Published by M.A. Kropp at Shakespir
Copyright 2016 M.A. Kropp
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For Sharon, Melisa, and Martine.
This one is your fault!
Miss Lucy sat in her floral upholstered Queen Anne chair, a delicate china cup in one long-fingered hand. She was smiling at the TV screen as she sipped her Devil’s Due tea. The television was tuned to the local religious channel. On the screen was an older, white-haired man. He was smiling at the camera. The legend across the bottom of the screen read “Reverend Rob Patterson, Your Godly Hour.”
“Yes, indeed, folks.” The reverend smiled, showing brilliant white teeth. “You can’t go wrong at Miss Lucy’s Emporium. Why, you can get yourself most anything you could ever want in there! From personal items to household goods to gently used clothing, it’s all at Miss Lucy’s. And you won’t find better pricing anywhere! Why, my good brother-in-law, Gordon, got me this beautiful sweater right there at Miss Lucy’s, and I tell you, I love it. You get on down there today, and see what you fall in love with!” As he talked, he plucked at the sleeve of the blue-and-grey-striped cardigan sweater he wore.
“And, now, we will have our Bible verse of the day, and I will take y’alls phone calls. RevRob is here to help you find your way to Heaven!”
Lucy drained the last of her tea, and switched off the TV. She sat for a moment, just looking at the blank screen.
“Best accident that ever could have happened.” She stood up and carried the teacup to the kitchen. “Couldn’t have planned it better.” She set the cup in the sink and picked up a red knit shawl from the hook near the door. “Time to get to work.” She slipped the shawl over her shoulders and walked out the back door, and across the yard to the small shop at the edge of the road.
“Hey, Johnny “Cerise turned from the computer screen. “There’s another one.”
The man on the other side of the room didn’t seem to hear. He stood with his back to her, motionless. His head was bowed and long, dirty blond hair hung over the collar of his shirt. Cerise climbed down from the desk chair and walked across the room. She stood watching the slight movements of his arms.
“Great time to trance out.” She started to turn away when he spun around so suddenly, it made Cerise jump back a step.
“Look! I got it!” In his hands was an iridescent silver yo-yo. He threw it out, grabbing the string between the pinky and thumb of his free hand. He pulled the yo-yo up, letting it hang inside the triangle he’d formed with the string. He let the toy rock gently for a moment, then snapped the string out and caught the returning yo-yo as it rolled up into his hand. He spread his hands wide and grinned.
“Rock-a-bye, baby.” He was clearly pleased with himself.
“Things are going south down South, and you’re playing with toys?” Cerise shook her head. She stood with fists planted on her hips, stick-thin arms angled out from her equally thin body. She had to tilt her head back to look up into his face. Wide green eyes stared up at him under drawn together eyebrows. Her lips were pinched in a frown, making even more lines stand out on her dark face. Johnny tucked the yo-yo into a pocket.
“Gotta have a little fun, now and then.” He reached down to chuck her under the chin. “Everyone needs a hobby, even me.” He crossed the room to the desk and peered at the computer screen.
“Now, what’s going on down South?”
Cerise climbed back up into the chair and pointed to the screen.
“Another poltergeist in Carroll Fork.”
“Gettin’ to be a habit down there, isn’t it?” Johnny scanned the story on the screen.
“Fourteenth in the last month. Sprites, imps, poltergeists. Nothing real nasty, just annoying. And look at this. Well, you won’t see, but I did.” She pulled up a video of a TV preacher. The caption said he called himself “RevRob”. He was sitting at a wooden desk in front of a large stained glass window depicting a cross in red glass with multi-colored rays around it. Johnny watched for a few seconds while the man read from an open Bible on the desk in front of him.
Cerise looked up at him. “Hang on a sec.”
RevRob closed the Bible and leaned forward toward the camera. Cerise turned up the volume.
“And now, folks, I want you to remember to get all your home and personal needs at Miss Lucy’s Emporium, right out there at the edge of town. Now, I know it’s a bit of a drive, but you are not going to find a better place or a better price anywhere else and that includes those fancy places in the city.” The preacher was all smiles and perfect white teeth.
Johnny looked down at Cerise, a “What?” expression on his face. The reverend kept talking about Miss Lucy. Cerise pointed.
“There! See how he keeps picking at the sleeve of his sweater?” Johnny nodded. “Every time he does, I can see the daemonflash.”
Johnny stood upright, staring wide-eyed down at Cerise.
“Are you telling me that this preacher is possessed by a demon?”
Cerise shrugged. “Wouldn’t be the first time. But, no, not exactly. I’m telling you his sweater is possessed.”
Johnny did a double take, and raised one eyebrow. “His sweater?”
Cerise shrugged again.
“I got nothing from him, but the sweater, oh, yeah. Something’s in there.”
Johnny stood there for several seconds, hands spread out in front of him. He opened and closed his mouth a couple times, but nothing came out. Finally, he raked one hand through his hair.
“I guess we’re headed for Carroll Fork.”
Cerise grinned and hopped off the chair. “I’ll start packing.”
The beat-up yellow two-door rattled down the main street of Carroll Fork.
“Hick town, for sure.” Cerise slumped back against the torn vinyl seatback. Johnny chuckled as he parked the car in front of Essie’s Eats. The building was painted light blue with bright white trim. Through the large front windows, they could see people sitting at tables. It looked fairly busy, a good sign in a small town restaurant. Johnny turned the car off, and climbed out. Cerise waited on the sidewalk as he came around the car. They walked up to the door of the diner under a navy-blue-and-white-striped canopy. Johnny pulled open the door to the jingling of bells.
“Just pick any empty seat, folks.” The woman who spoke from behind the counter smiled through bright red painted lips. “Someone will be right with you. You want coffee?” Johnny nodded and led Cerise to a booth along the front wall near the back of the room. Cerise sat facing the room and began scanning. The plump woman came over with two cream-colored ceramic mugs and a pot of coffee. The name tag on her shirt read “Miss Essie.” She filled the mugs and dropped a handful of creamers on the table. The sound of crashing dishes made all three jump, and caused Essie to splash coffee on the table top. She pulled a towel from the pocket of her bright blue apron and wiped the spill.
“Sorry about that, folks.” Essie tucked the towel back in the pocket and turned toward the counter where the crash occurred.
“Fran! That’s the third time this morning! What has gotten into you?” Essie set the coffee pot down on the counter and bent to pick up the dropped plates of food. “We’ll be out of eggs and plates before lunch if this keeps up.” The waitress who dropped the plates was staring down at the mess on the floor. One hand was twisted in the green scarf around her neck. She looked like she was trying to suppress a fit of giggles.
Johnny tipped his head toward her. Cerise nodded.
Johnny reached for the sugar canister. Cerise slapped a hand down on his arm.
“I wouldn’t use that, if I were you.”
Johnny stopped, glancing up at her. “Oh, you have got to be kidding me?” Johnny pulled his hand back. “The sugar?”
Cerise grinned. “Well, the container.” The scarf. That hat sitting next to the old guy at the counter. And the god-awful necklace that woman is wearing.”
Johnny followed her gaze down the line of tables to an older woman with stereotypical blue hair. Around her neck was a collection of large, brightly-colored shapes: striped, polka-dotted, and solid colors. It clashed with everything she wore. Cerise shook her head.
“Must be some fancy pants demon in that thing. Or it better be, ‘cause if she picked that out because she likes it…” Cerise trailed off with a shake of her head. She turned back to Johnny, who was looking down at the coffee in his mug. “Coffee’s fine. So is the mug. But lots of stuff in here isn’t. Something very weird is going on here.”
Johnny picked up his mug and took a sip of the hot coffee. It wasn’t bad. He glanced around the diner. It seemed like a fairly normal place- small two and four seat tables arranged neatly in the larger room at the other end of the diner, a counter along the back wall on this side with swivel stools lined up in front, and tables with banquette benches along the windows across from the counter. A long, open pass-through looked into the kitchen behind the counter. . The blonde waitress walked up to their table.
“Morning, folks. Sorry about the commotion. I have no idea what’s got into me lately. Had a chance to look at the menus yet?” Johnny looked up at her, but before he could say anything, the green scarf she had tied around her neck began wailing.
“You’ve been made,” Cerise’s green eyes were focused on the scarf. “And it ain’t happy to see you, Johnny.”
“Yeah, I gathered that.” Johnny slid off the bench and stood looking down at the waitress, who was clawing at the shrieking scarf. Her face was pale, and her hands shook as she tried to pull it off. The scarf was flipping back and forth, avoiding her hands. It pulled out to one side, dragging the waitress away from the table and toward the back of the restaurant.
“Cerise!” Johnny followed the struggling form of the waitress.
“Coming!” Cerise jumped from her side of the bench and ran to where Johnny had the waitress cornered in the short hall that held the restrooms. Cerise stopped next to Johnny, and grabbed his hand. She closed her eyes and went still. Johnny’s eyes unfocused for a moment. He blinked once. Everything in the hall stretched and looked slightly out of focus, except the woman standing with her back to the wall at the end of the hall. The shrieking stopped as Johnny started walking toward her. He could now see the trail of daemonflash from the scarf around her neck. He stopped in front of her.
