My eyes opened sharply, heart pounding as I woke out of the nightmare. It had featured rats heavily. It was another early Friday morning, the sky not even gray outside yet. Betty was lying next to me, in her cat form. I had soothed her with praise and apologies for half an hour the night before, with limited success. I shifted as carefully as I could, and miraculously, did not wake her. I tiptoed through the bedroom, into the living room. I had two and a half hours before I would have to shower and prepare for work , and I intended to make good use of that time.
I slipped out the large books I had borrowed from the library over the last week, and began studying them. A handful of printed-out newspaper stories from online archives sat beside them. I’d been binging on every piece of information I could get about the supernatural and the strange. Most of the things on the internet weren’t as helpful as some of the old books, but my financial resources were limited to what I could borrow. Anything else was far beyond my meager pay.
There was a soft flop of paper. I frowned, and put down the copy of Aleister Crowley’s Book of Thoth. The large stack of newspaper printouts had fallen onto the floor despite standing straight for nearly an hour, in accordance with the law of delayed gravity that always seemed to govern large stacks of paper. I began to gather them up, and frowned at the top piece. From 1921, it was one of a number of papers I had printed out of people who had died in this particular apartment. I picked it up, and scanned through it.
The grisly murder of Alana Sussex, 19 year-old teenage runaway, has been solved. John Bishop, unemployed occultist, previously imprisoned on charges of stalking and fraud, was arrested today by city police, after a neighbor complained of a strong stench of blood coming from the man’s apartment. The young girl was found cut into six hundred and sixty six pieces, although investigators admit that their counting may have been off. John Bishop proclaimed his innocence, stating that a dark spirit possessed the house, and that it had been the one to kill the girl. The fiend’s few acquaintances speak of him being a loner, and over-fascinated with dark phenomena. There have been concerns by the police that he may have been part of a larger satanic cult. If you or any of your friends should notice curious behavior, be sure-
I closed the paper, and frowned. John Bishop. That had reminded me of something. I picked up another book, on Roman mythology. It contained a number of essays from different occultists, and John Bishop was among them. I gently tapped the page, frowning as I stared down at it. He’d written an essay on Lares, a type of Roman house-spirit. I turned to the article he’d read, and began to read quietly from it.
It was mostly very dull stuff, detailing the mundane rituals used to propitiate the minor house-gods. It was complex stuff involving wine, rituals, and a certain level of respect. I closed the book, and frowned, tenting my fingers slowly. I began to open more books, studying them, and trying to figure out a common pattern between them. Then, a hand dropped over my eyes, and I screamed, in a very manful and dignified way.
“Wow! Sorry, I didn’t realize that you were so touchy!” Betty said, as she lifted her hands off of my eyes. “Are you really that shaken up about those rats? Don’t worry, I’m going to killing them all soon enough. Just need to figure out what they’ve got planned, and it’ll be a snap.” She smiled, and tried to snap her fingers. She frowned, as her fingers weakly padded together. She tried a few more times, and the spectacle only got more embarrassing for us both.
“That’s not what I’m thinking about.” That was a lie. Betty was entirely confident, but I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. My uncle had told me that he’d want to tell me more, soon, but so far, he had been distant. I was going to do something extremely daring today, and ask for Saturday off, as well as Sunday. I was testing his good will to its very limits, but I needed to spend some time learning. “Betty… Do you know much about the occult? I mean, I know that you’re familiar with a lot of things, but… You could tell if an apartment like this was haunted, right?”
She nodded. “Of course. It’s not haunted, though. It’s insane.”
I paused, and tried to think of an appropriate response. I settled for, “Huh?”
“Something in this building is insane. I can feel it. All of the other apartments are ‘dead’. This one is ‘alive’, but it’s ‘crazy’. This whole building, really, is nearly dead. You’ve noticed how poorly repaired it is?”
I nodded, frowning. Of course, I’d always blamed it on the superintendent, who I’d never actually seen. But the walls always seemed to be in poor repair, and for such cheap rent, the building seemed perpetually underpopulated. There was a reason why I could get away with an apartment this nice on my salary. I tapped my fingers across the wooden arm-rest. “I didn’t know an apartment could go insane.”
