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The Unusual Companion

the unusual companion


Estimated reading time — 11 minutes

The hammering from upstairs shook the walls of his bedroom. James Ricco leapt from his bed, the thought of earthquakes at the back of his mind. He glanced at his window and the sunlight streaming through. It was a spring day on Staten Island that suggested planting perennials and backyard barbeques. But these chores and pleasures were far from his mind now.

“Eight o’ clock on a Sunday morning-unbelievable!” he muttered while picking up the dungarees and sleeveless tee shirt from the floor and dressed. Slipping his feet into a pair of sneakers, he rushed out of his apartment and followed the concrete walkway to the front of the house, running up the steps he banged on his landlord’s front door.

Dwayne Gertner, the bespeckled, overweight property owner, opened the door and blinked like an owl in sunlight. In his right hand was a bowl of soggy cereal and a spoon was still in his mouth. In the foyer behind him, his nineteen-year-old sons, Floyd, along with eighteen-year-old Robert, were adding shelving to a wall. Floyd sneered at James and continued hammering.

“Does anyone in this house have any consideration?” James shouted over the hammer falls. “It’s eight o’ clock in the morning.”

“Sorry,” said Dwayne as he removed the spoon from his mouth. “Hey Floyd, stop the damn hammerin’ for a minute.”

“Look, Dwayne, this is the last straw,” James struggled to keep from shouting again. He’d been more than patient with Dwayne’s weak performance as a landlord these past months. “Every day there is another problem, not to mention the repairs needed that you continue to ignore.”

“What repairs? I don’t remember that.”

“Are you for real?” James said, fighting the urge to slap the bowl of cereal from Dwayne’s hand. “I have asked you to fix the leak in the bathroom and the crack in the living room ceiling at least a half dozen times. You promise to fix everything, and every day there’s a new excuse. You practically shed tears each time I suggest I hire someone and pay them from your month’s rent. I am tired of the bullshit.”

“Oh yeah, sorry, but I got kinda busy. Look, I’ll get to it before the week is out,” Dwayne replied and yawned.

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“Not good enough. I am tired of your feeble attempts at responsibility, the constant slamming doors, stomping of elephant feet on my ceiling, and the family feuds that would shame junkyard dogs-all courtesy of you and your sons. Put a stop to the crap now!” James shouted, his face flushing with rage.

“Well. don’t threaten me.” Dwayne replied and stepped back. The door slammed and the hammering began again.

Back in his apartment, James shook his head in frustration. He walked into the kitchen and grabbed an oatmeal cookie from the cookie jar. Sitting down. He ate the snack while weighing his options. He had believed, at forty-six years old, he was all set at this point in his life. He’d saved enough money to open his store, The Black Pearl Occult Bookstore.

Because the expense was high, he found an apartment with an affordable rent. Dwayne Gertner was somewhat reasonable at first. “Property owners should take a polygraph test before they’re allowed to rent apartments. I can’t afford the cost of breaking a two-year lease or the time to search for a new apartment.” He let loose a deep sigh and covered his eyes with his hand. “How do I get out of this mess?”


*****


“MOVE OUT! MOVE OUT!” The walls of the house trembled with loud, teenage voices and stamping feet.

“What the hell?” James cried out as he was frightened awake. He leapt from his bed and grabbed his bathrobe. The LCD glow of the clock said it was after two in the morning.
“This is insane.” He picked up the phone to call the police. “You better believe it’s an emergency,” he said to the operator.


*****


Every morning as James unlocked the door to The Black Pearl Occult Bookstore, a smile went with the turning of the lock. Seeing his name on the storefront window, James Riccio, Proprietor, always filled him with a sense of pride and accomplishment. The store was a life-long dream come true.

Unlike his childhood peers, James was not into sports, and although his dark hair and green eyes attracted any number of female admirers, he formed no permanent attachments. When not in school or working, he would lock himself in his bedroom and read his favorite supernatural fiction books. With a wave of his hand, he banished the troublesome bullies of his youth to oblivion.

The bookstore, found on the wealthy upper east side of Manhattan, attracted many customers during the day. Ancient tomes encased in glass displays were a beacon to antique enthusiasts while the average reader favored the shelves of hard cover and paperbacks all dealing with the supernatural and related genres. Against another wall were smaller open display counters filled with all the accoutrements for the avid acolyte of the mystic arts: bloodstones, crystals, bells, candles, tarot cards, and herbs both common and rare.

Monday morning, after a sleepless night, James opened the store with barely a glance at the window. He at one began to straighten the books on the shelves. Letting his mind wander as he worked. His friend, Derek Minkins, a trader of rare books and antiquities, arrived at the store an hour later. Moving to James’s small office, they sat down to talk. Derek laid a heavy, red-dyed leather-bound book with yellowed pages on the desk.

“It’s a rarity indeed, James,” Derek said. “Well worth the thousand dollars I’m asking for it.”

“The Red Grimoire of Limoges,” James said softly as he ran a hand gently over the cover.