“Out with you.” The only response he got was a giggle that sounded like it was coming from the wall. He spoke to the waitress.
“Can you take a step to the side, Fran?” He read her name from the tag she wore pinned to her t-shirt. He put a hand gently on her arm and moved her aside. The daemonflash drew out into a thin line as she moved. It ended in the hands of a small demon. It was only two feet tall, with long, thin horns, and gray, leathery skin. Johnny let out a long breath.
“Seriously? An imp? Well, that explains the dropped dishes.” He took one step closer to the little demon. It ignored him, spinning the thread of daemonflash into a thick rope.
“I said, out with you.” The imp didn’t move. Johnny sighed and reached into his pocket. He pulled out the silver yo-yo and snapped it out on its string to knock the imp on the head. It looked up at the blow, and the daemonflash cord faltered. Watching for the opportunity, Cerise darted forward and grabbed the waitress’ hand. She pulled her back down the hall toward the dining room.
“Toss the scarf!” The waitress did as she was told, and pulled the scarf off and threw it back toward Johnny and the imp.
“Well, now that I’ve got your attention.” Johnny tucked the yo-yo back into his pocket. The imp bared short, sharp-looking fangs. Johnny laughed. “Yeah? I could do more damage with my yo-yo. Now, let’s see. Where were we? Oh, right. You were on your way out of here, and back under whatever rock you crawled out of.” He pointed his right index finger at the imp.
The imp raised its head and keened a long, high note. Johnny waved his hand at it, and it disappeared. Johnny spun on his heels, hands stretched out at his sides, and began a showy bow. He stopped short when he realized there was no one else in the hall.
“Hmph. What good is the show without an audience?” He walked back into the dining room, picking up the scarf as he went.
Cerise and the waitress were sitting in the booth. Everyone in the diner was watching them. Johnny sat down and set the scarf on the table. Fran looked dazed. Johnny slid his mug of coffee across to her. She just wrapped her hands around it, her knuckles white. Slowly, the other patrons went back to their breakfasts, and the kitchen went back to cooking. Fran looked across the table at Johnny.
“What was that?” She looked down at the scarf, now lying quietly in front of Johnny. He poked it with a finger.
“That was an imp,” he said. “Not dangerous, really. Just annoying. Like to cause mischief. Likely he was why you’ve been so clumsy.”
Fran rubbed at her temples. “A what?”
Johnny grinned at her confusion. “Yeah, I know. Sounds crazy. Imps are minor demons. This one was in your scarf there. Have you had it long?” Fran was staring at him, eyes wide. She turned to Cerise.
“He’s crazy, right?”
Cerise grinned. “Yep. Bat-shit crazy. But in this case, he’s also right.” Fran stared at her for a few seconds. She looked like she was about to get up and run. Johnny leaned forward.
“Look, I know it sounds insane. But demons are real, and this town seems to have some sort of infestation. And they’re all tied to objects. Cerise, here can see them. Sort of.”
“She doesn’t actually see the demon itself. She sees what we call daemonflash. It’s a sort of glow or spark that marks a demon’s presence. She’s sort of like a bloodhound, only for demons.”
Cerise gave an “Hmph!” Johnny grinned and shrugged. Fran looked from one to the other of them.
“I can’t say I don’t think you both are out of your minds, but I know that scarf acted like it was alive, and I’ve been doing stuff I never would have before.” She shook her head. “Demons. In Carroll Fork.”
“So, how long have you had this scarf?”
Fran looked at the scarf, still lying on the table between them. “I got it a couple days ago. At Miss Lucy’s. I liked the color.”
“And that’s when your troubles started, right?”
“Y’know, you’re right.” Fran wrinkled her forehead, thinking. ”That’s when I started dropping stuff, and messing orders up, and lots of little things like that.” Johnny nodded.
“As soon as you put it on, the imp started influencing you. Well, he’s gone now.”
“What about all the other stuff?” Cerise gazed around the diner as he stopped speaking. Johnny threw her a look.
“I suppose you think I should get rid of all of them, too?”
Cerise just tipped her head at him and stared, eyebrows raised. Johnny sighed and stood up.
“I was hoping to keep a low profile for a bit, you know.”
“When have you ever done that?”
Johnny glared at her, and turned to face the room. He rolled his shoulders a few times, and stretched his arms out, linking his fingers and cracking his knuckles. Dropping his arms to his sides, he shook them for a few seconds. By now, almost everyone in the diner was looking at him. Fran raised an eyebrow at Cerise, who tilted her head at Johnny.
“He’s always been kind of… theatrical.”
Johnny looked at her with a hissed “Ssh!” He pulled the yo-yo out of his pocket and began spinning it out in front of him and rolling it back into his hand as he walked down the aisle between the counter and window tables. At almost every table he passed, something started moaning or wailing. A teaspoon here, a salt shaker there. The hat on the seat next to the old man. The blue-haired woman’s necklace. The noise reached impossible decibels and all of the items were banging and clattering, twisting and writhing. Johnny stopped at the end of the counter. He spun slowly around in a circle, the yo-yo dropping and returning on its string all the while. He snapped the yo-yo into his palm with an audible slap. He raised his arms to shoulder height, and began to speak.
“Hear me, demons and spirits.” The wailing became louder. People were covering their ears. A few tried to get up and leave, but the air in the room became heavy and pushed them back, as if they were trying to move through a sea of molasses. Johnny spoke again, louder this time.
“Hear me, demons and spirits! I command you now, and compel you to obey.” His eyes, closed until now, snapped open.
“Begonia!” The yo-yo snapped straight out and back, hissing through the air and slapping back into Johnny’s hand with a pop. The wailing and moaning stopped. For a moment more, nothing happened. Slowly, wisps of smoke began to float upward from all of the possessed objects. They swirled together into a twisting tornado of gray. It hung at the ceiling for a second, then shot up through the ceiling tiles and was gone. Johnny took a deep breath, nodded once, and turned back to the table where Cerise and Fran sat. He dropped the yo-yo into the Rock-the-Baby trick as he walked. Fran turned to Cerise.
“Begonia? A yo-yo?”
Cerise shrugged. “He’s unconventional, but he gets results. You gotta admit that.” Johnny sat down, still rocking his baby. He grinned at Fran and Cerise.
“And now, I think it is time to pay this Miss Lucy a little visit.”
Fran offered to show them how to get to Miss Lucy’s, since her shift at the diner was over.
“And I’m kinda curious now. You think Miss Lucy is peddling these demons or whatever on purpose?” She shook her head. “She seems like such a sweet old girl.”
“Those are the most dangerous ones,” Cerise said.
“You sure this thing will make it across town?” Fran was looking at the beat-up yellow car.
“Yeah, I keep telling him to ditch it. He says it has ‘character’.” Cerise pulled open the passenger side door. Fran scrambled into the rear seat. Johnny climbed in behind the wheel, and turned the key. With a few sputters, a jerk or two, and cloud of black smoke, the engine coughed to life.
“She does have character.” Johnny pulled away from the curb. “As for this Miss Lucy, I doubt anyone could have that much contact with demons, even low level ones like you have here, without figuring it out. Unless she’s some sort of middle man.”
Cerise looked across at him from the passenger seat. “You mean some big shot demon deliberately comes to little, worth-nothing Carroll Fork?”
“Hey!” Fran interrupted from the back.
“Sorry, but you know what I mean, Johnny. A demon ends up here, grabs hold of an old lady, and compels her to sell possessed sweaters? Where does that make sense?”
Johnny shrugged, sliding a pair of blue-lensed sunglasses on. “Dunno. Won’t know till we get there.” They drove in silence through the small town, and Fran directed them onto a narrow, two-lane road that wound into the quiet countryside. They drove for a short distance and Fran pointed.
“There! On the left. That small sign.” It was small and would be easy to miss. The ornate lettering on the white sign read “Miss Lucy’s Emporium. One half mile.” There was an arrow pointing up the side road. Johnny nodded and turned the car onto the dirt road.
They rounded a bend and approached the shop. It was a small, square building, white with forest green shutters on divided windows. Curtains hung in each window, pulled back to let in the light. Across the front was a wide, wooden porch with balustered railings and simple columns, also painted green. A long white sign with scrollwork edges hung above the porch over the steps leading to the door. The sign read “Miss Lucy’s Emporium” in large letters. Below the name, in smaller lettering, it said “Sundries Household Goods Gently Used Clothing.” Johnny pulled up to the shop and parked. Cerise put a hand on his arm. He looked where she pointed.
Set back from the road was a house. Small, two storied, its wood siding was painted a soft yellow. Gingerbread trimmed the roof and eaves. Johnny looked back at Cerise.
