Sunday, May 15, 2016

In Our Midst, Part Three

“So the demon has been keeping your company going for years?”
            We were sitting across from each other at the table, watching the laptop as if it might come to life and dance for us.
            “I guess.” Cyrus sipped his Mountain Dew. “Christopher actually told me about it once, but I thought he was just drunk. ‘I’ve got this spirit locked up, and it gives me all my great ideas and makes them work. I just have to feed it some blood every now and then.’ Then he laughed. But it wasn’t the kind of laugh where you’re making a joke.”
            “He might have told other people in the company, then.”
            He shrugged. “Bob obviously knows about it.”
            “And he wants to kill you.” I glanced over my shoulder at the closed curtains.
            “He wants to run the company. He thinks he can use it to take over Endcom.” Cyrus pointed at the books on the bed. “I don’t know much about demons, but I know you can’t control them.”
            “But Martin had to be able to control it somehow.”
            Cyrus blinked at me. “What are you saying?”
            “Maybe we ought to try talking to it.”
            He groaned. “I can’t even do that. Not without the password.” The demon was password protected, and Cyrus hadn’t been able to beat it. Although Kathy had been able to wipe most of the data on the laptop, the demon was behind some kind of firewall that wasn’t affected.
            “I know someone who might be able to help.”
            Rachel is my go-to person about the paranormal. I didn’t really want her in the middle of this if people were shooting guns around—mostly because I was afraid I’d throw myself to the ground at the first loud bang and roll around like a six-year-old, and I didn’t want her to see that.
            But unless we were going to throw the laptop into Lake Michigan to keep it out of Kenzie’s hands, we had to get through to the demon inside.
            So I called her. She was done with work, driving home, and after a few minutes of complaining about her clients and the commute, she agreed to meet us at the motel.
            “Is she your girlfriend?” Cyrus asked when I hung up.
            I looked at her contact picture on my phone list. “It’s—complicated.”
            We waited for half an hour. I’d asked Rachel to stop at the snack machine on her way up, and she came in bearing bags of Doritos and candy bars. “I am a trained graphic designer and a semi-powerful psychic, not a delivery girl,” she announced. Then she held a bag of Doritos in the air. “Beg for it!”
            I took the bag and tried to keep my mind on business. “There’s some kind of demon trapped inside that computer.” I pointed. “It’s password protected. We need to talk to it.”
            Rachel rolled her eyes. “Can’t you just stick to tailing cheating husbands?” But then she curled her lip the way she does whenever she’s intrigued by a problem, and walked over to the bed.
            Cyrus winked at me. Cute, he mouthed silently. I nodded.
            She perched on the edge of the mattress and powered the laptop on. I munched Doritos while Cyrus inhaled a Snickers. After exploring the desktop for a few minutes, she ran up against the password prompt. “Huh.” She tried a few random passwords.
            “I’ve got a program that generates thousands of passwords,” Cyrus said as we watched. “Nothing worked.”
            “I’m just trying to get a feel for the thing.” She closed her eyes and pressed her hands to the sides of the screen. “I can feel something. It’s in there. Something is. I’m not sure what.”
            The machine hummed. Cyrus looked at me. I shrugged.
            “Okay.” Rachel started breathing faster. “Here it is. It’s coming. Okay, this might get weird.” Her shoulders trembled.
            “It’s already weird,” Cyrus said.
            I stepped toward her, but she was focused on the blank screen, her back tense as a spring. She knew what she was doing—maybe. But I got ready to pull her away from the computer if contact with the thing inside it got really freaky.
            Then something happened that none of us expected. A knock on the door.
            Cyrus and I looked at each other. Rachel’s eyes were still closed. The knock came again. Harder.
            I forced myself to head for the door, my heart thudding. Housekeeping? Jehovah’s Witnesses? Who knew we were here?
            A look through the peephole froze my brain. “It’s Kenzie.”
            “Oh shit.” Cyrus backed toward the bathroom. “How the hell did he—oh no.”
            “My cell phone. It’s a company phone. Damn it!”
            “Rachel?” I hustled over to the bed. “Rachel, wake up! Snap out of it! We’ve got—”
            The door popped open.
            I spun around and almost lost my balance. Kenzie stood in the doorway, a tire iron in one hand and some kind of automatic pistol in his other fist.
            I lifted my hands. “Don’t shoot us. Please.”
            “What?” For a moment he seemed puzzled. Then he remembered the gun in his hand. “Just give me that laptop.” He spotted it behind Rachel. “There! Then I’ll get out.”
            “Okay, okay.” Rachel hadn’t moved. I started to reach around her for the machine.
            “No!” Cyrus threw his can of soda on the floor. “You killed Brian! You shot him! You bastard—”
            “Don’t argue with him!” My stomach flip-flopped with fear. Cyrus was going to get us all killed. I tried to look Kenzie in the face and ignore the gun. “Look, you just take the computer and leave. We’ll forget all about this. I was just trying to find Cyrus.”
            “Are you kidding me?” Kenzie dropped the tire iron, but he kept the gun high as he kicked the door shut. “Once I leave you’ll be on the phone with the cops. Damn it!” He flicked his eyes at Cyrus. “Why couldn’t you just do the job?”
            “Why did you kill Brian?” Cyrus’ face was red. “He didn’t have anything to do with this!”
            I needed them both to calm down before the gun went off. “Cyrus?” I swallowed. “Maybe don’t keep shouting at him.”
            “Bob?” Rachel stood up from the bed. “What are you doing?”
            She took a step forward, her legs stiff, like a coma patient getting used to walking again. “Where’s Christopher? Who are these people?”
            “It’s Tom.” I peered at her eyes. She blinked back at me, as if I was a mosquito buzzing too close to her face. “Rachel?”
            “Bob—what’s going on?” She gave me a push.
            “Chris is dead.” Kenzie looked at me. “Who is this?”
            “Her name is Rachel,” I answered automatically, even as my brain realized that was only half-right. Oh god, why did I bring her here? “Except it’s not her. Not right now.”
            “Wait a minute, she . . .” Cyrus took a step back. “You mean . . .”
            “Yeah. Meet Christopher’s demon.” It had possessed Rachel.
            This was bad.