“It doesn’t usually happen.” She shrugged. “I could feel it ever since I arrived here. I’ve been making it feel… Unwelcome.” She smiled as she leaned her head against my side, purring loudly as she picked up one of the newspaper printouts. Then she began to shred it, dragging her nails through the paper, cutting it with the barest pressure. I would have been very impressed if I wasn’t so pissed off by the mess she was making.
“I’m hungryyyyyy.” She protested, smiling. “Keeping maddened house-spirits from murdering you is such hard work! I don’t think I’ll be able to keep doing it unless I get fed!” I sighed softly. “Thank you!” she purred, even before I stood up. I walked into the kitchen, and began setting about putting together her breakfast and my lunch. Chances were low I would get to eat it, but it would be nice to be proven wrong for once.
One of the common themes I’d seen in every book I’d read, every myth, every story, was just how little power human beings actually had. Everyone’s strength seemed to be borrowed from somewhere else. People made pacts, they traded, very rarely they stole power, but there was no such thing, as far as I could tell, as a person who was simply strong in and of themselves. There were people who drew on the power of myths, and there were people who made themselves something else for power, but humans were weak and frail things compared to the supernatural creatures out there. Something about that rankled me. I could see the way it had bothered Dane to hear that she was weak compared to Betty. And Dane was far more competent than I was.
As I sat at the table, watching Betty eat her tuna-fish with extra tuna-fish and a tuna-fish dressing, I was distracted by a sudden metallic clang. I turned, and found that the butter knife I had used to separate and mix the tuna had fallen off the counter, and onto the floor. I stood up, and held it for a few moments. “Betty… If you left for a couple of days, do you think that the Lares would show itself?”
She shrugged. “Probably. It’s why I’m not going anywhere. Wouldn’t want you getting knifed to death like the last poor people who lived here!” I put the knife into the sink, and then thought better of it. I gave it a good scrub instead.
“I want you to go somewhere tonight. I’ll make you some food for the next couple of days to take with you, but stay away until Sunday evening, alright? I want to talk with this thing.” I turned around. Betty’s mouth was open, tuna falling from her fingers, halfway to her mouth, as she stared at me. Her tail was held stiff, her ears flat against her head. After a few moments, she seemed to regain her composure, putting down the tuna that hadn’t fallen onto the floor, and crossing her arms, lifting her head and looking away.
“I refuse. I am not going to allow my human to be in danger. What if you were to die? What would happen to humanity without me prepared and ready to guard it? Worse, what would happen to me without regular meals? My coat would get all dull and patchy again. I absolutely refuse.” She looked me in the eye, green eyes flashing with annoyance. “Why on earth would you even want to be around in this apartment without me to protect you? What a foolhardy idea!”
I looked down at the plate. Why had I wanted it? “Well, this thing is dangerous. Can you kill it?”
She looked a bit embarrassed. “Well, technically. Yes. I could do very serious harm to it if it tried to manifest to attack you. And I could easily kill it. Just…”
“‘d mean destroying your partment.” she whispered, under her breath.
“I would… have to destroy your apartment. Otherwise it would just manifest itself again quickly. It wouldn’t be pleasant, but… The only way I could actually put it down for good would involve destroying your apartment. To the point that it was unrecognizable. We’re not talking a quick game of Sharpen The Claws On The Wallpaper, here. I would have to remove at least three out of four walls in every room. House Spirits are remarkably inconvenient to kill.” She looked around the room, as though genuinely considering the idea. “But, if you wanted me to…”
“No! Look, I…” I frowned. “I don’t know. I have an idea, and I think it’ll work better if you’re not around to scare the hell out of the spirit.”
She gave me an annoyed look. “You humans… Always trying to make friends with everything. There are some things in this world that have to be put down, you know. Or at least frightened into submission.” She eyed me for a moment, then shook her head. “Fine. I’ve got things I need to do anyway. But first…” She grinned, and reached under her shirt, and withdrew a glittering yellow cat’s-head medallion. “This is for you.” I stared at it, its expensive emerald eyes and its glittering golden chain.
