He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a
monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into
-- Friedrich Nietzsche
It was a black October morning, the kind of morning that made things seem less solid and less real. Jack stared up at the ceiling for a while, listening to the rain and trying to hold onto the scraps of dreams that rushed out of his head. In the dream, he had been holding someone's head underwater in a bathtub. He had watched the victim's struggles with scientific interest and had admired the shades of blue the lips had turned. When air bubbles had ceased to erupt from the mouth, he had turned away to find a black cat glaring at him from the bathroom sink. "Careful with those," the cat had said. "They're terribly delicate."
"Fuck 'em all," Jack had said to the cat.
He couldn't think of any reason why he would dream of such a cold, vicious act. The victim hadn't been anyone he recognized. Maybe it was just repressed anger. He had a lot to be angry about.
It was just after six o'clock. The alarm wouldn't go off for another hour, but Jack was too awake to stay in bed. He got up and shuffled to the bathroom. Voices whispered through his head like radio static. He stopped. The voices swirled further away. He listened for a moment, but there was nothing for him to hear. His head started to throb. He pressed the heel of his hand to his temple and went into the bathroom with his eyes closed.
Showered, dressed and medicated, Jack headed out into the dreary day for coffee.
The barista, Lisette, was a nice enough girl. A little younger than he was, friendly without being perky and possessed of the most beautiful pair of grey eyes Jack had ever seen. He didn't mind making small talk with her. He could even stomach pretending to flirt, but he could tell by the way she looked at him when he walked in that she was starting to take it seriously. It was partly his fault. He owed her a better explanation than simply not interested, but he wasn't sure how honest he could afford to be with her.
"Nasty day, isn't it?" Lisette asked when Jack came up to the counter.
"Yeah," Jack said.
Lisette poured his coffee. He had only had to tell her what he wanted once. After that, she knew. Strong, black and hot.
"You're up early," Lisette said. "Bad dreams or just the rain?"
Jack sipped his coffee. Perfect as always. "Both, I think. I hate this time of year."
"Yeah, I know what you mean. But it's almost Halloween."
Jack nodded. If only she knew what really happened on most Halloween nights, she wouldn't be looking forward to it so much.
"Speaking of Halloween, a friend of mine is having a party. Costumes optional. So ... um, you wanna --"
"I'm sorry. I'm ... "
"Oh. Seeing someone. Sorry. You never talk about her."
"Oh. Sorry. I didn't mean to offend you."
He smiled. That was easier than he thought it would be. "I'm not offended."
"Well, you know, maybe you could come to the party anyway. Bring your boyfriend."
"He's not much for parties. And I'm pretty sure we'll both be working that night."
"That's no fun."
"It's usually a busy night."
"Hey, speaking of that. Have you seen the paper yet this morning?"
"Another dead psychic." Lisette pulled a folded newspaper out from under the bar. She opened it up to the third page and handed it to Jack.
Jack skimmed the article. He would get more details at the office. There was no reason to waste his time on the newspaper. It was the fifth such death in the last two months, and the detectives investigating the case were getting nowhere. "Guess I know what I'll be doing at work today."
"It's weird. It sounds like some kind of old horror movie. Like The Exorcist or something. Speaking in tongues and all that weird shit."
"There's gotta be some logical reason for it. Maybe it's a psychic disease."
"Serves 'em right."
Lisette didn't know that Jack had once been psychic. He had told her his headaches were migraines. When she asked about the faint scars on his left temple, he blamed it on his brother making him crash his bicycle when they were kids. That wasn't a lie. Quinn had actually done that, but the scars from that particular accident were elsewhere.
Jack finished his coffee, bought another for the road and headed out into the rain again. He thought about the five dead psychics as he walked to the office. They had all been relatively young and undergoing treatment for the psychic disorder. In each case, the treatment to that point had been unsuccessful. Most of the time, a handful of psychotropic medications shut down the psychic parts of the brain. Every once in a while there were cases like Jack's that were harder to cure. The last ditch effort was a small computer installed in the brain that altered brain waves. Along with the medications, the computer offered a permanent cure. The side effects were, supposedly, worth it. After eleven years of headaches, nausea, depression and the occasional creeping in of visions and voices, Jack wasn't so sure about that. These five dead psychics hadn't been too sure either. They had all been hesitating on that final step.