Rachel’s body sat down again on the edge of the bed. “I’m not—not really a demon. More like a spirit.” She—it?—looked down at Rachel’s feet. “Who is this, anyway?”
            “Her name’s Rachel.” Could she hear me? “You can’t get her hurt.”
            She cocked her head the same way Rachel does when I say something stupid. “Why would that happen?”
            “Come on.” Kenzie waved the gun. “Let’s go. As long as I’ve got the thing, I don’t need the computer. Right?” He expected Cyrus to answer.
            Cyrus shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m tech support, not a demonologist.”
            “I’m not a demon.” Rachel stood up again.
            “Whatever you are, we’re going.” He took a backward step toward the door. “Right now.”
            I’d left my Taser in the car. Again. Damn it. But I couldn’t let Kenzie take her away.
            “You’re not going anywhere with her.” It was my voice, all right, and my dry throat. I straightened my shoulders and tried for a look of determination.
            Kenzie pointed the gun. “I don’t think you can stop me.”
            Right. This was the perfect time to curl up into a little ball and start whimpering. Somehow I managed to remain upright. “What are you going to do? Hire her as a VP?”
            “What are you going to do? Start talking about demons? The cops will lock you two up.”
            “If they catch you with that gun, they’ll lock you up.” Oops. I couldn’t help myself. Even Rachel gave me a look of pity.
            Kenzie would have to kill us now if he wanted to control the demon, or whatever it was. No one else knew the truth. I swallowed. Would he try to make it look like a murder-suicide? Make Rachel an administrative assistant so he could run Endcom on his own? She’d hate that.
            “Wait.” Rachel squeezed my arm. “I’ve been locked up in there for—I don’t know, I have trouble with time outside. Christopher is really dead?”
            “Really. Heart attack. Last Saturday.” I tried to keep my voice steady as I stared at Kenzie’s weapon. “Bob here stole the laptop, and he got Cyrus—over there—to try and hack into it. To get to you.”
            “Oh. That’s what it was.” She frowned at Cyrus. “I could feel you poking at me. It hurt.”
            “Sorry,” he said automatically.
            “Everybody shut up!” Kenzie lifted his gun as if he wanted to scare us with a bullet in the ceiling. “I am going—”
            With the handgun pointing upward, Rachel’s body lunged at Kenzie, faster than I’d ever seen her move when the last slice of pizza wasn’t at stake. I ducked as she grabbed Kenzie’s gun arm like an angry rattlesnake.
            The gun went off, shattering the TV screen. Kenzie yelled and punched Rachel in the chest with his free hand. She staggered back, her face black with a rage I hoped I never saw again.
            But before she could charge at Kenzie again, I managed to snatch up the tire iron he’d used on the door. With a grunt, I slammed it down between his shoulder blades as hard as I could. Then I hit him again. Maybe I cracked a rib. I didn’t care, as long as he lost the handgun.
            Kenzie shrieked and tumbled to his knees, and the pistol dropped on the floor. Rachel kicked it under the bed, and then slapped him across the face. “You’re fired!”
            “Call the cops,” I told Cyrus, holding the tire iron ready for another blow.
            “Right.” He pulled out his cell phone. “What about—her?”
            I looked at Rachel. Her face looked normal now, and she was breathing slowly, glaring at Kenzie but otherwise calm.
            “What’s your name?” I asked.
            She had to think for a second. “Christopher called me Ozzie. Short for Ozymandias. From that poem, you know?”
            My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair. “Right.” I took a deep breath. “Look, Ozzie, I don’t care what happens to Bob, but you have to let Rachel go.”
            Her eyebrows twitched, and then she stretched an arm and gazed down at the palm of her hand, as if trying out the body for long-term lease. Was I going to need an exorcist? I know a bartender who used to be a priest, and he’d performed a few exorcisms, but if I had to fight her physically—well, Rachel could beat me in arm wrestling under normal circumstances. I didn’t want to have to fight a demon-enhanced body.
            But after a moment Rachel’s shoulders rose and fell in a familiar shrug. “Fine.” She sighed. “I’ll go back in the box. This body feels funny, anyway.” She peered into my eyes. “Who are you again?”
            “Tom. Tom Jurgen.” I felt tired, and eager to get out of here. “I’m Rachel’s neighbor. And friend.”
            She nodded slowly. “Right. I think you’re important to her.”
            “Really?” For a moment I forgot about Kenzie, writhing on the floor, and Cyrus yelling into the phone. “She said that?”
            “I can feel something. I think she likes you.” She looked me over, as if trying to figure out what her host body saw in me. Then, with a shrug, she turned back to the bed and the computer.
            “Wait!” Cyrus covered the mouthpiece of his phone. “What’s the password?”
            “My name. From the poem. And then 246. Can you remember that? I don’t want to get stuck in there forever. Or get poked by hackers again.”
            “Ozymandias246. Got it.” He went back to his phone. “Yeah, everyone’s okay, but this guy tried to kill us . . .”