“It’s rumored to have been written by Pierre Aupetit, an apostate priest who lived in Fossas, a small hamlet within the Barony of Limoges,” Derek said. “The book is as least three hundred ninety years old. Legend says blank pages appear between its covers and fill with spells suited to the darker needs and desires of the owner. Even more remarkable is that the writing is in the language common to the individual owner. Amazing as l’pouvre abbe was not known as a linguist.”

“Did you find any blank pages?” James asked and gave his friend a wistful smile.

“No, I have no belief in heaven or hell, so I suppose it wouldn’t work for me.” When James did not reply, a look of concern fell over Derek’s face. “James, you look utterly exhausted. Are you ill or has there been another bout with the landlord?”

“Before they left,” James said, about the end of the recent event, “the police issued a violation for disturbing the peace. You can be sure Dwayne has tossed it into the nearest garbage pail.”

The situation is intolerable,” Derek said, placing the thousand-dollar check James gave him into his pocket. “You need to buy your own home. I wish I had something more concrete to offer.” He rose to take his leave and smiled. “You just bought this book, so whatever spells appear are yours to use. Who knows, there might be something suitable for recalcitrant landlords.”

“You know, I might just give it a shot,” James said.


*****


After dinner, James remained seated at the dining room table, sipping espresso, and nibbling at oatmeal cookies, while making a further examination of the grimoire to figure out its resale value. His lips formed a half-smile as he recalled Derek’s joke earlier. If only his problems were so easily solved. He remembered the evening two months ago when the Gertner brothers accosted him on the street. Both had been drunk and belligerent as they suggested he move out of the apartment to avoid trouble in the future. The violence in their eyes was frightening.

He returned his attention to the book, flipping pages but not spotting any blanks. He closed his eyes for a moment, hands resting on the front cover. If there was a spell that could remove the Gertner family from his life forever-he would be grateful to whatever power provided it. “Wishful thinking.”

He opened his eyes, re-opened the book, and turned the pages again.

“Yes!” He shouted when a blank page appeared after ten pages. A flowing script filled the paper with a ritual perfectly suited to his needs. The invisible hand also penned instruction for the user’s protection and the items needed for preparation of the incantation.

The espresso was cold when he finally closed the book to ponder the possibilities. He had to be crazy to even consider it, but the opportunity practically screamed aloud. What did he have to lose? If nothing happened, he wouldn’t be any worse off. Well. not necessarily.

Fooling around with the black arts was not a joke. It could cause greater problems. Then again, this was something he’d always dreamed of as a kid. The power to vanquish his enemies. Could he let the chance slip out of his reach? Everything he needed for the ritual was at the store.


*****


The following evening, after a quick dinner, he prepared the ritual with a feeling of joyful excitement on his face. Sitting back on his knees, he looked over the triangle he’d scratched into the wood living room floor with a red-flecked jasper stone. Satisfied, he set the stone aside and reached for the small nylon-handled cloth bag on the coffee table. Salt, a silver coin, vervain root, and a folded scrap of parchment paper with the number three inscribed when into the bag, which he then hung around his neck.

He picked up a white candle and with a new straight pin, he scratched the name Dwayne Gertner into the wax. The routine was repeated with the second candle for Floyd Gertner and the last for Robert Gertner. Then he sprinkled borrowed holy water over each for the purpose of consecration. The wicks were lit, and the candles placed at the three points of the triangle. He stepped into the center of the triangle and, raising his hands in supplication, began to chant.

“Bagahi Laca Bachabe, I call thee. Forsaken spirit, once prince of angels, I cry out to thee in Lucifer’s name. In the name of hell, I beseech thee for thy aid.”

He repeated the incantation and waited ten minutes. When nothing happened, he repeated it again. After another fifteen minutes, a frown creased his brow. He re-read the ritual, checked the contents of the pouch and the position of the candles.

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As the clock neared midnight, he held the book in his arms as he repeated the incantation for the last time. Sitting down, he placed the book back on the table and spat out a bitter laugh of defeat. “I knew this would be a waste of time. This isn’t a story in a book. I-what is that smell?” James frowned and covered his nose as the odor of sewage filled the apartment.

A gray mist began to for at the apex of the triangle and spread from floor to ceiling like a murky curtain. Two child-sized, wrinkled, clawed hands began to push the mist aside from its center. A harsh whispering sound escaped through the tear in the flimsy barrier.

“Oh, shit! It’s really working.” Shivering with trepidation and anticipation, James pulled the cloth bag from his neck. Holding it in front of his body like a shield, he took a step towards the mist.

With a final effort, an imp pulled its way into the living room and hovered in the air over the triangle. Its misshapen head sat on narrow shoulders above a twisted, short brown, hairless body. A pair of stick-thin legs ended in cloven feet, and yellow cat eyes swept the room with a hateful gaze. When the demonic entity saw James, it hissed and spat, them slowly floated toward its prey.

Gathering his failing courage, James took two quick steps and tossed the bag over the creature’s head. Invective spilled from imp’s mouth while it writhed and twisted in the air like a contortionist.

“In the name of the monarchs who guard the four compass points, I command you. Speak your name and honor the pact!” James yelled. For a moment he feared he’d done something wrong, for his words seemed to have no effect. Then, with something close to a sigh of resignation, the imp’s tortuous demonstration ended.