“Look real close at the trim on the house.” Johnny leaned forward and stared. A moment later, he sat back and turned to Cerise again.
“Well, now, that is interesting.”
“Yeah.” They got out of the car, Fran scrambling from the small back seat.
“What did you see?”
Johnny started up the stairs into the shop. “Enough to convince me we are in the right place.”
Fran rushed to catch up with him. “And what was ‘enough’?” Johnny stopped on the top step. He turned and pointed to the house behind the shop building.
“See the house?” Fran nodded. “All that gingerbread trim?” Another nod. “It’s not your usual trim work. Worked through it is what you would probably call hellfire. And that is not a good sign. You might want to stay out here.” Fran shook her head.
“Uh-uh. After what happened in the diner, I’m not letting you out of my sight.”
Johnny shrugged and pulled open the green door. A string of bells hanging on the inside chimed as they walked in.
“I’ll be right with you, folks. You just wander around and look. I’m sure you’ll find something you will just love,” a voice called from a back room. Fran began to inspect the items on the shelves. Cerise stood near a glass enclosed counter, on top of which sat an old-fashioned cash register. She scanned the room slowly. She looked up at Johnny and nodded.
“Yep. Most everything in here is flashing.”
Johnny just nodded. He walked around the room, looking at the assorted merchandise displayed in cases, on shelves, and hanging on racks. The place was a mash-up of conflicting things: toiletries, household items, a few shelves of canned goods and snack foods. Most of the store was given over to the secondhand clothing and other goods that filled the center of the room. Johnny concentrated on those, without touching anything.
“Now, how can Miss Lucy help you today?” The voice came from the direction of the back room. Johnny turned to see the gray-haired woman in the red shawl standing in the doorway. She had gold wire-rimmed glasses perched on her nose, and she wore a flowered dress that fell to mid-calf, and what Johnny’s grandmother would call “sensible shoes.” She saw Fran standing near a rack of coats and jackets.
“Why, Fran, how good to see you again. How do you like that scarf you got here last time? I still say it complements your eyes like nothing else ever could.” Fran raised a hand to her throat. She simply stared at Miss Lucy. The woman lifted one gray eyebrow. “Cat got your tongue today, Fran? Well, you just look around. There are some really nice jackets on that rack. And who are your friends?” She turned toward Cerise and Johnny, who were standing by the cash register. The smile froze on her lips as she stared at Cerise, then looked up at Johnny. Cerise was staring back, her green eyes even bigger than normal. She fluttered a small hand out to tap Johnny on the leg. The woman in the doorway regained her composure and smiled again, although this time it was colder and her dark eyes glinted behind the lenses of her glasses. A distinct smell of rotten eggs rose from around her.
“Well, I suppose I should have expected this, sooner or later.” Her voice was no longer pleasant and musical. It was deep and resonant, and rang in the small room. She took a step forward. Cerise looked up at Johnny.
“Uh, John?” Johnny nodded, without looking down.
“I know, Cerise. “ He turned his attention back to Miss Lucy. “Not sure what I expected, but not you. What exactly are you doing, Luc?”
Miss Lucy laughed. “Just having a bit of fun. I was bored.”
“What’s going on?” Johnny had forgotten Fran was in the room until she spoke from near the rack of jackets. “And who is ‘Luc’?” Johnny pointed at Miss Lucy.
Fran walked over to stand next to Cerise. “Him? That’s Miss Lucy. And she is not a he!”
Johnny half-smiled. “Miss Lucy is a disguise. And you probably know Luc by his full name.” He leveled his gaze at Miss Lucy, who had removed her glasses and set them on the glass top of the counter. “Why don’t you drop the nonsense, Luc, and show us who you really are?”
Miss Lucy dipped her head. “As you wish.” Black smoke swirled around the woman, completely obscuring her. The cloud spun and billowed, and exploded outward with a flash of red light. Standing where Lucy had been was a man. Taller than Johnny, he had silver-blonde hair and pale blue eyes. He was dressed in a neat pinstripe suit and white shirt with matching tie and pocket square. Pinned to his lapel was a bright red trident.
“But- but- who are you?” Fran was staring at the man who had taken Miss Lucy’s place.
Johnny turned his head to look at her. “Fran, may I introduce Lucifer.”
Fran’s mouth opened in a silent “oh”. She glanced between Johnny and Lucifer. She opened and closed her mouth several times before she was able to say anything.
“Are you telling me that Miss Lucy is the devil? Satan?”
“I have always hated that name.” Lucifer waved an elegant hand. His voice was mellow and pleasant. “I much prefer being the Morning Star. And the devil? Well, I am devilishly good-looking, if I do say so myself.” Fran began to back away slowly. Lucifer smiled at her, and held out his hand.
“Now, Fran, don’t run away. After all the time I have been here, what do you think I’m going to do?”
Fran looked at the offered hand as if it would turn into a serpent and bite. “You’ll damn my soul to hell for eternity,” she whispered. Lucifer laughed at her words. He looked at Johnny, eyebrows raised.
“If only they knew, eh?”
Johnny shrugged, but didn’t answer. Lucifer became serious. “I’m not really hurting anyone, you know. And it does get boring, being banished and all. Can’t I just have a little fun for once?”
Johnny shook his head. “Nuh-uh, sorry, Luc. Wish I could, but rules is rules. You know that. You are going to clear out and take all of your little friends with you.”
“And if I refuse, I suppose you are going to make me?” Johnny just stood in front of Lucifer, arms crossed. “Yes? You and what army, as they say? Because I do have an army, you know.” He gestured, and a low sound began to build in the room. It sounded like a thousand claws scratching wood. The daemonflash was so strong, even Johnny and Fran could see it leap from item to item in the store. The flashes began to pop as a large group of varied demons began to appear. They scampered, slithered, and slid to group behind Lucifer. Johnny watched as the horde shuffled and snorted, some pawing the floor, others tossing horned heads or showing gleaming teeth.
“Imps, sprites, and some specters? What are they going to do? Tickle us to death?” Johnny reached into his pocket and pulled out the silver yo-yo. He began to roll it up and down on its string. Swish- out. Hiss-back. Fran could feel a tingle across the back of her neck that raised the fine hairs there, like a build-up of static electricity. It got stronger with each roll of the shiny toy. The demons behind Lucifer were watching the silver blur as it rode its string. They were feeling the energy building, also. Some began to shift more nervously, and several backed up a step or two. A couple of the specters floated toward the ceiling, nothing more than pale gray wisps of fog that drifted upward. Lucifer raised one hand and snapped his fingers. All the motion behind him stopped immediately. There was no sound in the room except the swish-hiss of the yo-yo.
“Like I said, Luc, time to close up shop and move on. Nothing more to see here.”
Lucifer raised one pale eyebrow.
“Oh, but I like it here. I think Miss Lucy could have a long and prosperous career in the secondhand business. And if a few of these pets find homes in the process, well, that’s just an added bonus.” He reached down to scratch the head of a small imp that looked like a cross between a housecat and an armadillo. The creature closed its eyes and made a sound like a diesel engine idling. Lucifer stretched both arms out in front of him, palms facing each other. One side of his mouth curled up in a half-smile. A small sphere of blood red formed between Lucifer’s palms. He pulled them apart a bit wider and the sphere began to flare and flicker.
“Uh, Johnny…” Cerise began. Johnny shook his head once. The yo-yo began moving faster, until it was almost a blur of reflected light speeding up and down from Johnny’s hand. Lucifer dropped his right hand to his side and flicked the fingers of his left toward Johnny. The ball of light sped across the distance almost too fast to be seen. The yo-yo was at its farthest distance from Johnny’s hand and he snapped the string to bring it back, but he was just a bit too slow. The ball of red crashed into the metallic silver and there was a crackling sound that was both heard and felt. Johnny dropped the string of the yo-yo with a yelp as the red light sped up to his hand. The yo-yo lay on the floor, a blackened, smoldering piece of burnt plastic. Lucifer began building another ball of fire. Cerise looked up a Johnny, who was staring at the remains of the yo-yo.
“Johnny, don’t you think maybe we should…”
“Run!” Johnny yelled, and turned toward the door. The three dived for it together as both the flame ball and the horde of demons hurtled toward them.
They slammed through the door, Johnny in the lead. Leaping down the steps, they ran to the car and jerked open the doors. Cerise almost pushed Fran face first into the back so she could jump into the front seat. Johnny had his keys out and was shoving them into the ignition before he was completely in the car. He turned the key. The car sputtered to life and Johnny slammed it into reverse, the tires spinning and throwing a cloud of dust and gravel across the parking lot.
Fran scrambled upright on the back seat as the car roared down the dirt road. She squinted through the dust cloud the car churned up.
“I don’t think they are following us.”
“Probably not.” Cerise turned from the front seat. “The demons are too tied to their vessels by now. They can’t get too far away or they’ll lose their connection to this world.” She turned back to the front and glanced at Johnny. He was gripping the steering wheel so hard, his knuckles were white. His face was pinched in a scowl.