Within days of being told that the operation was their final recourse, each had been struck down by a flu-like illness. They became bedridden. Overnight, they developed odd lesions all over their bodies, and their skin grew icy cold and almost green. Fevers had spiked around 106 degrees. The subsequent glossolalia was attributed to dementia brought on by the high temperatures. Four to seven days later, the victim died of massive internal bleeding. Blood tests showed no viruses or bacteria, and autopsies failed to add anything useful to the findings.
The answer was simple. Demon possession. What was puzzling about it was the fact that the demon was targeting psychics. Jack could think of no good reason for that. He could think of several bad ones, but it wasn't his case. He felt no need to share his theories. That would change with this new death. They would want his input. He had more experience with demons than most detectives who had been with the Agency for twice as long. He wasn't afraid of them.
Jack's cell phone rang as he walked up to the door. He didn't bother to look at the caller ID display. It would be one of two people. "Hello," he said.
"Where are you?" Sam Winston asked.
"What, no good morning, how'd you sleep, did you miss me?"
"Have you seen the paper this morning?"
"I'm right behind you."
Sam turned around as Jack stepped inside. He hung up his phone. "In my office. Now."
"Jack, this is not the time to fuck around."
Jack shrugged and followed Sam down the hall. Jack hadn't decided if taking the position of task force coordinator had been a good move for Sam. Sam had been afraid he had lost a step or two and couldn't be effective out in the field. That was probably true because of Sam's age, but he was twice as tense from days spent sitting behind a desk.
Sam's office was crowded. Cathy Sanderson, Jack's supervisor, was there along with Anne Matheson and Parker Graves, the two detectives who had been working the case since the beginning. There were also two men Jack didn't recognize. One of them was a priest. The other, in a somber charcoal grey suit, was dabbing at his eyes with a handkerchief. Probably the latest victim's father. The situation was far from normal.
"How much do you know about this case already, Jack?" Sam asked.
"Enough," Jack said.
"Here's the situation," Parker said. "The demon is still in the girl. It won't leave, and we can't figure out a way to make it leave."
"So what do you want me to do? Bribe it with cookies?"
Cathy cleared her throat and jerked her head towards the man in the grey suit.
"Sorry," Jack said. He looked down at his feet and waited. He hated playing politics with these people. Silence was the only way he could get through it.
"Please, detectives," the weeping man said. "I just want to bury my daughter."
"We attempted exorcism already," the priest said. "It resisted, and Father Wilson was killed. It ... it seems to want something."
"We can't get anywhere with it," Anne said. "Dialogue with a creature like this is just impossible."
"Any ideas, Jack?" Cathy asked.
"Yeah," Jack said.
"Well, don't keep them to yourself."
"The demon wants power. It's apparently not very strong on its own, so it's looking for powerful psychics. I'm guessing it waits until they get to the point in treatment where nothing works except the computer in the brain so it can play with the emotions involved in making a decision like that. Once it gets inside, though, it's finding the bodies aren't strong enough. And more than likely, the victims want to be cured. They're just scared. Getting your head cut open is a pretty big deal."
"That doesn't make any sense," Sam said.
Jack shrugged. "You wanted me to give you some advice. That's what I think. As for getting it out ..." He was less inclined to share his ideas on that. The demon would never let Parker and Anne get anywhere with it, but Jack thought that his chances were better than average. He had something the demon wanted.
"What if it's looking for one psychic in particular?" Parker asked. "What if someone called it and it can't figure out who? Someone who's at that same point of treatment who maybe isn't as keen on getting cured."
"So you wanna stake out every psychic in the treatment program. That's a fucking waste of time," Anne said.
"That's not what I said."
"How the hell do you expect to be able to tell who did it, then?"
"That's enough," Cathy said.
"I can get it out," Jack said.
Everyone stared at him. The priest and the dead girl's father looked relieved and grateful.
"How?" Sam asked.
"Bribe it with cookies."
"What about another exorcism?" the dad asked. "Wouldn't that be ... safer?"
"You've already got one dead priest. Do you really want another?"
"No one wants a dead detective either," Cathy said.
No, Jack thought. But if it's me, you won't mind.
