perhaps if we could cover…”
“Nah, don’t worry. It always says that sort of thing,” Ken said, waving his hand as if to say that the grill could wait. “Just tell me if you have any idea what caused this.”
“I…” She wrung her hands together. “I don’t know.”
“Well, you know, grills don’t normally become possessed,” he said. He sounded very much like a plumber talking about some foreign object found in the drains. “So there must be something special about this one.” He looked over his shoulder, at the obscene mass of images that the flames had formed – arms, hands, lips, tongues, and some very lascivious faces leering straight at him – and narrowed his eyes in professional appreciation. “Remarkable,” he said. “Would you tell me where you bought it?”
“House Despot,” she said, with a quiver in her voice.
“I see. And… well, forgive me, it is of course, none of my business, but you and your family don’t happen to be Satanists?”
“No!” It was a wail.
“Any practitioners of the black arts hereabouts?” he said, as he scribbled furiously. “Suspicious teenagers, shape shifters, wizards, vampires?”
“Vampires?” she said with a sort of a gurgle.
“Well, not every vampire, you know, but some are true bad lots, and– ”
And I could see if I let Ken go on with this, the woman would have a nervous breakdown and give the grill the human sacrifice it demanded, probably in the shape of Ken. I got up from behind the bike, with the reflection that, at any rate, it wouldn’t save me from the worst. I mean, if the hellish forces dragged me off to, well, hell, at best I could make sure to take a bike and a handbasket with me. And at worst, I’d have bike-shaped scorch marks on my body.
Instead, I decided to save my job, such as it was, and possibly my life, not to mention, my immortal soul. I advanced on the two of them with what I’m sure seemed like a semblance of bravery, though I was careful to keep them between me and the grill, where a thousand flame tongues were lolling out at me, while the hissing flames called out obscene suggestions.
“Ken,” I said. “I’m sure you have other diagnostic tools. I’m sure Mrs– ”
“Smith,” she said, looking away from Ken and the flames towards me.
“I’m sure Mrs. Smith doesn’t know anymore about the origins of the trouble, or she would have told you already, isn’t that right?”
“Of course,” Mrs. Smith said, with such a tone of relief, that it cut at my heart. “We’re going to go inside, and she can have a cup of tea, while you do your thing, all right?” I said.
Ken looked somewhat put out. He put his notebook in his back pocket, turned around to face the grill and said, “Right. It’s time to roast.”
I didn’t want to see what he was going to do next, so I just led Mrs. Smith into the kitchen, where I nuked a cup of water and, following her directions, found her her favorite herbal tea.
“We moved here two years ago,” she said. “Such a nice place we thought. I mean, our children go to the school just down the street.”
I handed her the cup of tea, which smelled strongly of mint, and she took a sip. “And never a hint of anything strange, you know? I mean, the children play outside, and my husband has a lot of friends that he golfs with and–”
I found a tissue box and handed her one just in time. She blew her nose. “We were so happy here. Every month or so, we had a barbecue and everyone in the neighborhood came. Best ribs in the stateMy grandmother’s recipe. Everyone loved them.” She took another sip of the tea. “But now it’s all ruined. No one will ever come to our parties again. We’re the crazy people with the special effects grill.”
“Have you tried getting rid of it?” I asked. “Just putting it out with the trash?”
“Yes. Oh, yes. But, you know, it popped open, and the garbage collectors came and knocked at the door and said that if we did that again they would report us.” She wailed again. “For trying to dispose of dangerous materials.” She took another sip of tea, like a woman drowning. “We even… we even tried putting it at the corner, with a sign saying free. We thought some… some college student might take it, or something.” She put her hands to her face, as if to cover the raging blush on her cheeks. “But all that happened is that by the time we came home it was back there, with the flames shooting up to the second floor.
“And it’s so bad,” she said. “I mean, the lid will open in the middle of the night, with the wind, or some vibration, or something. And the flames will wake our daughter in her room. It’s just… just facing the grill. And our son thinks it’s cool. He’s thirteen, you know.”
I provided another tissue. She sniffled, daintily. “And he’s learned all sorts of bad language from that grill. The flames hiss it, you know. He called his teacher a den of iniquity last week. Let me tell you that was a fun conference. And then he said the principal was a beast of concupiscence.” She finished her mint tea at a go, as though trying to fortify herself. “I don’t know what to do anymore. We’d move, but I’m afraid the grill will get there ahead of me.” She put a hand up and grabbed my wrist, and motioned with her had towards Ken, who was out there, making wild gestures and seemingly negotiating with the demon in the flames. “Is he any good?”