“What’s up with you? We got away with our skins, didn’t we?”
Johnny was silent for a long moment. “He fried my yo-yo.” he said. Cerise rolled her big green eyes. “What? You know I depend on that thing. It helps me concentrate.”
Cerise held out a hand. “I know, but it’s not like that was the only yo-yo in the entire world. We can get you another one.”
Johnny shook his head. “Yeah, but it’s got to be the right one, and then it will have to be empowered. Plus, this is a big assignment, and I’m not sure a new talisman is going to be up to the work.”
Fran leaned over the seat back. “Are you saying you aren’t going to be able to get rid of her- uh, him- them?” the waitress asked. Johnny shook his head.
“I’ll get rid of them, don’t worry. It’s just going to be a bit more complicated, that’s all.” They drove in silence for a while, headed back to the center of Carroll Fork.
“Can’t just be any old yo-yo.” Johnny’s muttering broke the silence. “That one was the only one like it in that store.” He sighed loudly and stared out at the road ahead.
“You know,” Fran said from the back. “Earline Johnson- she was in the diner this morning. The older woman with the colorful necklace that you- well, whatever you did to whatever was in it.”
“You mean that atrocious piece of junk she had around her neck?” Cerise shuddered.
“Yes, well, Earline has a toy store in town. Lots of specialty stuff you don’t find in the discount stores. And a lot of classic toys, too. I bet she’d have a yo-yo for you.”
Johnny glanced at her in the rearview mirror. “Now that is a good idea.” I’ll have to check that store out.”
“Johnny? Can I ask you something?” Johnny glanced in the rearview mirror again. Fran was sitting forward on the rear seat, and her hands gripped the front seat backs. Johnny nodded.
“What is Satan doing in Carroll Fork?”
Johnny half-smiled. “First, that is Lucifer, not Satan. They are two different, well, entities, I guess you’d have to call them. Lucifer was the Morning Star, one of the brightest of the high orders. He also led the rebellion that became what you know as the battle between good and evil. He lost…”
“And was cast out of Heaven and banished to Hell. Yes, I know that. I went to Sunday school, you know.”
Johnny snorted. “Yeah, sort of. Anyway, Satan is more like the personification of all the bad things in the world. Luc is just- I don’t know. Can’t really call him evil, because he’s not. He’s more misguided and thinks his way is right.”
“And bored right now, apparently,” Cerise cut in.
“Yeah, and that is never a good thing.” Johnny could see Fran frowning in the back seat.
“You sound like you are defending him. RevRob would be appalled, and say you have become a tool of the devil, you know.”
Johnny laughed. “Oh, he’s way out of line here. I know that. And I intend to stop him. Defending him? Not in cases like this. Interfering for amusement is just not allowed. But, in general, he’s not a bad guy. Snappy dresser, knows a thing or two about good food and wine.”
“Don’t forget his devilish good looks,” Cerise said. Johnny barked a laugh.
“If I did, he’d be sure to remind me.” He furrowed his brow, staring ahead again. “Speaking of your RevRob, I think I may want to talk to him, too.”
Fran shrugged. “Sure. He’ll be at the church or his house. We can go there when we get back to town, if you want.” Johnny nodded and nudged the accelerator. The car shook and rattled, and shot forward on the road back to Carroll Fork. They drove along Main Street, passing Essie’s, a bank, a pet salon, hairdresser, two barber shops complete with red and white striped poles, and a laundromat.
“Small town America,” Johnny remarked as they drove.
“Hick town America, you mean,” Cerise grumbled. She was looking out the window, frowning at the quiet street.
“Hey!” Fran slapped the back of Cerise’s seat. “You’re talking about my home, you know. Carroll Fork may not be big, or busy, but it’s a nice town. Well, it was until it got possessed or whatever happened when Miss Lucy came here. And why here. Of all places? We’re not famous or anything. I bet most folks in the state don’t even know where we are.”
Johnny shrugged. “Hard to tell. Maybe we can get some answers from your reverend. Or his sweater, at least.”
“There!” Fran pointed to a small, white building up ahead. “That’s the church.” Johnny pulled up to the curb and parked. They climbed out and walked up the path to the church. It was small and square, with stained glass windows along the sides. Two more flanked the front door. A bell tower rose above the roof of the church, its peaked roof topped with a large cross. Neatly trimmed shrubs were planted across the front of the building and the lawn was green and closely mowed. A sign stood to one side of the small porch. It’s three lines read “Carroll Fork Interdenominational Church Reverend Rob Patterson, Pastor, All Welcome Always.” A sidebar listed the time for both Sunday school and services. They walked up the four steps to the door and Fran pulled it open. They stepped into the vestibule. It was quiet and cool, with light wood walls and floor. A long runner rug ran from the door into the church proper. They walked through the arched doorway and down the aisle between the pews. The altar at the front was a simple raised table, covered with a short white cloth. A wooden stand to one side held a closed bible. To the left of the altar was a plain wooden podium with a microphone curving up from its surface. Beyond the lectern were benches and kneelers for the choir, as well as a small organ and piano. As they walked forward, a slight man with gray hair turned from the candle stand on the far side of the altar. Cerise looked up at Johnny as they both recognized the blue-gray sweater he was wearing.
“Can I help y’all?” He had an exaggerated Southern accent that was probably designed to sound comforting. “Oh, well, hello, there, Fran. Bring some new friends to the flock?” Fran stepped forward.
“RevRob, these folks just got into town, and, well, some really odd things are happening, and they just need to…” She faltered, turning to look at Johnny.
“Morning, Reverend.” Johnny stepped forward and held out a hand. “We just wanted to talk to you. Well, to your sweater, actually.” RevRob stopped in mid-handshake. He looked at Johnny, his brow furrowing deeply.
“My sweater? Boy, you been standin’ out in the hot sun too long?”
Fran’s eyes grew wide and she pointed to the Reverend’s arm.
“RevRob, you’re on fire!” There were tendrils of smoke rising from the arm of the sweater.
“What?” RevRob tore the sweater off and tossed it on the ground, where it began to inch its way across the floor. Johnny stepped down on it firmly, trapping it under his boot. He bent down and picked it up, wrapping his arms tightly about it as the fabric began to twist and writhe.
“Oh, no, you don’t. Reverend, is there somewhere we can do this with a little privacy?” RevRob, his mouth hanging open, nodded and led them to the side of the altar and through a door. At the end of the inner hallway, he opened the door to his small office. There was a desk and office chair with two upholstered chairs in front of it, a bookcase, and a kneeler with a Bible open on the top rail. Johnny set the sweater on the desk, holding one arm to keep it there.
“Really wish I had my yo-yo.” The arm of the sweater twisted and pulled in his grip. “Guess we’ll have to do this the hard way.” He picked up a letter opener from the desk. “Cerise?”
She climbed up on one of the chairs, and stared at the sweater.
“Can you hold it still? I’m having a hard time focusing.”
Johnny grimaced and grabbed the other arm of the sweater, pulling it taut across the surface of the desk. It squirmed and wiggled, but couldn’t free itself.
Cerise nodded. She stared at the sweater for a few seconds. “There. Third button from the top.”
Johnny nodded and grabbed the front of the sweater, bunching the fabric so the button Cerise indicated poked out of his closed fist. Using the letter opener, he began to saw at the threads holding the button in place. As he began to cut through, a thread of daemonflash became visible to everyone in the room. RevRob had picked up his Bible and was holding it in front of himself like a shield. With a last pull on the opener, the button popped off. It bounced from the desk to the floor, spinning on the bare wood like a top. The thread of daemonflash spun between it and the front of the sweater. As the button slowly spun to a stop, the flash faded. Standing where the button had been was a small creature. About ten inches tall, it had a thin, hunched body with long arms and bent legs. The head was too large for its body, and long, pointed ears sprung from its bare scalp. Beady black eyes regarded Johnny. A grin split its beak-like mouth. In one quick movement, it hopped from the floor to the desk where it sat on the edge. Johnny leaned back, half-sitting on the desk edge next to it.
“So,” Johnny looked down at it. “A sprite. Figures. Messenger boys.”
The sprite hissed. “Couriers.” Its voice was squeaky and rough, like rusty gate hinges. “Assistants. And not boys. Well, not all of us.”
“Yeah, sure.” Johnny half-smiled. “And you’re just making sure the message gets out, right?” The sprite dipped its large head in agreement.
“It’s the job I was given. A sprite always does his job.” It looked up at Johnny. “You here to clean up?” Johnny tipped his head, not agreeing or disagreeing. “Gonna be tough. Big boss running this show.”
“I know. I’ve already talked to him. He’s not all that eager to leave, is he?” The sprite just grinned.
“So, tell me, what’s his plan? Why is he here?”
The sprite folded its long arms across its body. “What did he tell you?”
“Said he was bored, and was just having some fun.”
The sprite laughed. It sounded like gears grinding. “Well, what do you know? For once, he tells the whole truth. He must like you.”