“Please, god, tell me that you didn’t steal this.”
“That’s goddess. And no. That is mine by right.” I sighed. That almost certainly meant that it was stolen. She reached around me, sliding the chain around my neck. It was surprisingly heavy, and I frowned down at it. It was awfully beautiful, though. “So I’ll be there to protect you, from your own stupidity.” She purred softly, and leaned forward, pushing her face against my cheek, nuzzling into me affectionately. The gesture dissolved my frustration and concern, leaving a warm haze in its place. “And my smell, so that the Lar will know that if tries to hurt you, it is offending me.” She smiled, and the seriousness in her expression disappeared. “Now, remember to make me those sandwiches before you go to work!”
An hour later, I was walking out of the door, carrying a couple of the books for reading on the subway. I passed the spot where Harold had usually sat. There was no sign of him. There was an unfamiliar man with a rat-face mask giving me a dark look. There was another on the corner. They were growing more frequent in the city. I always felt tense as I walked past them. It was hard not to. They all seemed to recognize me. Each one carried a tin, soliciting for the Church of the Survivor and its efforts in helping people to survive the plague.
Matters had gotten worse. Cases were showing up among the general population. The hospitals were struggling, and there weren’t enough antibiotics to help everyone. The Church of the Survivor was getting a lot of good press because of all of the work they were doing to help people. I thought of the man dying in the basement, and shuddered. I couldn’t get bogged down in the suffering and uncertainty. I knew that there was something strange going on in the basement. I knew that my uncle might know more. And I knew that he was working with them. If I approached him, he might decide to have me killed. It wouldn’t be entirely out of character for him. That was a risk I’d just have to take.
As I sat on the subway, I regretted my choices in life. Perhaps if I’d spent ten years training in the Himalayas with a sect of warrior monks, or becoming the greatest detective in the world, I’d be prepared for this. But no. I’d decided to try to become a lawyer. Studying in college and clerking with my uncle, and now, it all seemed like such a damned waste of time. Laws didn’t mean a whole lot. I opened another book to take my mind off things, and began reading up about hermetic magic. It was another of the styles that required the help of magical beings to perform. A human could direct it, but the power had to come from an elemental, some fundamental creature of the world that, as far as I could tell, no longer existed. I sighed, and traced my fingers over the incantations. It was a convenient scam, really. You could claim that spells were whatever you wanted, and that they wouldn’t work without the help of a being that no longer existed.
“Spare some change for a worthy cause?” asked a rough voice. I looked up, into the eyes of a man wearing a rat-face mask. I swallowed. “Come on. Every bit helps. Never know when you might be the one needing charity, right?”
“Sorry,” I managed, looking back down at the book, tensing my shoulders.
“Yeah, you will be,” the man growled as he stepped away, and off the train. I tried to relax for the rest of the train ride, and had no success.
“Repeat what you just said?” Randall had stood up from his desk, and was holding a white rat in the serpent’s cage. I watched as the snake stared up at the dead rat, unmoving. Then it lunged with proverbial speed, tightening around the dead rat. There was a soft crunch.
“I want a raise. And Saturdays and Sundays off.” The snake gulped down the rat greedily, its jaw distending as the lump appeared in it. It swallowed smoothly, until there was no sign of the rat except for a bulge running down the creature’s throat.
“And why, exactly?”
I took a deep breath. “Saturdays and Sundays off because I want to study. I want to learn more about… well, the family business. And the raise because I need enough money to be able to deal with a murderous Lares in my apartment.”
Randall turned towards me, leaning against the wall, crossing his arms. “I must admit that I respect that answer a great deal more than all of that hogwash I’ve been hearing lately about cost-of-living adjustments.” He drummed his fingers on his arm. The sun shone down on his desk from through the window, as he tapped one foot. “Fine.”
“And I need an advance.” His face tightened, his eyes narrowing. Then he laughed, more richly, more warmly than I had seen in my life.