For one crazy moment, I toyed with telling her the truth: That all I knew about him was his pamphlet design skills and his name, and that neither of those inspired me with confidence. But I looked at her woebegone face, her tear-filled eyes, and I decided the lie was the best part of valor. “Oh yes,” I said. “He is… uncanny. Such power and psychic, er, perception. He’s almost as good as a cat.”
“Oh, that’s good then,” she said. And I must have sounded convincing, because she didn’t even bat an eye at the cat thing.
I thought I’d better get out of that kitchen, though, before I were tempted into a sin of telling the truth. I mumbled something about helping Ken and stepped out.
He was facing the grill, which was singing in a thin, reedy voice. It sounded like “staying alive, staying alive.”
“Well?” I said.
“It’s very bad,” he said, turning around and frowning at me. “Those flames are straight from the pits of hell themselves, and judging from the sound of it, that’s Disco. That means it’s from the lower pits. The only worse ones are the accordion players’ pits.”
“What can we do?” I asked.
He shook his head. “Damned if I know,” and glared at the faces that were now chortling at him. He ran a hand backward through his very short hair. “Or at least, the grill is.”
“So what can we do?” I asked. “She’s terrified in there.”
“It has to be the work of someone around here,” Ken said. “A neighbor or something. I mean, if they’re not Satanists, then someone has invoked this and wished it on them.”
“Okay. So, how do we go about finding who it is?”
“I don’t know,” Ken said, exasperated. “Look for familiars or brooms or something.”
“Brooms? Are you seriously suggesting I go to every house, knock at the door and ask to see their broom?”
He chewed on his lower lip, as though deep in thought. “No,” he said. “Too time consuming. Besides, if it’s a new broom, or if they fly relatively slow, the scorch marks aren’t really obvious.”
“Nephilim Kentucky Jones, are you telling me that people really fly on brooms?”
He looked confused. “Uh… yes?”
It was clearly hopeless to bring him in touch with reality. And besides, looking at that grill with its outright sentient flames, I was having trouble telling him that flying brooms were impossible. So I cast a look around the immaculate lawn, the carefully tended bushes and flowers surrounding it, and the white picket fence encircling the whole. Just in time to see a cat looking over the fence.
Okay, it was just a black cat. Maybe. It had intent, curious eyes and the strongest claws I’ve ever seen, holding on to the edge of the fence.
“You’ll never figure it out,” the grill was hissing at Ken. “You should give up and let us cook you.” It turned around 180 degrees, in a way that was probably more repulsive for a human head.
And the cat was looking over the fence. Another cat head appeared right next to his. I noticed that Mrs. Smith was in the patio door, looking distraught.
“Whose cats are those?” I asked.
“Oh, that’s Black Cat and Black Cat Two.”
“They’re yours?” I asked.
She shook her head. “Sort of the neighborhood cats,” she said. “Their mother dropped them in our yard. Mama cat has moved on, but they stay here. We… we feed them. No one else would, you know? Poor things.”
And the two of them were looking over the fence, their yellow eyes shining and intent. The bigger one seemed to be muttering cat curses under his breath. Right. As psychic as a cat. Black cats as agents of the devil. And then there was the whole familiar thing. I looked down, happy that not only did I have jeans on, but I had my grubbiest jeans on. That meant I could climb that fence.
I approached the cats slowly, passing Ken, who muttered as he looked at the grill, “Oh, pea soup, now. Really bad.”
I didn’t look, but the air was filled with the smell of burnt split pea soup.
I headed for the fence and the two cats. I expected them to run when they saw me coming. And they did. Sort of. Only it was a slow-mo run, with looks back to make sure I was following. And I did. Over the fence and onto another immaculate law. And all the way to the garden shed.
Where I looked through the side window, to see a woman – at least I hoped it was a woman – tracing figures in chalk on the floor, and lighting candles and muttering “That will fix them.”
I lopped all the way back, jumped over the fence. Mrs. Smith was still standing in her doorway. I said, “How do you get along with the neighbor next door?”
She looked puzzled a second then shook her head. “Well, not at all. You see, she tried to steal my ribs recipe. Her family is not… very popular here. She resents my husband and I. Her parties used to be the best attended before we moved here.”