Jack spent the rest of the day getting ready. He had special hollow point bullets filled with holy water. They weren't guaranteed to kill the demon, but they would cause it an awful lot of pain. He had another small vial of holy water on a cord around his neck. It seemed like very little firepower for a creature as dangerous as this demon, but Jack was certain it was all he would need.
For all the demons the Agency had dealt with in its existence, there was surprisingly little information about them in the databases. Even the information that Jack had put into his reports on prior cases seemed to be absent. It was suspicious, but he didn't have time to look too deeply into it. He could save that for later.
He read through the case file, but that didn't offer any insights he hadn't already thought of. The truth of the matter was that he didn't care too much about the victims or about the demon. He wanted the demon destroyed. It was a bitter pill to swallow -- realizing how far away from his hopes he had moved. It wasn't because he had learned how bad some of the creatures could be. He had always known that. It was because he was learning that the thing he wanted most was impossible. This kind of case and his inability to muster any empathy for the grieving families only served to reinforce how impossible it all was. His dream from that morning suddenly made sense. It wasn't a person he had drowned. It was his aspiration.
"Hey," Sam said.
Jack looked up from the pages of the case file he had been staring through.
"Are you ready?"
"Ready as I'll ever be. Why?"
"I'm going with you. Matheson and Graves don't want to go out there again, and Sanderson doesn't want you out there alone."
"So you offered to baby-sit me. How sweet."
"If something goes wrong, you'll need back up."
"You just want to get out of that office."
"Well ... that, too."
"Why'd you even take that job, Sam?"
"I couldn't keep up with you any more."
"But you don't belong behind a desk."
"Honestly, I think it's about time for me to retire."
"Then I have to stay behind a desk. I'm only doing it this time because no one else will. Let's get this over with."
The priest and the victim's father met Jack and Sam outside the house. The rain had slacked off, and the air was thick with humidity. Fog was rolling in, swallowing everything in chilly silence. Lights in the house were flashing intermittently. The demon screamed at them, its voice like stones grinding together.
"What does it want?" the father asked. "Why is it still here? Why won't it leave my daughter alone?"
Jack couldn't translate demonspeak, but he had heard enough of it to understand the inflections, the guttural snarls and the clicks. It made him think of bugs. It made him think of the time when he was five that he had pulled on a pair of pants only to feel something hard scrabbling against his thigh. Terrified that he had somehow ripped off his own knee, he had yanked off the pants to find a very large, very black, very buggy bug clinging to his leg. He had screamed and screamed until his father had come and removed the bug and his mother had checked all his clothes for similar creatures. That was the last time something so mundane has scared him. Not long after that, he realized that a great deal of the world as he perceived it was invisible to everyone else. He didn't answer the man's questions.
"It's a demon, Mr. Nicholson," Sam said. "This is what demons do."
"It's a sin," the priest said. He clasped his hands in front of him and turned his eyes up to the misty night sky. "The psychic condition goes against what God created mankind for. We were not meant to know the future or to communicate with whatever exists beyond our world. The demon is drawn to the sin, feeds upon it until the poor victim dies and leaves no chance for redemption."
Mr. Nicholson sobbed. The priest's words upset him, but he didn't disagree.
Jack glared at Sam.
"What?" Sam asked.
"Nothing," Jack said. "I'm going in."
"We'll pray for you," the priest said.
There were rude things to say to that. Jack let them run through his head but didn't speak. He nodded and walked towards the front door. The demon began to chuckle. It could feel him coming. Despite the computer in his head and the drugs in his body, it knew the power he had once had.
The door slammed shut as soon as Jack was inside. He didn't bother to try to open it again. It wouldn't budge. The demon had the house sealed. Nothing would get in or out unless the demon wanted it to. It seemed that the demon was stronger than Jack had thought. He wondered what it really wanted.
All the air rushed out of Jack's lungs when his back hit the ceiling. He winced. It felt something like the consequences of having a vacuum cleaner hose shoved down his throat and turned on, at least according to Quinn. It didn't occur to him to wonder how Quinn knew what that might feel like, but he supposed Quinn had probably had the wind knocked out of him enough times playing football. It wasn't the first time it had happened to Jack either, but it was the first time he had been thrown up against a ceiling. That was the only reason he was thinking about his brother. He was on the ceiling, and he wasn't falling back down.