“The truth, and nothing but the truth? He’s gonna go home and find it frozen over,” Cerise was sitting cross-legged on the chair.
Johnny snorted a laugh. “Probably. But we still have to figure out how to send him there.” He stood up and faced the sprite. “You’re going to have to leave, you know.” The little creature stood on the desk. He raised his head to look at Johnny.
“I know. Don’t want any problems. I’ll just go back to the office. Plenty of work for us, you know. I’ll have another job soon. Good luck tossing him out of here. You’re gonna need it.” The last words echoed from a puff of gray smoke that swirled on the desktop. When it cleared, the sprite was gone.
“What in Sam hill is goin’ on here?” RevRob was backed up against the bookcase, still holding his Bible in front of his chest. He had a wild look in his eyes.
Fran walked over to him. “Near as I can tell from what I’ve seen today, Lucifer is in town, and he’s brought a whole pack of demons with him. He’s been disguised as Miss Lucy, and has been sellin’ those horrors packed with the stuff from the shop. These folks are here to put a stop to it.” RevRob pulled his eyes from her face to look at Johnny.
“And one of them was in your sweater.” Johnny tapped the sweater lying on the desk. “It was the sprite who got you to talk up the shop on your show, sending more people to buy more tainted objects. It’s okay now. It’s just a sweater again.”
RevRob stared at the sweater like it was going to bite him. “I think I’m going to burn it, anyway,” He was still staring at it, clutching his Bible as Johnny, Cerise, and Fran walked out of the office.
“What now?” Fran asked, as they were climbing back into the car.
“Now/” Johnny slipped the blue-lensed sunglasses on. “I need to go to that toy store.”
They drove back toward Essie’s, and Fran directed them to a bright white shop with pink and white candy-striped awnings over the windows. Across the front of the second story was a railing with spiral-carved posts. Hanging from the rail was a window box full of bright flowers. A sign hung below the flower box read “Earline’s Toy Land.” Johnny parked in the small lot behind the building and they walked in through the back entrance. The short woman from the diner looked up from behind the counter. She smiled at the three.
“Good day,” she said. “Oh, hello, Fran. What a morning at the diner! My word, I have never seen anything like that. What are you, some sort of magician?”
Cerise barely suppressed a laugh. Johnny nudged her with his elbow. It caught her in the ear. Cerise made a face, but didn’t say anything more.
“I’m, well, something like that,” Johnny said. Earline nodded.
“Well, that was quite the show. You should see if you can do a performance at the theater. People’d be impressed, I’m sure.”
Johnny smiled back at her. “Maybe I will. But, right now, I need to know if you have yo-yos in the store?”
Earline came around the counter and led him to a shelf on the wall.
“Why, yes, I do, as a matter of fact. I remember you used one at the diner for your tricks. Are you looking for another one?”
Johnny nodded. “I had a bit of an accident with the one I had. I’m looking to replace it.”
Earline put a hand on a divided wooden tray. Neatly arranged in each section were yo-yos of all shapes and colors. Plain ones painted in bright primary colors, iridescent blue, green, and yellow ones, and fancier ones with flared edges that looked like butterfly wings.
“Well, now, I am sure I can help you find just the one to replace your old one.” She picked up one of the flared edge toys. It was clear blue plastic, and when Earline spun it out on its string, pinpoints of light flashed on the faces. “How about this one? It’ll get attention.”
Johnny watched it for a moment, then began to look through the rest of the toys in the tray.
“Ah-ha!” He pulled one of the yo-yos out. It was plain silver plastic with a herringbone pattern on the faces that reflected red and blue in the store’s fluorescent lights. It looked just like the one that had been destroyed. “This is the one.”
“One of the classics.” Earline walked back to the counter. “I’m sure it will work just fine for your tricks.” She took Johnny’s money, and they left the store.
They climbed back into the car and Johnny drove to the small motel at the end of the main street.
“I’m going to need some space and time to charge it.” Johnny pulled a battered leather box out of the trunk of the car. It was about the size of a small suitcase, bound with broad, dark leather straps. Heart-shaped padlocks held it closed. The brown leather surface was scarred and marked with scratches, scrapes, and what looked like burn marks. He carried it into one of the rooms and set it on the bed. He drew a thin gold chain from under the collar of his shirt and pulled it over his head. A small key dangled from the chain. Johnny used the key to open the locks, and drop back the lid on the box. He reached in and drew out a thick book, also bound in leather with a smaller heart padlock on it. He set it on the bed beside the box. Cerise tapped Fran’s hand.
“We should leave him alone.”
Fran frowned. “What’s he going to do?” The waitress was watching Johnny, who had taken the yo-yo out of the bag from the toy store and set it on top of the book. There were symbols on the spine of the book, but they were in no language Fran had ever seen.
“He’s going to set the new yo-yo to work like the old one. It’s not exactly dangerous, but it gets pretty intense, and he prefers to do stuff like this alone.” Cerise pulled Fran toward the door.
“Will he be all right?” Fran stopped at the door to glance back at Johnny who was reaching into the box again.
Cerise gave Fran a gentle shove through the door. “He’s always all right.”
The last thing Fran saw as the door swung shut was Johnny spreading a large purple silk cloth on top of the bed.
Fran and Cerise sat at the counter at Miss Essie’s, sipping sweet tea. Fran was fretting, twisting the napkin in her lap between her fingers. She kept glancing at the door. Cerise turned to look at her.
“It’s going to take as long as it takes. Can’t hurry it by worrying.”
Fran turned back to the counter and took a sip of her tea. “But I still don’t understand what he’s doing with that yo-yo. What is it? Some sort of magic wand or something?”
“Something like that.” Cerise grinned. “It sort of helps him focus the power he needs to banish the things we come across. So, in that way, yeah, it is kind of like a magic wand.”
“But why a yo-yo?”
Cerise chuckled before she answered. “Because he’s Johnny.” Fran was about to say something more, when Cerise put up a hand. She got a distant look in her green eyes. When they focused again, she picked up her glass and drained the tea. She tipped the empty glass at Fran’s. “Best finish that. He’s done.”
Cerise looked up at Essie, standing at the end of the counter. “Can we get one of these to go?” Essie nodded and went to pour the drink. Ten minutes later, Cerise and Fran were standing at the door to Johnny’s hotel room. Cerise tapped on the door. A moment later, Johnny flung it open. He’d changed into a light blue shirt and he looked like he’d showered. His long hair was damp where it hung over his collar. He grabbed the tea Cerise held out to him and grinned.
“Just what I needed!” He turned back into the room.
“Does he smell like…?” Fran began as she and Cerise followed Johnny in. Cerise shut the door behind them.
“Yeah. Oatmeal and fatigue. He always does after one of these things.” Cerise shrugged and climbed up to sit on the edge of the bed. Her spindly legs swung well off the floor. “Get it done?”
“Yep. Good as new.” Johnny took a long sip of the tea through the straw poking up from the cover on the plastic glass. His eyes closed and he let out a long sigh. “Maybe even better than new.” He winked at Cerise, who raised her eyebrows.
“What did you do?”
“Nothing I didn’t have to,” Johnny set the tea glass down on the scratched dresser top. “He’s going to be tough. And, good as I am, and as much as it pains me to admit it, I can’t stop Luc. Oh, I can cause him some grief. And I can smart mouth him until he gets sick of it, but I can’t send him back. We need help. We’ll have it.” Cerise didn’t answer for a long moment. When she did, it was with a short nod of her head. Fran, standing by the door, looked from Johnny to Cerise.
“What are you talking about? What kind of help?” Her eyes flicked from Cerise to Johnny, and back again. She was clutching the strap of the purse over her shoulder so tightly her knuckles were white. Cerise kept her eyes on Johnny. She didn’t say a word. Johnny picked up the glass of tea, lifted it to his mouth, then sighed and set it down again. He sat on the bed next to Cerise.
“Sit down, Fran.”
Fran sat on the edge of the chair between the door and the window. She clutched her purse in her lap. She caught her upper lip in her teeth and held it, her eyes large and round. It was quiet for a long moment, then Johnny let out a loud breath. He leaned forward, setting his feet on the floor and resting his elbows on his thighs. He set his chin on his folded hands and looked at Fran.
“I know you’ve gone through a lot today.” And it does sound pretty crazy. But Cerise and I, we see this sort of thing all the time. Okay, not Lucifer, of course. But all types and classes of demons and other entities.” Fran’s eyes grew wider as he talked. “Yeah, there’s a lot of stuff out there that most people aren’t even aware of. Some of it is good. Or at least, not directly harmful. But some of it… Well, let’s just say they aren’t all here to help.” He stopped for a moment, and ran a hand through his drying hair. “Cerise and I are one of the teams that try to make sure these things can’t do any harm. Or at least, to minimize the harm they do.”
“You mean there are others like you?” Fran had folded her hands on top of her purse, and was watching Johnny.