“Oh, hell. I must admit, boy, I’m pretty damn impressed. I’d always rather hoped that you would fall into this line of work. I promised your father I would never lead you into it, but it seems that it’s found you all the same.” He grinned. “You know, you remind me so much of him, sometimes. He always took such great care to protect the people he loved. He would’ve carried all the world’s weight on his own two shoulders. I remember this time the two of us were in India…”
I stared. Uncle Creed never talked about my father. He’d always been silent on the subject. He didn’t notice my wide-eyed surprise, though. He was somewhere far away, and years ago. In India, it sounded like.
“We were sent there to track down a Rakshasa, a cannibal spirit. Your father made a wager with it, a drinking contest. The Rakshasa tried to cheat him, by using an illusion to make both of their bodies think the wine was blood, hoping he’d get sick and vomit. Your father had a stomach like an iron tank, though, and he matched the Rakshasa drink for drink, until it was so blood-drunk it fell on its ass.” He laughed, staring out of the window, his eyes distant. “He put it to work at the Delhi police department, binding it to only be able to drink the blood of unrepentant murderers. I think it still works there.” He shook his head.
It was the most I’d ever heard about my father at one time. I paused, almost overwhelmed with the temptation to ask more. But I had to hold back. I didn’t trust my uncle. He’d taken care of me, and I knew that I needed him, but I couldn’t bring myself to trust him. I knew him too well. “I’m surprised the two of you were able to overcome it like that. I’ve been reading a little bit, and…” I frowned. “It doesn’t seem like humans could stand up to these things.”
Randall snorted dismissively. “You don’t believe that. Or you wouldn’t be trying to deal with the Lar. If it’s just the one, it’s a Lar, by the way.” He stared into my eyes, his gaze firm. “Humans are the masters of this world, boy. Don’t let anything ever tell you otherwise. We rule it, because we have reason. If we are born weak, that simply gives us all the more impetus to be strong. You’re not a victim, or a source of food, or prey. You are a Creed.” He reached into his jacket, and took out a flask, taking a sip. He smacked his lips, and put it back. “Never forget that.”
“It just seems like any strength we have is… stolen.”
He snorted. “Look out the window, boy. Are any of those cars pushed by humans? Do those cranes haul steel into the sky with the labor of humans?” He shook his head. “You don’t need to be strong if you’re smart, boy. Humans make things. We make harnesses.” He looked down at the snake, his gaze almost contemptuous. “We domesticate.” He smirked, and looked up again. “Good luck with that house spirit. Bring it to heel. And remember to finish up your work before you leave tonight. I’ll have the secretary give you that advance.”
That evening, I returned home with the things that I had gotten after work. I opened the door, and was struck by a sudden sense of emptiness. The sun was setting. We were well into September, at this point, and it was amazing how quickly it had gotten dark out. Betty wasn’t in the apartment. Something about me could sense that, some sixth sense that saw there was no cat purring and loudly begging for fish, and that my things were not in a complete disarray.
I sighed, and took a seat on the couch, beginning to remove my jacket. I turned on the TV, and began to watch. It was surprisingly cool in the apartment, so perhaps Betty had remembered to close the window behind her. I began to flip through channels. Cooking show, home improvement show, Home Improvement, nightly news, a hideous staring face with black hair.
I frowned, and watched for a moment. It was The Ring. I sat back, and began to watch it, my arms crossed behind my head. It had been years since I’d watched the movie last. I yawned, and gently kicked my shoes off, stretching out on the couch. It was relieving to have a chance to sit on the couch without being leapt upon by Queen Betty, but it was also rather lonely. I kept watching the movie, relaxing and letting my eyes slowly close. Somehow, it just didn’t manage to terrify the way it had before I’d had actual monsters try to tear my heart out.
Around eleven, hunger pains finally pushed me off the couch and into the kitchen. I made myself a sandwich with the last of some turkey, and a few slices of cheese. I sat at the couch, and ate quietly. There was a sleek metallic noise, and some terrorized part of my brain sent me diving to the side. The large chef’s knife I kept in my knife block sunk three inches into the wall, vibrating with a soft bell-like tone. I stared around wildly, ready for another attack, but there was nothing. I frowned, and stood up, checking where the knife had planted. It was several feet off-target.