“I am Murmur,” it hissed. “Why hass you called me.”

James stepped backward and stumbled onto the couch. What was he supposed to do next? Now that his wish for revenge was at hand, he had no plan. What was he going to do with this creature? Keeping his eye on the monstrosity, he unconsciously grabbed the plate of cookies from the end table and placed it in his lap.

“What these?” questioned the imp

What?” James shook his head slightly to clear the fog from his brain. “Oh, these are oatmeal cookies-sort of a snack we eat. Here, try one.” He tossed a cookie toward the imp and a clawed hand snatched it from the air with feline precision. Crumbs fell from the blood-red maw as Murmur bare his sharp teeth in a smile.

“Givess more,” Murmur demanded.

“Sure,” said James. An idea began to blossom at the back of his mind, and he relaxed slightly. “But let’s talk first. How’d you like to have as many oatmeal cookies as you can eat all the time?”


*****


“A cat? I dunno.” Dwayne Gertner shook his head while frowning at the black cat nestled in his tenant’s arms.

“I’ll make it easy for you,” James said with forced sincerity. “I’ll cover the cost of repairs and the cat stays.”

“Well, that sounds okay, I guess,” replied Dwayne, “but if I smell anything bad, the cat’s history.”

“This is your new landlord, Murmur,” James said, as he bent his head to whisper in the cat’s ear. He glanced up at Dwayne and nodded. “He’s very gentle. Go ahead and pet him.”
Dwayne hesitated, then slowly reached out a fat hand, but the cat hissed and swiped the hand with a quick paw. “Hey, son of a bitch!” Dwayne sucked at the blood oozing from his fingers.

“Bad boy, Murmur.” James said softly while gently scratching the cat’s ears.


*****

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A rainy mist coated the West Shore Expressway, and the road was dark despite the lamplight. Floyd Gertner was driving his Camry well over the speed limit with one hand as he took the offered beer from his brother.

“Why’d we leave the bar so early, Floyd?” Robert asked. “I don’t wanna go home. Dad ain’t feeling good and hasn’t left the house in a week. I don’t wanna hear him complain ‘bout how we don’t care that he’s sick. Besides, have you noticed how gross his face looks and how bad he smells?”

“Yeah,” said Floyd as he swallowed beer. “He stinks like rotten eggs and looks worse. But don’t worry,” he added and winked, “we’re not staying long. I thought we’d have some fun with ole James. There’re two dozen eggs in the bag on the back seat. How’s your throwin’ arm? I thought we’d decorate his windows a bit.” He snorted a laugh. “Sooner or later, he’ll break the lease and we’ll have that apartment for ourselves. Selling pills will be easy without anyone looking over our shoulders, especially daddy dearest.”

“Party Time!” Robert grinned and reached back for the bag but yanked his arm away when the hissing started. “What the hell–?”

A dark shape sprang up from the floor of the car to land on the back seat. Yellow eyes studied the two teenagers.

“A goddamn cat!” Robert shouted. How’d it get in here?”

“Grab it and throw it out the window. It better not have peed back there!” Floyd yelled back
The cat leapt to the headrest behind Floyd. Claws slashed out and tore both of Floyd’s cheeks. Blood streamed down the boy’s face, and he screamed. Another jump and the cat landed in Floyd’s lap. Its teeth mutilated cloth and flesh. He screamed again and slumped forward. The car bounced of the left guardrail and bounced back into the left lane.

Robert cursed and yelled as he reached over to grab the steering wheel “Floyd, Floyd, wake up!” Sharp teeth tore a chunk of skin from his meaty arm. Robert screamed and as he pulled away, he jerked the steering wheel to the right.

Car horns blared and tires screeched as the Camry flew across the roadway. There was a weak cry for help as the car tried to squeeze itself between two trees. The odor of gasoline filled the night air.


*****


The sour-faced, middle-aged man waited impatiently by the front door as his wife climbed the last two steps. “Let me do the talking, Myrna. If this apartment’s halfway decent, we’re taking it.” He rang the bell and a moment later a well-dressed man came to the door. A black cat was cradled in one arm.

“Can I help you?” he asked

“Yeah, I’m Henry Clyde. We spoke about the apartment for rent this morning.”

“Ah, yes. I’m James Riccio. Come in and I’ll give you the tour.” The cat in his arm began to meow. “Now Murmur, can’t you wait a moment?” James apologized for the delay as he pulled a treat from his pocket and fed the cat.

“Likes his treats, does he?” Mr. Clyde said, pretending interest.

“It’s oatmeal cookie. He’s crazy about them.”

“Ain’t that something,” Mrs. Clyde said, “and he’s got a cute little bag attached to his collar. What’s in it?”

“Oh, snakes and snails and puppy dog tails to keep him calm,” James replied with a grin.
Mrs. Clyde offered a puzzled smile and reached out to pet the cat’s head. She changed her mind as the cat arched its back and spat.

“Try and behave, Murmur,” James said, while trying not to laugh. “These people are planning to live here. I’m sure you’ll enjoy their friendship soon enough.

Credit: Jay Rosmarin-Meyer

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