By Ian Wilson
The electric fan buzzed softly in the corner of the room, gently rustling the newspaper in my hands as I read. I snorted slightly at the Garfield cartoon I’d just read. Conrad, my business partner, sat in a soft chair a few feet away, reading a fantasy novel. I always get a chuckle out of his choices in fiction; we practically live in a fantasy novel already. Maybe that’s the point.
Joanne, the librarian, walked back and forth, taking books off the cart and putting them on the shelves, moving misplaced books, and occasionally glancing at Conrad. Her short-cropped auburn hair bounced as she walked back and forth. She was a medium-built young woman in her mid-20s; neither thin nor overweight. Her skin was pale, and somewhat freckled. She wore a loose-fitting, knee-length flowered dress, and brown sandals. The fluorescent light bulbs reflected on her large, round, red-rimmed spectacles.
Every time Joanne passed by, Conrad would peer over his book at the young librarian, only to look away half a second later. I could tell he was attracted to her.
I absent-mindedly placed my booted foot up on the nearby table. Joanne shot me a look that would’ve frozen boiling oil, and I took it down and crossed over my other leg. Conrad raised an eyebrow and pursed his lips. I shrugged, and nodded my head toward the librarian. Conrad gave me a quizzical expression. I took my notepad out of my vest pocket, inscribed the words “ask her out” in large bold letters, and turned the pad toward my partner. Conrad rolled his eyes and returned to his book.
“Have it your way,” I mumbled, standing up from my chair, intending on having a smoke. I ambled across the reading room and opened the front door. Feeling an impact in my midsection, followed by an “oof”, I looked down. I saw an eleven-year-old kid sprawled on the floor.
“TJ?” I said, helping the kid up.
“Walter?” replied TJ.
Behind him stood two other kids whom I knew as Willow and Nate. I’d encountered them earlier this past spring, when they reported the presence of a bugbear in an old house. That’s another story.
“What are you doing here?” asked Willow.
“I do have a life outside of killing monsters,” I retorted.
Nate looked at me like I’d grown another head.
“Well, don’t just stand there staring at me, come on in!”
I held the door wide as the three children entered, and I exited. I leaned back against the old brick wall and lit a cigarillo. About that time, Perry Wankle, North Fork’s only postman, came strolling up to the cobblestone walk to the library, carrying his mailbag.
“Howdy, Walter!” he said, tipping his pith helmet to me.
“Howdy, Perry,” I replied.
“Here on an investigation?”
“Nope, just reading.”
“Huh. Figured they’d have called you by now.”
“On account of all the odd goings on, particularly after dark.”
I stared at Perry, puffing thoughtfully on my cigarillo.
“What sorta things?” I inquired.
“Oh, weird noises, stuff getting moved around, electricity going haywire.”
“Well nobody told me.”
“Probably Peabody told ‘em not to.”
Peabody. The head librarian. That man never liked me.
“How long has this been going on?” I inquired.
“About a month, give or take.”
“Any idea what might be causing it?” I inquired.
“Not my department,” Perry shrugged. “Well, time waits for no man. Better be running along. See ya around, Walter!”
With that, the postman dropped off the mail and went on his merry way. Having spent my cigarillo, I returned to the interior of the library, where I saw my partner checking out a stack of books, while simultaneously checking out Joanne.
“Lawhead again?” asked Joanne.
“Can’t seem to get enough of it,” replied Conrad.
“A man of good taste, I see.” Joanne smiled warmly. Conrad smiled slightly. I rolled my eyes. The barcode reader beeped as Joanne scanned the books. Mr. Peabody stalked by and gave me a withering glare.
“Oh, hello, Mr. Ulric,” he said, like he was saying a dirty word.
“Howdy, Mr. Peabody,” I replied in a way that let him know that I didn’t give a darn what he thought of me. I didn’t want trouble with Peabody; he’s just doing his job, and I do mine. I don’t know why exactly he dislikes me, other than he thought I was a bad influence on the town. About a third of North Fork agrees with him.
Just then, a blood-curdling scream tore through the library. Willow ran out of the ladies’ bathroom like the devil was after her.