I walked into the kitchen. This time, I decided to try something different. I started the oven, and the flame began to rise. I carefully poured a bit of oil into the pan, waiting until it flowed quickly, rolling the pan around to spread the oil. I took a tortilla, placing it into the pan, and began slicing off strips of beef from a small steak. They were thrown into another pan, and I continued cooking. The rich smell of sizzling meat and crisping bread filled the air as I cooked a proper meal. As meat sizzled, I carefully cleaned the kitchen, scrubbing under the corners. There was something soothing about the ritual, although the constant chill was making it difficult to concentrate.
I stood up, and found myself face to face with an apparition. Its face was ragged, and skull-like, as it stared me in the eye. It was hovering several inches off the floor, bringing it level with my eyes. The knife was in its hand. “Leave,” It hissed through its teeth. It didn’t have eyes, just empty sockets.
“How about after dinner?” I offered. It stared at me. “I’m sorry I haven’t including a portion for you so far. I didn’t know you were here.”
A few minutes later, the two of us sat down at the table. The creature sat with its legs crossed under it at the edge of the table as I carefully divided the crisp tortilla into two halves. I passed one onto its plate, and poured out two glasses of wine. It took one of the glasses, and sipped at it silently. It was wearing a ragged gown, and its arms seemed thin and stick-like. It was not particularly recognizable as either gender. “Is it good?” I asked hopefully. The specter nodded. It looked almost real, but something about its coloring was far too muted. The lights were on, and yet it looked as though it was in a shadowed room. I smiled politely, and it didn’t respond. “Did you kill the other people who lived here?”
I swallowed. “Why?”
“They did not show the proper respect. They did not show me the respect that was my due.” It hissed. “You did not either, until now. It is a start. But you have brought that… cat, here. They are not allowed in this building.”
“She’s a deity. And technically, they say that it’s no pets allowed.”
“She sheds upon my floors.” The spirit said, and its tone seemed to suggest that this was only one step short of genocide.
“I can clean that up. I didn’t mean to make you feel disrespected.”
It eyed me harshly. “Why?”
“Because you’re my home, right? The house-god here. You deserve to be respected.” I looked around at the walls. “You’re a very beautiful apartment, if I may say so. What’s your name?”
“I am Apartment 4-B.”
I paused. That was a bit of a non-starter. “How about I call you Phoebe?”
It was silent for a while, as the two of us ate. Finally, she nodded. Maybe it was just giving her the name, but she looked just a little bit more human. Enough that I could think of her as a ‘her’, and not an ‘it’, at least. “That is not a very disrespectful title.” She kept eating, and looked up at me. “I will serve no man as a domestic house goddess. I am above such things, by right of conquest.”
“Of course, I wouldn’t expect you to help out with the cooking and cleaning and everything.” I couldn’t possibly be that lucky. “But I would like to keep living here. So, tell me how I can be respectful, and we can live together peacefully. Does that sound fair?”
She reached down, and with one final, hungry bite, finished off the food. “Very well. Then tomorrow we may begin. You may sleep, but first, clean me.”
I tried not to think about the way she’d phrased that as I cleaned. I started by sweeping the floor, then sorting the trash, and throwing away discarded food containers. I wondered if this was like foreplay. The Lar stood in the center of the room, watching and calling out when I missed things. I had another divine roommate, it seemed. A cat, and a household goddess, and neither of them could be bothered to clean things. “If I keep you clean, you’re not going to try to kill anyone else, right? That’s not a good thing for an apartment to do.” I stacked the books together on the coffee table in something approaching an order. “Apartments that kill people get condemned, and torn down.”
“I do not fear any demolisher or crane. Many have attempted to tear down this building. None have succeeded. I do not allow it.”
I paused for a moment. “How did you stop them, exactly?”
“I took the lives of the other Household Gods within this place. This apartment is mine, but the building in its entirety is my demesne. It is my place of power.” I frowned, as I brushed a spider-web out of the corner of the linen closet. I gently held my finger up, and the small spider crawled onto my hand. I carried it out to the window, and gently ushered it onto the window ledge, closing the window behind it. I hoped it would find a safe place to make its home.
“Why do you kill so many people?”