We had to adjust the story, of course. Fortunately Rachel remembered enough of what happened to back us up, and Kenzie wasn’t any more eager to talk about demons lurking inside computers than we were. He just wanted to talk to a lawyer.
            For the second night in a row, I spent hours talking to the police. This time Rachel was waiting for me when they told me to go home. And Jason was sitting next to her, waiting for Cyrus.
            “You found him.” He jumped up and grabbed me for a hug. “Yes. Thanks.”
            “Actually—” I hugged him back. “He ended up just calling me. So I didn’t do that much.”
            “Except for saving his life.” Rachel was right behind me. “Be sure to make that an item on the invoice. Right under my consulting fee.”
            “Whatever. Just send me the bill.” Jason’s smile was wide, but it got wider when the door opened and Cyrus came out. “Cy! Oh god, you bastard! Come here!”
            They hugged and kissed. Rachel and I turned to leave, but Cyrus reached out and grabbed my elbow.
            “Thank you,” he said.
            I shrugged, embarrassed. I wasn’t used to clients hugging me. A lot of them just want me to leave, especially after I’ve told them their spouse is cheating or their employees have been ripping them off for months.
            “Thank Jason,” I said. “He’s the one stuck with the bill.”
            “Send it to me right away,” Jason repeated.
            “Oh, he will.” Rachel punched my shoulder. “I’ll take care of that.”
            Rachel held my hand out of the station. Then she swung around to confront me. “Did I really, really attack a guy who had a gun?”
            “Technically, it was Ozzie, using your body.” I remembered her dark face, and repressed a shudder. “It was pretty awesome, though.”
            She smiled. “I remember you hitting him. That was kind of cool. My hero.”            “I’m just glad I didn’t crack his skull.” Killing Kenzie would have added to our problems. “I wasn’t aiming too carefully.”
            “Let’s go get our cars.” They were still back at the motel. She waved for a taxi.
            “Then dinner.” The cops had given me coffee but nothing to eat, and I’d had three Doritos and a Pepsi all day. My stomach felt like a hungry shark.
            “Food, then bed.” She punched my shoulder again before I could even say anything. “Not that. This isn’t a Bond movie where you get the girl at the end.”
            “You really are psychic.” I rubbed my arm. Even without demon strength, she could pack a punch. “That’s okay, I’m going to fall asleep as soon as my stomach stops growling.”
            “At your place.” But then she kissed me. “I still have to work tomorrow. Damn it.”
            “So . . .” A cab slowed down across the street. “You do kind of like me, don’t you?”
            “Who told you that?” She grabbed my hand and pulled.
            I followed, grinning like a teenager. “Just a feeling.”

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