“Whoa there, cowgirl, what’s the ruckus?” I asked.
Willow’s eyes were the size of saucers, her face was pale, and she was hyperventilating.
“I went into the ladies’ room to do my makeup and-”
“Wait, ‘makeup’?!” I exclaimed.
“Yeah,” she replied, looking at me as though I’d lost my marbles. Times have certainly changed since I was eleven.
“Anyway, I looked in the mirror, and instead of my face, I saw this horrible, black monster face with red eyes!”
“Mr. Peabody, may we have leave to look in the ladies’ room?”
Peabody looked like he’d just eaten a toad. “If you must,” he replied in a soupy voice.
Conrad and I made our way to the lady’s room. I approached the mirror in question. There seemed to be nothing unusual about it.
“Whoa,” said Conrad. I turned to see my business partner leaning on a wall for support.
“Vibes?” I asked.
“Big vibes. Bad vibes. Something was definitely in here.”
That was all the info I needed. We left the rest room and returned to the lobby, where Nate and TJ were comforting the shaken Willow.
“There is something sinister in this library,” I said.
“Nonsense!” said Peabody in that arrogant tone. My desire to punch that receding jaw through the top of his balding scalp grew a little stronger.
“We’d like to come back to do a night investigation,” said Conrad.
“I won’t allow it!”
“Mr. Peabody,” said Joanne, “would it do any harm just to have them look around?”
“Miss Claflin, I’m not going to have these two in my library at night unsupervised! What if they harm the books?”
“We ain’t gonna harm the books,” said Conrad.
“I know you won’t, Mr. Lefontain,” said Peabody gesturing at me contemptuously. “I’m worried about him!”
“What do you think I am, a barbarian?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact I do!”
He wasn’t entirely wrong; I do have barbaric tendencies.
“Besides, it’s superstitious nonsense!”
“No it isn’t!” said Willow, putting her hands on her hips and glaring at the librarian. “It’s real! I’ve seen the monsters!”
“I’m sure you saw something,” said Peabody, condescendingly, “but it certainly wasn’t a monster, not in the way you think. It’s some sort of delusion.”
Nate and TJ glared at him.
“We saw what we saw!” said Nate. “It was real!”
“I’m sure,” said Peabody derisively. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a library to run.”
Peabody stalked away, back to whatever he was up to before.
“For the record, Willow, I believe you,” said Joanne.
We decided we’d had enough of the library for one day, and Conrad and I gave the kids a lift home.
“I don’t see how anyone could live in a place like this and discount the idea that the library could be haunted,” said Ma between mouthfuls of chicken.
“People will believe what they wanna believe, despite any evidence to the contrary. Plus, Peabody hates me.”
“Why does he hate you so much, anyway?” asked my cousin Kathrine.
“Back in high school I got in a fight with Billy Joe McCoy in the history section. He started it. I finished it. Peabody banned us both for six months.”
“That same year,” said my Uncle Jimmy, “Billy Joe and his boys TP’d Peabody’s house, writing ‘Walter was here’ in big, bold letters on the sidewalk.”
“I had an alibi,” I added, “but Peabody never believed it.”
“So what’re you gonna do about it?” asked Uncle Jimmy.
“Nuthin we can do,” Conrad replied. “Our hands are tied until Peabody asks for help.”
“Or one of the members of the board of trustees,” suggested Aunt Mary.
“And who are the trustees?” I inquired.
“Maude O’Feeney is one,” said Uncle Jimmy, raising his bushy eyebrows.
Maude. Of course. She’d forgotten more of the lore of North Fork than most people ever knew. If anyone would believe us, it’d be her. I resolved I’d pay her a visit the following morning.
My boots thumped on the old wooden stairs as I descended into the dining room for breakfast, the scent of bacon and eggs caressing my nostrils.
“Mornin’ Ma!” I said.
“Mornin’ Walt,” said Ma. “You’ve got visitors.”
I looked to my left at the dining room table. There sat Conrad, as usual. To his left was Joanne. Maude O’Feeney sat across the table from him, sipping a cup of coffee.