“Because it makes me strong. And because it reminds others that I am strong.”
“Well… Please, don’t do it anymore. Okay? I’ll make whatever sacrifices are necessary, buy you wine, just…” I sighed. “Why am I surrounded by murderous women?”
“Perhaps you have a fetish.” I turned my head quickly, searching her expression to find a sign that it was a joke. She stared back impassively, empty eye-sockets gaping at me. If it was a joke, she was the most deadpan comedian I’d ever seen outside of the BBC.
“You know, you don’t have to kill people to make them respect you. You could even find that it’s a lot easier to make people respect you if you haven’t killed them. Once they’re dead, they tend to be very uncooperative.” She was quiet. I turned towards her. “Is everything clean enough for you?”
She nodded. “Why do you allow the Goddess of Protection to live with you?” she asked, her head tilted. “She is generally regarded as a harbinger of ill fortune. You would be better off leaving her upkeep to another. Her keepers do not live long.” I frowned.
“How do you know so much about her? Aren’t you an apartment?”
She shrugged. “My first owner taught me much about his studies. She is a dangerous creature. You would be safer if you did not stay around her.”
“I’m going to get some sleep. Tomorrow’s a brand new day. Going to get some paint. What color would you like?”
I paused. “I’ll look into a nice sunny orange for you. How does that sound?”
“Like it sends an inappropriate message.”
“Perfect. Dress for the position you want, not the position you have.” She glared at me. “Come on, give it a chance. I bet you’ll look pretty in orange.”
The next morning, I returned from the hardware store with a paintbrush and a couple of cans of paint. It was the work of nearly four hours to complete the paint job, but by the time it was done, the sun struck the walls of my room, making the interior feel brighter than they ever had. I began working on lunch, a meal of beans and rice, and took out the two special packages that I had purchased yesterday. It seemed like the appropriate time. I took a seat at the coffee table, and the Lar sat across from me. “I have two presents for you.” I smiled brightly. She gave me an impassive glare. She’d seemed rather annoyed by the bright orange. The next two things I had would either cheer her up, or piss her off even worse. “First, honey-cakes. I read that they’re supposed to be tasty for Lares.”
She reached out, and delicately opened the package. She lifted one into the air with a suspicious expression, as though making sure it was not going to try anything. When she was satisfied, she nibbled at it delicately. “It’s… alright.” She admitted, as she took a few bites from the small, bready cake.
“And second…” This one had eaten up the lion’s share of the advance. It was a gamble, to say the least. But I gently opened the large paper bag, revealing the bronze statue. It was about a foot tall, and intricately carved, depicting a young woman. It wasn’t an antiquity, and I’d bought it from a trophy shop. That was why the statue was holding a golf club, and shorts. I looked up at Phoebe. She stared, transfixed. Her gaze slowly lifted to meet mine.
“You are giving me a shape?” she asked softly, reaching out. I nodded, and she touched it. There was a soft implosion of air, and she sat in front of me. Her body was no longer a ruin. She didn’t look quite like the girl on the trophy, although the outfit was the same. A bright, sunny orange top, and a skirt, completed with a pair of golf shoes. She looked down at her gloved hands, her skin repaired, a light cream color. “Why?” she asked, frowning at me. “I will not call you my owner simply because you have given me things. I don’t serve you.”
“It’s not about that. It’s…” I looked for the words. It was domestication. There was no expectation of an immediate reward for what I did. But the little gifts and things I did showed that she could trust me. That I would do my best to take care of her. It made her want me to not die or go away, because that would mean the end of these things. But it all felt a bit mercenary when I put it like that. “It’s the same reason I take care of Betty. You’re dangerous. You could kill me. But…” There was the other side to it, too. “You’re in pain. You’re suffering, and I know what it can feel like to suffer. I can’t know exactly what you’re feeling, but I can imagine it, and it makes me want to help. So, even if it’s dangerous, I want to take care of you, because it hurts less to be betrayed than to leave you alone.” I shrugged. “If that makes sense.”
The spirit looked down at the trophy. “I am not a pet. I am a goddess. As long as you remember that, then I will not kill you.”