He tried to turn over and push himself off the ceiling, but falling was a bad idea. It was a vaulted ceiling -- at least twelve feet high. He'd break both his legs if he landed on his feet. He wasn't sure he would land on his feet.
He heard the demon laughing at him as he struggled. It knew there was nothing he could do. It knew that he knew there was nothing he could do. It held him up against the ceiling. He felt its hands on his ribs, needle-sharp claws pricking his skin. He felt a cold tongue on his neck and probing into his ear. It whispered to him. The sound of its voice made his head ache.
The demon's hold on his body was very strong, as if he were bolted to the ceiling with thick iron bands. He wondered, just for a second, if he was going to die and if that was really such a bad thing. Everyone was waiting for just that. Why keep them waiting any longer?
He felt the demon's fingers pass over the scars on his left temple. The touch was tender. It understood what had been done to him. "Let me inside you," it whispered.
Hearing English issue from the demon's throat made Jack's skin crawl, but the cookies he was bribing it with were working.
It scratched gently at Jack's scars. "Let me help you. I can take the walls down for you. Let you see again. And more. I can give you power. You can hurt them. Like they hurt you."
It was a lovely thought. Revenge. To turn on them just when they thought he and his psychic powers were under their control. To let them feel what he felt. The empty space, the pain. He badly wanted a case of beer. He forced himself to look at the demon. The form it took was vaguely female, molded from the body of the teenaged girl it was most recently forced out of. Presuming to know human nature, it tried to use this form to its advantage, to seduce him, to lure him into thinking he could penetrate it when it would be the one penetrating him. It didn't notice that he was ignoring its ploy. It did know that he was thinking about revenge.
"They took everything away from you, Jack."
He shuddered when it said his name.
"You still feel what was lost. I can help you. Fill the empty space, heal your pain. Let me inside you, Jack."
Jack almost meant it when he said yes. It wasn't that he had fallen for its trick. He knew better. But he knew that if he let it in, he could control it. He was stronger than the ones it had been attacking. It would fight him, oh yes, and it would hurt them both for a fight like that to take place. He would win, so when he said yes, he envisioned walking out of the house and turning the whole city and everyone in it into columns of ash. It hurt like nothing he had ever felt before to know that it would not happen that way.
Jack was, always has been, always will be, a good boy. He had bad habits. He didn't follow rules. He sinned. But in his heart, he was good. The demon was so blinded by the power it tasted and by Jack's desire for revenge that it couldn't see what was in his heart. The demon clutched his waist in its legs and pulled him to the floor, giving him the position of dominance and trying its best to perfect the female image it wore. He was surprised that it couldn't tell a woman's body did nothing for him. It seemed to know all his other deep, dark secrets.
There wasn't time to deal with unscrewing the top of the small bottle hanging around his neck, so Jack took it in his fist and squeezed until it shattered. Holy water dripped down on the demon's face. It wasn't enough to kill the demon, but it was enough to swing the advantage Jack's way. He had freedom of movement again. The demon was blind and screaming. He scrambled away from the thrashing demon, drew his guns and emptied them into the demon. The hollow point bullets broke open on impact, dousing the demon in holy water. For a second, the demon was screeching pillar of white flame, and then it was gone.
Ten minutes later, Jack walked out of the house as calmly as he had entered it. He was scratched and bruised but not seriously injured. Mr. Nicholson and the priest looked at him expectantly. "It's dead," he told them.
"Is it safe to go in?" Mr. Nicholson asked. "My daughter's body --"
"Probably isn't something you wanna look at right now."
"I'll call the coroner," Sam said.
"Thank you," Mr. Nicholson said. "Thank you both."
Jack lit a cigarette and walked to Sam's car. He slumped into the passenger seat. He thought about revenge, but he wasn't sure it was fair. They had only been trying to help him. He had agreed to the procedure. None of them had any idea that there would be leaks in the barriers put up in his brain. Revenge would come in time; when everyone realized that the Agency was nothing but a blanket of well-woven lies and that the supernatural was always among them and that psychics were the links between the world of flesh and the world of spirit. Jack closed his eyes and rubbed at the scars on his left temple. Too bad I won't be here to see it, he thought.