“Good morning, sleepy head,” said O’Feeney cheerfully.
I squinted slightly at the three; it seemed I wouldn’t have to pay Maude a visit after all.
“Good morning, Mrs. O’Feeney, Joanne,” I replied. “What brings you to our humble abode?”
“Partly the biscuits your mother was kind enough to bake, but I also have a bit of news.”
“Mr. Peabody had a bad accident last night,” said Joanne before I could inquire. “Something in the library gave him such a fright that he fell down the stairs and broke his ankle.”
I pulled up a chair and grabbed a muffin.
“Is the gargoyle alright?” I asked.
“Walter…” Ma growled.
“He’s in the hospital, recovering,” said Joanne, looking a bit pale. “The doctors say he’ll be fine. But this isn’t the first time something like this has happened. I’ve been seeing this… shadow following me around. Sometimes I’ll hear a voice talking to me, and I look and no one’s there.”
A tear rolled down Joanne’s cheek. Conrad grasped her hand.
“Here’s the nitty gritty, Walt-” said O’Feeney, “there’s a devil in that library. As the vice chairwoman of the board of trusteesof the North Fork Public Library, I am hiring the services of Ulric and LeFontain to drive it out.”
“You can count on us.”
The library door opened with a eerie creaking noise, as Conrad, Father Steve, and I entered. Joanne met us at the lobby. Once inside, she impassively locked the doors behind us.
“Did you bring everything?” asked Joanne.
“Yep,” I replied, patting my loaded six-shooter.
“I told you not to bring that!” she scolded.
“Look, Joanne, I’ll only use it if it’s absolutely necessary.”
The librarian glared at me.
“Fine. Just try not to damage any of the books.”
“I think it would be a good idea if we split up,” said Conrad. “Joanna and I will take the upper floor, you and Father McKay will take this floor and the basement.”
“Good idea,” said Steve.
I assented, and we went our separate ways. Normally, we would have brought some shotguns loaded with rock-salt, but being as this was a library, we had to go in with the bare minimum. We brought our holy water pistols and our silver daggers, which Father Steve had blessed beforehand.
Steve and I searched the aisles of the silent library searching for any sign of activity. Having found nothing of note, we descended to the basement.
“So,” said Steve, “is there something going on between Conrad and Joanne?”
“Yeah, though he won’t say anything. Big chicken.”
“Ironic,” said Steve.
I glared at the priest.
“You have the same issue with Julia.”
“I do not!”
“Walter, you are clearly attracted to the woman.”
“She wants nothing to do with me. Besides, my job is too dangerous to involve someone else.”
“She’s already involved, Walter! How many cases has she helped you on? A half a dozen? More? You can’t keep playing this silly ‘I work alone’ game. You don’t work alone. I’m here, Conrad’s here. We’re both here doing the Lord’s work. Do you think He can’t protect your family? Is His arm too short?”
I sighed. He had a good point. I didn’t have long to think about it, however, as a loud thump interrupted my thoughts. I drew my holy water pistol and approached the noise, cautiously, Steve following close behind. The thump seemed to come from inside the broom closet. I slowly and carefully reached for the door handle and threw it open. Out of the closet burst three children.
“Willow! TJ! Nate!” I hissed. “What the–”
“Language!” interjected Steve.
“–Are you doing here?!”
“We wanted to help,” said Willow.
I rubbed my face with both hands, trying not to curse.
“Do your parents have any idea where you are?”
“They think we’re at a sleep-over,” said TJ.
I sighed loudly.
“Walter, you know these kids?”
“Yeah, I met ‘em on another occasion sometime back.”
“I’ll hold down the fort here, Father; you take these kids back to their parents and make sure they know what they’ve been doing tonight.”
“But Walter!” Willow cried. “That’s not fair!”
“What ain’t fair is that I ain’t allowed to give y’all a good firm whack in the bottom with my belt!”
We led the kids up the stairs, mumbling, and grumbling and pleading for us to let them stay the night and help us defeat the demon. As we neared the top of the stairs, the lights went out. Nate said a curse word, followed by a hollow smack, and an exclamation of “ouch”.