“There is no one exactly like Johnny,” Cerise said, with a laugh. Johnny put a hand on her arm.
“Cerise.” She quieted and he went on. “Yes, there are others. We mainly work in the background, even if some of us are a bit more flamboyant.” Cerise gave a snort. Johnny continued as if he hadn’t heard.
“You know what’s going on here, Fran. You’ve seen it. You know who we’re up against. I won’t lie to you, this is going to be a tough one. And there’s no way I can do it alone. So, I had to ask for help. From a- higher order. One on a power level with Lucifer, but that would like to see him stopped and returned to banishment. I don’t do it often and I certainly don’t do it lightly. Sometimes, it’s necessary.” He stopped, watching Fran. She sat, looking past him at the cheap still life hanging on the wall over his shoulder. She was playing with the zipper on her purse unconsciously, opening it an inch or so and zipping it closed again. She turned her gaze back to Johnny.
“And this- higher order you asked for help? Is it an angel?” She whispered the words, as if afraid they would call down fire and brimstone on her for even thinking them. Johnny considered a moment.
“Yes, I guess from your point of view, it would be. In the same way Lucifer is.” Fran opened her mouth to protest. Johnny stopped her with a raised hand. “He is. Nothing can take that away from him. Rebellious, opinionated, likes to mess where he shouldn’t be, and he deserved what he got. But nothing can take his essential being away. So, I guess if I were to put it in your terms, we’re going to use an angel to fight an angel. I wanted to find another way, believe me. It’s not an easy bargain to make. There’s always a price for dealing with higher beings. It just had to be done.” He got up and picked up the tea, sipping the last of it through the straw until it sputtered.
“Fran, can I ask you something?” She’d closed her eyes, trying to take in all he’d said. At his words, she started and snapped them open.
“Sure. As long as it’s not about devils and angels. I’m not sure I know anything about them anymore.” Johnny grinned at her.
“Most people don’t. No, what I wanted to know is: how long has Miss Lucy and her store been here in Carroll Fork? Can you remember when she first came? When the store first opened?”
“Well, of course. She’s always been here. I think. Maybe not when I was a girl, but…” She stopped again, brows furrowed and head tilted to one side. She glanced around the room, as if she would find the answer there. “I guess I’m not sure, really.” Johnny nodded.
“That’s what I figured you’d say. Well, it’s getting late. And if we are going to send ol’ Luc back where he belongs, we are going to need some rest. What do you say we go to Essie’s, get some dinner, and then turn in?”
“Thought you’d never mention dinner.” Cerise jumped off the bed. “I’m starved.”
Fran stood and slipped her purse back onto her shoulder. “I should get home. I have to feed the cat. But I want to be there when you go back to Lucy- or Lucifer’s tomorrow. I need to see it end or I’ll never be sure.” Johnny watched her for a moment, then nodded.
“Can I bring anything to help?” Fran stopped at the door Johnny opened for her.
“Faith,” he said.
The next morning, Johnny, Cerise, and Fran climbed into Johnny’s car. Fran was wearing a simple gold cross on a thin chain around her neck. Johnny raised an eyebrow when he saw it, but said nothing. They drove out to Miss Lucy’s. Johnny parked the car in front of the store, and they walked up to the door. Johnny turned the knob, but it was locked. Cerise looked up at him.
“Think he’s gone?”
Johnny turned and looked up the path to the house. “I doubt it. He knows he can beat me with one hand tied behind his back. Let’s head up there.” He tipped his chin toward the house.
“What are you going to do if he is there?” Fran was glancing left and right, as if she expected to be attacked by demons any second.
Johnny shrugged. “I generally don’t plan that far ahead. Something will occur to me.” Fran glanced down at Cerise, who simply shrugged. They walked up the steps to the porch. Johnny was reaching for the door, when it opened from the inside.
“Ah, I’ve been expecting you.” Lucifer’s voice came from inside. “Come in, come in. No need to be uncivilized about this.” The door opened wide, and Johnny stepped inside, followed by Cerise, and Fran, who stood in the doorway without coming fully into the room.
“Please, Fran, do come in. If I don’t close the door, the flies are just impossible.” As if to confirm his words, a huge iridescent green fly buzzed past Fran’s head. She ducked and brushed at her hair, moving out of the doorway as she did. Lucifer closed the door, and with a flick of a finger, incinerated the fly with a bolt of fire.
“Sit, please. I see I am the only one who dressed for the occasion.” He stood in the center of the room. He wore a tailored grey suit, a pale purple dress shirt, and a tie with alternating wide and thin stripes of darker purple, light purple, and white. A pocket square matching the shirt was folded carefully in his pocket, and the red trident was pinned to the lapel. Gold cufflinks set with large, round coal-black stones were visible at the sleeves of his shirt. Polished black wing tip shoes under perfectly creased trousers completed his clothing. Fran had to admit, if she didn’t know who he was, he’d be rather attractive. Johnny led them into the room and sat on a black leather sofa. Cerise sat next to him, and Fran sat next to Cerise. Lucifer sat in a burgundy leather chair across from them, unbuttoning his jacket and smoothing his tie as he did.
Fran looked around the room. “But- I’ve been in Miss Lucy’s house, delivering food from the restaurant. This is...”
“Not what it looked like?” Fran nodded slowly. “Since you know who I am now, I thought I would make a few changes. Make the decor a little more to my liking.” Lucifer sat forward and put a hand on the handle of a cream-colored teapot sitting on a silver tray, with four matching cups and saucers, a small pitcher of milk, a sugar bowl, and a plate of lemons.
“Tea? I have it blended especially for me. It’s called Devil’s Due. Amusing, don’t you think?” He poured a cup, and offered the tea to each of them in turn. They all declined.
“Ah, too bad. It is quite nice.” He took a sip and set the cup back on its saucer. He sat back, clasping long, elegant fingers.
“John.” He turned his blue eyes on Johnny. “I’ve been checking up on you since you left so quickly the other day. Impressive, I must say.”
Johnny raised an eyebrow. “I try.”
Lucifer brought one hand up to tap the index finger on his lips. He smiled. “So, what happens now?” Lucifer picked up his tea cup, watching Johnny over the rim.
“Now, you are getting out of Carroll Fork.”
Lucifer set his teacup down, stood, smoothed his tie and buttoned his jacket. He looked down at Johnny. “I don’t think so. But I do think we are going to have to settle this right now. I’m afraid it may not be very pretty.” Lucifer shifted his gaze to Fran. “Fran, dear, you might want to leave now, before I have to truly hurt anyone. I wouldn’t want you to get the wrong idea.” Fran just stared, wide-eyed, one hand clasping the cross hanging from her neck. Lucifer grinned.
“I suppose you let her believe that little trinket would protect her, eh, John? Sorry, Fran, but it takes a lot more than what’s in that to counteract my power.” Lucifer’s eyes glowed red as he stared at Fran’s hand. She let out a cry of pain, and pulled her hand away from the necklace. The cross was nothing more than a lump of melted gold that fell to her lap. She put a hand on the sofa cushion and began to get up. Lucifer flung both hands out, fingers splayed, and the sofa tipped backward, dumping the three on the floor. Johnny scrambled to his knees. Cerise and Fran knelt behind the upturned sofa. Johnny stood up.
“Johnny!” Johnny looked down. Cerise’s eyes were wide, her nostrils flared. Fran looked terrified.
“Outside!” Johnny said.
“John…” Cerise began, but Johnny cut her off.
“Outside! They need to see this!” Cerise opened her mouth, then closed it, and pushed Fran toward the back of the house. Lucifer watched them for a moment, then turned back to Johnny. His smile widened. He brought his hands together and began forming brim fire between his palms. Johnny reached into his pocket and pulled out his yo-yo. He snapped it up and down a few times.
“Replaced your toy, have you? It didn’t do much good the last time.”
“I’ve learned a few tricks since then.”
The brim fire hurtled toward Johnny, who quickly spun the yo-yo in an elaborate Around-The-World pattern. The brim fire seemed to hit a wall in front of Johnny, and fell to the ground where it faded out. Lucifer growled deep in his throat. Johnny didn’t wait for a repeat performance. He turned and ran out through the back door of the house.
Fran and Cerise were waiting off the back porch near the woods bordering the small yard.
“Is he gone?” Fran was gripping Cerise’s shoulder with a white-knuckled hand. Johnny shook his head.
“Not yet. I needed to get him out here. And, here he comes!” The screen door on the house banged open. Lucifer strode out.
“Dear God!” Fran backed away from what appeared on the rear porch. No longer the suave, well-dressed host he’d been, Lucifer was now taller and broader, with long, pale hair that swung around his shoulders as he looked for them. When he stepped off the porch, a pair of coal black wings unfurled from his shoulders. His eyes glowed red and the color intensified as he found the three. He raised his arms and shrieked.
“Veniat ad me!” The sky darkened and thunder rolled across the yard.