Bingo, I thought, even as part of my mind told me I was over the edge and far away. “Ken,” I said, as I approached him and pulled him by the arm, away from the grill which was now vomiting wave upon wave of pea soup onto the brick patio. “Come with me.”
He looked as if he was going to protest. He had a book in his hand, which he’d clearly been reading from. I confiscated it, and dragged him behind me. It wasn’t till I was near the fence that I read the title on the leather. “War and Peace?” I said.
“I thought it might put it to sleep,” he said, defensively. “It often does for me.”
“Never mind that. Come.”
I led him, on tip toes all the way to the shed, where I showed him — through the same grimy window — the woman who was now engaged in a hopping, skipping backward dance around some mystic symbol on the floor.
“Right,” he said. “Wait here. This isn’t going to be pretty.”
“War and Peace?” I asked.
“Worse. Much worse,” he said. “I think we’re into the territory of Collected Anthology of Romantic Poetry.” I thought he was joking, but as he went he took a small black-bound volume from what appeared to be a bottomless back pocket.
He went in and I heard a woman’s voice say, “What are you doing here?”
Ken’s voice answered, deep and resonant, “She found me roots of relish sweet…”
The woman screamed, loudly, drowning out Ken’s voice. There was a series of thumps. Then Ken’s voice rising again, “So are you to my thoughts like food to life.”
Another couple of screams, followed by an explosion and a sudden smell like burning lavender. And then Ken’s voice, resolute and confident, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love thee to the depth and breadth and height… Is that enough? Yeah. That’s what I’m talking about,” he said, in the tone of someone who has finished some difficult work.
He emerged from the shed bedraggled, his shirt rumpled and burned in three spots, as if someone had applied a cigarette to it. His short hair managed to be on end, and it looked like there were a couple silver threads mingled in. He held something in his hand. It looked like a sachet woven out of straw with a couple bones and things tied to it. “I tell you,” he said, shaking his head. “Whenever these suburban women get some book on dark magic out of the library, they always go for the nastiest stuff.”
He seemed to be walking back to the grill, so I walked with him, and helped him over the fence. He looked like he was barely able to remain standing. At the moment we came into sight, the flames froze in the classic cartoon uh-oh faces and I swear I heard, “Well, if that will be all,” coming in the hiss of the flames, as the lid started to swing shut.
“Not so fast,” Ken said, and flung the sachet of workings overhand into the flames.
There was a sound like the scream of a thousand pierced accordions, and the flames died suddenly. The pea soup that had been pouring over the edge of the grill disappeared too, leaving a scene of suburban calm.
“Wow,” Mrs. Smith said. “That was good work!” She seemed all polite eagerness and I detected just the faintest wish to see us leave. Not that I blamed her. I mean, if a possessed grill was bad, the sort of oddballs we were would be bad too.
“It was just your next door neighbor,” Ken said, slowly, as he wiped his sweaty forehead to his sleeve. “You don’t have to worry about her anymore. She’ll be going very far away.”
“How far away are we talking about?” I asked him, as we were back in the car and headed for our safe downtown neighborhood.
“What?” he said, looking over at me. “Oh, I suggested Bermuda. In that state of mind, it’s likely to become a fixation. I just stripped all her psychic defenses and removed her witchcraft. If she can convince her husband – and maybe even if she can’t – I’d guess it’s Bermuda or bust.”
“Oh,” I said, feeling terribly relieved. “I thought you’d killed her or something.”
He looked startled, and the car wavered on the lane. “I don’t kill people,” he said.
I gave him a sideways look. He could be a madman. Except… what he’d done had worked. And we had a thousand dollar check to prove it. “How did you find out how to do psychic investigations, anyway?”
“Online course,” he said.
I gurgled with laughter despite myself, and said “What? How did you find such a course?”
“It was that or computer programming, and psychic investigations was cheaper,” he said. “And less competition.”
“But… most people don’t think there’s anything to investigate,” I said, trying to sound reasonable. “I mean, psychic stuff…” I couldn’t say it didn’t exist, after what I’d just seen, so I just opened my hands, helplessly.
“Young lady, when your parents named you Nephilim Kentucky, you know there is far more to the world than is dreamed of in anyone’s philosophy. And evil is always a possibility”
“Okay,” I said. And smiled to myself. “I wonder what our next case will be.”
“A sense of adventure,” he said. “I knew that about you first time I saw you.” He turned off the interstate towards downtown. “I just hope our next case is not in the burbs. Thing about the burbs is, if anyone has any beef at all, it all ends up in a big cookout.”