“Watch your mouth, Nate!” hissed Willow. “There’s a priest in here!”
Father Steve chuckled as he drew out his small, LED flashlight. A maniacal laughter echoed through the stairwell. I drew my water pistol.
“What is your name?” asked Father Steve.
I heard what sounded like the flapping of large wings further up the stairs, and the laughter died away. I stood together in the silent darkness, barely daring to breathe. A terrified shriek from above broke the silence. The five of us ascended the steps as quickly as we could.
We came to the top floor, and searched the rows of shelves for the source of the scream. We found Joanne, who appeared to be sinking into a black hole in the middle of the floor. Large tentacles coiled around her body and limbs, dragging her down into the black, screaming and flailing. Conrad held onto her wrist with one hand while squirting holy water with the other. The holy water didn’t seem to be doing much other than annoying the creature, so he tossed the gun away and drew his dagger instead. A serpentine head extended from the flailing mass, and tried to bite my partner. Conrad countered with his dagger, slicing off the odious head.
Father Steve and I shot streams of water at the beast. It squealed like an injured hog, and finally let Joanne go. She hugged Conrad tightly.
“We can’t defeat it until we know how it got in here in the first place,” said Steve.
“He’s right,” I added. “Did you get anything out of the ordinary, recently? Weird donations, anything?”
“Nothing that I know of,” said Joanne. “Wait a minute; Mr. Peabody bought a box of old books at an estate sale.”
“Who’d they belong to previously?” asked Steve.
“Old Man O’Toole.”
I looked at Father Steve. He looked at me.
“What sort of books were they?” I asked.
“Oh, books on mythology, folklore, magic. Mr. Peabody wanted them saved in the archives.”
“The O’Tooles have been occultists going back to the civil war,” said Steve.
“Was there anything else weird in the box?” asked Conrad.
“A jar of… Oh.”
“A witch bottle!” said Willow excitedly. I glared at her. Her smile lowered into a frown.
“Look kid, this ain’t no DnD campaign,” I said. “We’re in real danger, here.”
“You play DnD?” asked TJ.
“Used to play every week,” said Father Steve. “Then life happened.”
“How do we get it back in the jar?” asked Nate.
“If we get it back in the jar, someone will just open it and let him out again,” said Conrad.
“We gotta send him to the Outside,” I said.
“‘Outside’?” asked Willow.
“The dark dimension where devils and other evil entities dwell,” said Father Steve.
“How do we do that?” asked TJ.
“I have a plan, but first we need to get his name.”
“Joanne, take us to the archives,” said Conrad.
We descended the long staircase back down to the basement. Another peel of maniacal laughter rent the air. Books went flying off the shelves pelting us as we ran to the archives.
“You cannot hide from me!” cried the voice.
“Listen here, you puke-sack!” I shouted. “We’re sending you right back to where you came from! Ya hear?”
More maniacal laughter ensued, followed by a large reference book hitting me in the back of the head.
I growled. “That was a cheap shot!”
“Conrad!” said Steve, “gimme a hand!”
Conrad helped the priest measure the incense into his thurible, and lit the flame. They then began chanting Psalms in Latin. The laughter faded away. We all breathed a sigh of relief.
“Alright, these old books; was one of them a notebook or journal?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact.”
Joanne searched the shelves for the book and drew out a medium-sized, leatherbound journal. I carefully opened the book and set it on a table. Conrad, Steve and I sat down and attempted to read the old, faded handwriting.
“What does it say?” asked Willow.
“You don’t wanna know that,” replied Steve.
“But I do!”
“I wouldn’t curse with this kind of knowledge, kid,” I stated.
Whoever had owned the journal before had performed several experiments with black magic. This is the stuff that’ll make your hair stand on end, if you ain’t used to it like I am. We turned the fragile pages for an hour or so, looking for anything that could help us.
Finally we came to the entry we were looking for. Apparently the magician had conjured this demon from the Void, but as it proved too powerful to control, he forced the devil into a jar and kept him there for years.
“Astaroth,” said Conrad. “That’s it. That’s the name.”