“Johnny!” Cerise pointed to the top of the house. Scrambling over the roof and sides was the army of demons. But now, instead of small, benign-looking creatures, they also changed. Sharp fangs clicked against each other. Scythe-like claws scratched and tore at the roof and siding. Hisses and growls rose from thousands of throats.
“Stay behind me.” Johnny took a step forward. Fran and Cerise ducked back toward the trees. Johnny stood where he was, tossing the yo-yo out and catching it back in his hand. Lucifer took a few steps toward him and stopped.
“You cannot win, mortal.” His voice boomed over the yard like the thunder still rolling in the sky. Johnny simply grinned and stopped the yo-yo, holding it in his hand again. He let it drop, and pulled the string up into the Rock-the-Baby trick. Lucifer laughed. It shook both buildings and caused the leaves to dance wildly on the trees.
“Uh, Johnny, not trying to tell you what to do, but this might be a good time to get that help you were talking about.” Cerise kept her eyes on Lucifer. Johnny nodded, and set the yo-yo wildly swinging in its triangular cradle.
“Time to come out and play.” Johnny threw the yo-yo out on its string. A flash of blinding lightning sparked from the toy into the sky, and a long, silvery sword with orange-red flames dancing along its length stuck in the ground in front of Lucifer. The demon staggered back a step, putting both hands in front of his face, as if the light was hurting his eyes.
“Sorry, but yes. Johnny’s eyes dropped to the sword. “Time to take him away.” The flames grew to a long, spiraling column that twisted faster and faster. It stopped suddenly. Standing with hands on the sword’s cross guard was a dark-haired figure, dressed in white with a gold sash and belt. Pure white wings unfurled above his shoulders. He pulled the sword out of the ground, oblivious to the flames still running along the length. He pointed the sword at Lucifer, who was backing up toward the house.
“Redite!” The newcomer’s voice was quiet, but it rang with authority. Lucifer threw out his hands, unleashing a stream of brim fire. The new angel lifted the sword to meet it. The brim fire dissolved as it met the fiery blade. He advanced on Lucifer, who lifted his wings, attempting to escape. One stroke of the white wings brought the newcomer to Lucifer’s side. He touched the sword to Lucifer’s throat.
“Redite!” In a swirl of black smoke, Lucifer disappeared, leaving a rotten egg smell behind. The newcomer turned and simply stared at Johnny. Johnny held his gaze for a second, and gave a small nod of his head. The newcomer smiled, very slightly. He shot upward in a flash of reverse lightning, accompanied by a sharp crack of thunder. Johnny looked up at the demons perched on the house. He waved his hands at them, and they began to back away, disappearing in small pops of light. Johnny turned back to Cerise and Fran. Fran was simply staring at the spot where the white-winged angel had been standing.
“Was that…?” Fran took a deep breath. “Was that Michael, the Archangel?”
Johnny grinned. “Well, he goes by different names, depending, but that’s how you would know him.” Fran’s mouth dropped open. Cerise looked up at her.
“How do you feel?”
“I- I don’t know. But I remember now. This place has been deserted for years.” They looked around. The house and shop were dilapidated, paint peeling, shutters falling off, the screen door hanging at an angle. “He really did all that? And made us think he was Lucy, and had been here for years? I can hardly believe it.”
“Believe it.” Cerise said. “He’s good. Which is what makes him so bad.” Fran opened her mouth to say something else, when a cry from Johnny made them both look. He was standing near where he’d confronted Lucifer, staring at the ground.
“What’s wrong?” Cerise asked.
“He just had to bust out like that, didn’t he?” Johnny pointed at the ground. Cerise and Fran looked where he was pointing. The yo-yo lay in pieces on the ground at his feet. Cerise looked at Fran, and they started laughing.
M.A. Kropp is a writer and blogger. She blogs about Life, the Universe and Everything, as well as reviews of books, movies, and other entertainments. She writes mostly science fiction and fantasy, and is fascinated by mythologies of all types. She has been accused of reading anything that passes in front of her eyes: old newspapers, cereal boxes, and, yes, even the instruction manuals that come with things. She is married, with three grown daughters and four grandchildren. She lives in MA and when not writing, enjoys being scorekeeper at International Chili Society sanctioned chili cook offs (she also cooked competitively for years), watching the birds that come to her feeders, baking bread, and working with her dog. Most of all, she enjoys eating good food, drinking good wine and other spirits, and spending time with good people. She likes puppies and kittens.
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The Devil Made Me Do It
“It doesn’t bother you that it’s been too quiet lately?” Cerise looked up from the newspaper spread on the table in front of her.
“Are you complaining?” Johnny was in the center of the room, a tablet computer propped on the arm of the chair next to him. He was holding a silver yo-yo in his hand. He glanced at the tablet, and snapped the yo-yo out and back on its string a few times. He threw it out and lifted his upper arm so the toy was behind his arm. He gave a hard tug on the string, and it swung forward, wrapping the string around his arm. Johnny frowned and unwound it. “This is harder than it looks. It’s supposed to jump over my shoulder and down in front of me.”
Cerise was watching him, her chin propped on her palm, elbow resting on the paper. “What’s that one called?”
“Around the Corner.”
“More like Around the Biceps.”
Johnny made a face at her. “So, you were complaining about what, again?”
“No, not really complaining. Just, I don’t know, I worry when the demon world gets too calm. Like something’s about to blow up.” She shrugged her thin shoulders. “Probably just paranoid.” She went back to reading. Johnny tried the new yo-yo trick a few more times, getting it right more often now, then pulled the toy up into one of his favorites: Rock the Baby. The small silver disk was rocking slowly in its triangular cradle of string, light from the room’s lamps reflecting rainbow colors on its metallic surface. He was staring at it, watching the silver flash as it swung.
“Uh, Johnny?” Cerise slid down from the stool she was perched on and came across the room. Johnny didn’t appear to hear her. She grabbed his hand and pulled. “Johnny!”
Johnny’s eyes focused on Cerise when her grab caused the yo-yo trick to collapse. When he started to say something, she just pointed behind him. Johnny turned to see a funnel of black, slightly taller than him, whirling on the stone hearth in front of the fireplace. He snapped the yo-yo back into his hand as the funnel collapsed, leaving behind a faint smell of brimstone.
And a man, taller than Johnny, with silver-blond hair and pale blue eyes. He was dressed in an expensive looking dark suit, crisp white shirt, and red and blue striped tie. A red pocket square was folded neatly in the jacket’s chest pocket. A red trident was pinned to his lapel.
“So, when I said it bothered me that it was quiet, I didn’t mean you had to go and conjure up trouble.” Cerise tipped her head up to look at Johnny.
“I didn’t.” He turned his head back to their visitor. The blond man smiled. It almost looked genuine.
“No, he didn’t. I found you on my own.” His voice was quiet and deep. “I know we’re not always on the best of terms.” Cerise snorted. Johnny put a hand on her shoulder.
“Yes, well, be that as it may,” the blond man continued. “I need your help.” Cerise laughed openly at that.
“Not a chance. Whatever your scheme is, we’re not interested. Get lost.” Again, Johnny’s hand dropped to her shoulder. He squeezed it gently. Johnny was watching their visitor, an odd look on his face. The other man smiled again.
“You’re not seriously thinking of- Come on, Johnny! You know who this is! Lucifer doesn’t need help from anyone. And, even if he did, it couldn’t be a good thing. Don’t.”
“Cerise.” Johnny’s glance flicked down to her face, turned up to look at him, green eyes wide. She stopped talking. Johnny gave her a half-smile and turned his attention back to the man by the fireplace.
“What do you need, Luc?” The blond man took a step forward.
“Do you think we could sit and discuss this? It seems so uncivilized to stand. More confrontational, don’t you think?” Johnny tipped his chin and sat on the tan leather sofa. Cerise sat next to him. Lucifer settled into a dark leather armchair across from them, crossing his legs. “I don’t suppose you would have any tea?”
“He wants a tea party now?” Cerise rolled her eyes.
“I think we do. It’s not that fancy stuff you drink, but I think Cerise can put something together, right?”
Cerise threw up her hands and got up. “What’s next? Cucumber sandwiches and sweet cakes?” She got up and went into the small kitchen, still grumbling as she heated water and pulled mugs and tea from the cupboards. The two men sat watching each other until Cerise came back. She set three steaming mugs on the table between their seats, and went back to get a small tray with spoons, a sugar bowl, and cream pitcher. She set it next to the mugs.
“Sorry the sugar isn’t in lumps, and we don’t have any lemon. I wasn’t expecting the Queen of England to drop by.” Cerise dropped onto the sofa and sat back with her arms crossed. She glared across at Lucifer. He picked up his mug and sipped.
“Not bad. Not my Devil’s Due, of course, but that is a rather special blend.” He sipped again, and set the mug down on the table. He leaned forward, resting his hands on his knees. “Johnny, something very strange is happening in my domain.”
“You mean Hell?” Lucifer raised an eyebrow at Cerise’s words. He glanced at Johnny.
“Is she always this argumentative?”