Now we had a name to go on. I then outlined the plan I had in mind to trap Astaroth. It’d be risky; we’d need to distract him long enough to pull it off.
I walked down the history section of the library at a leisurely pace.
“Hey, Astaroth!” I said in a loud voice. “Yeah, I know your name now. Come out and play!”
A shadow moved across the wall. From it emanated a black, foul-smelling smoke. From the smoke stepped a tall, handsome, well-dressed man. He was dressed all in black. Goat-like horns protruded from his swarthy brows.
“Walter,” said Astaroth. “I’ve been waiting for you. I’ve been hearing things since my recent release.”
“There’s that standard, arrogant smugness they’ve told me about.”
“Well, you know what happens next, right?”
“Yes; you come with me, Walter.”
I stared at him, silently.
“Join me, Walter. Surrender to the wolf. I can make you more powerful than you can even imagine.”
“And suck me dry of everything that makes life worth living. No, thanks.”
“Then I suppose this is the end of your illustrious career.”
A long black sword appeared in his hand. The demon howled in pain and rage as a stream of holy water from my squirt gun hit him in the face. I turned the corner and ran, but Astaroth materialized again in front of my path. I ducked as the sword sliced through the air. I defended myself against the demonic blade with my dagger as best I could, but Astaroth had a few millennia of practice. He was a wily one, and had more than a few tricks up his sleeve, but then again, so did I. I drew my water pistol once more to shoot him in the face again, but nothing came out. You can only carry so much holy water at a time, and I was fresh out.
The useless weapon hit the ground with a clatter as I moved in for another attack. Astaroth blocked every stab and slash from my dagger, cackling with unholy delight. His laughter turned again to furious rage as a stream of liquid hit him from the side. My partner stood at the other end of the aisle, water pistol in hand. Astaroth, momentarily distracted, did not see my left hook coming for his face.
I made a break for it, running down the aisle with Astaroth hot on my heels. Before I knew it, the demon stood before me in the center of the library. Conrad and Father Steve stood beside me, facing the entity.
“Any last words?” asked Astaroth.
“Yeah; look down.”
An equilateral triangle was marked with chalk on the floor tiles. At each corner was a candle, inscribed with one of the names of God. Astaroth roared with fury and transformed into a living flame, but he could not escape the triangle.
“Go back to where you came from and never come back here again!” cried Father Steve.
The flame went out. Astaroth had vanished into the ether, never to be seen in North Fork again.
We then descended the steps to the archives and swung open the door. Joanne and the kids looked at us wide-eyed.
“Is he gone?” asked the librarian.
“For sure,” replied Conrad.
Joanne leaped up and embraced Conrad, kissing him on both cheeks. Willow, Nate and TJ, meanwhile, enveloped me in a group hug.
“Um, thanks. I think,” I said.
“Let’s get you kids home and make sure your parents know where you’ve been,” said Father Steve.
“Oh, come on!” moaned TJ.
A couple of days later, Conrad and I were back at our old spots in the library. He was reading a theology book, while I read an issue of Paranormal Times. Joanne was back at work, moving books around and such. Mr. Peabody hobbled in on crutches, his ankle braced.
“Mr. Peabody,” said Joanne. “You ought not to be up and about.”
“Bah! I’ve been doing enough sitting around. Good afternoon, Mr. Ulric.”
“Howdy, Mr. Peabody.”
“I haven’t adequately thanked you for the great service you’ve done for the North Fork Public Library.”
I stood up at this. “This does mean…?”
Peabody offered his hand. “We will let bygones be bygones.”
I shook the man’s hand. He smiled briefly before hobbling away. Joanne passed by with the book cart. She took a large volume from the cart and attempted to place it on a shelf which was just barely within reach. Conrad stood up.
“Let me help you,” he said, taking the book and shoving it into place.
“Thank you, Conrad,” said Joanne smiling.
I motioned to my partner, mouthing the words “ask her out”.
“Joanne, um,” began Conrad. “Would you like to go for coffee sometime?”
“Sure!” she said with no hesitation.
“What time do you get off work?”