“Well, we can sit here and trade witticisms all day, but there have been undercurrents lately that are unsettling. And then, there was the message.”
“So- what? You’re telling us there has been a disturbance in the Force, Darth Vader?”
“Cerise, that’s enough. It doesn’t cost us anything to listen. We don’t have to agree to whatever it is he wants. But, if Lucifer is worried enough to come looking for us, we just might want to hear him out. Like you said, he usually doesn’t need help from anyone. Let’s give him a chance to explain.” Cerise didn’t look happy, but she sat back and sipped her tea, watching Lucifer over the rim of the mug. “So, you got a message? From?”
“Azandael said it was from God Himself.”
“Azandael? But doesn’t Gabriel deliver those messages. Not a lower order angel?”
“Normally, yes. But the Anunciator has not been seen in- well, you would probably say “days,” although time is not measured in the same way in my world.”
“An archangel has gone missing?” Johnny was throwing the silver yo-yo out on its string and back to his hand while Lucifer spoke.
“Two, actually.” The yo-yo hit the floor when Johnny’s hand froze in mid-throw. Even Cerise sat forward, her mug of tea sloshing a bit.
“Two? Who else?”
“The Avenger.” Lucifer picked up his mug and sipped again, watching the looks on the two people sitting across from him.
“Gabriel and Michael? How the holy hell- sorry- do you misplace two archangels?”
Lucifer shrugged. “Well, of course, they think I am behind it. I assure you, I am not. Which is what I told Azandael. I don’t think they believe me.”
“Can’t really blame them for that.” Johnny resumed his rhythmic throwing of the yo-yo. Lucifer watched the silver disk flash as it spun up and down. He shook himself slightly and looked up at Johnny.
“Yes, I know they have reason to distrust me.” Lucifer glanced at the spinning yo-yo again. “Do you have to do that? It’s a bit hypnotic.”
Johnny shrugged. “It helps me think. Don’t look at it.” He threw the yo-yo out again, but this time, instead of pulling it back up, he let it dangle on the string, spinning in place, a perfect Sleeper. His hand twitched and the silver toy snapped back into Johnny’s hand. “So, if you aren’t responsible, have you got any idea who is?”
Lucifer set his mug back on the table. “I am afraid not. But this “disturbance in the Force” that I’m feeling is serious. Someone- or something- is trying to change the balance that has held since the forging of the Darkness, and the Banishment. And that does not bode well for anyone, in any realm.”
Johnny tossed his yo-yo back and forth in his hands. Lucifer picked up his mug and finished the tea. He sat back in the chair, letting Johnny think. Even Cerise was quiet, although she watched Lucifer with narrowed eyes.
“Well, the first thing we need to do is find out who is behind this.” Johnny stood up. “And I’d better not find out it was you all along, Luc.” Lucifer held up his hands.
“It is not.” He stopped. “There’s nothing I can swear on that you would accept, but I am being honest with you. I want to find out what’s happening as much as anyone.” He took a step toward the fireplace. “Have you an idea where to start?”
Johnny nodded. “Come back tomorrow. We’re going to do a little digging. If you find out anything more, keep us informed.”
Lucifer nodded, a graceful tilt of his silvery-blond hair. The funnel of darkness swirled around him, and when it cleared, he was gone.
“Now what?” Cerise stacked the mugs on the tray and carried it to the kitchen. Johnny rolled the yo-yo onto the floor in front of him into Walk the Dog.
“Now,” he said with a grin. “We talk to someone who always knows what’s up.” Cerise made a face, scrunching up her nose.
“Terrific. From the sewer into the cesspool.”
Johnny laughed. “Wouldn’t have it any other way.” He crossed the room to a plain wooden door on the far wall. He opened it and trotted down the narrow staircase on the other side. Cerise followed, leaving the tea things in the kitchen. At the bottom, they were in a long, narrow room in the basement of the house. Both long walls were lined with shelves, some with books, both old and new. Others had jars, bottles, and boxes, some empty, some with powders or liquids, a few with more unsavory-looking things inside. One or two rattled or shook in their place. A narrow table sat in the center. Waist-high, its top was a thick slab of yellow wood, scarred and pitted across the surface. Several tall stools sat on each side. A smaller desk against one end held a computer, monitor, and printer. Johnny went to the table and pushed the collection of odd bits and pieces aside to clear a space. He rummaged in the pile he’d moved until he found a thick piece of charcoal, about as thick as his middle finger. It was made from the wood of a specific tree that grew in the deepest parts of South American jungles. The tree was sacred to many traditions, and the charcoal made from its wood had powerful potential to those who knew how to use it.
Johnny used the charcoal to draw a circle in the center of the table. He pulled a box from one of the shelves and took four carved ivory pieces from it. He set them around the circle, dividing it into quarters: a wing, a pen, a book, and a scroll. He pulled the yo-yo out of his pocket and threw it out and back a few times, settling his shoulders and focusing his breathing as he did. Cerise sat on one of the stools across from him, watching. He caught the yo-yo in his hand, and threw it out again, but this time, he let it hang at the edge of the circle, spinning like a Sleeper, then he pulled it across the circle in an arc. As it ran back up the string to his hand, he spoke.
“Okay, Trippy, come!” For a moment, nothing happened. Then, a smell like burned toast hung in the air, and Cerise pointed to the center of the circle.
“He’s there. I see his daemonflash.” The flashes of light that accompanied a demon’s presence were invisible to most, Johnny included, but Cerise could see them. Johnny relied on her ability to alert him to a demon’s presence on more than one occasion. He grinned.
“Come on, Trip. Let’s not play games.” There was a short, visible flash of blue-green lightning in the center of the circle and more burned toast smell. When the lightning cleared, a sprite sat on its haunches. About ten inches tall, it had a bare skull, long pointed ears that stood straight up from its head, and a beak-like mouth. It regarded Johnny with beady black eyes.
“Hey, Trip. How’s it going?” The sprite clacked its beak twice.
“Triptonius. My name is Triptonius. And I was right in the middle of a job, you know.”
Johnny grinned at the little demon. “Whatever. You tell me what I need to know, and you can get right back to that job.” The little demon clacked its beak, rubbing a clawed hand over its bald skull. It sounded like sandpaper. It looked up, and sighed.
“Okay, okay. What is it this time?”
“We have it on good authority that there are a couple of missing archangels. You wouldn’t happen to know anything about that, would you, Trip?” The sprite leapt backward a step and held up it’s claws as if to push something away.
“No! No! Nothing! I don’t know nothing about no angels. Nuh-uh. Not a thing.” It shook its head as it spoke, making the words wobble. Johnny exchanged a look with Cerise.
“Methinks it doth protest too much.” Cerise said. Johnny grinned.
“We both thinks.” He turned his attention back to the sprite. “So, Trip, what’s up? You messenger boys know everything because you are everywhere. No one pays any attention to you, and you use those ears like radar.” He pulled the yo-yo out of his pocket and began to throw it out and roll it back up into his hand, over and over. The silver disc reflected the dim light in the room as it spun along the string. The rhythmic hiss-slap was the only sound in the room for a few seconds.
Triptonius watched the yo-yo glide up and down, his long ears pitched forward. His eyes began to unfocus. With a sudden shake, he glared up at Johnny.
“Oh, no! You ain’t gonna pull that flim-flammery on me. Even if I did know something, if the boss got wind of it…”
“The boss was just upstairs in my living room, asking me for help. I’m trying to give him some, but you aren’t making that easy. And if he finds out about that.” The sprite stared at Johnny, then looked to Cerise, who gave a non-committal shrug.
“Seriously? Lucifer is asking for help?” Triptonius ran his claws across his scalp again. “Don’t that beat all? ‘Course, this is a big one.” He trailed off.
“A big what?” Johnny prompted. Triptonius shook himself again.
“Oh, yeah. Well, I heard that a certain snake might have found an escape route and might be using some angelic influence to bring light where the light don’t shine. But it’s all rumor and speculation. No proof. And that’s all I know.” He crossed his arms and hunkered down on his haunches. Nothing Johnny said would make the sprite elaborate. Finally, Johnny snapped the yo-yo out on its string with a sharp twang. It nearly hit the sprite on the head.
The Devil Made Me Do It
Coming in 2017
Something very strange is happening in Carroll Fork. When an unusual number of low-order demons start showing up in town, demon-chasers Johnny and Cerise start taking notice. And when Cerise, who sees the daemonflash that marks the presence of a demon, discovers that the demons are being sold to the townspeople in clothing and other items from the local thrift store, they head to the small, quiet town to investigate. Almost nothing at Miss Lucyâ€™s Emporium is as it seems, including the sweet, elderly proprietor. Itâ€™s a devil of a spot to be in, and Johnny needs every skill he has to clean things up in Carroll Fork. Including some help from a local waitress, a bit of heavenly intervention, and a yo-yo. Five and Daemon is an urban fantasy humor mystery novelette that will give you a devil of a good read.